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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The Duchess of Malfi Characters

The main characters in The Duchess of Malfi include the duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand, the cardinal, and Daniel de Bosola.

  • The duchess of Malfi is an admirable noblewoman who marries secretly and maintains her dignity despite her brothers’ attempts to drive her mad.
  • Ferdinand is the duke of Calabra and the duchess’s cruel twin brother, who ultimately has the duchess murdered.
  • The cardinal, a corrupt churchman who kills his mistress, is the brother of Ferdinand and the duchess.
  • Daniel de Bosola spies on the duchess for the two brothers but later avenges the duchess’s death.

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Character Analysis

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Antonio Bologna

Antonio is the steward, or the manager, of the duchess of Malfi’s palace. He is good with a horse and a lance, and he is widely known to be honest—so honest that the cardinal rejects a suggestion that Antonio be hired to spy on the duchess. He is also a good judge of character, delivering to his friend Delio insightful descriptions of the others as they appear. He is in awe of the duchess because of her beauty and her disposition, and humbly accepts her proposal of marriage without regard for the wealth he will obtain by marrying her. In fact, he agrees to keep the marriage secret, and so he gains no power or prestige from it. After he is married, Antonio is less sharply drawn, but the glimpses given of him do not fulfill the promise of act 1. He loses the paper on which he has calculated the baby’s future. He follows the duchess’s plans for avoiding capture, making no suggestions himself. Finally, he is killed as he walks to the cardinal’s door to ask for a reconciliation. Still, he is a good man, and the duchess clearly loves and trusts him until the end.

Daniel de Bosola

Bosola is the duchess’s provisor of horse. As the play opens, he has just been released from imprisonment because of “a notorious murder” the cardinal hired him to commit. Now, he is employed by Ferdinand, who arranges his position with the duchess so he can spy on her and prevent her from marrying. In many ways, Bosola is the most complex character in the play and the only one whose thinking and personality change from beginning to end. Antonio predicts this change at the beginning, when he comments that Bosola is “very valiant” but worries that his melancholy will “poison all his goodness.” In fact, Bosola is capable of great evil. He spies on the duchess (though he is unable in three years to discover that Antonio is the duchess’s husband), supervises her murder and the murder of her children and of Cariola, accidentally kills Antonio, and deliberately kills the cardinal, Ferdinand, and a servant. As he observes the nobility of the duchess and Antonio in facing death and also sees that committing heinous acts for the cardinal and Ferdinand does not win him gratitude or financial reward, he begins to question his belief that it is better “to appear a true servant, than an honest man.” But, when the “stars” drive Bosola to kill Antonio, whom he has resolved to protect, he concludes that all human endeavor and human goodness are meaningless.

The Cardinal

The cardinal is the brother of the duchess and Ferdinand, as cold and calculating as Ferdinand is excitable. He is a high-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church, but he does not live the life of a Christian saint: he has a mistress, he hires spies and murderers, and he does not seem to have any religious duties or religious thought. As Antonio explains to Delio, “Where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters.”

The cardinal is the quiet force behind the plotting against the duchess. It is his idea to hire Bosola to spy on her, but even Bosola does not know of the cardinal’s involvement. When Bosola has killed the duchess, the cardinal pretends to have no knowledge of the crime. He shares Ferdinand’s desire that the duchess not marry and Ferdinand’s anger when she bears a child, but he “can be angry / Without this rupture” of “intemperate noise.” He demonstrates no love or loyalty, treating with startling coldness Bosola, who killed and was punished in his employment, and Julia, who is his mistress, and the duchess and Ferdinand, who are his siblings. His motives for tormenting his sister are not clear. He does not want her money or her love, and he is incapable of feeling humiliation or shame. He does not care for his reputation or legacy; his final words are “now, I pray, let me / Be laid by, and never thought of.”


Cariola is the trustworthy servant of the duchess, privy to all of the duchess’s secrets. Cariola witnesses the marriage between the duchess and Antonio, helps deliver the duchess’s children, and is with the duchess when the duchess dies. In her own death, she is not as noble as the duchess, but kicks and screams and tries to escape. Throughout the play, she is more cautious than the duchess, thinking that marrying Antonio is “madness” and fearing that the trick of a false pilgrimage will prove unlucky.


Delio is a courtier and a friend of Antonio. His main role in the story is to provide a sounding board for Antonio. Delio’s curiosity about the court gives Antonio the opportunity to speak aloud about the characters of the duchess, her brothers, and Bosola in the way an omniscient narrator might in a novel. Delio is also the friend in whom Antonio confides the secrets of his marriage and the births of his children; like Cariola, Delio guards the secrets carefully. Delio has no direct connection with any of the siblings, and he does not directly participate in their plots and deaths. He is the faithful friend, always standing by to help Antonio when he is needed. In a scene in act 2, Delio comes to Rome and makes advances to Julia, who rebuffs him. Their interaction affects nothing else in the play, and the two never meet again. Delio speaks the last words in the play, when he enters “too late” with Antonio’s oldest son after his parents have been killed. He urges the survivors to help the young man gain his inheritance and proclaims, “Integrity of life is fame’s best friend, / Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.”

The Duchess of Malfi

The duchess of Malfi is the sister of the cardinal and the twin sister of Ferdinand. She is never referred to by name throughout the play, but only by the labels that describe her roles as sister, duchess, and wife. As the play opens, she is a widow but still in the bloom of youth. (According to Webster’s source materials, the real duchess was a girl of twelve years old when she was married to a much older man; she became a widow when she was twenty.) Although her brothers forbid her to marry again, and she promises to obey them, she longs for a husband. Secretly, she asks her steward, Antonio, to marry her, and they perform a private marriage ceremony. Afraid of her brothers’ anger, the duchess manages to keep her marriage a secret for years, even through the birth of three children. When the brothers do learn of the children, she flees with Antonio but is captured and murdered.

Early in the play, Antonio describes her as a woman whose speech is “full of rapture,” who has a “sweet countenance,” who lives a life of “noble virtue.” Although her sweet nobility casts no spell over her brothers, her every word and action support Antonio’s judgment of her, and her subjects love and respect her. She is clever, able to match her brothers’ wit in her exchanges with them, and able to quickly craft intricate plots for escape. She is affectionate with her husband, children, and servant, showing a tenderness that is far beyond the capabilities of the cardinal and Ferdinand. And she is dignified in the face of her brothers’ torments, stating even at the worst of it, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.”

Some critics have commented that the duchess deserves death because of her rashness in marrying beneath her station, but most reject that notion, agreeing that there is nothing in the play to indicate that Webster found fault with the marriage of Antonio and the duchess. What happens to her is not her fault, but the result of living in a “gloomy world.”


Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, is the twin brother of the Duchess, younger than her by a few minutes. He is as emotional as his brother the cardinal is icy, and his response to the idea of his sister marrying is beyond all bounds. Ferdinand’s motivation has always been a central question for critics of this play, and many critics have seen incestuous feelings in his rage. Whatever the cause, when he learns that his sister has given birth to a child, he declares her a whore and “a sister damn’d,” creates a mental picture of her “in the shameful act of sin,” and imagines burning her and her lover in a coal pit with no vent, so that “their curs’d smoke might not ascend to heaven,” or boiling her child into a soup and serving it to the father.

As with other characters, Antonio’s early description of Ferdinand proves insightful. Antonio tells Delio that Ferdinand has “a most perverse, and turbulent nature.” Even the cardinal wonders whether Ferdinand is “stark mad,” and after brooding over his sister’s betrayal for a time, Ferdinand does approach insanity. After he has had the duchess killed and sees her lying dead, he regrets that he ordered Bosola, “when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend,” but there has been no hint previously that he and the duchess shared any closeness.

The realization of what he has done pushes Ferdinand over the edge into insanity, perhaps even to the point of imagining that he is a werewolf. He is found in the graveyard digging up dead bodies and is seen “with the leg of a man / Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfull, / Said he was a wolf.” Ferdinand is not seen again until the last scene, when he charges in on the cardinal and Bosola and stabs them both. Bosola stabs him in return, and just before Ferdinand dies, he “seems to come to himself,” saying, “Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.”


Julia is the wife of an old nobleman and is the cardinal’s mistress. While she is staying with the cardinal, she is propositioned by Delio, whom she refuses; she also tries to seduce Bosola. Ironically, the cardinal kills her by tricking her into kissing a poisoned book while she is swearing to keep his secret.

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