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 3-5 Summary and Analysis

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The cardinal and Ferdinand, together with Malateste, Pescara, Silvio, and Delio, open scene 3 by planning to join a military coalition with the Marquis of Pescara and Lannoy. Bosola enters, and Ferdinand, questioning the truth of the duchess’s alleged pilgrimage, wonders if her children “were ever christ’ned.” The cardinal sets off for Loretto, and Ferdinand tells Bosola to get together 150 of his horses and write to the Duke of Malfi, the duchess’s son from her first marriage. Scene 4 is devoted to the investiture of the cardinal as a soldier at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto as well as his banishment of Antonio, the duchess, and their children. The duchess’s dukedom is also seized by the church. Two pilgrims provide commentary on the scene.

Antonio and the duchess, leading their train of children and attendants, are lamenting their condition. Bosola arrives bearing a letter from Ferdinand asking Antonio to return to the court for “his head in a business,” which the duchess reads as meaning Ferdinand intends to kill Antonio. She rejects Bosola’s plea for her to accept the brothers’ “noble and free league of amity and love,” and Bosola responds with a guarded threat for the duchess as he departs. The duchess tells Antonio to depart with their oldest son to Milan, and they take their leave of each other. Bosola returns with an armed guard and tells her she is to be separated from Antonio. He announces he will bring her back to her palace but again promises that her “brothers mean you safety and pity.”


The cardinal’s decision to “turn soldier” signals the topsy-turvy world of the court: rather than offering peace, a religious man has resolved to make war. The dismissal of Malateste as a noncombatant contains the telling comment that he “keeps two painters going, only to express battles in model”: once again, superficial appearance trumps reality. Pescara’s subsequent remark that “factions amongst great men” bring their country to ruin brings to mind previous comments in the play about the link between the court and the people it governs. The two brothers criticize the duchess for hiding under religion, and Ferdinand openly doubts her religion. In act 1, Antonio had praised the duchess’s beauty as displaying her true virtue, but Ferdinand distrusts her beauty as a mask for her depravity. Ferdinand’s closing lines of the scene express his outrage that Antonio, “a slave, that only smell’d of ink and counters” and only dressed as a gentleman at audit time, should marry the duchess and betray the court. He has again commented on the link between external appearance and inner worth: Antonio is not fit to marry the duchess because he does not look right.

The brief scene at the Shrine of Loretto serves the simple task of showing the banishment of Antonio, the duchess, and their children, and the cardinal’s investiture as a soldier. The pilgrims function as a sort of Greek chorus, offering their own common sense judgment of the action. The theme of fame, honor, and status appears again, this time in the ditty which seeks for the cardinal “fame’s eternal glory” and fame that “sings loud thy powers,” and in the first pilgrim’s bewilderment that “so great a lady would have match’d herself unto so mean a person.”

Antonio’s matter-of-fact statement that dishonest flatterers flee from “decay’d fortunes” fits nicely with the duchess’s wistful jealousy of the birds, who “may choose their mates, and carol their sweet pleasures to the spring.” Low status has its advantages, as she has realized. If neither she nor Antonio were rich, they would not face so many difficulties. She comments on Ferdinand’s letter that “false hearts speak fair to those they intend most mischief.” Yet again, lies have replaced the truth. Bosola tells Antonio his fear of small things, such as Ferdinand’s request for Antonio’s “head in a business,” displays Antonio’s low status, which is again called a stain on his character. The religious theme displayed in scene 4 is elaborated in the duchess’s comparison of Antonio’s cold kiss to that given a skull by an anchorite, or nun, and in her accusation that Bosola “counterfeits Heaven’s thunder.” Bosola continues to deceive the duchess by proclaiming her brothers “mean you safety and pity,” but she, grown wiser from experience, cannot accept that statement. Her closing parable embodies her predicament as one joined to a low-born man: the duchess is surely thinking of Antonio when she says “men oft are valued high, when th’are most wretch’d.”

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