The Duchess of Malfi



The widowed Duchess of Malfi privately courts her young steward, Antonio, a man whose impeccable nature she has long admired. They wed secretly despite the fact that she has repeatedly been warned against a second marriage by her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, who talk of not dishonouring their Aragonian blood but who desire to inherit her property. Ferdinand is incestuously attracted to his sister and plants a spy, Bosola, in her entourage to report on her behaviour. For some years the lovers contrive to keep their marriage a secret despite rumours which are current when the Duchess conceives and gives birth to a child. Bosola discovers that the Duchess is wed but cannot determine the identity of her husband. Ferdinand visits the Duchess by night, hoping to trap the unknown husband in her room but, failing to do so, he savagely condemns his sister for her ‘looseness’ and vows never to see her again. Panic-struck the Duchess and Antonio plan to flee to Ancona and in a thoughtless moment the Duchess confides to the kindly-seeming Bosola who her husband is. The couple are publicly shamed at Ancona by the Cardinal; they part for Antonio’s better safety. The Duchess is captured by Bosola and Ferdinand; she is subjected to a series of hideous tortures in the hope of reducing her to abject despair and is finally strangled. Ferdinand grows insane with remorse; the repentant Bosola decides to join with Antonio but, mistaking him for the Cardinal, kills him. Overwhelmed with anguish, Bosola stabs both the Aragonian brothers but himself receives a fatal wound from Ferdinand.

The sources of the play are historical, relating to events that took place between 1505 and 1513. But Webster clearly knew of them through one or more of the many fictional accounts popular in the early seventeenth century; Painter’s The Palace of  Pleasure (l566—67) is considered the most likely influence.

Cave, RA, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, London, 1988

page last edited 07/02/2005