Duchess Of Malfi Summary

John Webster

Duchess Of Malfi

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Duchess Of Malfi Summary

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The tragic play The Duchess of Malfi by English writer John Webster was first performed in 1612 and published in 1623. It is based on events that took place in the early years of the sixteenth century. It tells the story of a duchess who married outside of her social class in a love story that becomes a tragedy when her two brothers seek revenge. The play is a typical Elizabethan tragedy in which horror and violence are commonplace, and is numbered among the greatest English Renaissance dramas.

The Duchess of Malfi is set in Italy, for the most part at the palace of the Duchess in Malfi during the sixteenth century. The young duchess is a widow. Her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal are visiting her, and Antonio, who manages the household, has recently returned from France. In order to have a spy in place to report the Duchess’s actions to the brothers after they leave, Ferdinand hires Bosola under the guise of having him tend to the Duchess’s horses. The reason for putting Bosola in place is to assure that the Duchess remains celibate and does not get remarried. Bosola is not keen on the idea but agrees. Prior to leaving the Duchess to return to Rome the brothers remind her that it would be improper for her to remarry. She says she has no intention of doing so and resents their trying to control her. Secretly, however, she has a plan to marry Antonio. When she and Antonio soon wed, she tells him that she will be able to handle the situation with her brothers.

Nine months after the first act, the Duchess is pregnant. Bosola suspects that she might be and to determine for himself whether she is, he gives her apricots which were thought to be labor inducing. When the Duchess takes them and falls ill, Antonio and Delio, a courtier, confer over how to keep her labor a secret. Bosola, meanwhile, feels he knows the truth and is further convinced when he finds a horoscope Antonio has prepared for the baby. Bosola sends a letter to Ferdinand and the Cardinal telling them what he has learned. Both of the brothers are furious at the news but unlike Ferdinand who is uncontrollably angry, the Cardinal is able to approach it with a calm head. Not knowing that their sister is married, the brothers assume that the baby was born out of wedlock. Ferdinand decides to delay any further action until he learns the identity of the child’s father.

Two more years pass as the third act opens. The Duchess and Antonio have had two more children during this time. Ferdinand has returned to the Duchess’s palace and Antonio and Delio guess that he somehow knows about the Duchess’s children. Ferdinand bursts into the Duchess’s bedroom. She informs him that she is married and his response is one of anger. He tells her that she should never let him know who her lover is or they will all be the recipient of his wrath. He then disowns her. In an effort to protect Antonio, she pretends that he has committed a theft; she banishes him from Malfi, sending him to Ancona. After he is gone, Bosola defends him to the Duchess which moves her to the point of sharing with Bosola the truth that they are secretly married. Bosola then pretends to be in support of the Duchess and she gives him money to bring to Antonio. He is to tell him that she will join him soon. The Cardinal finds them in Ancona a few days later and has the Duchess, along with her family, banished.

As they are leaving Ancona, Bosola delivers to the Duchess a letter from Ferdinand, which he presents as one of forgiveness even though it is actually a threat, which she suspects. She has Antonio and their oldest son go on separately. Shortly after they leave, Bosola and some soldiers take the Duchess and her other two children as prisoners and bring them back to the palace of the Duchess. As act four opens, Ferdinand is angered to find that the Duchess is holding up well in imprisonment. In an attempt to break her, Ferdinand shows her wax corpses of her family members to convince her they are dead. Bosola tries to stop Ferdinand from torturing the Duchess but to no avail. Bosola is sent to her disguised as a tomb-maker to prepare her for death. Like other attempts, this too fails to affect her. She remains calm from the thought that she will now join her family members whom she presumes are dead. The executioners arrive with Bosola strangle her.

The killing of the Duchess is followed by those of her children and Cariola, her trusted lady-in-waiting. Upon seeing the body of his dead sister, Ferdinand is remorseful and blames Bosola for following his orders. Ferdinand begins to display signs of growing insanity. As the Duchess takes her final breath, Bosola tells her that Antonio is still alive. Antonio is unaware of the deaths of his wife and children as act five commences. By this time, Ferdinand suffers from lycanthropy, believing himself to be a wolf. The Cardinal pretends to know nothing about the death of his sister and offers Bosola a reward to kill Antonio. Next, the Caradinal’s mistress, Julia, tells Bosola that it is he that she loves and through her Bosola is able to force the Cardinal to admit his role in the murder of the Duchess.

The play ends with a series of events including the Cardinal killing Julia, Bosola accidentally killing Antonio, Ferdinand stabbing the Cardinal and Bosola, and Bosola killing Ferdinand. Just before he and the Cardinal die, Bosola tells the attending courtiers all that has transpired. Delio and the courtiers vow to raise the only surviving member of the family, the eldest son, as a legacy to his parents who met with tragic ends.