The Duchess of Malfi Questions and Answers
by John Webster

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What are some important themes (besides death and good vs. evil) in John Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi?

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Many important themes found in John Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi are evident or implied right from the very beginning of the work.

Delio's opening speech, for instance, alludes to the differences between France and Italy.  One important theme of the play will be corruption at an Italian court. Italy was often associated with evil in Renaissance English plays.

Three lines into his own first speech, Antonia refers to the "judicious king" of France.  He thus foreshadows another important theme of the play: the importance of having persons of virtue in positions of power. Some of the powerful people in Webster's play are deeply evil.

Antioni's reference to the "judicious" French king implies the importance of reason and rational behavior, which (unless corrupted) were associated with moral virtue in Renaissance literature.

Antonio next describes how the French king has rid

. . . his royal palace
Of flattering sycophants, of dissolute
And infamous persons . . .

These lines introduce several more themes important to the play: flattery, sycophancy (or absolutely unquestioning loyalty, usually to an unworthy person), and immoral behavior. By implication, the play will be endorsing the opposites of these: truth-telling, virtuous independence, and virtuous conduct.

Thus many of the key themes of the play are present, either explicitly or implicitly, in the first twenty lines of the work.

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