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Theatre / The Duchess of Malfi

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The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre tragic play written in 1612-13 by Jacobean dramatist and Shakespeare-contemporary John Webster. A court piece, first performed before King James I, it deals with corruption and the power of women at the Italian court, and criticizes Catholicism in the process.

The play is set in the court of Malfi (Amalfi), in Italy, 1504 to 1510, but filled with references to then-current events. The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, but her brothers, not wishing her to share their inheritance, forbid her from remarrying. She marries Antonio in secret and bears him several children.


The Duchess' lunatic and incestuously obsessed brother Ferdinand threatens and disowns her, instructing Bosola to spy on her. Antonio escapes with their eldest son, but the Duchess, her maid, and her two younger children are arrested and die at the hands of Bosola's executioners. However, his guilt turns Bosola against the Cardinal and his brother. The final scene involves an elaborate fight that leaves most main characters dead.


Tropes associated with this play:

  • Anachronism Stew: Many references are made to events that were current at the time of writing, and locations that had been discovered recently, however the play is set about one hundred years earlier.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Ferdinand subconsciously lusts after his sister, the Duchess. He makes increasingly agressive innuendo in the play, leading to his descent into melancholy and insanity after her murder.
  • Butt-Monkey: Poor girl. All she wanted was to get married... and look at the horrors that unleashes! Imprisonment, mental torture, her eventual murder... Her hapless husband Antonio also applies. Malfi probably has the earliest instance of the hitman being something of a Butt Monkey too.
  • Cain and Abel: Bosola's killing of the Cardinal and Ferdinand is helped by the fact that the Cardinal was intending to murder his crazy brother himself.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bosola. Oh so very much.
    • The Duchess also has her moments.
  • Dramatic Deadpan: several places, especially death scenes, notably those of the Duchess and the Cardinal.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Cardinal, the Duchess.
  • For the Evulz: The ultimate motive for the Cardinal: he is just evil like that.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The Duchess and Bosola are both choleric, the madmen are sanguine. Ferdinand becomes melancholic after he murders the Duchess.
  • Go Among Mad People: The Duchess's brothers attempt to drive her insane with the help of half-a-dozen genuine madmen. Done right, it's a seriously disturbing scene. But then, what do you expect from John Webster?
  • Heel–Face Turn: Bosola experiences one after murdering the Duchess. Ferdinand seems to follow suit, but goes mad instead.
  • Meaningful Name: The husband of the Cardinal's mistress is an old lord named Castuccio, Italian for castrated, or impotent.
  • Must Make Amends: Bosola strangles the duchess, but almost immediately attempts to revive her once he learns that her brother, who hired him to commit the murder, is refusing to pay him. It doesn't work.
  • No Matter How Much I Beg: Planning to kill Ferdinand, the Cardinal tells his courtiers not to come into his rooms no matter what they hear, as Ferdinand needs to learn that causing a disturbance won't get him anywhere. This comes back to bite him when Bosola turns up and kills both of them.
  • Only in It for the Money: The Cardinal subverts this: his motives initially seem to be this, but ultimately he doesn't seem to have any beyond For the Evulz.
    • Daniel Bosola is a straight example; so much so that he does a Heel–Face Turn once Ferdinand stiffs him on payment for a job.
  • Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: An ambiguous overheard conversation causes Bosola to believe that Antonio is an assassin sent by the Cardinal to kill him, causing Bosola to kill Antonio before he can recognise him.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Ferdinand is red, the Cardinal blue.
  • Sinister Minister: The Cardinal, the Duchess' brother (Webster was more into plots than names, it seems). He conspires to have his sister killed and her kids murdered, partly in order to preserve the family honor and partly to get his hands on her wealth. He also pulls strings to have ill-gotten lands deeded to his mistress.
  • Slave Galley: Bosola spent some years in the galleys, the last punishment for serious crimes before execution, for murder. This may explain his initial attitude.
  • Tall, Dark, and Snarky: Bosola. Comes across as a proto Severus Snape.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There was a real Duchess of Amalfi, Giovanna d'Aragona, who secretly married a commoner, Antonio di Bologna, after being widowed, as a result of which she, Antonio and their children were murdered on the orders of her brother, Cardinal Lodovico. The second brother, Ferdinand, and the avenging of the murders, are fictional. (Left out of the story were Giovanna's two children by her first husband.)


Example of: