DISCLAIMER: This is not meant as a study aid for people reading Duchess. It is just a reference to what is, in my opinion, one of the better Elizabethan/Jacobean plays.


Along with The White Devil, one of John Webster's more famous plays. Our heroine, the Duchess, has already married and is now a widow. Her vile brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, urge her not to remarry, but she defies their wishes and marries Antonio, a lowly clerk. Bosola, a malcontent spy for Ferdinand, discovers the Duchess' pregnancy through a mistake of Antonio's and reports this back, sending Ferdinand into an insane rage.

Ferdinand travels to Malfi to investigate and overhears the Duchess and Antonio talking. As Antonio leaves, he confronts her. She attempts to flee into exile, but she is captured while Antonio is able to escape with their eldest child.

The Duchess is taken back to her palace at Malfi where Ferdinand's hideous psychological tortures await her. He locks her in a dark room, shows her what she thinks is Antonio's and her childrens' corpses (but is actually a wax replica), and surrounds her with the insane. However, the Duchess keeps her head and dies nobly- which is more than can be said for her servant Cariola.

Antonio, not knowing any of this is happening, attempts a reconciliation with Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Meanwhile, Bosola, moved by the Duchess' death (and Ferdinand's refusal to pay him) seeks to kill the brothers. Spying on the Cardinal, he manages to obtain the keys to their house and sneaks in. Unfortunately, he mistakes Antonio for the Cardinal and kills him instead. The Cardinal and Ferdinand arrive, and the three manage to kill one another, just in time for Antonio's eldest child to arrive and take control of the country which is rightfully his.

About the Play

Webster took a lot of the source for this play from Painter's "Palace of Pleasure", although the message has been heavily changed. Painter presented the Duchess as a lusty widow, and although this can be seen at some points in Webster's text, she is more able to justify her actions- and, more importantly, to act nobly when the situation demands it.

As with a lot of Webster's work, the body count is high and the tone is dark. The former is typical of the "revenge tragedy" genre. The Duchess, Cariola and her children are strangled. Julia, the Cardinal's mistress, is killed by kissing a poisoned Bible. Antonio is killed by accident, and Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal kill each other.

The events are very melodramatic and extreme, and about as far detached from reality as a play could be. Ferdinand is furious and threatening- almost a pantomime villain, so unable to control his temper that he becomes stricken with madness and suffers an attack of lycanthropia.

Finally, it is worth mentioning Webster's ever-shifting viewpoint. During the play he never allows the audience to make up their mind about an issue, whether it is Antonio's marriage above his station or Bosola's morality. Each character justifies his actions, although some, of course, are more easily justified than others.