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.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi

Antonio's accusation of betrayal toward Cariola can be found in act 3, scene 2 of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi when the duchess is getting ready for bed. Her love, Antonio, who has a sense...

Latest answer posted May 22, 2021, 2:33 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Act 3, scene 2 of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi shows the duchess being inconveniently visited by her brother and nemesis Ferdinand. Ferdinand is angry because rumors have reached him that...

Latest answer posted May 22, 2021, 3:11 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Delio, Antonio's good friend, tells Antonio the bad news that the cardinal is giving away some of his lands. He ends by warning Antonio that his life is in danger: I cannot think they mean well to...

Latest answer posted May 13, 2021, 12:39 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

The word decadence tends to denote a sense of decline or decay, specifically in regard to moral standards. Critics of The Duchess of Malfi often characterize it as a decadent play due to the...

Latest answer posted May 13, 2021, 1:27 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Most of the play is written in blank verse and doesn't rhyme; but at times of heightened intensity, both the duchess and Bosola speak in rhyming verse. The duchess speaks in rhyming verse at the...

Latest answer posted May 15, 2021, 10:18 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi was first performed in either 1613 or 1614. It was likely written the year before its first onstage appearance, and it was first performed privately at the...

Latest answer posted May 13, 2021, 12:52 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Julia is the aging courtier Castruccio's wife and the Cardinal's mistress. Her character is more or less one-dimensional. It is summed up at the end when Bosola calls her the "lustful" Julia. Julia...

Latest answer posted May 13, 2021, 11:59 am (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi centers around the titular duchess, a courageous and intelligent young widow who goes against the gender norms of her time. In the period of the story, a woman with political...

Latest answer posted May 12, 2021, 1:18 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Revenge tragedies were a popular theatrical genre in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. These plays focus on a character who experiences a great wrong, such as the murder of a family...

Latest answer posted May 12, 2021, 1:07 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is set in Italy for several reasons. First, Webster based it on real events in Italian history. He would have been familiar with William Painter's compilation of French and...

Latest answer posted May 12, 2021, 12:24 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Ferdinand says this is act 4, scene 2. Bosola, on Ferdinand's orders, has the duchess killed. He then takes Ferdinand in to see his sister's corpse. Ferdinand has been unmoved by the corpses of the...

Latest answer posted May 11, 2021, 11:31 am (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

In Aristotle's definition of the tragic hero, such a person must be highborn, have a fatal flaw, and engage the "pity," or sympathy, of audience members, who side with her and feel sorrow in her...

Latest answer posted May 10, 2021, 2:02 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

The cardinal, a cold-blooded person, wants to be rid of Julia, his mistress and the wife of another man, because he has grown tired of her. He says would be "quit," or rid, of her "by any means."...

Latest answer posted May 10, 2021, 1:32 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

In act 4, scene 2, imprisoned by Ferdinand, the Duchess of Malfi is first forced to watch madmen who are sent to her to howl and perform. Then Bosola comes and states that death is not such a...

Latest answer posted May 10, 2021, 12:43 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

The duchess is presented as a tragic heroine. Like other tragic heroes, such as Hamlet, Othello, Oedipus, Medea, and Faustus, the duchess is tragic in that she is both heroic and flawed and in that...

Latest answer posted May 10, 2021, 1:43 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Bosola is a hired killer and spy, a man who did prison time for murder before being hired as an "intelligencer" (spy) by Ferdinand to infiltrate the duchess's household. What tempts him to take the...

Latest answer posted May 11, 2021, 12:00 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Webster's source for The Duchess of Malfi is the real-life story of the Duchess of Amalfi, a woman named Giovanna. This real duchess was the daughter of the King of Naples's half-brother and was...

Latest answer posted May 11, 2021, 12:46 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Bosola begins to suspect that the Duchess is pregnant when he notices that she is wearing loose dresses (which are not the fashion of the time). She has also been rather ill, which suggests morning...

Latest answer posted May 11, 2021, 1:08 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Daniel de Bosola acts as a spy for the duchess's brothers in the duchess's own household. He himself holds no ill will against the duchess and even comes to admire her integrity and courage. He is...

Latest answer posted May 11, 2021, 12:42 pm (UTC)

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The Duchess of Malfi

Class and patriarchal privilege: Both Ferdinand and the cardinal are angered and affronted that anyone but high-born, highly privileged white males like themselves should have anything at all. They...

Latest answer posted May 10, 2021, 11:56 am (UTC)

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Summary