The Duchess of Malfi Study Guide
The Duchess of Malfi: Chapter Summaries
The Duchess of Malfi: Themes
The Duchess of Malfi: Characters
The Duchess of Malfi: Analysis
The Duchess of Malfi: Critical Essays
The Duchess of Malfi: Quotes
The Duchess of Malfi: Questions & Answers
The Duchess of Malfi: Introduction
The Duchess of Malfi: Biography of John Webster
Introduction to The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is a Jacobean revenge tragedy by playwright John Webster. It was likely written between 1612 and 1613, and it continued the trend of graphic violence, frank sexuality, and coarse language established during the Elizabethan period. The revenge tragedy was a popular form during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with other notable works including Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The plots typically revolved around a quest for vengeance against someone who had wronged the protagonist. However, The Duchess of Malfi is a less straightforward revenge tale, and its complex characters and poetic language have helped it stand out.
Unlike in a traditional revenge play, the protagonist is not the one seeking vengeance. Instead, it is the titular Duchess of Malfi’s death that inspires various characters to seek revenge in her name. However, the greatest tragedy of revenge is its destructive capabilities, and the play ends with nearly every major character dead or dying. Furthermore, trust and loyalty are almost nonexistent, and the disparity between how people appear and how they act is great. One of the duchess’s treacherous brothers is a cardinal in the church, and his actions are contrasted with the alleged godliness of his status.
A Brief Biography of John Webster
John Webster (1580–1632), famed Jacobean playwright, was a late bloomer. Although he did well enough in his own time, his stature in theater history was fairly low in the years after his death. For nearly two centuries, his plays were largely ignored and unfairly compared to the stylistically different works of Shakespeare. It was only in the late twentieth century, when Jacobean tragedy was rediscovered by scholars and theater artists, that Webster began to be fully appreciated for his powerful writing. His dark, intense tragedies foreshadowed the angry and violent plays of the early German Romantic period nearly two decades later. His most famous work, The Duchess of Malfi, is a full-bodied, tragic tale full of larger-than-life characters.