The Duchess of Malfi Analysis
by John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi book cover
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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 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...

(The entire section is 3,215 words.)