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 3, Scenes 1–2 Summary and Analysis

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After a considerable length of time, Delio has returned to the court, along with Ferdinand. In the meantime, Antonio has informed him that the duchess has given birth to a son and a daughter. Antonio adds that the common people think of her as a “strumpet,” and they think Antonio has become wealthy through fraudulent means. Ferdinand arrives to assure the duchess that he does not suspect her, and even if she were a strumpet, “my fix’d love would strongly excuse” her faults. Bosola reports to Ferdinand the rumor that the duchess has three children and tells him that he has “a false key into her bed-chamber.”

Antonio, the duchess, and Cariola joke about the secret marriage and discuss relations between men and women. As the duchess, now alone, says Antonio should keep to his own bed with Ferdinand having returned, “she sees Ferdinand holding a poniard.” He expresses his anger with her disgraced position and pronounces his readiness to kill her lover, though he hopes never to see him and would prefer to simply shut him up in a dungeon forever. The duchess protests that her “reputation is safe” and she should be able to marry. Ferdinand answers by bemoaning her permanently tarnished reputation and vows, “I will never see you more.”

Ferdinand leaves, and Antonio, thinking he is betrayed, enters with a pistol and accuses Cariola of giving them away to Ferdinand. She pleads innocent, and the duchess says Ferdinand intends for her to kill herself with the poniard. Bosola enters as Antonio leaves, and the duchess tells him Antonio has “dealt so falsely with me, in’s accounts,” by letting bonds she and Ferdinand had issued go into forfeit. Bosola exits, Antonio enters again, and the duchess tells Antonio her plan is to send him to Ancona while she accuses him of “a feigned crime,” which she justifies by explaining that her noble lie “must shield our honours.” She promptly makes her accusation before Bosola and some officers, and proceeds to punish Antonio with banishment. Bosola protests her decision by saying that Antonio “was an excellent courtier, and most faithful,” a modest, virtuous man.

The duchess, taking Bosola into her confidence, tells him that Antonio is her children’s father. Bosola praises their relationship, and he agrees with her instruction for him to take her coin and jewelry to Antonio. Bosola suggests the duchess disguise her plan to meet Antonio at Ancona by feigning “a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Loretto, scarce seven leagues from fair Ancona.” The duchess and Cariola leave, and Bosola, now alone, feels he must tell Ferdinand of this news, hoping to gain from the revelation.


Antonio reveals that after an indefinite but lengthy interval of time, he and the duchess have two more children. The possible consequences of the discovery of their marriage have become that much greater. Antonio, in his remarks to Delio about how time quickens when in law, in prison, at a court, begging “the reversion of some great man’s place,” or living with an old wife, shows how much one’s circumstances affects one’s perceptions. Also, all of the examples he gives are of people put in servile positions. These two facts appear highly relevant not just for Antonio but for the court as a whole; status and distorted reality are a constant for Ferdinand’s court. And Antonio’s avowal that no one suspects him of any amorous relationship with the duchess, and the duchess’s claim to Ferdinand that “I will marry for your honour” again shows how living in the court affects and distorts behavior, for outside the court they would have no need to hide their marriage. Ferdinand’s reassurances of his support for the duchess are yet another lie. In the midst of so much uncertainty in his court, it might make sense for Ferdinand to turn to magic and the stars for knowledge, but he rejects them as horrid inventions. Ferdinand must instead “force confession” from the duchess, and he also trusts Bosola to tell him the exceedingly scarce truth. The duchess, in hoping for the time when “noblemen shall come with cap and knee, to purchase a night’s lodging of their wives,” again shows her focus on status. Antonio’s comment some lines later that Paris, when beholding three naked, amorous goddesses, could scarcely depend on his reasoning faculties, cuts to the physical fact of his and the duchess’s situation: theirs is not an ethereal courtly romance. The duchess picks up this theme by fearing that her hair is turning gray and wanting all the court to match her grayness. Her comment that Antonio has “cause to love me, I ent’red you into my heart” may reflect her fear that when her hair is gray, Antonio’s love will fade. In any case, she will have “no more children till my brothers consent to be [Antonio’s] gossips.” Their love will remain hidden unless her brothers give their approval of it. That approval will not come, however. Ferdinand, upon telling her to commit suicide, unwittingly responds to Antonio’s earlier comments on Paris and reason by bemoaning reason for foreseeing “what we can least prevent.” His denunciation of the duchess, tellingly, contains his wish to never know her lover’s name and the comparison of men—both himself and Antonio—with animals. Those two comments indicate that Ferdinand’s court has become base and ignorant.

Immediately after Ferdinand leaves, Antonio, succumbing to the courtly instinct for suspicion, aims his pistol at Cariola. Things have become unstable: the duchess stands “as if a mine, beneath my feet, were ready to be blown up.” Although declaring that “unjust actions should wear these masks and curtains; and not we,” she continues the trend of deceit by telling Bosola that Antonio has merely mismanaged her accounts. Bosola realizes that “this is cunning”: in his role as intelligencer, he is aware that others are playing the game of duplicity and deceit. When the show of Antonio’s feigned banishment commences, Antonio, in blaming “the necessity of my malevolent star” for his misfortune, blames astrology, not himself. However, in this and the rest of his short speech, he is only trying to play a convincing role, so it is hard to know if his words are genuine.

Bosola, though, supports Antonio as a humble, faithful, and honest courtier, someone who does not flatter princes. Antonio is “basely descended,” but Bosola says that means nothing. But in the unjust world of Ferdinand’s court, virtue is repaid with cruelty. Even the duchess’s honesty with Bosola, whom she believes to be sympathetic, will be punished. The unequal match of her and Antonio will come to grief, despite what Bosola says in his monologue praising both of them. He advises a false pilgrimage to Loretto, which, over Cariola’s objection as “jesting with religion,” the duchess takes. Cariola’s superstition succumbs to the duchess’s pragmatism, and Bosola hopes his misdeeds will be rewarded, even as Antonio’s virtue is punished.

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Act 2, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis


Act 3, Scenes 3-5 Summary and Analysis