British Poetry And Drama Unit 2 Jacobean Drama

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British Poetry And Drama Unit 2 Jacobean Drama

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Jacobean Drama



John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is a young widow whose two brothers, a cardinal and Ferdinand, the duke of Calabria, are desperately anxious lest she marry again, for they want to inherit her title and her estates. Their spy in her household is Bosola, her master of horse. 

The duchess falls in love with her steward, Antonio, and marries him secretly. Later, she secretly bears a son. When the happy father writes out the child’s horoscope according to the rules of astrology and then loses the paper, Bosola finds the document and learns about the child. He dispatches a letter immediately to Rome to inform the brothers. The duke swears that only her blood can quench his anger, and he threatens that once he knows the identity of the duchess’s lover, he will ruin her completely. 

The years pass and the duchess bears Antonio two more children, a second son and a daughter. Antonio tells his friend Delo that he is worried because Duke Ferdinand is too quiet about the matter and because the people of Malfi, not aware of their duchess’s marriage, are calling her a common strumpet. 

Duke Ferdinand comes to the court to propose Count Maltese as a second husband for the duchess. She refuses. Bosola is not able to discover the father of the duchess’s children. Impatient with his informer, the duke decides on a bolder course of action. He determines to gain entrance to the duchess’s private chamber and there to wring a confession from her. That night, using a key Bosola gives him, the duke goes to her bedroom. Under his threats, she confesses to her second marriage, but she refuses to reveal Antonio’s name. After the duke leaves, she calls Antonio and her loyal servant Cariola to her chamber. They plan Antonio’s escape from Malfi before his identity can become known to the duchess’s brothers. 

The duchess calls Bosola and tells him that Antonio falsified some accounts. As soon as Bosola leaves, she recalls Antonio and tells him of the feigned crime of which she accused him to shield both their honours, and then bids him flee to the town of Ancona, where they will meet later. In the presence of Bosola and the officers of her guard she accuses Antonio of stealing money and banishes him from Man With feigned indignation, Antonio replies that such is the treatment of thankless masters, and he leaves for Ancona. When the duped Bosola upholds Antonio in an argument with the duchess, she feels she can trust him with the secret of her marriage and asks him to take jewels and money to her husband at Ancona. Bosola, in return, advises her to make her own departure from the court more seemingly by going to Ancona by way of the shrine of Loretto, so that the flight might look like a religious pilgrimage. 

Bosola immediately travels to Rome, where he betrays the plans of Antonio and the duchess to Duke Ferdinand and the cardinal. They thereupon promptly have the lovers banished from Ancona. Bosola meets the duchess and Antonio near Loretto with a letter from Duke Ferdinand that orders Antonio to report to him, since he now knows Antonio to be his sister’s husband. Antonio refuses and flees with his older son toward Milan. Bosola takes the duchess back to her palace at Malfi as Duke Ferdinand’s prisoner. At Malfi, the duke again visits her in her chamber. He presents her with a dead man’s hand, implying that it is from Antonio’s corpse. Finally Bosola comes and strangles the duchess. Cariola and the children are also strangled, though not with the quiet dignity with which the duchess accepted her fate. When Bosola asks Duke Ferdinand for his reward, the hypocritical duke laughs and replies that the only reward for such a crime is its pardon. 

In Milan, meanwhile, Antonio plans to visit the cardinal’s chamber during the night to seek a reconciliation with the duchess’s brothers. He intends to approach the cardinal because Duke Ferdinand loses his mind after causing his sister’s murder. The cardinal orders Bosola that same evening to seek out Antonio, who is known to be in Milan, and murder him, but Bosola turns on him and accuses him of having plotted the duchess’s murder. He demands his reward. When a reward is again refused, Bosola decides to join forces with Antonio to avenge the duchess’s death. 

That night, all plans miscarry. In the dark, Bosola accidentally murders Antonio, the man he hoped to make an ally in his revenge on Duke Ferdinand and the cardinal. A few minutes later, Bosola stabs the cardinal and is in turn stabbed by the mad Duke Ferdinand, who rushes into the room. Bosola, with his last strength, stabs the duke and they both die. Alarmed, the guards break into the apartments to discover the bodies. Into the welter of blood, a courtier leads the younger son of the Duchess of Malfi and Antonio, whom Antonio took to Milan. He is proclaimed ruler of the lands held by his mother and his uncles. 

Act 1 

The Duchess of Malfi is divided into five acts, each comprising several scenes. In the three scenes of act 1, the major characters and conflicts are introduced. The setting is the Italian city of Amalfi in the sixteenth century, in the audience chamber or “presence” of the widowed Duchess. Antonio, the Duchess’s steward, talks with his friend Delio as they observe the others who pass through the chamber. The first to enter are the Cardinal and Bosola. Although Bosola has recently been released after serving seven years for a murder he committed at the behest of the Cardinal, the Cardinal is cold to him and will not acknowledge his debt. 

Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, enters with his entourage. Ferdinand learns that Antonio has proven himself the best at a knightly competition, and he congratulates Antonio for his prowess and for his eloquent speech. When the Cardinal reenters with the Duchess, Antonio gives Deno his impression of the three siblings : the Cardinal is jealous and vengeful, Ferdinand is “perverse and turbulent,” and the Duchess is sweet and noble. Ferdinand asks the Duchess to accept Bosola as a servant, and she agrees; in fact, the brothers have hired Bosola to spy on the Duchess. 

The two brothers warn the Duchess not to remarry, and she promises that she will not. However, as soon as they leave her chamber, she summons Antonio and the two perform a private marriage ceremony, with the Duchess’s trusted servant Cariola as witness. 

Act 2 

The second act, which has five scenes, begins several months later as the Duchess is about to give birth to a child. Her marriage to Antonio is still secret, and she has concealed her pregnancy by wearing loose clothing. Bosola, however, suspects that she is pregnant and tries to trap her by giving her a present of apricots. When she devours them hungrily and then vomits, he has confirmation of the pregnancy but does not reveal what he knows. The incident sends the Duchess into labor, and she is rushed to her chamber. 

To avoid suspicion that the Duchess is giving birth, a ruse is invented: it is announced that jewels have been stolen, and everyone must stay in his or her room while a search is conducted. The Duchess delivers a healthy son, and when Cariola tells Antonio the good news, he prepares a set of calculations based on astrology to determine the baby’s future. Meanwhile, Bosola sneaks out to the courtyard beneath the Duchess’s window and hears her crying out. Antonio finds him there, and they argue about Bosola having left his room. As he leaves Bosola, Antonio accidentally drops the paper on which he has written his astrological notes, and Bosola retrieves it, discovering that a baby has been born to the Duchess—a baby who will have a short life. Bosola knows that Antonio is in on the secret but does not consider that a man of Antonio’s social class could be the father. 

In Rome, the Cardinal meets in his chamber with Julia, his mistress. Delio arrives and propositions Julia, but she refuses him. In another part of the Cardinal’s palace, Ferdinand has received a letter from Bosola, telling him of the baby’s birth. The Cardinal and Ferdinand discuss their sister’s betrayal, and Ferdinand’s rage takes him to the brink of insanity. 

Act 3 

Several years pass before the five scenes in act 3 take place. The Duchess has given birth to two more children, but her marriage is still a secret, and Bosola still has not discovered the identity of the father. Ferdinand, finally stirred to action, arrives at the Duchess’s palace to confront her. To play an affectionate joke on her, Antonio and Cariola step out of the room while the Duchess is talking to herself in the mirror, and Ferdinand comes into the room at the same moment. He accuses her of shaming the family with her promiscuity, and although she tells him that she is married, he vows never to look at her again. 

Afraid of Ferdinand’s anger, the Duchess sends Antonio to safety by pretending that he has stolen money and been banished. Tenderly, the couple say goodbye to each other, planning to reunite in Ancona. In her grief, the Duchess confides in Bosola, telling him everything. Bosola plots to entrap the Duchess and Antonio. He speeds to Rome to tell what he knows and find his reward, and the brothers respond with expected fury. The Cardinal decides to contact the authorities at Ancona and have the Duchess and her family banished. 

At the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, the Duchess and Antonio review their situation. Bosola brings a letter from Ferdinand calling for Antonio’s death, and Antonio and the Duchess say goodbye again. They know that this will be their final parting. Antonio takes their oldest son and flees to Milan. The Duchess is arrested by Bosola, in disguise, and taken by guards to her palace. 

Act 4 

Act 4, with its two scenes set in the Duchess’s chambers, moves quickly. Trying to drive her to despair so that she will be damned as well as killed, Ferdinand arranges for a series of horror. He visits the Duchess in a darkened room (because he has vowed never to see her again) and places in her hand a dead man’s hand that she will assume to be Antonio’s. He shows her wax figures that look like the bodies of Antonio and the three children. He arranges for eight madmen to scream outside her window. Through it all, the Duchess maintains her quiet nobility, saying “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” and Bosola begins to feel a grudging respect for her. 

Finally, Bosola brings two executioners to the Duchess’s chamber, and they strangle her. She faces her death with dignity. Cariola is also strangled, though she resists her death with all her energy. Offstage, the two younger children are strangled. When Ferdinand sees his dead sister, he has a dramatic change of heart, and rather than rewarding Bosola, he blames him for the murders. 

Act 5 

The action of the five scenes of act 5 is also rapid. Four days after the events in act 4, the Cardinal has had all of Antonio’s property seized. Antonio decides to visit the Cardinal and attempt a reconciliation. Ferdinand’s madness has increased, and he has been seen digging up bodies in the cemetery and carrying a man’s leg over his shoulder. Bosola arrives in Milan, and he and the Cardinal try to determine what the other knows. The Cardinal pretends that he does not know the Duchess is dead, so that he will not seem to have been involved in the murder, but Bosola persuades Julia to find out the truth. The Cardinal confesses to Julia that he has had his sister killed, but then he immediately kills Julia with a poisoned book. 

Outside the Cardinal’s home, Antonio and Delio speak with a ghostly echo that comes from the Duchess’s grave. Bosola vows to protect Antonio from harm, but he accidentally kills Antonio with his sword, mistaking him for the Cardinal, who has promised to kill Bosola. In the final scene, an anguished Bosola kills the Cardinal’s servant and stabs the Cardinal. Ferdinand rushes in and stabs Bosola and the Cardinal. Bosola stabs Ferdinand. As they all lie dead, Delio enters with Antonio’s son and calls for a unified effort to support the young man as the new Duke. 

Character Analysis 

Antonio Bologna 

Antonio is the steward, or the manager, of the Duchess of Malfi’s palace. He is good with a horse and a lance, and he is widely known to be honest—so honest that the Cardinal rejects a suggestion that Antonio be hired to spy on the Duchess. He is also a good judge of character, delivering to his friend Delio insightful descriptions of the others as they appear. He is in awe of the Duchess because of her beauty and her disposition, and humbly accepts her proposal of marriage without regard for the wealth he will obtain by marrying her. In fact, he agrees to keep the marriage secret, and so he gains no power or prestige from it. After he is married, Antonio is less sharply drawn, but the glimpses given of him do not fulfill the promise of act 1. He loses the paper on which he has calculated the baby’s future. He follows the Duchess’s plans for avoiding capture, making no suggestions himself. Finally, he is killed as he walks to the Cardinal’s door to ask for a reconciliation. Still, he is a good man, and the Duchess clearly loves and trusts him until the end. 

Daniel de Bosola 

Bosola is the Duchess’s Provisor of Horse. As the play opens, he has just been released from imprisonment because of “a notorious murder” the Cardinal hired him to commit. Now, he is employed by Ferdinand, who arranges his position with the Duchess so he can spy on her and prevent her from marrying. In many ways, Bosola is the most complex character in the play and the only one whose thinking and personality change from beginning to end. Antonio predicts this change at the beginning, when he comments that Bosola is “very valiant” but worries that his melancholy will “poison all his goodness.” In fact, Bosola is capable of great evil. He spies on the Duchess (though he is unable in three years to discover that Antonio is the Duchess’s husband), supervises her murder and the murder of her children and of Cariola, accidentally kills Antonio, and deliberately kills the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and a servant. As he observes the nobility of the Duchess and Antonio in facing death and also sees that committing heinous acts for the Cardinal and Ferdinand does not win him ratitude or financial reward, he begins to question his belief that it is better “to appear a true servant, than an honest man.” But, when the “stars” drive Bosola to kill Antonio, whom he has resolved to protect, he concludes that all human endeavour and human goodness are meaningless. 

The Cardinal 

The Cardinal is the brother of the Duchess and Ferdinand, as cold and calculating as Ferdinand is excitable. He is a high-ranking official in the Roman Catholic Church, but he does not live the life of a Christian saint: he has a mistress, he hires spies and murderers, and he does not seem to have any religious duties or religious thought. As Antonio explains to Delio, “Where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters.” 

The Cardinal is the quiet force behind the plotting against the Duchess. It is his idea to hire Bosola to spy on her, but even Bosola does not know of the Cardinal’s involvement. When Bosold has killed the Duchess, the Cardinal pretends to have no knowledge of the crime. He shares Ferdinand’s desire that the Duchess not marry and Ferdinand’s anger when she bears a child, but he “can be angry / Without this rupture” of “intemperate noise.” He demonstrates no love or loyalty, treating with startling coldness Bosola, who killed and was punished in his employment, and Julia, who is his mistress, and the Duchess and Ferdinand, who are his siblings. His motives for tormenting his sister are not clear. He does not want her money or her love, and he is incapable of feeling humiliation or shame. He does not care for his reputation or legacy; his final words are “now, I pray, let me / Be laid by, and never thought of.” 


Cariola is the trustworthy servant of the Duchess, privy to all of the Duchess’s secrets. Cariola witnesses the marriage between the Duchess and Antonio, helps deliver the Duchess’s children, and is with the Duchess when the Duchess dies. In her own death, she is not as noble as the Duchess, but kicks and screams and tries to escape. Throughout the play, she is more cautious than the Duchess, thinking that marrying Antonio is “madness” and fearing that the trick of a false pilgrimage will prove unlucky. 


Delio is a courtier and a friend of Antonio. His main role in the story is to provide a sounding board for Antonio. Delio’s curiosity about the court gives Antonio the opportunity to speak aloud about the characters of the Duchess, her brothers, and Bosola in the way an omniscient narrator might in a novel. Delio is also the friend in whom Antonio confides the secrets of his marriage and the births of his children; like Cariola, Delio guards the secrets carefully. Delio has no direct connection with any of the siblings, and he does not directly participate in their plots and deaths. He is the faithful friend, always standing by to help Antonio when he is needed. In a scene in act 2, Delio comes to Rome and makes advances to Julia, who rebuffs him. Their interaction affects nothing else in the play, and the two never meet again. Delio speaks the last words in the play, when he enters “too late” with Antonio’s oldest son after his parents have been killed. He urges the survivors to help the young man gain his inheritance and proclaims, “Integrity of life is fame’s best friend, / Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.” 

The Duchess of Malfi 

The Duchess of Malfi is the sister of the Cardinal and the twin sister of Ferdinand. She is never referred to by name throughout the play, but only by the labels that describe her roles as sister, duchess, and wife. As the play opens, she is a widow, but still in the bloom of youth. (According to Webster’s source materials, the real duchess was a girl of twelve years old when she was married to a much older man; she became a widow when she was twenty.) Although her brothers forbid her to marry again, and she promises to obey them, she longs for a husband. Secretly, she asks her steward, Antonio, to marry her, and they perform a private marriage ceremony. Afraid of her brothers’ anger, the Duchess manages to keep her marriage a secret for years, even through the birth of three children. When the brothers do learn of the children, she flees with Antonio but is captured and murdered. 

Early in the play, Antonio describes her as a woman whose speech is “full of rapture,” who has a “sweet countenance,” who lives a life of “noble virtue.” Although her sweet nobility casts no spell over her brothers, her every word and action support Antonio’s judgement of her, and her subjects love and respect her. She is clever, able to match her brothers’ wit in her exchanges with them, and able to quickly craft intricate plots for escape. She is affectionate with her husband, children, and servant, showing a tenderness that is far beyond the capabilities of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. And she is dignified in the face of her brothers’ torments, stating even at the worst of it, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” 

Some critics have commented that the Duchess deserves death because of her rashness in marrying beneath her station, but most reject that notion, agreeing that there is nothing in the play to indicate that Webster found fault with the marriage of Antonio and the Duchess. What happens to her is not her fault, but the result of living in a “gloomy world.” 


Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, is the twin brother of the Duchess, younger than her by a few minutes. He is as emotional as his brother, the Cardinal is icy, and his response to the idea of his sister marrying is beyond all bounds. Ferdinand’s motivation has always been a central question for critics of this play, and many critics have seen incestuous feelings in his rage. Whatever the cause, when he learns that his sister has given birth to a child, he declares her a whore and “a sister damn’d,” creates a mental picture of her “in the shameful act of sin,” and imagines burning her and her lover in a coal pit with no vent, so that “their curs’d smoke might not ascend to heaven,” or boiling her child into a soup and serving it to the father. 

As with other characters, Antonio’s early description of Ferdinand proves insightful. Antonio tells Delio that Ferdinand has “a most perverse, and turbulent nature.” Even the Cardinal wonders whether Ferdinand is “stark mad,” and after brooding over his sister’s betrayal for a time, Ferdinand does approach insanity. 

After he has had the Duchess killed and sees her lying dead, he regrets that he ordered Bosola, “when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend,” but there has been no hint previously that he and the Duchess shared any closeness. 

The realisation of what he has done pushes Ferdinand over the edge into insanity, perhaps even to the point of imagining that he is a werewolf He is found in the graveyard digging up dead bodies and is seen “with the leg of a man / Upon his shoulder; and he howl’s fearful, / Said he was a wolf.” Ferdinand is not seen again until the last scene, when he charges in on the Cardinal and Bosola and stabs them both. Bosola stabs him in return, and just before Ferdinand dies, he “seems to come to himself,” saying, “Whether we fall by ambition, blood. or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.” 


Julia is the wife of an old nobleman and is the Cardinal’s mistress. While she is staying with the Cardinal, she is propositioned by Delio, whom she refuses: she also tries to seduce Bosola. Ironically, the Cardinal kills her by tricking her into kissing a poisoned book while she is swearing to keep his secret. 

Places Discussed 

Malfi’s court Malfi’s court. 

Residence of the duchess of Malfi in Italy. Original set descriptions are sparse, and the central importance of the setting is not so much in its physical nature as its function as a location where characters good (the duchess and her husband Antonio) and evil Duke Ferdinand, the cardinal, and the duchess’s brothers) can meet and interact. Without it being specifically stated, there is a clear sense that this tragedy unfolds largely within walls which, by the end of the play, have become the prison of the duchess. As the play unfolds there is increased emphasis on the themes of darkness and light, leading to a greater use of lanterns. The major purpose of all the settings in this play is to provide a physical space where the characters can speak, for ultimately The Duchess of Malfi is about the failure of human relationships as shown in the disease of language itself 

Ruined abbey 

Ruined abbey. Abandoned church that has been transformed into a fortification. When Antonio is lured to his death, the most notable feature of the place is its startling echo, which is so pervasive and realistic that the superstitious believe it is a spirit which speaks to the living. The echo catches and repeats ironic refrains of dialogue which allow Webster to underscore the inexorable fatality that has enmeshed the characters. 

Cardinal’s residence 

Cardinal’s residence. At the conclusion of the drama, language again becomes a crucial part of the physical setting as the cardinal strictly orders his supporters not to rush to his aid no matter how loudly he might call for assistance. As the cardinal is killed to revenge the deaths of the duchess, her husband Antonio, and her children, his minions listen above the scene of the action but do not interfere until it is too late. Once again, language and action are fatally separated. 

Historical Context 

The Renaissance 

The term “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and the period known as the Renaissance was a time of new beginnings in Europe, an emergence from the Middle Ages. The Renaissance brought with it new ways of thinking about science, religion, philosophy, and art. During the earlier mediaeval period, Europeans had come to think of themselves as insignificant creatures subject to and inferior to divine beings. When some Italian scholars began to read ancient Latin and Greek texts that had been ignored for centuries, they began to look for ways to combine contemporary Christian thought with the classical belief in human capabilities. This belief in what is now called Renaissance humanism drove a new passion for celebrating human endeavour and potential. The ideal “Renaissance man” would be talented in science, mathematics, poetry, art, and athletics. 

As an intellectual movement, the Renaissance touched every aspect of life. Science and exploration proliferated. Political theorists attempted to apply the best features of classical thought, and religious reformers asserted the rights of the common person to have direct access to Biblical texts. There was a new passion for reading classical literature in the original Greek and Latin and for incorporating classical mythology into literature and art. New forms emerged, based on classical forms, as the revenge tragedy grew out of the study of Senecan tragedy. Literature, including drama, moved beyond its role as an outgrowth of the church and turned to stories that celebrated or decried human capabilities. 

Of course, there was no particular day on which the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance began. The transformation happened over many years and did not affect every country at the same time. Generally, the Renaissance is said to have begun in Italy during the fourteenth century and to have reached England about a century later. The height of the English Renaissance was during the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. Webster’s career comes at the end of this period, and The Duchess of Malfi shows many traces of its creation during this period. The Duchess’s insistence that she be allowed to make individual choices, the secular tone of the play, the five-act structure and blank verse, the allusions to classical mythology, and the Cardinal’s many references to new technology and science all point to the play as coming from the Renaissance. 

One aspect of Renaissance literature that may strike readers in the twenty-first century as peculiar is the notion of imitation. Greek and Roman students frequently copied from models to create their own compositions, and the Renaissance writers adopted this technique. The basic story of The Duchess of Malfi, for example, is a true story that occurred in Italy around 1510. The story was adapted in Italian in a sixteenth-century novella, and in English in William Painter’s collection of stories, The Palace of Pleasure, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Webster used incidents from all of these sources some-times using lines and phrases word for word—in creating his own play. He also kept a journal throughout his career, jotting down scraps of poetry and quotations he found interesting. He drew freely from this journal in writing his plays, inserting lines where they fit pleasingly. This was not considered plagiarism, but a sensible way to draw on the learning of those who had come before. 

Jacobean Age 

The period within the Renaissance when England was ruled by King James I is known as the Jacobean period, from the Latin form of the name James. James I ruled from the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 until his own death in 1625, and although he was not a beloved king, the years of his reign saw a great period of English drama. William Shakespeare for example, began his career before James came to the throne, but his greatest and most mature work was produced during the Jacobean age. Webster also produced his best work during these years, as did many other important dramatists. 

James’s rule was guided by the strength of his religious convictions. He was a member of the Church of England, and it was under his direction that the King James Bible was produced. James also believed devoutly in the divine right of kings, or the idea that kings and queens are accountable only to God, and that the system of inheriting the monarchy was created by God. Because the Church of England was the official religion of the monarch and of the country, religion and politics were intertwined in a way that is not the same in England today. The divine right of kings gave James power, while the Roman Catholic idea of a pope chosen by God opposed that power. To protect his stature, James dealt severely with those who believed differently, including Puritans (who eventually began to leave England for the New World), Catholics (wfio are portrayed with irreverence in Webster’s character of the Cardinal), and Jews (who are treated with casual disrespect in The Duchess of Malfi and other popular works of literature from the period). 

Literary Style 

Revenge Tragedy 

Between 1542 and 1642 in England, many dramatists looked back to early Latin writers for their models. In particular, one group of English Renaissance plays, later called Revenge Tragedies, was based on the tragedies written by the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca, who lived from 4 B.C. to A.D. 65. Seneca’s tragedies employed a set of conventional characters and plot devices that these Renaissance writers found appealing, and at the end of the sixteenth century, English plays imitating Seneca began to appear. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote two plays, Titus Andronicus (c. 1590) and Hamlet (c. 1601), that are generally considered to be revenge tragedies. Although The Duchess of Malfi is often labelled a revenge tragedy, it is more accurate to say that it was strongly influenced by the movement, but that Webster uses revenge tragedy conventions to create a different kind of play. 

The nine Senecan tragedies have several features in common: a five-act structure; a theme of revenge; long-suffering nobles; trustworthy female companions; ghosts; gruesome violence inspired by lust, incest, and vengeance; the death of children; and a chorus that comments on the action and describes the violent acts, which happen offstage. During the Elizabethan period, play-wrights began to present the violence onstage in response to demands from audiences, who were accustomed to public executions and other forms of public violence. To Seneca’s ingredients, they added a hero who is called upon but unwilling to seek revenge, actual or feigned insanity, and an emphasis on schemes and secrets. 

Clearly, many of these elements are present in The Duchess of Malfi, but it varies from the conventions in important ways. The revenge tragedy has a hero whose honour has been wronged (often it is a son avenging his father); in this play, the brothers seek revenge on the Duchess, who has done them no harm. The Duchess is surely the hero of the play named for her, and yet she does not seek or win vengeance for the harm done to her. The fact that she is killed in act 4 (and does not die in the act of winning revenge) deflects attention away from her as the centre of the action and moves the play out of the category of revenge tragedy. The motive for the actions of the two brothers is unclear, but revenge—whatever they may think themselves—is not at the heart of it. 

Blank Verse 

Many of the lines spoken by the characters in The Duchess of Malfi are written in a poetic form called blank verse. Blank verse is the name given to unrhymed lines of ten syllables each, accented on the even-numbered syllables, though lines need not be in perfectly regular iambic pentameter (the name given to lines constructed in this way) for the poetry to be labeled blank verse. For example, Ferdinand at one point wishes he were a wild storm “that I might toss her palace ’bout her ears, / Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads.” Each of these lines has exactly ten syllables, and the underlying pulse or stress felt as one reads the lines naturally gives a slight accent on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables of each line. If every line were so regular, however, the speeches would develop a singsong rhythm that would be unnatural and distracting, so the poet’s task is to write lines that are near enough to the regular pattern but with enough variety that different characters speak differently, and different tones can be heard. In fact, very few lines in The Duchess of Malfi are regular ten-syllable lines; most have more or fewer syllables or stresses in different places, as in the line “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and banded.” 

Not all of the lines in The Duchess of Malfi are written in verse. Antonio speaks in prose with Bosola and with Ferdinand before Antonio marries the Duchess, and the eight madmen speak in prose. The Duchess and Bosola speak in prose while he is disguised as the tomb-maker, but they shift to verse when he declares his intention to kill her. The blank verse is thought to convey solemnity and nobility, and all of the important speeches by important people are in blank verse. (An interesting use of this idea is Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, in which Prince Hal speaks in prose when he is with his friends in the tavern and speaks in blank verse when he is with the King or on the battlefield.) 

Using blank verse for tragedy was a convention for Elizabethan dramatists. The first English tragedy, Gorboduc (1561), was also the first English drama written in blank verse, in a deliberate attempt to echo in. English the regular rhythms of Senecan tragedy, written in Latin. Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare brought the form to its greatest heights with their writing some thirty or forty years later. A generation after these two, Webster and his contemporaries were still writing tragedies in blank verse, though never as well. 

Webster frequently ends a scene with two rhyming lines, called a couplet. The rhyme catches the audience’s ear, making the last lines of a scene slightly more noticeable and giving a finished quality, rather like a period at the end of a sentence. Within fifty years after the publication of The Duchess of Malfi, most English poetic drama was written entirely in couplets. 

Question And Answer

1. What are some similarities and differences of plot and character between John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and William Shakespeare’s Othello? 

Ans: The basic plot and characters of these two plays, The Duchess of Malfi and Othello, are quite dis-similar. If I had to pick one play of Shakespeare closest in technique and theme to Webster’s tragedy, it would probably be Hamlet, if only because of the extent of the bloodbaths occurring at the end of both. Nevertheless, we can still find connections with Othello, particularly, I think, with the roles of the female characters in both works. 

In Othello, Desdemona has defied her father and the normal expectations of society for her in marrying Othello, which is at first unknown to her father. In Webster’s play, the Duchess similarly defies her brothers in order to secretly marry Antonio. In both plays, a schemer—Iago in Shakespeare’s play and Bosola in Webster’s—is the mechanism by which the marriages are discovered, and a woman is destroyed who has asserted herself and made a life of (at least temporary) fulfilment in defiance of these outside forces and the commands of her family. 

That said, little else in the two plays is similar. The striking thing about Iago is his utter ruthlessness and the inexplicable evil at the core of his nature. This is hardly the case with his counterpart, Bosola, who seeks advancement and then regrets his actions, especially when he accidentally kills Antonio. With regard to Iggo, there is no retribution shown in the play itself. Othello can merely wound him, which is significant because this powerlessness on the part of Othello is symbolic of the inability of any of us to destroy evil. On the other hand, the two brothers in Webster’s play, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are destroyed in the end, along with virtually all the other major characters. 

But at least one more basic parallel does exist between the two plays. Both are about hypocrisy. Iago’s plotting is done in conjunction with others who are part of the Venetian establishment, the respectable ones victimising the outsider, Othello. In his Otherness, Othello becomes a victim of the system, and the same is true of the Duchess of Malfi. Her brother, the Cardinal, is the ultimate hypocrite, an exponent of religion using his office as a means to destroy. The Duchess, as a woman who goes her own way and refuses to bend to the powers-that-be, is a victim of this hypocrisy and of the constrictions of the time and place. The sole redeeming factor is the survival of her eldest son at the conclusion. In Othello, there is no equivalent saving grace, and the ending is unforgivably tragic. 

2. In the wooing scene in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (act 1, scene 3), is the Duchess’s speech written in prose or blank verse? 

Ans: The difference between blank verse and prose lies in the rhythm, but it can certainly be more difficult to identify the difference between the two in the works of early modern writers other than Shakespeare—simply because, if we are used to the works of Shakespeare, where the distinction is. very clear, the writing of a play-wright like Webster will seem less rhythmic. Shakespeare’s blank verse tends to use very regular iambic pentameter—each line spoken will have five clear points of emphasis, each of which is known as a foot, or iamb. 

Webster’s language here is less distinctive. However, he adheres to the same general set of rules for versification as other playwrights of the time : namely, iambic pentameter is used to indicate a character of higher rank, whereas more common characters will speak in prose. Occasionally, rhymed verse will be used, often to end a scene. 

Webster marks out the first full line of the Duchess’s speech in clear iambic pentameter to make it obvious that she is, in fact, speaking in blank verse rather than in prose : 


One can shift the emphasis slightly—we might place emphasis on the “Y” of “misery”, for example, rather than on “born”—but it is fairly difficult to pronounce this line without sounding out the five clear iambs which mark out blank verse during this period. 

3. Which characters stray from blank verse in The Duchess of Malfi, and when do they do it? 

Ans: While The Duchess of Malfi uses a somewhat looser form of blank verse (some shorter or longer lines), Webster’s play largely stays in verse. Like other Early Modern dramatists, he follows the convention of using blank verse for high born characters and elevated speech, giving a sort of majesty to the music of the speech. 

In Act 2, Bosolo speaks in prose in the first scene. This discourse with Castrucdo and the Old Lady is conspiratorial, and the characters are coarser individuals engaged in secretive discussion of common things. Bosola slips back into verse after this exchange and one senses again his attempt to impose a higher meaning to his plot: 

What thing is in this outward form of man To be belov’d ? We account it ominous, If nature do produce a colt, or lamb, A fawn, or goat, in any limb resembling A man, and fly from ‘t as a prodigy 

When he shortly thereafter speaks to Antonio, we see Antonio speaking in verse while Bosola reverts to prose. Here again once sees a distinction in nobility of mind and class given voice in the style of language used. 

Similarly, late in the play (Act 4), the Duchess is subjected to a mad show. In this interlude, the mad figures do speak in prose, which would offer a flatter and less ordered type of sound befitting their debased and disordered minds. 

When looking for these differences, one can scan the right margins of the page to see when lines become jagged (verse) as opposed to flush (prose). Typically, the use of prose will mark a lower character. Less often, extremely intimate conversations might be in prose (as often happens in Hamlet), but this is less the case in Webster. 

4. Compare the two brothers, Ferdinand and Cardinal, and discuss how they contribute to the death of the duchess in The Duchess of Malfi. 

Ans: Ferdinand and his brother the Cardinal are very much two peas in a pod. Each one is as vile, grasping, and immoral as the other, and both contribute in no small way to their sister’s tragic demise. However, there is a slight difference between the two in that Ferdinand is just that little bit more psychotically deranged than his brother. 

When Ferdinand finds out from his spy Bosola that the Duchess has given birth—which means, of course, that she’s had sex—he flies into a violent rage and demands that his sister suffer the most exquisite torture that it’s possible to inflict. Even this is too much for the Cardinal, who’s a good deal more squeamish than his brother when it comes to violence. (It’s notable in this regard that he chooses poison as his method of murdering Julia.) 

Nevertheless, the Cardinal still goes along with Ferdinand’s wicked plan. Before long, the Duchess is being brutally tortured, much to Ferdinand’s sadistic delight. Later on, he will order the Duchess to be strangled to death along with her children as punishment for daring to defy her brothers’ wishes. 

Though the Cardinal may not have given the order to kill the Duchess, nor actively participated in the murder, he’s just as responsible as his brother for this heinous crime. He was involved in the murder plot at’ every stage and could’ve intervened at any moment to stop it. But he chose not to, for entirely selfish reasons. 

It’s telling that at no point does the Cardinal betray the slightest hint of remorse over his actions, whereas Ferdinand is driven insane by guilt over the part he played in murdering the Duchess and her children. 

5. Analyse the significance of Ferdinand’s madness in The Duchess of Malfi. 

Ans: One of the things that separates Ferdinand from his equally wicked brother, the Cardinal, is his inconsolable grief at the Duchess’s death. Whereas the Cardinal expresses not the slightest scintilla of remorse over the part he’s played in such a heinous crime, Ferdinand is wracked with guilt over his leading role in the Duchess’s brutal torture and subsequent murder. Indeed, Ferdinand is so overcome with guilt and grief that he rapidly descends into madness. The same cannot be said of the Cardinal, who remains as cool and as collected as ever. 

But then the Cardinal, unlike Ferdinand, was only the Duchess’s brother, not her twin. For all the deranged hatred he expressed toward his sister, Ferdinand still had the kind of bond with the Duchess that only a twin could have. So when the Duchess finally passes away, there’s something perfectly logical, if by no means predictable, about the way that Ferdinand responds to the death which he, more than anyone else, helped to bring about. 

It’s as if it’s not only his sister who’s died but a piece of his soul as well. Ferdinand may have been largely responsible for destroying this part of himself, but that doesn’t provide him with much in the way of comfort. Having lost a vital part of his whole being, Ferdinand no longer knows who he truly is. Without any firm sense of self or personal identity, he loses his grip on reality and descends into insanity. 

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