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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The Duchess of Malfi Themes

The main themes in The Duchess of Malfi are fate and belief, and appearances and reality.

  • Fate and belief: Fate, not God, appears to control the action of the play, and the characters make no real professions of religious faith.
  • Appearances and reality: Both the villains and the basically good characters in the play employ disguises, keep secrets, and deceive others, creating a world in which nothing is as it seems.


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Last Updated on April 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

Fate and Belief

Considering that one of the main characters of The Duchess of Malfi is a cardinal, one of the highest-ranking officials in the Roman Catholic Church, there is a surprising lack of reference to God in the play. The characters do not turn to God for help in trouble, and they do not seek forgiveness when they come to believe they have acted wrongly. The only certainty in life is death, and there is no promise here of an afterlife. The world of The Duchess of Malfi is controlled not by God, but by fate.

Ferdinand is the character most conscious of his religion, but his Christianity is not a religion of love but one of vengeance, not of forgiveness but of damnation. In act 2, in his anger at learning of the duchess’s child, Ferdinand’s first instinct is to call her “a sister damn’d.” Naming wild punishments he would like to administer to her, he declares that he would like to have the duchess and the unknown father of the child “burnt in a coal-pit” with no vents so that “their curs’d smoke might not ascend to heaven.” In act 4, he brings a series of horrors to the duchess to drive her to despair so that she will renounce God and be sent to hell when he has her murdered. Ferdinand is so clearly insane that his understanding of religion must be seen as a product of rage, not of religious teaching.

Other characters turn elsewhere for their understanding of the world. Antonio learns by astrological calculation that his first child will have a “short life” and a “violent death.” The cardinal, whose lavish lifestyle and mistress would seem to distance him from the teachings of his church, does not suggest that the duchess pray for guidance if she finds herself tempted to remarry, but advises that “your own discretion / Must now be your director.” Cariola warns the duchess not to use a false religious pilgrimage to fool her brothers, but the duchess rejects the warning, calling Cariola “a superstitious fool.” Although she faces her death on her knees to more easily pass through heaven’s gates, there is no real sense of faith in her last speeches.

Of all the characters, it is Bosola who most changes during the play and whose psychology is revealed the most clearly. As he watches the conduct of the three siblings, he comes to a new understanding of the differences between a good servant and a good man, and he grows in respect for the honesty of Antonio and the dignity of the duchess. If anyone was going to turn to God in the end, it would be Bosola, but he does not. Instead, when he realizes that he has accidentally killed Antonio, he utters the line that expresses the worldview for the entire play: “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please them.”

Appearances and Reality

Repeated throughout The Duchess of Malfi is the idea that people cannot be trusted, that things are not as they appear. People, both the essentially good people and the villains, disguise their bodies and their motives. In act 1, several instances of pretending and concealing occur to set the tone for the rest of the play: the cardinal pretends to have no interest in Bosola; Bosola is hired to spy on the duchess, pretending only to tend her horses; the duchess pretends to have no interest in marriage; Cariola hides behind the arras without Antonio’s knowledge and promises the duchess that she will “conceal this secret from the world / As warily as those that trade in poison / Keep poison from their children.” Antonio, who is known for his honesty, agrees to keep the marriage a secret. The duchess complains that women of wealth and stature cannot be honest about their feelings but are “forc’d to express our violent passions / In riddles, and in dreams, and leave the path / Of simple virtue, which was never made / To seem the thing it is not.”

Further incidents of deception and disguise occur throughout the play. The duchess and Antonio invent stories to conceal the birth of their first child and their plans to escape to Ancona. Ferdinand brings the duchess a dead man’s hand that he knows she will take for Antonio’s and shows her wax figures that look like her husband and children. Bosola visits the imprisoned duchess in disguise, appearing as an old man and a bellman. Even Bosola’s one kindness to the duchess is a deception, as he tells the dying duchess that her husband is alive and reconciled with her brothers. The cardinal kills Julia (with whom he has been having an affair without her husband’s knowledge) by giving her a poison disguised as a holy book, not knowing that Julia has deceived him by hiding Bosola behind the door. The cardinal, Bosola, and Ferdinand die without anyone coming to save them because the cardinal has lied to keep the servants from entering his chambers.

Although none of these deceptions brings about its desired end, the characters turn again and again to secrecy and disguise to solve their problems, as though they know no other way to move in the world. It is not an optimistic picture, as Bosola realizes just before he dies: “O, this gloomy world! / In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness, / Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!” If the world is steered not by God but by uncaring stars, and if people cannot trust their own perceptions to steer through it, it is a gloomy world indeed.

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