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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Act 1, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis

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Ferdinand’s court continues to set the scene as the Lords Castruchio, Silvio, Roderigo, and Grisolan reveal through their jocular conversation that Antonio has won the court’s jousting competition. Castruchio advises Ferdinand not to become a soldier, because whenever a ruler becomes a soldier, his realm becomes unsettled. Ferdinand answers by making jibes against Castruchio’s wife, Julia. Ferdinand promises to visit Lord Silvio in Milan shortly, and the duchess, the cardinal, Cariola, and Julia enter. In a lengthy aside, Antonio tells Delio that the cardinal is “a melancholy churchman” full of schemes and jealousy who threw away a possible papacy by bestowing bribes, and calls Ferdinand a similarly evasive and lying hypocrite. However, Antonio says their sister, the duchess of Malfi, is meek, very beautiful, and virtuous, and he adds that she “lights the time to come.”

Ferdinand assigns Bosola to keep the duchess’s horse, and after Silvio and all the others leave, he comments that the cardinal “could never abide you” because, Bosola says, he “was in my debt.” Ferdinand, remarking that Bosola’s “inclination to shed blood rides post” as a predictor of his performance in the role he is about to assume, tells Bosola to serve as an intelligencer and spy on the duchess to keep her, “a young widow,” from marrying again. Fearing that he will be forced to do evil in that role, Bosola agrees to it only because he has already been assigned to keep her horse. Ferdinand advises Bosola, in his new role, to “keep your old garb of melancholy” in order to “gain access to private lodgings.” Bosola leaves after vowing “I am your creature,” and the cardinal and Ferdinand then tell the duchess not to marry. Though the duchess calls it “terrible good counsel,” the cardinal fears she may “privately be married under the eaves of night.”

The cardinal leaves after warning the duchess that “the marriage night is the entrance into some prison,” but she suspects the brothers’ “speech,” as she calls it, was so smoothly done only because they had practiced it. After giving the duchess a warning of his own, Ferdinand leaves, and the duchess, promptly proving their fears are well-grounded, sets forth on her “dangerous venture” of marriage. Antonio comes forth, and after some talk of accounts, the duchess and Antonio talk of “the sacrament of marriage.” Antonio dismisses fatherhood as giving “weak delight,” but the duchess puts her wedding ring on his finger. She speaks of the difficulty aristocrats and royalty face in finding love, but she, “a young widow that claims you for her husband,” approves his account with a “Quietus est,” freeing him from his debt to her. So, with her lady Cariola as witness, the duchess marries Antonio, making a “sacred Gordian, which let violence never untwine.” They go to bed, but she says they shall “lay a naked sword between us” to “keep us chaste.” Cariola closes the act by commenting on the duchess’s “fearful madness” and says she owes her “much of pity.”


Castruchio’s warning that Ferdinand’s hunger for war was dangerous seems to strike a chord with Ferdinand, who immediately begins to jibe him about the loose morals of his wife, Julia. The play has begun to explore the issues of courtly illusion, proper sexual behavior, courtly morals, and truth. Who can be trusted in Ferdinand’s court, and what are the consequences of placing one’s trust in the wrong hands? Thus far, there are only hints and seemingly minor signs of these issues and their importance, but it is still very early in the play, and the early signs are not positive. And, furthermore, Antonio has already warned that malevolence at a prince’s court creates problems for everyone ruled by that prince.

Ferdinand’s later objection to the laughter of Roderigo and Grisolan, who have laughed on their own without sensing that they should laugh only when he laughs, furthers the courtly theme that behavior is artificial, is based on flattery, and centers on doing what the prince wants done, not necessarily what should be done. Antonio, though, rejects flattery to see past the superficial talents of the cardinal and reads him as “a melancholy churchman,” full of political intrigues, jealousy, and fraud. Similarly, Ferdinand’s external mirth is false, and the contrast of their sister the duchess, radiant with beauty, honesty, and virtue, presents a case of like appealing to like: amid the fraud and violence of Ferdinand’s court, the honest duchess and Antonio are bound to come together.

The employment of Bosola as Ferdinand’s intelligencer, or spy, which also shows the lingering ill will between the cardinal and Bosola, deepens the sense that things are awry at this court. Bosola already has blood on his hands, which somehow qualifies him for the job of spying on the duchess; presumably Ferdinand wants a hardened, bold man for the job, but perhaps he also anticipates that Bosola will someday be asked to murder the duchess. He has forced Bosola to do the job, which Bosola has his own suspicions about, by giving him “the provisorship o’th’ horse.” It is appropriate for that secret appointment to lead Bosola into his secretive occupation. In this court, direct knowledge is evidently hard to come by.

Even the duchess and Antonio follow this general rule in their marriage. Her brothers, unsurprisingly, given their scheming natures, suspect she has secret plans to marry, and she does. It is clearly ironic, though, for them to give her counsel against courtly cunning and underhanded ways. The duchess, although possessing simple virtues, is also aware of the value of her fame and status, and her conversation with Antonio includes talk about him keeping her accounts, the need to raise “this goodly roof of yours” which “is too low built,” and the hardship those born to great status face in wooing those below their station. She is fully conscious of the legal meaning of their marriage, and she knows she is marrying a man well beneath her in terms of money and nobility. So the duchess must sign his Quietus est before they marry, and she notes that Cariola’s presence is needed to make their “contract in a chamber” legitimate. The intrusion of such legalisms into the “sweet affections” of this pair presents an uneasy contrast. Given such circumstances, Cariola seems rightly fearful of the duchess’s alleged madness. Although Antonio and the duchess feel great affection for each other, they have married in secret. So it is that the duchess’s last line in the act proclaims herself covered by Antonio’s bosom, “since ‘tis the treasury of all my secrets.” She has made herself vulnerable by marrying him and must hope he will indeed retain her secrets.

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Act 1, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis


Act 2, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis