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

Start Free Trial

Act 4, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


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’s 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’s 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 villains: like them, Bosola has abandoned all concern for anything but the grim world of mortal flesh, which offers not pleasure but strife, sadness, and finally death and decay.

So the duchess, awaiting her death, realizes that it does not matter how she is killed; luxury items will do as well as daggers or poison, and her wealth will not keep her alive. She repeats the motif of elevation that runs throughout the play when she wishes “for your able strength” to “pull down heaven upon me.” Even princes must enter those gates on their knees. Ferdinand, who is absent while his sister and nephew and niece are murdered, appears just in time to confirm those children as dead. The murders have been carried out by proxy. Ferdinand quickly repents the murders, but only by seeking revenge upon Bosola, not by seeking to ensure Antonio or the surviving child’s safety. Ferdinand seems to refer to himself when he says, “the wolf shall find her grave, and scrape it up” in order to “discover the horrid murther.” Bosola and Ferdinand’s mutually planned violence has created mutual recriminations as both realize the gravity of their sins. Bosola has “rather sought to appear a true servant than an honest man” in obeying Ferdinand’s orders. Bosola has just enough time to tell the duchess that Antonio still lives, though he does not tell her that her two children are indeed dead, before she expires. Bosola’s murders have brought him “below the degree of fear,” and while they may have raised his courtly status, they have sunk his moral condition.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Act 4, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis


Act 5, Scene 1 Summary and Analysis