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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Duchess of Malfi Summary

The Duchess of Malfi is a play by John Webster in which a widowed duchess secretly remarries. Her brothers are angered and attempt to discover the identity of her husband.

  • The duchess secretly remarries after the death of her first husband, and she and her new husband, Antonio, have three children together.

  • When the duchess’s brothers find out about Antonio, they banish the couple and their children. In exile, the duchess and two of her children are killed.

  • Antonio and one of the duchess’s brothers seek revenge against the other two brothers, but in the ensuing madness, all of them die.

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Last Updated February 16, 2024.

The Duchess of Malfi is a tragedy written by English playwright John Webster. First performed in 1613 or 1614, it was based on the story of Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, who was said to have been murdered by her brothers in 1510.

The play begins in the duchess’s palace, where the recently returned Antonio—her steward-turned-lover—speaks with his friend Delio. They see Bosola—a villainous man paid to spy on the duchess by her money-hungry brothers, the cardinal and Ferdinand—enter with the cardinal. The pair bicker and Antonio overhears as Bosola argues that he deserves a reward for his long service, rumored to include a killing on the cardinal's behalf.

When the cardinal leaves, offering nothing, Bosola comments to himself that while some people are said to be possessed by the devil, the cardinal could possess the devil and make him even worse. Antonio describes both brothers as being equally dishonest, though he is highly complimentary of their sister, the duchess.

At a palace gathering, Ferdinand asks the Duchess to employ Bosola as her horse groom, intending to have him spy on her. The brothers warn her against remarrying after being recently widowed, with Ferdinand even threatening her. After they leave, she meets with Antonio and, though he is of lower status, marries him with her servant, Cariola, as a witness.

In time, Bosola begins to suspect that the duchess is pregnant. He gives her apricots—believed to induce labor—and she rushes away. Antonio attempts to conceal the birth by locking the servants in their rooms under the cover story of a theft, but he then accidentally drops the newborn boy’s horoscope. Bosola finds it, confirming that the duchess has had a child, but does not know the father’s identity. He sends this information to the brothers in Rome.

Bosola's letter angers them both. While the cardinal’s anger is coldly rational, Ferdinand is enraged and rants about killing his sister and her unknown lover. Delio, who is in Rome, hears that Ferdinand has received an upsetting letter from Malfi, and he fears that it must be about his friend’s secret marriage to the duchess.

Back in Malfi, some time has passed. Antonio tells Delio that the duchess has given birth to a daughter and another son, expressing his worry that Ferdinand, who just returned, must know about the children.

Ferdinand has indeed heard rumors of three children from Bosola but is still uncertain about the identity of their father. Later, when the duchess is alone in her room, Ferdinand enters and presents her with a knife to kill herself with. She tells him she is married, but he angrily condemns her “wretched life” before storming off for Rome. To protect her husband, the duchess invents an accusation against Antonio as an excuse to send him away from Malfi.

When Bosola praises her husband after he has left, the duchess admits everything to him. She reveals her plan to send her riches to Antonio and join him in Ancona and asks for his help. Bosola agrees, suggesting that she travel under the disguise of a pilgrimage. After she has gone, he expresses regret that he must betray her trust but eagerly anticipates the reward he expects to receive from her brothers, so he rides to Rome and informs them of her plan.

At the pilgrimage site, Antonio and the duchess are confronted by the cardinal, who tears off her wedding ring and banishes her family from Ancona. Rather than see Antonio killed, the duchess sends him and their eldest son to Milan. Bosola then arrives and takes her and her two remaining children back to Malfi.

Imprisoned in the palace there, she is tormented by Ferdinand, who wishes to drive her to despair. He tricks her into thinking Antonio and her son are dead, then has her strangled, along with Cariola and the two younger children.

Having overseen all of this on Ferdinand’s behalf, Bosola demands his reward but is denied. Ferdinand, who admits that he only wanted his sister to remain unmarried to inherit her wealth, now blames Bosola for obeying his orders and not saving her. The duchess briefly regains consciousness, long enough for Bosola to inform her that Antonio still lives. After she dies, Bosoloa expresses regret for his actions and decides to leave for Milan.

In Milan, Delio and Antonio hear that the brothers are in the city and that Ferdinand is unwell. Antonio plans to confront the cardinal in his chamber that night.

At the brothers’ residence, a doctor diagnoses Ferdinand with lycanthropy, saying Ferdinand thinks he is a wolf. Ferdinand attacks his own shadow and assaults the doctor, but the cardinal excuses his brother’s behavior, saying he has been haunted by a phantom.

The cardinal has hidden his involvement in the planning of the duchess’s death, but Bosola suspects it and convinces the cardinal’s mistress, Julia, to question him. The cardinal admits his responsibility for the killings to her and then swears her to secrecy by having her kiss the Bible, which he has poisoned. She quickly dies.

Bosola reveals himself, demanding the cardinal give him the reward that Ferdinand refused him. In response, the cardinal asks him to kill Antonio. Bosola agrees, so the cardinal gives him a key to the residence, telling him to return after midnight to help with Julia’s body. Despite what he has promised the cardinal, Bosola intends to find Antonio only to protect him or to help him take revenge.

That night, cardinal sends everyone away. Not wanting any witnesses to see Julia’s body, he insists that they keep away even if they hear noises. Once alone, he reveals his plan to later kill Bosola, but Bosola, just arriving, overhears this and realizes he is in danger.

At that moment, Antonio enters, and Bosola, not knowing who it is in the dark, stabs and kills him. He then goes to confront the cardinal and stabs him. Ferdinand rushes in and wounds them both in the confusion, and Bosola kills him too. Others eventually arrive, and Bosola denounces the brothers before he and the cardinal both die.

Finally, Delio arrives with the duchess’s eldest son. All present agree to help the boy have a good life.

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