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, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis

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The characters of scene 3 are Antonio and Delio, who are at a fortification built on “the ruins of an ancient abbey,” as well as “an Echo from the Duchess’s grave.” The echo is thought by Antonio to resemble the duchess’s voice, and both Delio and the echo advise him to stay away from the cardinal’s rooms. Antonio protests that necessity compels him to visit the cardinal and settle his fate, and Delio promises to fetch Antonio’s oldest son.

The cardinal, Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan open scene 4. The cardinal tells his four guests not to respond to any of Ferdinand’s violent fits and says he may “make trial of your promise” by feigning some of Ferdinand’s “mad tricks, and cry out for help, and feign myself in danger.” They leave, promising to stay away, which the cardinal says will allow him to take “Julia’s body to her own lodging.” A conscience-wracked Cardinal vows to kill Bosola once he has delivered Julia’s body to him. But Bosola has overheard this vow: after Ferdinand appears briefly to ask Bosola to strangle Antonio in the dark, Bosola spies Antonio and a servant. Mistaking Antonio for the cardinal, he strikes at him with his sword: realizing the mistake only too late, Bosola has just time to tell Antonio of the murder of the duchess and two of their children before Antonio dies. Antonio’s final soliloquy expresses his wish to die if he can’t live with the duchess and a desire to “let my son fly the courts of princes.” Bosola tells the servant to take Antonio’s body to Julia’s lodging.

The cardinal wonders about hell and his tedious guilty conscience, which prompts him to see demons. Bosola and the servant come in with Antonio’s body, and Bosola, rejecting the cardinal’s attempts to bargain, tells the cardinal he will kill him. The cardinal’s shouts for help at first go dismissed by his guests, who are keeping their promise to not disturb him. Pescara alone thinks something is amiss and goes down to “force ope the doors” and come to the cardinal’s aid. The other guests follow him, and Bosola kills the servant to keep him from opening the door and letting in the cardinal’s rescuers. He shows the cardinal Antonio’s body and stabs the cardinal repeatedly. Ferdinand enters with his sword drawn, but thinking his brother fights “upon the adverse party,” he stabs the cardinal as well as Bosola. Bosola stabs Ferdinand, who dies regretting the murder of the duchess. Bosola tells Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan that he has murdered out of revenge for the duchess, Antonio, Julia, and himself, “an actor in the main of all, much ’gainst mine own good nature.”

The cardinal dies telling his four guests to give aid to Ferdinand and praying that the cardinal himself will be “never thought of.” Bosola’s last words describe the murder of Antonio, declare the suitability of his death coming “in so good a quarrel,” and proclaim that worthy minds should “ne’er stagger in distrust to suffer death or shame for what is just”; but Bosola’s “is another voyage.” Delio arrives, “too late,” as Malateste says, with Antonio’s son, who is also the duchess’s heir. Delio closes the play by asking the guests to join “to establish this young hopeful gentleman in’s mother’s right,” mourning the evanescent fame of those killed, and, in contrast, proclaiming that truth and “integrity of life is fame’s best friend, which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.”


Antonio and Delio’s conversation near the duchess’s grave establishes the mournful character of the play’s dénouement. The echo, in its emphasis on death, sorrow, fate, and separation, foreshadows the death of not just Antonio, but the two brothers as well. In his closing lines Antonio, like the duchess before him, rejects the meek, unending desperation of his current life and resolves to bring things to a head, no matter the consequences.

At this late stage in the play, little remains but for the tragedy to conclude. The cardinal, in his instructions for the lords to keep away from Ferdinand, sets the scene for himself to be undone by his own scheming. But in this scene, it is Antonio who falls when he is mistaken for the cardinal by Bosola. Bosola hardly atones for his accidental murder of Antonio by telling him the duchess and the two children are dead, but at least he does allow Antonio to die with full knowledge of the fate of his wife and two children: again, truth is mingled with suffering. Bosola resolves to cease imitating others and instead serve as “mine own example,” advice he will finally firmly follow in the next scene.

The cardinal, still wracked by his guilty conscience, neither prays nor repents: instead, he sees demons and consults a book for counsel. Rather than see things as they are and act accordingly, he maintains his numb, detached existence. Bosola explicitly tells him the killing of the duchess has unbalanced the scales of Justice, leaving Justice “naught but her sword.” He wields his sword to stab the cardinal twice, and Ferdinand, who in his madness identifies his brother as fighting for “the adverse party,” brings all three of them to death’s door. However, Ferdinand’s identification of his brother may very well be accurate. Ferdinand, the cardinal, and Bosola all realize their base, degraded existence, and die. Delio, who throughout the play has done very little, appropriately arrives with Antonio’s son too late to do anything other than hope for a better future, comment on the miserable legacy of the three just-killed men, and proclaim his belief that “integrity of life is fame’s best friend, which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.”

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Act 5, Scene 2 Summary and Analysis