The Duchess of Malfi Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis
by John Webster

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Act 5, Scene 2: Summary and Analysis

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The Doctor: treats Ferdinand for his madness

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, 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...

(The entire section is 740 words.)