The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster



The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster


💬 The Duchess of Malfi is like a spicy Shakespearean soap opera with a twist – it’s all about a widowed duchess who secretly marries beneath her station, sending the drama meter skyrocketing as her scheming brothers try to sabotage her love life, and let’s just say, things get seriously dark and twisted!



John Webster wrote The Duchess of Malfi in 1613 or 1614, and it had two successful productions in London before being published in 1623 as The Tragedy of the Duchesse of Malfy. This play, considered Webster’s masterpiece, tells the story of a young widow who defies her powerful brothers by marrying against their wishes, leading to a wave of revenge. The play is known for its shocking violence, unexpected plot twists, the mysterious motivations of the brothers, and the Duchess’s unwavering strength. It has been a subject of passionate debate among critics and reviewers for centuries.

The Duchess’s story is based on real events from early 16th-century Italy. John Webster borrowed elements from various sources, such as William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and drew from the Revenge Tragedy tradition, but he adjusted these sources to fit his own themes and dramatic intentions. The Duchess of Malfi can be found in many high school and college anthologies. It’s also available separately as a Dover Thrift edition and as part of The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays (1998) in the Oxford World Classics series.


About the Author

John Webster was probably born in London, England, around 1579 or 1580. However, the exact date of his birth is not documented, and scholars have estimated it based on his parents’ marriage in 1577. His father, who shared the same name, worked as a coachmaker and had a good income, but the name and background of Webster’s mother is not known.
John Webster probably went to the well-regarded Merchant Taylors’ School, a school set up for the kids of Company of Merchant Taylors members. At this school, he would have received a strong foundational education, which included studying Latin and English literature, and he likely took part in music and drama activities.

Although the play itself has been lost, there is evidence that in 1602, John Webster was part of a group paid to write “Caesar’s Fall,” marking his earliest known work. Throughout his career, Webster collaborated with other playwrights, such as Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, and Michael Drayton. Most of these plays were created for specific theatre companies, aiming for popular success rather than academic study. Successful playwrights had to be versatile, producing histories, comedies, and tragedies based on market demand. In or around 1605, Webster married Sara Peniall, and they had several children, with their first son, also named John, baptized in 1606. It seems that Webster managed to support his family through his writing.

Webster’s two most significant plays, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (published in 1623 but written in 1613 or 1614), were authored solely by him. Both plays were heavily influenced by the Italian tradition of sensation and tragedy, which was in vogue during that era. Apart from his plays, Webster also wrote prose character sketches, a ceremonial pageant, and various odes and verses, although these are not as relevant today as his plays. Throughout his career, he wrote around ten plays in collaboration with others and at least four on his own. In his lifetime, he gained recognition as a playwright and was a visible member of London’s upper middle class.

Webster’s last known play, Appius and Virginia, was produced in London in 1634. While the exact circumstances of his death remain undocumented, mentions of Webster in the writings of other authors strongly suggest that he passed away no later than late 1634.


Historical Context

John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi was written and first performed during the early 17th century, which was a period of significant historical and cultural change. Some of the factors relevant to understanding the text are as follows:

Jacobean Era: The Duchess of Malfi was written during the Jacobean era, the reign of James I of England (1603-1625). This period marked a transition in English society and politics. The play reflects the political and social turmoil of the Jacobean era. The Machiavellian themes, the corruption within the court, and the tension between individual morality and state power are reflective of the instability and intrigue of the time.

Religious Conflict: The early 17th century was a time of religious conflict and tension. England had recently experienced the Protestant Reformation, and the country swung between religious conflict and attempts at reconciliation. The play’s themes of power, control, and religious divisions reflect this context.

Social Hierarchy: The play explores the rigid social hierarchy of the time, where class distinctions and social status mattered greatly. The Duchess’s secret marriage to Antonio, a man of lower social status, challenges these norms and leads to tragedy.

Political Intrigue: The Jacobean court was known for its political intrigue, power struggles, and a complex web of alliances and betrayals. The play portrays a corrupt and treacherous court environment. The characters’ ambitions, betrayals, and manipulations within the play are reflective of the political climate of the Jacobean court. The schemings of the Cardinal and Ferdinand and their quest for power mirror the political plotting and power struggles in the Jacobean court.

Cultural Shifts: The Jacobean era saw a flourishing of English literature, including the works of playwrights like Webster and Shakespeare. This era’s fascination with the darker and more complex aspects of human nature is reflected in the themes of revenge, corruption, and moral ambiguity in The Duchess of Malfi.

Renaissance Humanism: The Renaissance, which had begun in the late 15th century, continued to influence art and literature during the Jacobean era. Humanism, with its focus on the individual and the complexities of human nature, was a significant intellectual movement. The play explores the complexities of human nature, morality, and the consequences of choices. The characters, particularly the Duchess and her brothers, are multifaceted and represent the moral ambiguities and contradictions of humanity, reflecting the themes of Renaissance humanism.

The Influence of Revenge Tragedy: The revenge tragedy genre, popularized by earlier playwrights like Thomas Kyd and Shakespeare (e.g., Hamlet), was a significant influence on Webster’s work. The Duchess of Malfi contains elements of a revenge tragedy, with themes of vengeance, bloodshed, and moral ambiguity. It explores the consequences of seeking revenge and the destruction it can bring.



The play opens with the Duchess of Malfi, a widow who still holds the title of duchess after her husband’s death. She governs the Italian town of Amalfi. However, her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are consumed by jealousy and a desire for control. They don’t want the Duchess to remarry because they want her wealth and are overly concerned with preserving the family’s reputation for purity, which was a common expectation for women during Jacobean era.

Ferdinand arranges for Bosola, a criminal and former worker under the Cardinal, to join the Duchess’s household and spy on her, making sure she doesn’t marry or have children. Bosola is hesitant but feels compelled to do so. The Duchess assures her brothers that she won’t marry, but secretly confides (means “confess”) in her maid, Cariola, that she’s determined to wed again. She falls in love with Antonio, a trustworthy and untarnished estate steward. Despite Antonio’s honesty, he is of a much lower social status than the Duchess. In a surprising twist, it’s the Duchess who proposes to Antonio, and they decide to marry. However , their union must remain hidden due to the opposition from the Duchess’s brothers and the stark class difference between them.

After a period, the Duchess becomes pregnant but struggles to keep it a secret. When she goes into labour, she and Antonio fabricate a story about her falling ill. However, Bosola discovers the falsehood and informs Ferdinand and the Cardinal. They are both angered by the Duchess’s disobedience but postpone confronting her until they ascertain the identity of the father.

As time goes by, the Duchess has two more children, and Ferdinand decides he can no longer delay their confrontation.

Ferdinand secretly enters the Duchess’s bedroom at night, startling her. He is furious about her actions, and when she confesses that she is married, it only intensifies his anger. He swears never to see her again. At this point, the Duchess becomes deeply concerned for Antonio’s safety and that of their children. So, she and Antonio decide to stage a scenario where he appears to have stolen from her. This way, he can escape from Amalfi with one of their sons. However, around the same time, the Duchess confides in Bosola, believing he is on her side, and reveals that Antonio is her husband. Bosola, without her knowledge, informs Ferdinand about this and follows Ferdinand’s orders to kidnap the Duchess and her other two children.

The Duchess finds herself Imprisoned and enduring psychological torment at the hands of Ferdinand. She is falsely informed that both Antonio and her children have met a tragic end and that her own death is imminent. Disturbingly, Ferdinand arranges for executioners to strangle not only the Duchess but also her children and Cariola. They are all shown dead. Ferdinand and Bosola, overcome by profound remorse for their actions, grapple with the guilt of being involved in these deaths. After Ferdinand departs, the Duchess briefly regains consciousness, and in a poignant moment, Bosola reveals to her that Antonio is, in fact, alive. In her final moments, she is reassured but ultimately passes away.

Because of his remorse, Bosola decides to assist Antonio and his surviving son. Ferdinand, consumed by guilt, has descended into madness, and the Cardinal desires Bosola to murder Antonio to conceal his role in the Duchess’s demise. Bosola reluctantly agrees but secretly plots to double-cross the Cardinal. Meanwhile, Antonio, unaware of his wife and children’s deaths, returns to reconcile with the Cardinal. He stealthily enters the Cardinal’s castle, where Bosola, mistaking him for one of the brothers, fatally strikes him. As Antonio lies dying, Bosola reveals the tragic fate of his family. This chain of events triggers more deaths: Bosola fatally stabs the Cardinal, and in a fit of madness, Ferdinand enters and stabs both Bosola and the Cardinal. While Bosola was about to die, he also inflicts a mortal wound on Ferdinand.

Following the tragic loss of several lives, Antonio and the Duchess’s only living son and Antonio’s friend, Delio, enter. Delio passionately announces his commitment to assisting the young man in securing his mother’s inheritance and political status.


The Duchess: The Duchess (means “the wife or widow of a duke”), recently widowed and holding the title of Duchess of Malfi through her late husband’s dukedom, is portrayed as a beautiful and charming woman. She defies societal norms and conventions by secretly marrying Antonio, a man of lower social class, and the two of them have three children together. The central character of the play, she symbolizes the struggle for personal freedom, love, and individual agency. Her revolutionary choice to marry for love, rather than for political gain, goes against the expectations of her time. Unfortunately, her story ends tragically at the hands of her cruel and controlling brothers, illustrating the harsh consequences of challenging the established order.

Antonio Bologna: Antonio is a lower-class man working as a steward on the Duchess’s estate. He marries the Duchess, whom he deeply and genuinely loves. Antonio is a morally upright character who strives to help others. He even seeks to reconcile with the Cardinal, despite the Cardinal’s harmful actions against his family. Tragically, Antonio loses his life due to mistaken identity.

Antonio plays a central role in the play who symbolizes love and loyalty. He secretly takes the Duchess as her wife and supports her pursuit of love and freedom. His character underscores the theme of authentic love in the face of adversity and opposition. Antonio’s unwavering devotion to the Duchess serves as a source of hope in the play’s otherwise dark narrative.

Ferdinand: Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria and the Duchess’s twin brother, personifies the theme of control and possessiveness. His malicious and obsessive nature underscores the toxic aspects of familial bonds, as he takes pleasure in tormenting the Duchess and seeks to dominate her sexuality. His descent into the guilt-induced madness, triggered by his order to murder the Duchess, her maid, and her children, culminates in his demise at the hands of Bosola. This tragic end emphasizes the destructive force of unchecked ambition and obsession.

The Cardinal: The Cardinal, the Duchess’s brother, holds a high position as a cardinal in the Catholic Church, but his moral corruption is evident throughout the play. His illicit affair with a married woman named Julia ends tragically when he murders her upon discovering her knowledge of his sinister plots with Ferdinand. The Cardinal’s conduct is in stark contrast to Ferdinand’s cruelty, as he appears much calmer and composed. His character serves as a symbol of the moral decay and hypocrisy within the society depicted in the play, shedding light on the abuse of religious authority for personal gain and revealing the darker aspects of the Church.

Daneil de Bosola: Bosola, once a servant of the Cardinal and previously charged with murder, is solicited by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess and ensure she doesn’t marry. He assists in the kidnapping and torture of the Duchess, only to be denied payment by Ferdinand and discover the Cardinal’s betrayal. Along with these issues, his guilt over the Duchess’s death, makes Bosola attempts to help Antonio, which ultimately fails. In a turn of events, Bosola stabs both Antonio and the Cardinal. In the end, an unstable Ferdinand kills him.

Bosola’s character is complex, transitioning from a hired assassin and spy to someone grappling with moral dilemmas and haunted by his actions. His transformation underscores the theme of redemption and the idea that individuals aren’t solely defined by their past deeds. The narrative presents Bosola as a multifaceted character who evolves throughout the play, shedding light on the intricacies of his moral journey.





©2023 Md Rustam Ansari []


How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!