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duchess of malfi

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The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is generally considered to be Webster’s masterpiece, both his greatest and most important play. Yet the construction of the play, it’s high level of often sensationalist violence, and it’s ambiguity have made it the subject of fierce debate, as critics have loved or hated the play with equal fervor.

Conventional Elements:

In many ways, the play is extremely conventional, and in fact Webster freely borrowed elements of the story from several sources, including William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasures, and Philip Sidney’s romance Arcadia. Many of the dramatic elements are part of the Revenge Tragedy tradition of the time, as the plot features Senecan conventions of the five-act structure, proverbial expressions, an appointed avenger and a prolonged delay in action. The Senecan stoic philosophy, the need to maintain inner goodness despite the evil of a corrupt world, is summarized in Delio’s final words: Integrity of life is fame’s best friend.

Egalitarian Views:

Yet there are also elements of the play which are less familiar- for example where the primary source to the play ‘the Place of Pleasure’ has a judgmental and sternly moralistic attitude towards the Duchess for being too ‘lusty’ and breaking the rules regarding degree and status, Webster presents the Duchess as courageous, strong and honorable as the two elements that form the bases of Painter’s critique are subverted in Webster’s portrayal.

The Duchess and Antonio’s relationship is seen to be genuine while it is Ferdinand who is consumed by an unhealthy obsession and the Cardinal who is adulterous. This attitude is unusual especially in that at the time widows were regarded as ‘ungoverned women’ who challenged societal norms. At the time, despite the three female monarchs during this period, there was still a feeling of unease about female rule, and the image of female dominance was commonly cast as an image of social disorder, with all levels looking towards a male figure as the one who holds supreme power.Thus, to be successful and powerful a woman had to embody many conflicting qualities, having so called ‘manly’ bearing yet still appearing ‘feminine’, forced to accomplish their objectives within the barriers of social limits.

In part the Duchess can be seen as modeled on Queen Elizabeth, as a strong woman who retained her authority as a powerful figure. However the Duchess’ downfall comes when she refuses to be ruled by her brothers, when she chooses love over what they term her ‘duty’ as she tries to reconcile the contrast between being a woman and being a ruler.It is this point which may reveal the reason behind Webster’s portrayal of the Duchess. By the time he wrote the play in 1613 people had wearied of King James’ ineffectual rule and longed for the days of Queen Elizabeth, a sentiment so widespread that King James himself was aware of it, and admitted that he could not rule as well as she had. This nostalgia for the Queen may have contributed to the reversal of gender roles in Webster's play, as he portrays the Duchess as a ‘mannish’ strong woman and Antonio as a ‘womanish’ man. The Duchess is generally decisive and assertive in her dialogue and in her actions, while Antonio is often passive and even weak– not only in their courtship but throughout the play, he is shown to be hesitant and easily discouraged , while the Duchess, knowing the danger of ‘going into a wilderness’, has the daring to try to realize her own wishes.

Cariola, significantly, thinks of this as audacity and cannot decide whether the ‘spirit of greatness’ moves her or of ‘woman’. In opposing greatness to woman, Cariola reveals not only the limitations of her own character, but also shows how Webster’s portrayal of the Duchess reflects the idea of the female ruler.

Another aspect of the idea of ‘the spirit of greatness’ in the play shows how it can be read as endorsing egalitarian views, for example where the ‘villains’ consider Antonio to be low class, he is clearly a ‘good’ character, while those described as ‘great’ are ironically, seen as heartless and despicable.Throughout the play there is an argument for the destruction of the concept of degree as false, subverting the traditional Renaissance emphasis on station and emphasizing equality at birth, as Antonio says: ‘the great are like the base, nay they are the same’

These inversion of the right Jacobean roles, the fact that Bosola the Malcontent switches sides and turns avenger, as well as the violation of the structural order as the protagonist dies an act before the end can be seen as radical departures from the typical Senecan drama.But perhaps the deepest departure from tradition comes at the end where, significantly, Webster allows the Duchess’ son by Antonio to inherit, as this can be seen as an implicit validation of an unorthodox marriage.

Incoherence and Motivation:

However, despite the many original elements which have made the play a recognizably central one within it's genre and the Revenge Tragedy Tradition, critics have pointed to the incoherencies in the play as evidence of its weakness and noted that the lapses in time and intensity of action as the delay in action is prolonged gives a sense of shifting purpose and direction.

At the same time, critics have also noted incoherence in the moral vision and background of the play. While one of the most obvious elements is the high level of violence, often described as sensationalist horror, some argue that the motive for this violence is not sufficiently explored and appears unimportant. The characters can be seen as acting without thinking.

However others argue that while motivation is often obscure, this is deliberate, reflecting the play’s ambiguity, as we are asked to draw our own conclusions as to why Bosola kills the Duchess, why he changes, and why Ferdinand is so angered by his sister’s remarriage. They point out that, while the construction does at times run riot, there is a stable core of meaning within the text, a core that unites disparate and even contrasting parts into an organic whole.

This ‘blurring’ in the play, which incorporates the ambiguity and motivation has been traced to an avoidance of a final statement that sums up the character. Although there are final statements, they are often enigmatic in nature, for example, Bosola's ‘let me/be laid by’ is never entirely clear, as we are never sure, for instance, why Bosola’s faith in his good nature is restored after his most evil deed, and as a result, might be drawn to wonder if it is ultimately justified.


In some ways the characters can be seen as consciously constructed guidelines, beginnings rather than ends, supported by imagery that sets up a suggestive shifting undertow to the surface of the speaker’s words. Characters are built up very carefully in the first few scenes, beginning with brief observations by others and then the overlaying of words and actions. For example, in Act I we have Antonio’s ethereal miniature of the Duchess, stressing her nobility and virtue in contrast to her brothers who are ‘twins in quality’. Over this picture of the ‘right noble Duchess’ we are given evidence of her sensuality – explicit in her relationship with Antonio, as well as the diamond imagery that comes to signify her. The ‘divine’ Duchess also later parts from the church – of the wedding she asks ‘what can the church force more…how bind faster?’ And while her character stresses her femininity the Duchess herself uses images of war that suggest a more ‘masculine’ dauntless side to her personality, for example, ‘this dangerous venture’, so that in the end, in the elegiac survey of her life that preceded her execution, Bosola says ‘a long war disturbed your mind, here your perfect peace is sign’d’. Nothing stated in the ethereal picture of her is necessarily untrue yet everything is sharply modified. Similarly, we are introduced to Bosola as an evil character, yet Antonio sees him as ‘potentially very valiant’ in a typical representation of the originally good nature, overpowered by the nurture of ‘black malcontents’.

He is the ‘court gall’, the bitter character who would ‘rail at the things he wants’. Although his apparent evil can also be seen as brought out by his need to survive in a corrupt court, any ethical sense he possesses seems at first overshadowed by his clear association with the dark, supported by the language, crude with grotesque imagery, which he uses.

In the beginning he believes the only way to ‘thrive’ in the corrupt court around him is to be the worst among them, but realized this would not bring him happiness. He accepts this, saying ‘I look no further than I can reach.’By the end however he seems unable to conceal his hatred for the corruption which, early on, we see him mocking as we see his happiness at making ‘her brothers’ gall overflow their livers.’

In some ways, it can be argued that it is not a change of character we see but a battle of conscience with evil. Bosola, seeing the ‘integrity’ of the Duchess, seems to have realized this quality within himself. However, at the end, he inadvertently kills Antonio, perhaps a suggestion that he is trapped in the evil and corruption he attempted to rectify.

Throughout the play in fact, the soul is seen as the prisoner of the body which will only be liberated in death. So the brothers set a trap to snare the Duchess, likened to Vulcan’s legendary net to catch Venus and Mars, and their lecture to her on virtue forewarns her of her fate, as the Cardinal threatens that ‘the marriage night is the entrance of some prison’ a threat which had immediate and literal fulfillment as her marriage is confined to the walls of her chamber as she is trapped in her role as an alabaster figure, despite her resistance: ‘this is flesh and blood’.

In a way however, the Duchess can be seen as turning her ‘prison’ into a happier place, as she tells Antonio her brothers are ‘all discord without circumference’ a reference perhaps to the fact that she and Antonio, despite everything, create their own circle of familial happiness, in the one image of entrapment in a play full of such images which is given a happier meaning, the idea of 'circumference' as a ring, marriage, family, and containment of something precious.

This concept of something precious confined within something frail is paralleled to that of the soul imprisoned in the body as in the end death is seen as the evil that frees the good of the soul, as in the Duchess parable, making it clear that in some ways, death is also her liberty, released from her brothers' traps, finally achieving some sort of peace.


The play is saturated with a consciousness of the ugliness of human evil – each of the different strands of the plot are woven together by the core of imagery which unites them into one, through for example, the images of animals and deformity, symbolizing human bestiality, and through the constant references to devils and witches.

The imagery motifs affect the different characters with differences of emphasis – Ferdinand for example is closely associated with the image of a wolf as a predator, playing with his prey, but also as a link to his later madness, in which images of the moon and werewolves are linked to change and moods. The Cardinal, his brother, is less choleric, represented by the image of an old fox to symbolize his slow, yet deliberate careful plotting and his slyness. However, both the brothers face inversed positions at the end, as the Cardinal is trapped by his own cunning and dies ‘like a leveret’, while Ferdinand is trapped by his own inhumanity, turned to a bestial madness.


Ultimately John Webster's play the Duchess of Malfi focuses on several themes which were prevalent within the Jacobean Drama and within the Revenge Tragedy Tradition, yet deals with these themes using techniques which are often original, language and dialogue overflowing with imagery, and characters cast in roles they would not usually be seen in. All this goes a long way in establishing the play's importance, however, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the play is the fact that it deals with so many issues allowing feminist interpretations to study the role of the Duchess, for example, while other interpretations focus on the egalitarian views Antonio and the Duchess seem to support, studying the representation of class, or the portrayal of religion and the Cardinal, or the idea of madness and it's link to desire, as well as the many other themes which the dramatist skillfully weaves together, finally linking them all in the play's exploration of man’s capacity for good or evil, in it's study of the consequences of sin and revenge in both victims and victimizers, and ultimately, the possibility of redemption. Even beyond death.

Integrity of life is fame’s best friend,
Which nobly beyond death, shall crown the end.

written: 2003
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