Breakfast illustration of bacon, eggs, and coffee with the silhouetted images of the Duchess' evil brothers, one on each side

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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Is act 5 of The Duchess of Malfi a superfluity or a necessity for the rounding off of the action of the drama? Evaluate.

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One could say that act 5 of The Duchess of Malfi is a necessity for the rounding off of the action of the drama. This is because is it here that the evildoers in the play, Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal, get their comeuppance. What is particularly notable about the villains' deaths in act 5 is that they're chaotic and undignified.

The shabby manner in which the Duke and the Cardinal die is entirely befitting such wicked characters. Contrast that with how the Duchess dies; she faces her death with great courage and dignity. As if we didn't already know it, she's a breed apart from her enemies.

Critics since Webster's day have complained of a lack of unity and structure in the plot of The Duchess of Malfi. In particular, they have argued that act 5 is largely superfluous on account of the fact that the main character of the play, the Duchess of Malfi herself, is already dead by this point, having been strangled to death in act 4, scene 2.

But one could argue in response to this that there's method in what appears to be Webster's clumsy plot construction. Act 5 and the poetic justice it shows being meted out to the play's villains is intended to highlight the Duchess's virtue and, by extension, the relative lack of virtue of so many of us.

In other words, whatever its shortcomings in terms of plot and dramatic structure, act 5 has an important didactic role to play; it teaches us something important about the nature of virtue.

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