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.