Act 1, Scene 1: Summary and Analysis

The Duchess of Malfi cover image

New Characters
Bosola: an ex-convict and keeper of the Duchess’s horse who also serves as a spy for Ferdinand

Cardinal: Ferdinand and the Duchess’s brother, as well as Julia’s lover

Antonio: the steward of the Duchess’s household who is also secretly married to her

Delio: a friend of Antonio

The action opens in the court of Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, with Antonio, the steward of the Duchess of Malfi, and his friend, Delio, in conversation. Antonio gives his favorable impression of the French court, from which he has recently returned. However, he also warns that poison near the head of government makes “[d]eath, and diseases through the whole land spread,” making honest council to the ruler crucial for “blessed government.” Antonio describes Bosola as “the only court-gall” in Ferdinand’s court. Bosola, whose current occupation in the court is not described, arrives shortly before the Cardinal, and Bosola rails against both the Cardinal and his brother Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. The Cardinal asks Bosola to “become honest,” but Bosola continues his diatribe by saying the brothers never reward those who serve them—namely, himself. He leaves, and Delio notes that Bosola is an ex-convict who spent seven years in jail for a murder possibly instigated by the Cardinal, but “was releas’d by the French general, Gaston de Foix.” Antonio closes the scene by commenting on Bosola’s great valor and bemoaning that his “foul melancholy will poison all his goodness.”

As part of the preface to the play John Webster published a letter dedicated to Baron Berkeley, an English aristocrat who had supported Webster and his colleagues, claiming the play will grant immortality to Berkeley. Webster further claimed that “the ancientest nobility, being but...

(The entire section is 701 words.)