The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi book cover
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Act 4, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Mad Men: these men, including an astrologer, doctor, priest, and lawyer, are sent to the Duchess by Ferdinand

Summary
The Duchess and Cariola are hounded by “the wild consort of madmen” put in the Duchess’s lodging by Ferdinand. The Duchess remarks that “the robin red-breast and the nightingale never live long in cages,” and she too is likely to die soon. A servant arrives to tell the Duchess that Ferdinand means to have the madmen cure her melancholy, and they enter to speak several lines apiece. Bosola, made up like an old man, arrives as the madmen dance. He observes that the Duchess is aging prematurely because of the distress caused her by being, as she proclaims, “Duchess of Malfi still.” He has come to make her tomb and offers “a present from your princely brothers,” her executioners. Bosola sings a song announcing her execution before the executioners carry Cariola off. The Duchess gives two brief monologues on death, which “must pull down heaven upon me,” before being strangled.

The pregnant Cariola is strangled next, and Bosola draws the traverse, which shows two of the Duchess’s children, strangled. Ferdinand, in conversing with Bosola, tells that he was the second-born twin of the Duchess. He expresses his remorse for her murder and his hatred of Bosola for carrying it out. Ferdinand declares that Bosola’s only reward for the murder of the Duchess will be a pardon for it. Ferdinand answers Bosola’s objections to this statement by claiming Ferdinand did not formally convict her; therefore, Bosola is at fault for the murder and deserves to forfeit his life. They exchange violent remarks before Ferdinand leaves. Bosola notices the Duchess returning to life and has just enough time to tell her that Antonio still lives and has reconciled with her brothers before she dies. In a soliloquy, Bosola, expressing his regret for her death, promises to deliver her body “to the reverend dispose of some good women,” and he sets off for Milan.

Analysis
In her conversation with Cariola, the Duchess uses natural imagery again, but this time only to compare herself to caged birds who, like her, live short lives. Cariola uses the theme of painting in a similarly negative way by saying the Duchess, like her painted picture, has “a deal of life in show, but none in practice.” The purpose of sending the madmen into the Duchess’ lodging is difficult to discern: perhaps Ferdinand, in his madness, seeks other madmen to haunt his sister, or perhaps he simply means to torment her, but it is hard to believe that he intends to cure her. When Bosola enters with another of his commentaries on the weakness of flesh and erosion of the Duchess’ youth, the Duchess responds by simply proclaiming “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” Her inborn honor has been retained even in the midst of so much tumult and madness. Bosola gives his pessimistic and fatalistic song on death before the executioners enter. As he does, it is easy to think of Iago and Shakespeare’s other cruel and pessimistic...

(The entire section is 785 words.)