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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Topic #1

One of the most basic themes of The Duchess of Malfi involves the exploration of status and nobility. The play both examines the courtly assumption that being high-born makes an individual noble and proposes the notion that nobility derives solely from truth and virtue. However, it also presents the argument that nobility is not truly attainable because our basic nature is animal and corrupt. Examine the two different ways the play suggests nobility might be attained, and present a case arguing either that nobility is indeed attainable or that it is an illusory concept disguising our true human nature.

I. Thesis Statement: An analysis of the notions of both nobility from virtue and nobility from birth leads to the conclusion that The Duchess of Malfi argues that nobility is attainable, but only through possessing the qualities of truth and virtue.

II. Nobility from birth
A. Ferdinand and the Cardinal advise the Duchess to avoid marrying any low-born or dishonorable suitor.
B. Duchess places herself among those “born great.”
C. Cardinal and Ferdinand fear an unworthy commoner has fathered the Duchess’s child.
D. Ferdinand praises Reputation as the most precious virtue.
E. Ferdinand dismisses Antonio as a man who never “look’d like a gentleman.”
F. Bosola says Antonio’s fear comes from his low breeding.
G. Ferdinand praises value of the Duchess’s noble body before she betrayed him.
H. Duchess proclaims herself “Duchess of Malfi still” to Bosola before dying.

III. Nobility from virtue
A. Antonio praises Duchess for her shining virtue without mentioning her noble birth.
B. Duchess marries Antonio, who has “long serv’d virtue,” without any concern for his ancestry.
C. Bosola praises Antonio for his humility, faith, and honesty, without regard for his low ancestry.
D. Duchess defends Antonio’s low birth to Bosola in her parable of the salmon and dog-fish.
E. Bosola describes Duchess as enduring her imprisonment with noble fortitude.
F. Ferdinand regrets his hatred for “the meanness of her match” after Duchess is dead.

IV. Nobility not attainable, or attainable
A. Bosola says all people are ruled by the same base passions.
B. Bosola denounces man’s deformed nature.
C. Bosola calls the Duchess’s glories insubstantial, having “neither heat nor light.”
D. In speeches after Duchess’s death, Bosola rejects the brothers’ tyranny and praises Duchess’s virtue.
E. Pescara refuses to give Antonio’s land to Delio because it, being unjustly taken, should go to a “strumpet.”
F. Bosola values “the sword of justice.”
G. Antonio rejects “our quest of greatness” as empty desire.
H. Bosola proclaims it good for “worthy minds … to suffer death or shame for what is just.”
I. Delio closes play by saying greatness and fame come only from “integrity of life.

V. Conclusion
The noble nature of the deaths of Antonio and the Duchess contrasts with repenting speeches of Ferdinand and the Cardinal before they die. Antonio and the Duchess are treated sympathetically, whereas the Cardinal and Ferdinand are ruthless villains. Nobility is attainable, but only through pursuing truth and virtue.

Topic #2

The theme of deceit, intrigue, inconstancy, and illusion is present throughout The Duchess of Malfi. Bosola, the Duchess, Antonio and others struggle to gain control, power, and security by either properly discerning the truth or successfully propagating falsehoods. To what degree are characters successful in these efforts rewarded by achieving their goals of control, power, and security?

I. Thesis Statement: Although all five key characters manage to either create manipulated falsehoods or uncover hidden truths, none of them attain their goals by doing this. Their efforts produce no material rewards; instead, all five end up being killed. All their attempts to maneuver through the murky world of the court end in futility.

II. Antonio
A. Successfully reads the character of the Duchess and her two brothers and is skeptical of her dismissal of the threat from her brothers, but marries her anyway.
B. His fears of the consequences of the Duchess bearing children and the threat presented by Bosola are well-founded.
C. Although manages to seclude the Duchess for her childbirth, lets slip a paper confirming her birth.
D. Rightly regards Ferdinand with suspicion.
E. Interprets the Duchess’s dream accurately.
F. Realizing his danger, resolves to go to court and resolves his situation, but fails to heed the Echo’s advice.

III. Duchess
A. Successfully hides her marriage from her brothers, but dismisses them as “only to be pitied, and not fear’d.”
B. Fails to keep signs of her pregnancy from being detected by Bosola.
C. Believes Ferdinand’s assurance that she is “safe in your own innocency.”
D. Manages to cover up marriage to Antonio by accusing him of mishandling accounts, but unwisely puts Bosola in her confidence.
E. Believes the false show of dead Antonio and her two children.

IV. Bosola
A. Realizes the danger of serving Ferdinand as intelligencer, but agrees to do it anyway.
B. Detects the Duchess’s pregnancy.
C. By sneaking into the Duchess’s quarters and reading note, confirms she has given birth.
D. Testifies to Antonio’s good character, winning the Duchess’s confidence, and uses occasion to trap her and Antonio by suggesting feigned pilgrimage to Loretto.
E. Presents false spectacle of dead Antonio and two children to the Duchess.
F. Realizes the error of his three murders only too late, after the Duchess and two children are dead.
G. Employs Julia to find out cause of the Cardinal’s “wondrous melancholy.”
H. Erroneously kills Antonio, and fails to kill Ferdinand until Ferdinand has inflicted a fatal wound on Bosola.

V. Cardinal
A. Along with Ferdinand, realizes possibility that the Duchess will remarry.
B. Cautions Ferdinand against ill-tempered and uncontrollable reaction to the Duchess’s birth.
C. Makes unwise decision to become soldier.
D. Disguises cause of Ferdinand’s madness and his own awareness of the Duchess’s murder.
E. Unaware of Bosola’s presence, tells Julia he helped order murder of the Duchess and two children.
F. In telling lords to not disturb Ferdinand, ensures he will be without aid when attacked by Bosola.
G. Lets Bosola hear his plans to kill Bosola, then is killed by him and the mad Ferdinand.

VI. Ferdinand
A. Suspects the Duchess will remarry and so employs Bosola, a capable intelligencer.
B. Fails to convince the Duchess of the spontaneity of his and the Cardinal’s speech.
C. Overreacts to news of the Duchess’s newborn child.
D. Convinces the Duchess she has his support against accusation.
E. By ordering display of images of a dead Antonio and two children to the Duchess, convinces her they are dead.
F. Realizes mistake of killing the Duchess and two children only after they are dead, and fails to assume responsibility for murders.
G. In succumbing to “lycanthropia,” loses control of his court and mistakenly wounds the Cardinal and Bosola, then is killed by Bosola.

VII. Conclusion
The five main characters’ efforts to manipulate reality and discover the truth fail to give them security or power, as all five are killed by the end of the play.

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