(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Duchess of Malfi John Webster

The following entry presents criticism of Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1613). See also John Webster Criticism.

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most frequently revived Jacobean plays other than those of Shakespeare. Indeed, estimations of The Duchess of Malfi, along with Webster's other great tragedy, The White Devil, have led some critics to rank Webster second only to Shakespeare as a writer of tragedy. The source of one of the stage's great female characters, The Duchess of Malfi centers on the character of the Duchess, in whom audiences observe a provocative mixing of sensuality, passion, rage, piety, and virtue. The play as a whole features a complex interweaving of lechery, incest, murder, and torture with nobility, tenderness, and forgiveness. The darkness and horror of The Duchess of Malfi are dramatically compelling, but its unexpected glimpses of light give it a complexity and richness that have maintained the interest of scholars and audiences for centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

A hallmark of Webster's drama is its depiction of strong women characters. In The White Devil Vittoria Corombona is powerful and intelligent, if also wicked; the title character of The Duchess of Malfi is strong, independent, and noble. The heart of the story is the relationship between the widowed Duchess and her steward, Antonio, whom she secretly marries, defying both social convention and the wishes of her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, her twin. The brothers want the Duchess to remain unmarried, appealing to Christian piety; however, as the play later reveals, greed and incestuous lust are their true motivations. Years pass before they discover the truth about her marriage, which is uncovered by the spy Daniel de Bosola. At the behest of Ferdinand, Bosola kills the Duchess, but is then overwhelmed with remorse. Bosola plans to save Antonio, who had escaped, and punish the brothers, but he mistakenly kills Antonio instead. Bosola then attacks the Cardinal, but is himself attacked by Ferdinand. Bosola succeeds in killing both brothers, but is himself killed in the process. The play concludes with the presentation of Antonio's son, who is the sole surviving member of the family. Webster had many sources to draw upon in writing the play, which is based on a true story, though his chief was William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567).

One of Webster's chief contributions to the development of the tale was his characterization of the major figures, particularly the Duchess herself. Ferdinand is the Duke of Calabria, a menacing man who appears obsessed with the repression of sexual impulses. Though he is the twin brother of the Duchess, he is cruel to her from the beginning of the play, and his employment of Bosola as a spy is an indication of his distrustful nature. Ferdinand's brother, the Cardinal, is similarly cruel, but whereas Ferdinand is hot-tempered, the Cardinal is cold and calculating. His affiliation with the church lends him a seemingly supernatural power, but that power is evil; more than once, the Cardinal is affiliated with the devil. In an act symbolic of his diabolic alliance, the Cardinal murders his secret lover, Julia, with a poisoned Bible. The Duchess stands in contrast to her brothers, but she is not flawless. In her scenes with Antonio, she is unabashedly sexual. She is passionate and sometimes haughty, though she is also maternally tender, dignified, and pious. During her torture and death at the hands of Ferdinand and Bosola, she demonstrates a Christian attitude of forgiveness and confidence in her salvation. The ambiguity of her character is crystallized when she says as she dies, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” a line capable of various interpretations. The character of Antonio lacks the complexity of the three siblings; he is more a victim than an actor in the tragedy. He is a worthy man, though of a lower class than the Duchess, and his distaste for lechery stands in contrast to the lustfulness of nearly every other man in the play. His nobility, however, seems naïve in the context of the court. By contrast, the world-weary attitude of Bosola reveals his understanding of the court's intrigues. Bosola begins the play as cynical and self-serving. As he manipulates the Duchess into revealing the truth to him, he appears utterly without scruples or compassion. Yet the transformation of Bosola in the final act of the play leaves his character open to interpretation. He dies as he lived, a murderer; yet his recognition of the Duchess's virtue and his pity for her make him a more sympathetic figure than the brothers who hired him.

Major Themes

Themes central to The Duchess of Malfi include identity, sexuality, and power, which are all closely intertwined in the tragedy. The theme of identity is carried through the play in several ways. The twin relationship between Ferdinand and the Duchess makes the characters mirrors for each other; the frequent presence of mirrors as stage props makes the metaphor explicit. The Duchess also battles with the issue of conflicting public and private identities: her status as an aristocratic lady contests with her love for the lower-born Antonio, and the connection between birth and identity is an open question throughout the play. Her brothers press upon her the identity of the virtuous widow, one that she is unwilling to accept. When she says, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” it is not clear whether she is affirming or lamenting this identity. The theme of sexuality is tied to identity, particularly in regards to Ferdinand and the Duchess; his apparent desire for her is a perversion of socially acceptable sexuality as well as a kind of narcissism. Sexuality is generally linked to danger and violence, as the most explicitly sexual characters are shown to be the most evil. Even the comparatively healthy sexuality of the Duchess is considered suspect, a sign of excess passion, even if it is not, as Ferdinand and the Cardinal would imagine, a mark of depravity. Moreover, although the Duchess has neither Ferdinand's incestuous desires nor the Cardinal's affairs, it is in one sense her sexuality that propels the violence of the play. The desire for power, however, is also a controlling force in the drama; the Duchess's brothers are driven by a desire to control the family fortune. More generally, however, the play opens the question of the bases of power and authority, and who rightfully holds it. The corrupted authority of Ferdinand and the Cardinal casts doubt on the power they wield, while the nobility of the Duchess as she faces her death suggests the possibility of a different sort of authority.

Critical Reception

Initial response to Webster's play was strong. For decades the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries as one of the great tragedies of the English Renaissance. The role of the Duchess continues to be a favorite of leading actresses, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Juliet Stevenson. As critic John Russell Brown has suggested, The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form and the themes of the play. Webster's talent as a technician has been a matter of some debate. In his study of Webster's dramatic art, Charles R. Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights successfully to create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred. But because the Duchess dies in the fourth act, the fifth act is sometimes seen as disconnected from the coherent whole of the first four acts. Early critics considered this a sign of Webster's lesser skill as a playwright, but more recently scholars have suggested that Webster employed a complex structure that is not flawed but rather sophisticated and innovative. Christina Luckyj's study of form in Webster's work proposes a different model for understanding the structure of his plays, suggesting a pattern of repetition and circular movement rather than a linear progression through consecutive acts. Jacqueline Pearson has considered the play in generic terms, maintaining that the difference between the fifth act and the others is the presence of tragicomic elements, setting the final scenes apart from the pure tragedy of the earlier part of the play. As M. C. Bradbrook has pointed out, The Duchess of Malfi also incorporates the dramatic form of the masque, a genre that would have been readily recognized and understood by a Renaissance audience. A trend toward feminist studies of Renaissance drama in the late 1980s and 1990s brought the Duchess to the attention of several scholars. As a strong, sexual woman who nonetheless dies proclaiming Christian piety and forgiveness, the Duchess has resisted definitive interpretation. The model of subversion and containment applied by some critics to much Renaissance drama seems to suit the Duchess, who is severely punished for her private violations of patriarchal order. Yet as Emily Bartles has argued, the Duchess's seeming complicity in her “containment” poses a challenge to that model. The containment of her sexuality has particularly interested critics. Dympna Callaghan and Laura Behling are among those feminist scholars who have included the Duchess in studies of the discourse of sexuality. As Behling has suggested, in the character of the Duchess relations between gender, sexuality, and power are brought to the fore, presenting a challenge to traditional notions of authority that is left unresolved.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

*Caesar's Fall; or, The Two Shapes [with Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Thomas Middleton, and Anthony Munday] (play) 1602

*Christmas Comes But Once a Year [with Henry Chettle, Dekker, and Thomas Heywood] (play) 1602

The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat. With the Coronation of Queen Mary, and the coming in of King Philip [with Chettle, Dekker, Heywood, and Wentworth Smith] (play) 1602

*Lady Jane [with Dekker, Chettle, Heywood, and Smith] (play) 1602

West-ward Hoe [with Dekker] (play) 1604

North-ward Hoe [with Dekker] (play) 1605

The White Divel (play) 1612...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

M. C. Bradbrook (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bradbrook, M. C. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In John Webster, Citizen and Dramatist, pp. 142-65. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Bradbrook focuses on the contemporary context of The Duchess of Malfi to interpret the drama, including the original Jacobean production and the source story for the play. She also compares the style and structure of the play to a masque in order to illuminate the drama as it would have been perceived by its original audience.]

In the one predominant perturbation; in the other overruling wisdom; in one the body's fervour and fashion of outward fortitude to all height...

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Jacqueline Pearson (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pearson, Jacqueline. “‘To Behold My Tragedy’: Tragedy and Anti-Tragedy in The Duchess of Malfi.” In Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster, pp. 84-95. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980.

[In the essay below, Pearson maintains that while the first four acts of The Duchess of Malfi are clearly a tragedy, the structure of the play fragments in the final act, with notes of satire and tragicomedy. The mixture does not work, she argues, to blend those elements, but rather to distinguish true tragedy from other forms of experience.]

The failure of The White Devil in 1612 seems to have caused Webster to re-evaluate...

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Charles R. Forker (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster, pp. 304-28. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

[In this excerpt, Forker takes a psychological approach to character studies of Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and the Duchess. Forker maintains that the ambiguity of Webster's characters is a mark of his skill in developing individuated, strongly drawn figures.]

Again, as in The White Devil, Webster focuses attention on the complex interrelationship of three siblings—two brothers and a sister—probing the inherent ironies and contradictions that their kinship and independence can...

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Dena Goldberg (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Goldberg, Dena. “The Duchess of Malfi, the Royal Prerogative, and the Puritan Conscience.” In Between Worlds: A Study of the Plays of John Webster, pp. 100-12. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987.

[In the essay below, Goldberg discusses the political and intellectual context of The Duchess of Malfi, noting contemporary discussions of absolutism, the rule of James I, and individualism. Goldberg suggests that Webster was writing in opposition to the dominant worldview of the period.]

Webster's challenge to the rationalistic, hierarchic view of humanity that was a keystone of orthodox Renaissance philosophy is even more...

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Christina Luckyj (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Luckyj, Christina. “Concentric Design: The Duchess of Malfi.” In A Winter's Snake: Dramatic Form in the Tragedies of John Webster, pp. 126-47. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

[In this excerpt, Luckyj applies her model of Webster's use of repetition and juxtaposition to the structure of The Duchess of Malfi. Luckyj's analysis attempts to incorporate the fifth act into the structure of the play, responding to the frequent argument that the act fails to conform to the coherent pattern of the first four.]

Even more frequently than in The White Devil, Webster organizes scenes in The Duchess of Malfi concentrically, creating...

(The entire section is 9056 words.)

Dympna Callaghan (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Callaghan, Dympna. “A Monstrous Desire.” In Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil, pp. 140-47. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989.

[In the following essay, Callaghan argues that female sexual desire, and perhaps even femininity, is always depicted as monstrous in Renaissance tragedy. In addition to the Duchess, Callaghan discusses Desdemona from Othello, Cordelia from King Lear, and Vittoria from Webster's The White Devil.]

Desire is inscribed at every level (social, economic, political, sexual) as the motivation for change, upheaval,...

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Laura L. Behling (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Behling, Laura L. “‘S/he Scandles Our Proceedings’: The Anxiety of Alternative Sexualities in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.English Language Notes 33, no. 4 (June 1996): 24-43.

[In this essay, Behling examines how the transgression of gender boundaries is conflated with transgressive sexuality in Webster's plays. The masculinity of his heroines in their political actions, she notes, makes any sexual activity or desire centered on them appear unnatural.]

Historians and literary critics, upon studying the popular and court rhetoric of the Jacobean period conclude that, with the exception of anti-theatrical literature, English...

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Emily C. Bartels (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire.” Studies in English Literature 36, no. 3 (1996): 417-33.

[In the following essay, Bartels suggests that Shakespeare and Webster give their female characters real voices by making their speech acceptable through a cover of submissiveness or compliance. Contrasting the seeming meekness of Desdemona with the assertiveness of the Duchess, Bartels maintains that the characters share in representing on stage the possibility of female self-assertion.]

Chaste, silent, shamefast, and obedient—these have become the buzz words in feminist discussions of early modern...

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William Kerwin (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kerwin, William. “‘Physicians are like Kings’: Medical Politics and The Duchess of Malfi.English Literary Renaissance 28, no. 1 (1998): 95-117.

[In this essay, Kerwin places the medical theme of The Duchess of Malfi in its historical context to illuminate Webster's critique of authority in general, and monarchical authority in particular. Drawing from a substantial study of contemporary sources on medicine, Kerwin compares the medical “performances” of Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola to Jacobean medical discourse.]

In the fourth act of The Duchess of Malfi, as the Duchess struggles to preserve her sanity, her brother...

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John Russell Brown (essay date 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Brown, John Russell. “Techniques of Restoration: The Case of The Duchess of Malfi.” In Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, pp. 317-35. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the essay below, Brown discusses two modern stagings of Webster's play, stressing the role of actors' and directors' interpretations in making the difficult scenes of the play work theatrically. Brown suggests that the modern stagings in some crucial ways may have approximated the performance conditions in Webster's own theater.]

In country after country, people have told us how...

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Elizabeth Oakes (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Oakes, Elizabeth. “The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity.” Studies in Philology 96, no. 1 (1999): 51-67.

[In this essay, Oakes interprets the Duchess's struggles with identity as a function of the role of the hero, who must not have a private life. Oakes places the Duchess's behavior as a widow in the context of contemporary strictures on proper widowhood to suggest that her actions after the death of her husband are not the cause of her downfall, but instead heighten the impact of her tragedy.]

In the criticism on The Duchess of Malfi, there is one major point of debate: how is one to react to and judge the Duchess' behavior as a...

(The entire section is 7581 words.)

Katherine Rowe (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rowe, Katherine. “‘That Curious Engine’: Action at a Distance in The Duchess of Malfi.” In Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern, pp. 86-110. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

[In this essay, part of a larger study of the repeated image of the dead hand in literature, Rowe discusses the image of the hand as it represents both marriage and the occult in The Duchess of Malfi. Rowe focuses on the scene in which Ferdinand offers the Duchess a dead man's hand in place of his own, considering it within contemporary discourse and beliefs about witchcraft.]

The question of whether human agency is something that can...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Bliss, Lee. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In his World's Perspective: John Webster and the Jacobean Drama, pp. 137-70. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Considers the tragedy from the perspective of Webster's development as an author, with comparisons to The White Devil; also focuses on Webster's view of human nature.

Cole, David W. “Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.Explicator 59, no. 1 (2000): 7.

Analyzes Ferdinand's dying speech and its use of equine metaphors.

Enterline, Lynn. “‘Hairy on the In-side’: The Duchess of Malfi and...

(The entire section is 350 words.)