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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Historical Context

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The Renaissance

The term “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and the period known as the Renaissance was a time of new beginnings in Europe, an emergence from the Middle Ages. The Renaissance brought with it new ways of thinking about science, religion, philosophy, and art. During the earlier medieval period, Europeans had come to think of themselves as insignificant creatures subject to and inferior to divine beings. When some Italian scholars began to read ancient Latin and Greek texts that had been ignored for centuries, they began to look for ways to combine contemporary Christian thought with the classical belief in human capabilities. This belief in what is now called Renaissance humanism drove a new passion for celebrating human endeavor and potential. The ideal “Renaissance man” would be talented in science, mathematics, poetry, art, and athletics.

As an intellectual movement, the Renaissance touched every aspect of life. Science and exploration proliferated. Political theorists attempted to apply the best features of classical thought, and religious reformers asserted the rights of the common person to have direct access to biblical texts. There was a new passion for reading classical literature in the original Greek and Latin and for incorporating classical mythology into literature and art. New forms emerged, based on classical forms, as the revenge tragedy grew out of the study of Senecan tragedy. Literature, including drama, moved beyond its role as an outgrowth of the church and turned to stories that celebrated or decried human capabilities.

Of course, there was no particular day on which the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. The transformation happened over many years and did not affect every country at the same time. Generally, the Renaissance is said to have begun in Italy during the fourteenth century and to have reached England about a century later. The height of the English Renaissance was during the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. Webster’s career comes at the end of this period, and The Duchess of Malfi shows many traces of its creation during this period. The duchess’s insistence that she be allowed to make individual choices, the secular tone of the play, the five-act structure and blank verse, the allusions to classical mythology, and the cardinal’s many references to new technology and science all point to the play as coming from the Renaissance.

One aspect of Renaissance literature that may strike readers in the twenty-first century as peculiar is the notion of imitation. Greek and Roman students frequently copied from models to create their own compositions, and the Renaissance writers adopted this technique. The basic story of The Duchess of Malfi, for example, is a true story that occurred in Italy around 1510. The story was adapted in Italian in a sixteenth-century novella, and in English in William Painter’s collection of stories, The Palace of Pleasure, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Webster used incidents from all of these sources—sometimes using lines and phrases word for word—in creating his own play. He also kept a journal throughout his career, jotting down scraps of poetry and quotations he found interesting. He drew freely from this journal in writing his plays, inserting lines where they fit pleasingly. This was not considered plagiarism, but a sensible way to draw on the learning of those who had come before.

Jacobean Age

The period within the Renaissance when England was ruled by King James I is known as the Jacobean period, from the Latin form of the name James. James I ruled from the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 until his own death in 1625, and although he was not a beloved king, the years of his reign saw a great period of English drama. William Shakespeare, for example, began his career before James came to the throne, but his greatest and most mature work was produced during the Jacobean age. Webster also produced his best work during these years, as did many other important dramatists.

James’s rule was guided by the strength of his religious convictions. He was a member of the Church of England, and it was under his direction that the King James Bible was produced. James also believed devoutly in the divine right of kings, or the idea that kings and queens are accountable only to God, and that the system of inheriting the monarchy was created by God. Because the Church of England was the official religion of the monarch and of the country, religion and politics were intertwined in a way that is not the same in England today. The divine right of kings gave James power, while the Roman Catholic idea of a pope chosen by God opposed that power. To protect his stature, James dealt severely with those who believed differently, including Puritans (who eventually began to leave England for the New World), Catholics (who are portrayed with irreverence in Webster’s character of the cardinal), and Jews (who are treated with casual disrespect in The Duchess of Malfi and other popular works of literature from the period).

Literary Style

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Revenge Tragedy

Between 1542 and 1642 in England, many dramatists looked back to early Latin writers for their models. In particular, one group of English Renaissance plays, later called revenge tragedies, was based on the tragedies written by the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca, who lived from 4 BCE to 65 CE. Seneca’s tragedies employed a set of conventional characters and plot devices that these Renaissance writers found appealing, and at the end of the sixteenth century, English plays imitating Seneca began to appear. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) wrote two plays, Titus Andronicus (c. 1590) and Hamlet (c. 1601), that are generally considered to be revenge tragedies. Although The Duchess of Malfi is often labeled a revenge tragedy, it is more accurate to say that it was strongly influenced by the movement but that Webster uses revenge tragedy conventions to create a different kind of play.

The nine Senecan tragedies have several features in common: a five-act structure; a theme of revenge; long-suffering nobles; trustworthy female companions; ghosts; gruesome violence inspired by lust, incest, and vengeance; the death of children; and a chorus that comments on the action and describes the violent acts, which happen offstage. During the Elizabethan period, playwrights began to present the violence onstage in response to demands from audiences, who were accustomed to public executions and other forms of public violence. To Seneca's ingredients, they added a hero who is called upon but unwilling to seek revenge, actual or feigned insanity, and an emphasis on schemes and secrets.

Clearly, many of these elements are present in The Duchess of Malfi, but it varies from the conventions in important ways. The revenge tragedy has a hero whose honor has been wronged (often it is a son avenging his father); in this play, the brothers seek revenge on the duchess, who has done them no harm. The duchess is surely the hero of the play named for her, and yet she does not seek or win vengeance for the harm done to her. The fact that she is killed in act 4 (and does not die in the act of winning revenge) deflects attention away from her as the center of the action and moves the play out of the category of revenge tragedy. The motive for the actions of the two brothers is unclear, but revenge—whatever they may think themselves—is not at the heart of it.

Blank Verse

Many of the lines spoken by the characters in The Duchess of Malfi are written in a poetic form called blank verse. Blank verse is the name given to unrhymed lines of ten syllables each, accented on the even-numbered syllables, though lines need not be in perfectly regular iambic pentameter (the name given to lines constructed in this way) for the poetry to be labeled blank verse. For example, Ferdinand at one point wishes he were a wild storm “that I might toss her palace ’bout her ears, / Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads.” Each of these lines has exactly ten syllables, and the underlying pulse or stress felt as one reads the lines naturally gives a slight accent on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables of each line. If every line were so regular, however, the speeches would develop a singsong rhythm that would be unnatural and distracting, so the poet’s task is to write lines that are near enough to the regular pattern but with enough variety that different characters speak differently, and different tones can be heard. In fact, very few lines in The Duchess of Malfi are regular ten-syllable lines; most have more or fewer syllables or stresses in different places, as in the line “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and banded.”

Not all of the lines in The Duchess of Malfi are written in verse. Antonio speaks in prose with Bosola and with Ferdinand before Antonio marries the duchess, and the eight madmen speak in prose. The duchess and Bosola speak in prose while he is disguised as the tomb-maker, but they shift to verse when he declares his intention to kill her. The blank verse is thought to convey solemnity and nobility, and all of the important speeches by important people are in blank verse. (An interesting use of this idea is Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, in which Prince Hal speaks in prose when he is with his friends in the tavern and speaks in blank verse when he is with the king or on the battlefield.)

Using blank verse for tragedy was a convention for Elizabethan dramatists. The first English tragedy, Gorboduc (1561), was also the first English drama written in blank verse, in a deliberate attempt to echo in English the regular rhythms of Senecan tragedy, written in Latin. Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare brought the form to its greatest heights with their writing some thirty or forty years later. A generation after these two, Webster and his contemporaries were still writing tragedies in blank verse, though never as well.

Webster frequently ends a scene with two rhyming lines, called a couplet. The rhyme catches the audience’s ear, making the last lines of a scene slightly more noticeable and giving a finished quality, rather like a period at the end of a sentence. Within fifty years after the publication of The Duchess of Malfi, most English poetic drama was written entirely in couplets.

Compare and Contrast

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  • Early Seventeenth Century: King James I is ruler of England and Scotland. He has come to the throne through inheritance and divine right and is the sole ruler of the country.

    Today: Queen Elizabeth II is queen of England. She inherited the throne from her father, but her duties are primarily ceremonial. The country is ruled by a Parliamentary government.

  • Early Seventeenth Century: The mental illness called melancholia is thought to be caused by an excess of black bile in the body. Some people deliberately take on the characteristics of melancholia because it is thought to be a disease that affects great minds. Bosola may be one of these.

    Today: Depression is a widespread disorder, thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance. In technologically advanced countries, antidepressant medications are widely used.

  • Early Seventeenth Century: Most noble women do not marry for love. Like the duchess, they may be joined in arranged marriages with older men while they are very young. Even if widowed, they are not free to remarry or to make choices about their property without male guidance.

    Today: While social pressures may prevent members of the upper classes from marrying those of the lower classes, there are no legal divisions between the classes. English women may marry whomever they wish and control their own property.

  • Early Seventeenth Century: All that is required for a marriage to be legally binding in England is that a man and woman declare themselves to be husband and wife. Witnesses and written documents are not required.

    Today: Marriages must be performed by an official certified by the state to do so.

Media Adaptations

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  • The Duchess of Malfi was produced for television in 1972 by the BBC. The 123-minute VHS cassette, featuring performances by Eileen Atkins, Michael Bryant, and Gary Bond, is distributed by Time-Life Video.
  • The BBC produced an audio recording of the play in 1980, starring Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Scolfield. This production runs on three audiocassettes and is distributed by Audio-Forum.
  • An older audio version originally issued on record albums, but since 1972 distributed on three audiocassettes, is also available from Caedmon. It features Barbara Jefford as the duchess and includes a booklet with biographical information and essays on the play.
  • In 1962, Caedmon issued a recording of excerpts from the play read by the British poet Dylan Thomas, well known for his wonderful speaking voice. The recording is available from Caedmon on one audiocassette.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Archer, William. “The Duchess of Malfi,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Duchess of Malfi,” edited by Norman Rabkin. Prentice-Hall, 1968, p. 14; originally published in Nineteenth Century, Vol. 87, 1920, pp. 126–32.

Calderwood, James L. “The Duchess of Malfi: Styles of Ceremony,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations ofThe Duchess of Malfi,” edited by Norman Rabkin. Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 79, 82; originally published in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 12, 1962, pp. 133–47.

Craig, Sheryl. “ ‘She and I were twins’: Double Identity in The Duchess of Malfi,” in Publications of the Missouri Philological Association, Vol. 19, 1994, p. 21.

Ekeblad, Inga-Stina. “The ‘Impure Art’ of John Webster,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Duchess of Malfi,” edited by Norman Rabkin. Prentice-Hall, 1968, p. 50; originally published in Review of English Studies, Vol. 9, 1958, pp. 253–67.

Hallett, Charles A., and Elaine S. Hallett. The Revenger’s Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs. University of Nebraska Press, 1980, p. 286.

Moore, Don D. John Webster and His Critics 1617–1964. Louisiana State University Press, 1966, p. ix.

Turner, Kimberly A. “The Complexity of Webster’s Duchess,” in the Ben Jonson Journal, Vol. 7, 2000, p. 400.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabethan Dramatists, Modern Critical Views series. Chelsea House, 1986. This collection of critical essays includes two essays about The Duchess of Malfi as well as essays about Webster’s most important contemporaries. In “Tragical Satire in The Duchess of Malfi,” Alvin B. Kernan describes Bosola as the ideal, and one of the last, of the Elizabethan satirists. G. Wilson Knight contributes an essay called simply “The Duchess of Malfi,” which examines image clusters in the play.

Boklund, Gunnar. “The Duchess of Malfi”: Sources, Themes, Characters. Harvard University Press, 1962. Boklund traces Webster’s sources for the story of the duchess, pointing out the places where Webster deviates from these sources to make the story his own. The characterization of Antonio as humble but honest, for example, is Webster’s invention.

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Duchess of Malfi,” in Elizabethan Dramatists, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series. Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 85–107. Knight offers a close reading of the clusters of images and symbols in the play and argues that the coherence of the play is not to be found in the logical structure of the plot but in the non-rational resonance of the imagery.

Rabkin, Norman, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations ofThe Duchess of Malfi.” Prentice-Hall, 1968. This collection touches on the major critical questions about the play in ten critical essays, or “Interpretations,” and fourteen brief excerpts, or “View Points,” by scholars including T. S. Eliot and Northrup Frye.

Thomson, Leslie. “Fortune and Virtue in The Duchess of Malfi,” in Comparative Drama, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1999–2000, pp. 474–94. Thomson compares the play with medieval and Renaissance iconography, illustrating the relationships between fortune, love, and death. She shows how the relationships between the duchess (fortune) and Antonio (love) are derived from earlier morality plays and emblem books.

Winston, Mathew. “Gendered Nostalgia in The Duchess of Malfi,” in The Renaissance Papers, 1998, pp. 103–13. Winston sees in the play the longing of Webster and his contemporaries for Queen Elizabeth I, who had been dead for a decade when The Duchess of Malfi was first performed. The duchess’s death in act 4 is part of Webster’s overall plan, which is to show in act 5 how the world decays when she is gone.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. An anthology of eight important articles on the play, including Lisa Jardine’s provocative feminist reading. In his introduction, Bloom provides a useful history of the villain-as-protagonist tradition.

Boklund, Gunnar. “The Duchess of Malfi”: Sources, Themes, Characters. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. A thorough overview of The Duchess of Malfi, including a helpful discussion of the narrative sources on which Webster relied. Boklund finds the play unified in its design and provides a highly detailed analysis of the major characters.

Ornstein, Robert. The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960. A substantial chapter on Webster treats the moral vision of The Duchess of Malfi and finds spiritual victory, rather than defeat, in the duchess’s resolute stand against her brothers.

Peterson, Joyce E. Curs’d Example: “The Duchess of Malfi” and Commonweal Tragedy. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978. Peterson argues the controversial thesis that it is the duchess’s prideful defiance of order and class that leads to the catastrophe.

Rabkin, Norman, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Duchess of Malfi.” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Presents nine interpretive articles and a number of responding “View Points” on Webster and his play. The editor’s introductory essay places Webster’s work in the context of the decline of tragedy seen in the distinctly unheroic Jacobean society.

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Critical Essays