Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Malfi’s court

Malfi’s court. Residence of the duchess of Malfi in Italy. Original set descriptions are sparse, and the central importance of the setting is not so much in its physical nature as its function as a location where characters good (the duchess and her husband Antonio) and evil (Duke Ferdinand, the cardinal, and the duchess’s brothers) can meet and interact. Without it being specifically stated, there is a clear sense that this tragedy unfolds largely within walls which, by the end of the play, have become the prison of the duchess. As the play unfolds there is increased emphasis on the themes of darkness and light, leading to a greater use of lanterns. The major purpose of all the settings in this play is to provide a physical space where the characters can speak, for ultimately The Duchess of Malfi is about the failure of human relationships as shown in the disease of language itself.

Ruined abbey

Ruined abbey. Abandoned church that has been transformed into a fortification. When Antonio is lured to his death, the most notable feature of the place is its startling echo, which is so pervasive and realistic that the superstitious believe it is a spirit which speaks to the living. The echo catches and repeats ironic refrains of dialogue which allow Webster to underscore the inexorable fatality that has enmeshed the characters.

Cardinal’s residence

Cardinal’s residence. At the conclusion of the drama, language again becomes a crucial part of the physical setting as the cardinal strictly orders his supporters not to rush to his aid no matter how loudly he might call for assistance. As the cardinal is killed to revenge the deaths of the duchess, her husband Antonio, and her children, his minions listen above the scene of the action but do not interfere until it is too late. Once again, language and action are fatally separated.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Renaissance
The term “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and the period known as the

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Revenge Tragedy
Between 1542 and 1642 in England, many dramatists looked back to early Latin writers for their models....

(The entire section is 894 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

  • The Duchess of Malfi was produced for television in 1972 by the BBC. The 123-minute VHS cassette, featuring performances by...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

  • The White Devil, published in 1612, is Webster's other well-known play. Like The Duchess of...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Archer, William. ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in Twentieth Century Interpretations of...

(The entire section is 537 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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’ prideful defiance of order and class that leads to the catastrophe.

Rabkin, Norman, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Duchess of Malfi.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 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.