The Duchess of Malfi Topics for Further Study
by John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi book cover
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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

  • Research another influential Renaissance text, Machiavelli's The Prince (1517), which describes the qualities of the ideal ruler. To what extent is the Cardinal an embodiment of these qualities? What are the strengths and weaknesses of such a ruler?
  • Some critics have said that in creating The Duchess of Malfi, Webster was praising Queen Elizabeth I who had died in 1603, ten years before the play was written. In what ways were Elizabeth I and King James I different? Why might Webster have preferred a ruler like Elizabeth I?
  • London's Globe Theatre, one of the theaters where The Duchess of Malfi was performed, has been reconstructed with historical accuracy. Research the ways in which the type of theater, and the conventions about casting a play, would have made a performance of the play seen in London in 1613 different from performances staged in important theaters today.
  • Compare the Duchess's situation at the beginning of the play with the social conventions observed by British nobility today. How free, for example, are members of the Royal Family to marry whomever they wish, regardless of class distinctions or other considerations? How much pressure might one's family exert over one's choice of a spouse?
  • The Duchess of Malfi is set in sixteenth-century Italy but written for a seventeenth century English audience. Given the broadest outline of the Duchess's story, what adaptations would a playwright have to make to set the story in twenty-first-century United States? How might American cultural values change the outcome of the story?