Study Guide

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Duchess of Malfi is a young widow whose two brothers, a cardinal and Ferdinand, the duke of Calabria, are desperately anxious lest she marry again, for they want to inherit her title and her estates. Their spy in her household is Bosola, her master of horse.

The duchess falls in love with her steward, Antonio, and marries him secretly. Later, she secretly bears a son. When the happy father writes out the child’s horoscope according to the rules of astrology and then loses the paper, Bosola finds the document and learns about the child. He dispatches a letter immediately to Rome to inform the brothers. The duke swears that only her blood can quench his anger, and he threatens that once he knows the identity of the duchess’s lover, he will ruin her completely.

The years pass and the duchess bears Antonio two more children, a second son and a daughter. Antonio tells his friend Delio that he is worried because Duke Ferdinand is too quiet about the matter and because the people of Malfi, not aware of their duchess’s marriage, are calling her a common strumpet.

Duke Ferdinand comes to the court to propose Count Malateste as a second husband for the duchess. She refuses. Bosola is not able to discover the father of the duchess’s children. Impatient with his informer, the duke decides on a bolder course of action. He determines to gain entrance to the duchess’s private chamber and there to wring a confession from her. That night, using a key Bosola gives him, the duke goes to her bedroom. Under his threats, she confesses to her second marriage, but she refuses to reveal Antonio’s name. After the duke leaves, she calls Antonio and her loyal servant Cariola to her chamber. They plan Antonio’s escape from Malfi before his identity can become known to the duchess’s brothers.

The duchess calls Bosola and tells him that Antonio falsified some accounts. As soon as Bosola leaves, she recalls Antonio and tells him of the feigned crime of which she accused him to shield both their honors, and then bids him flee to the town of Ancona, where they will meet later. In the presence of Bosola and the officers of her guard she accuses Antonio of stealing money and banishes him from Malfi. With feigned indignation, Antonio replies that such is the treatment of thankless masters, and he leaves for Ancona. When the duped Bosola upholds Antonio in an argument with the duchess, she feels she can trust him with the secret of her marriage and asks him to take jewels and money to her husband at Ancona. Bosola, in return, advises her to make her own departure from the court more seemly by going to Ancona by way of the shrine of Loretto, so that the flight might look like a religious pilgrimage.

Bosola immediately travels to Rome, where he betrays the plans of Antonio and the duchess to Duke Ferdinand and the cardinal. They thereupon promptly have the lovers banished from Ancona. Bosola meets the duchess and Antonio near Loretto with a letter from Duke Ferdinand that orders Antonio to report to him, since he now knows Antonio to be his sister’s husband. Antonio refuses and flees with his older son toward Milan. Bosola takes the duchess back to her palace at Malfi as Duke Ferdinand’s prisoner. At Malfi, the duke again visits her in her chamber. He presents her with a dead man’s hand, implying that it is from Antonio’s corpse. Finally Bosola comes and strangles the duchess. Cariola and the children are also strangled, though not with the quiet dignity with which the duchess accepted her fate. When Bosola asks Duke Ferdinand for his reward, the hypocritical duke laughs and replies that the only reward for such a crime is its pardon.

In Milan, meanwhile, Antonio plans to visit the cardinal’s chamber during the night to seek a reconciliation with the duchess’s brothers. He intends to approach the cardinal because Duke Ferdinand loses his mind after causing his sister’s murder. The cardinal orders Bosola that same evening to seek out Antonio, who is known to be in Milan, and murder him, but Bosola turns on him and accuses him of having plotted the duchess’s murder. He demands his reward. When a reward is again refused, Bosola decides to join forces with Antonio to avenge the duchess’s death.

That night, all plans miscarry. In the dark, Bosola accidentally murders Antonio, the man he hoped to make an ally in his revenge on Duke Ferdinand and the cardinal. A few minutes later, Bosola stabs the cardinal and is in turn stabbed by the mad Duke Ferdinand, who rushes into the room. Bosola, with his last strength, stabs the duke and they both die. Alarmed, the guards break into the apartments to discover the bodies. Into the welter of blood, a courtier leads the younger son of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio, whom Antonio took to Milan. He is proclaimed ruler of the lands held by his mother and his uncles.

The Duchess of Malfi Summary

Act 1
The Duchess of Malfi is divided into five acts, each comprising several scenes. In the three scenes of act...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

The Duchess of Malfi Summary and Analysis

Act 1, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Bosola: an ex-convict and keeper of the Duchess’s horse who also serves as a spy for Ferdinand

Cardinal: Ferdinand and the Duchess’s brother, as well as Julia’s lover

Antonio: the steward of the Duchess’s household who is also secretly married to her

Delio: a friend of Antonio

Summary
The action opens in the court of Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, with Antonio, the steward of the Duchess of Malfi, and his friend, Delio, in conversation. Antonio gives his favorable impression of the French court, from which he has recently returned. However, he also warns that poison near the head of government makes “[d]eath, and diseases through the whole land spread,” making honest council to the ruler crucial for “blessed government.” Antonio describes Bosola as “the only court-gall” in Ferdinand’s court. Bosola, whose current occupation in the court is not described, arrives shortly before the Cardinal, and Bosola rails against both the Cardinal and his brother Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. The Cardinal asks Bosola to “become honest,” but Bosola continues his diatribe by saying the brothers never reward those who serve them—namely, himself. He leaves, and Delio notes that Bosola is an ex-convict who spent seven years in jail for a murder possibly instigated by the Cardinal, but “was releas’d by the French general, Gaston de Foix.” Antonio closes the scene by commenting on Bosola’s great valor and bemoaning that his “foul melancholy will poison all his goodness.”

Analysis
As part of the preface to the play John Webster published a letter dedicated to Baron Berkeley, an English aristocrat who had supported Webster and his colleagues, claiming the play will grant immortality to Berkeley. Webster further claimed that “the ancientest nobility, being but...

(The entire section is 701 words.)

Act 1, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Ferdinand: the Duke of Calabria, and brother to the Cardinal and the Duchess

Silvio: a Lord who leaves for Milan in act 1; he later gives counsel to the Cardinal

Roderigo: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court

Grisolan: a Lord in Ferdinand’s court

The Duchess: the Duchess of Malfi, a widow who is the sister of Ferdinand and the Cardinal

Cariola: the Duchess’s servant who is the sole witness to the marriage of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio

Julia: Castruchio’s wife and the Cardinal’s mistress

Castruchio: a Lord who is married to Julia

Summary
Ferdinand’s court continues to...

(The entire section is 1236 words.)

Act 2, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Old Lady: speaks with Bosola about her makeup and the Duchess’s pregnancy

Forobosco: the keeper of the key to the park gate

Summary
Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as Bosola and Castruchio briefly talk about the qualifications to be a courtier just prior to the Old Lady entering. Bosola comments on her foul makeup before giving his meditation on the deformed nature of man. He goes on to reveal his suspicion of the Duchess’s pregnancy in a brief monologue before Antonio and Delio arrive. Bosola tells Antonio that Antonio’s ancestry is worth nothing before presenting the Duchess with some “apricocks.” Upon eating one of the...

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Act 2, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Bosola hears a shriek “from the Duchess’ lodging.” In his position as intelligencer, he feels obligated to investigate. He encounters Antonio armed with a sword, and in their questioning of what each other is doing out, Antonio says he was setting the Duchess’s jewels, and Bosola says he was saying his prayers. They exchange bitter words, and after Antonio leaves, Bosola sees a note dropped by Antonio indicating that the Duchess has been “deliver’d of a son, ‘tween the hours twelve and one” of the night. He wonders who the father is and resolves to send a letter to her brothers, who are in Rome, to notify them of his discovery.

Scene 4 begins with the Cardinal and Julia in...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

Act 3, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Malateste: a count who the Duchess refuses to marry

Summary
After a considerable length of time, Delio has returned to the court, along with Ferdinand. In the meantime, Antonio has informed him that the Duchess has given birth to a son and a daughter. Antonio adds that the common people think of her as a “strumpet,” and they think Antonio has become wealthy through fraudulent means. Ferdinand arrives to assure the Duchess that he does not suspect her, and even if she were a strumpet, “my fix’d love would strongly excuse” her faults. Bosola reports to Ferdinand the rumor that the Duchess has three children, and tells him that he has “a false key...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)

Act 3, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Pilgrims: two pilgrims to the shrine at Loretto who witness the Cardinal’s investiture as a soldier and Antonio and the Duchess’s banishment

The Marquis of Pescara: converses with Silvio and Delio, and later seizes Antonio’s lands

Summary
The Cardinal and Ferdinand, together with Malateste, Pescara, Silvio, and Delio, open scene three by planning to join a military coalition with the Marquis of Pescara and Lannoy. Bosola enters, and Ferdinand, questioning the truth of the Duchess’s alleged pilgrimage, wonders if her children “were ever christ’ned.” The Cardinal sets off for Loretto, and Ferdinand tells Bosola to get together 150 of...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Act 4, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

Summary
Bosola tells Ferdinand that the Duchess is bearing the ordeal of her imprisonment “nobly.” Ferdinand leaves, and the traverse is drawn to show the Duchess. Bosola offers her comfort and says Ferdinand means to reconcile with her. Ferdinand returns and, speaking accusatory words, gives her a dead man’s hand to kiss. Ferdinand leaves before she is given a show of “the artificial figures of Antonio and his children; appearing as if they were dead.” Bosola falsely confirms their death to the Duchess, and she vows to die. Bosola offers encouraging words, and after she leaves unconsoled, Ferdinand and Bosola talk. Ferdinand repeats his vitriol against the Duchess, tells Bosola to see her again,...

(The entire section is 347 words.)

Act 4, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Mad Men: these men, including an astrologer, doctor, priest, and lawyer, are sent to the Duchess by Ferdinand

Summary
The Duchess and Cariola are hounded by “the wild consort of madmen” put in the Duchess’s lodging by Ferdinand. The Duchess remarks that “the robin red-breast and the nightingale never live long in cages,” and she too is likely to die soon. A servant arrives to tell the Duchess that Ferdinand means to have the madmen cure her melancholy, and they enter to speak several lines apiece. Bosola, made up like an old man, arrives as the madmen dance. He observes that the Duchess is aging prematurely because of the distress caused her by...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Act 5, Scene 1: Summay and Analysis

Summary
Antonio and Delio, who had opened the play, open the fifth act as well, but they are now in Milan, which serves as the setting for the entire act. Delio informs Antonio that the Marquis of Pescara has seized Antonio’s lands and distributed them to the Marquis’ own relatives. Delio sees the Marquis and asks to be given some of Antonio’s land, but his request is rejected. The Marquis instead gives Julia some of the land and the citadel of Saint Bennet, to Antonio’s dismay. The Marquis justifies his actions by saying since the Cardinal has told him to seize Antonio’s lands, they are “a gratification only due to a strumpet: for it is injustice.” The Marquis leaves after noting that a sick...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
The Doctor: treats Ferdinand for his madness

Summary
Pescara returns to talk with a doctor about Ferdinand’s “lycanthropia.” The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, and, in the background, Bosola, enter. Ferdinand promptly tries to attack his shadow, fails to identify his doctor, and “tries to take off his gown.” Ferdinand beats the doctor before leaving, and the Cardinal explains that Ferdinand’s madness comes from seeing the nocturnal apparition of a murdered ghost. As the others leave, Bosola steps forward, and the Cardinal, before briefly promising to greatly reward him for doing “one thing for me,” vows not to let Bosola know that the Cardinal...

(The entire section is 740 words.)

Act 5, Scenes 3-5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Echo: an echo heard near the Duchess’s grave by Antonio and Delio

Summary
The characters of scene 3 are Antonio and Delio, who are at a fortification built on “the ruins of an ancient abbey,” as well as “an Echo from the Duchess’s grave.” The Echo is thought by Antonio to resemble the Duchess’s voice, and both Delio and the Echo advise him to stay away from the Cardinal’s rooms. Antonio protests that necessity compels him to visit the Cardinal and settle his fate, and Delio promises to fetch Antonio’s oldest son.

The Cardinal, Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan open scene 4. The Cardinal tells his four guests not to...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)