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 5, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis

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Pescara returns to talk with a doctor about Ferdinand’s “lycanthropia.” The cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, and, in the background, Bosola, enter. Ferdinand promptly tries to attack his shadow, fails to identify his doctor, and “tries to take off his gown.” Ferdinand beats the doctor before leaving, and the cardinal explains that Ferdinand’s madness comes from seeing the nocturnal apparition of a murdered ghost. As the others leave, Bosola steps forward, and the cardinal, before briefly promising to greatly reward him for doing “one thing for me,” vows not to let Bosola know that the cardinal has any responsibility for the duchess’s murder. After a brief interruption from Julia, he asks Bosola to go to Milan and murder Antonio, which will open the way for the duchess to marry someone who is “an excellent match for her.” The cardinal exits, and in a short monologue, Bosola says he thinks the cardinal does not know of the murder of the duchess, but Bosola remains suspicious of him. Julia returns to confess her infatuation with Bosola: they flirt, and Bosola tells her to find out the cause of the cardinal’s melancholy.

Bosola retreats behind the traverse as the cardinal enters, and Julia begins to query him. She learns the cause of his melancholy: although the cardinal warns her of the danger of knowing his secret, he says that he ordered the strangling of the duchess and two of her children. He makes a shocked Julia kiss the Bible, and once she has, the cardinal immediately tells her he has poisoned it “because I knew thou couldst not keep my counsel.” Bosola enters; Julia confesses she has heard the just-revealed secret, and she dies. Despite the cardinal’s threats against him, Bosola blames the cardinal for the triple murder but also agrees to kill Antonio. The cardinal leaves after telling Bosola to arrive after midnight to help him move Julia’s body to Julia’s own lodging. Bosola’s closing soliloquy emphasizes the danger of his current circumstances and proclaims his penitence for the duchess’s murder, and his desire to put Antonio “into safety from the reach of these most cruel biters, that have got some of thy blood already.”


Ferdinand’s court is sick, and Ferdinand, with his “lycanthropia,” embodies the fact that his court has sunk to the basest, most savage level of human nature. Ferdinand, said by the cardinal to be haunted by the ghost of an old woman “murther’d by her nephews, for her riches,” is probably actually haunted by his guilt over the murders he has ordered. Antonio, like the duchess before him, is accused of irreligion, this time by the cardinal, who has traded his religious garb for the outfit of a soldier but nonetheless sees fit to criticize the religious practices of others. The cardinal makes a comparison that echoes Ferdinand’s likeness to a wolf when he compares Bosola to an old fox. The lengthy scene between Julia and Bosola, then the cardinal and Julia, is harder to explain. Julia’s romantic advances on Bosola seem to indicate that while the cardinal cannot be cuckolded by her, she can still betray him. Julia also contrasts with the “nice modesty” of the duchess and other noble ladies and, of course, furthers the theme of courtly deceit: Bosola, even while he works for Ferdinand and the cardinal, is wooing the cardinal’s lover. Julia, though, like the duchess, proclaims that she is not wanton: Julia has simply fixed her interest on a certain man. Perhaps she lacks either the guile or the stubborn honesty that might enable her to successfully maneuver in Ferdinand’s court. In any case, Julia agrees to serve as an intelligencer on the cardinal for Bosola, previously the intelligencer on the duchess. The cardinal’s warning to Julia that she “think what danger ’tis to receive a prince’s secrets” is a good one for both Julia and Bosola. The irony of the cardinal using a Bible for murder is a logical extension of his prior conversion to soldier: he is using religion to murder rather than heal. But Bosola, in promising to kill Antonio, has realized that while his path may lead to the grave, he can at least deny the dozen attendants offered him by the cardinal and therefore keep his sins from corrupting the attendants as well.

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