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 4, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis

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Bosola tells Ferdinand that the duchess is bearing the ordeal of her imprisonment “nobly.” Ferdinand leaves, and the traverse is drawn to show the duchess. Bosola offers her comfort and says Ferdinand means to reconcile with her. Ferdinand returns and, speaking accusatory words, gives her a dead man’s hand to kiss. Ferdinand leaves before she is given a show of “the artificial figures of Antonio and his children; appearing as if they were dead.” Bosola falsely confirms their death to the duchess, and she vows to die. Bosola offers encouraging words, and after she leaves unconsoled, Ferdinand and Bosola talk. Ferdinand repeats his vitriol against the duchess, tells Bosola to see her again, and orders him to seek out Antonio in Milan.


Antonio’s description of the duchess in act 1 is repeated by Bosola at the start of act 4: Ferdinand, however, has abandoned any notions of empathy for her. The duchess, who had been hidden behind the traverse—another example of the theme of secrecy—furthers the theme of duplicity by asking Bosola why he wraps his “poison’d pills in gold and sugar.” The traverse is employed in another falsehood by showing the duchess images of her husband and children, dead. She picks up on the theme of artificial figures by saying the knowledge of those deaths grieves her more than if a voodoo doll of her were “buried in some foul dunghill.” The duchess rejects life and its torments for a quick death, without knowing that she will shortly receive that death. Ferdinand, in remarking that she has taken the figures of her husband and children “for true substantial bodies,” points out that the duchess may be honest, but she cannot always distinguish substance from appearance. Ferdinand objects to Bosola’s sympathy for the duchess. He claims that her body, while Ferdinand’s “blood ran pure in’t, was more worth than that which thou wouldst comfort, call’d a soul.” This statement shows, again, that he thinks of the duchess as merely a vessel upon which her brothers can act.

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Act 3, Scenes 3-5 Summary and Analysis


Act 4, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis