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The Duchess of Malfi (originally published as The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy) is a macabre, tragic play written by the Englishmarker dramatist John Webster in 1612–13. It was first performed privately at the Blackfriars Theatremarker, then before a more general audience at The Globemarker, in 1613-14. Published for the first time in 1623, the play is loosely based on true events that occurred between about 1508 and 1513, recounted in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1567). The Duchess was Giovanna d'Aragona, whose father, Arrigo d'Aragona, Marquis of Geracemarker, was an illegitimate son of Ferdinand I of Naples. Her husbands were Alfonso Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi, and (as in the play) Antonio Bologna.

The play begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers exact their revenge, destroying themselves in the process.

The play is sometimes ridiculed by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster's poetic language, give it a continuing interest, and it is still performed in the 21st century.


  • Antonio Bologna. The Duchess's steward, and later her husband, recently returned from Francemarker, and full of scorn for the Italian courtiers whom he sees as more corrupt than the French. His social status, lower than that of the Duchess's aristocratic family, hinders his relationship with her.
  • Delio. A courtier, who tries to woo Julia. A friend of Antonio. (He is based on a historical character of the same name.)
  • Daniel de Bosola. A former servant of the Cardinal, now returned from imprisonment in the galleys. Sent by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess. Later, on Ferdinand's command, he orders her execution, and still later, he seeks to avenge her. Being the malcontent of the play, he tends to view things cynically, and makes numerous critical comments on the nature of Renaissance society. He is frequently characterized by his melancholy. (He is based on the historical Daniele de Bozolo, about whom less is known.)
  • The Cardinal. Brother of the Duchess. A cool, rational, Machiavellian churchman who apparently gained his power through bribery and corruption. (Historically, his name was Luigi or Lodovico.)
  • Ferdinand. The Duke of Calabria, and twin brother of the Duchess. Unlike his rational brother the Cardinal, Ferdinand is given to fits of rage and violent outbursts. He also appears to have an incestuous desire for his twin sister. (In reality, his name was Carlo, and he was Marquis of Gerace.)
  • Castruchio. An old lord. His name is a play on the word "castrated", suggesting impotence. He belongs to the conventional character type of the elderly man with a young, unfaithful wife (Julia).
  • Roderigo. A courtier.
  • Grisolan. A courtier.
  • Silvio. A courtier.
  • Pescara. A marquis.
  • The Duchess. The chief tragic protagonist, and a young widow. She has three children in the play, two sons and a daughter, by Antonio. There is an inconsistency about earlier children by her deceased husband in the play, put down to a careless mistake by Webster himself.
  • Cariola. Duchess's waiting-woman. Dies tragically by strangling shortly after the Duchess and the youngest children. Her name is a play on the Italian carriolo meaning "trundle-bed", where personal servants would have slept.
  • Julia. Castruchio's wife, and the Cardinal's mistress. She dies at the Cardinal's hands from a poisoned Bible.
  • Malateste. A hanger-on at the Cardinal's court. The name means 'headache'. Referred to as a "mere stick of sugar candy" by the Duchess, he is yet another interchangeable courtier designed to convey the sycophantic and superficial nature of the court of Malfi.
  • Doctor. Sent for to diagnose and remedy Ferdinand's madness and his supposed "lycanthropia".

Main themes

The main themes of the play are: misuse of power, revenge, the status of women and the consequences which arise when they attempt to assert their authority in a patriarchal society, the consequences of unequal marriage, cruelty, corruption and the duties of a ruler.


The play is set in the court of Malfi (Amalfimarker), Italymarker over the period 1504 to 1510. 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. However, she secretly marries Antonio and bears him several children.

The Duchess' lunatic and incestuously obsessed brother Ferdinand threatens and disowns her. In an attempt to escape, the Duchess and Antonio concoct a story that Antonio has swindled her out of her fortune and has to flee into exile. She takes Bosola into her confidence, not knowing that he is Ferdinand's spy, and arranges that he will deliver her jewellery to Antonio at his hiding-place in Anconamarker. She will join them later, whilst pretending to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby. The Cardinal hears of the plan, instructs Bosola to banish the two lovers, and sends soldiers to capture them. Antonio escapes with their eldest son, but the Duchess, her maid and her two younger children are returned to Malfi and, under instructions from Ferdinand, die at the hands of executioners under Bosola's command. This experience, combined with a long-standing sense of injustice and his own feeling of a lack of identity, turns Bosola against the Cardinal and his brother, deciding to take up the cause of "Revenge for the Duchess of Malfi" (V.2).

The Cardinal confesses to his mistress Julia his part in the killing of the Duchess, and then murders her to silence her, using a poisoned Bible. Next, Bosola overhears the Cardinal plotting to kill him (though he accepts what he sees as punishment for his actions), and so visits the darkened chapel to kill the Cardinal at his prayers. Instead, he mistakenly kills Antonio, who has just returned to Malfi to attempt a reconciliation with the Cardinal. Bosola stabs the Cardinal, who dies. In the brawl that follows, Ferdinand and Bosola stab each other to death.

Antonio's elder son by the Duchess appears in the final scene, and takes his place as the heir to the Malfi fortune, despite his father's explicit wish that his son "fly the court of princes", a corrupt and increasingly deadly environment.


"We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them."
: -- Bosola, to Antonio after accidentally stabbing him. Act 5, Sc.4

"A Spanish fig for the imputation"
: -- Bosola, to Antonio after being accused of poisoning the Duchess. Act 2, Sc.3

"Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens."
: -- Bosola, to Ferdinand upon gazing on the dead body of the Duchess. Act 4, Sc. 2

"Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young."
: -- Ferdinand, after looking at the dead body of his sister the Duchess. Act 4, Sc.2

"She and I were twins;
And should I die this instant, I had liv'd
Her time to a minute."
: -- Ferdinand, after looking at the dead body of his sister the Duchess. Act 4, Sc.2

"It seems she was born first:
You have bloodily approv'd the ancient truth,
That kindred commonly do worse agree
Than remote strangers."
: -- Bosola, in response to Ferdinand. Act 4, Sc. 2

"Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust."
: -- Ferdinand's dying words. Act 5, Sc.5

"Diamonds are of most value
:They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers
:::-- The Duchess, talking about remarrying. Act 1, Sc. 2, l.262-263

"Whores, by that rule, are precious."
:-- Ferdinand, in response to the above quote, l.264

The 1623 quarto

The first printed edition contains a combined cast list for two productions of The Duchess of Malfi by the King's Men, c. 1614 and c. 1621, providing valuable information about the structure and evolution of the key dramatic company of the era. The printer was a Nicholas Okes, and the publisher John Waterson. Webster dedicated the play to George Harding, 8th Baron Berkeley, a noted patron of literature in his era. The phrasing of Webster's dedication indicates that the dramatist was soliciting the Baron's patronage, rather than acknowledging support already given; it is unknown to what degree that solicitation was successful.

Reception and performance history

The play was written for and performed by the King's Men in 1613 or 1614. The double cast lists included in the 1623 quarto suggest a revival around 1619. Contemporary reference also indicated that the play was performed in 1618, for in that year Orazio Busino, Venetianmarker ambassador to England, complained of the play's treatment of Catholics in the character of the Cardinal.

The quarto's cast list allows more precision about casting than is usually available. Richard Burbage and Joseph Taylor successively played Ferdinand to Henry Condell's Cardinal. John Lowin played Bosola; William Ostler was Antonio. Boy player Richard Sharpe originated the title role. Nicholas Tooley played Forobosco, and Robert Pallant doubled numerous minor roles, including Cariola.

The quarto title page announces that the play was performed at both the Globe Theatermarker and at Blackfriarsmarker; however, in tone and in some details of staging (particularly the use of special lighting effects) the play is clearly meant primarily for the indoor stage.

The play is known to have been performed for Charles at the Cockpit-in-Courtmarker in 1630; there is little reason to doubt that it was performed intermittently throughout the period.

The play remained current through the first part of the Restoration. Samuel Pepys reports seeing the play several times; it was performed by the Duke of York's company under Thomas Betterton.

By the early eighteenth century, Webster's violence and sexual frankness had gone out of taste. In 1733, Lewis Theobald wrote and directed an adaptation, The Fatal Secret; the play imposed neoclassical unities on the play, for instance by eliminating the Duchess's child and preserving the Duchess at the end. By mid-century, the play had fallen with Webster out of the repertory, where it stayed until the Romantic revival of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt.

In 1850, after a generation of critical interest and theatrical neglect, the play was staged by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wellsmarker, with Isabella Glyn in the title role. The text was adapted by Richard Henry Horne. The production was favorably reviewed by The Athenaeum; George Henry Lewes, however, registered disapproval of the play's violence and what he termed its shoddy construction: "Instead of ‘holding the mirror up to nature,’ this drama holds the mirror up to Madame Tussaudsmarker." These would become the cornerstones of criticisms of Webster for the next century. Still, the play was popular enough for Glyn to revive her performance periodically for the next two decades.

Shortly after, Duchess came to the United States. Working with Horne's text, director James Stark staged a production in San Franciscomarker; this version is noteworthy for a sentimental apotheosis Stark added, in which the Duchess and Ferdinand are reunited in heaven. The most popular American productions, however, were produced by Wilmarth Waller and his wife Emma.

William Poel staged the play at the Opera Comiquemarker in 1892, with Mary Rorke as the Duchess and Murray Carson as Bosola. Poel's playscript followed Webster's text closely apart from scene rearrangements; however, reaction had set in, and the production received generally scathing reviews. William Archer, England's chief proponent of Ibsen's new drama, took advantage of the occasion to lambast what he saw as the overestimation of Elizabethan theater in general.

In 1919, the Phoenix Society revived the play in London for the first time in two decades. The production featured Cathleen Nesbitt as the Duchess; Robert Farquharson played Ferdinand. The production was widely disparaged. For many of the newspaper critics, the failure indicated that Webster had become a "curio"; T. S. Eliot, conversely, argued that the production had failed to uncover the elements that made Webster a great dramatist--specifically his poetry. A 1935 production at the Embassy Theatre received similarly negative reviews; Ivor Brown noted that the audience left "rather with superior smiles than with emotional surrender." In 1938, a production was broadcast on BBC television; it was no better received than the previous two stage productions.

In the aftermath of World War II, George Rylands directed a production at the Haymarket Theatremarker that, at last caught the public mood. John Gielgud, as Ferdinand, accentuated the element of incestuous passion in that character's treatment of the Duchess (played by Peggy Ashcroft). Cecil Trouncer was Bosola. Edmund Wilson was perhaps the first to note that the play struck an audience differently in the wake of the revelation of the Holocaust; this note is, from 1945 on, continually struck in discussions of the appropriateness of Webster for the modern age. A 1946 production on Broadwaymarker did not fare as well; Rylands attempted to duplicate his London staging with John Carradine as Ferdinand and Elisabeth Bergner as the Duchess. W. H. Auden adapted Webster's text for the modern audience. However, the production's most notable innovation was in the character of Bosola, which was played by Canada Lee in whiteface. The production received savage reviews from the popular press, and it fared little better in the literary reviews.

The first successful postwar performance in America was staged at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in 1957. Directed by Jack Landau, who had earlier staged a brief but well-reviewed White Devil, the production emphasized (and succeeded as) Grand Guignol. As Walter Kerr put it, "Blood runs right over the footlights, spreads slowly up the aisle and spills well out into Second Avenue."

Ashcroft returned as the Duchess in a 1960 production at the Aldwych Theatremarker. The play was directed by Donald McWhinnie; Eric Porter played Ferdinand and Max Adrian the Cardinal. Patrick Wymark played Bosola. The production received generally favorable but lukewarm reviews. In 1971, Clifford Williams directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Judi Dench took the title role, with Geoffrey Hutchings as Bosola and Emrys James as the Cardinal. Dench's husband Michael Williams played Ferdinand, casting which highlighted the sexual element of the play's siblings.

In 1980, Adrian Noble directed the play at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchestermarker. This production received excellent notices; it was transferred to London, where it won the London Drama Critic's Award for best play. Helen Mirren played the title role; Mike Gwilym played Ferdinand, and Bob Hoskins played Bosola. Pete Postlethwaite was Antonio. Mirren's performance received special acclaim.

The actor-centered troupe led by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge chose Webster's play as one of their first productions. The production premiered in January 1986 in the Lyttelton Theatre of the Royal National Theatremarker. Philip Prowse's direction was highly stylized, the scenic backdrop segmented, and the actors' movements tightly controlled. The result, as Jarka Burian noted, was "a unified, consistent mise-en-scene...without enough inner turbulence to create a completely satisfying theatre experience." Eleanor Bron played the Duchess; McKellen played Bosola, Jonathan Hyde Ferdinand, and Petheridge the Cardinal.

The Swanmarker staged a new production in 1989; Harriet Walter took the part of the Duchess; Nigel Terry and Stephen Boxer alternated as Bosola; Bruce Alexander was Ferdinand and Russell Dixon the Cardinal.

Gale Edwards directed the 2000 production at The Barbicanmarker. Aisling O'Sullivan played the Duchess; Tom Mannion played Bosola, and Colin Tierney was Ferdinand.

Phillip Franks directed the 2006 production at the West Yorkshire Playhousemarker. Imogen Stubbs played the Duchess, and the play had a post-fascism theme evident in the costumes and scenery.

Media adaptations

  • Opera - Stephen Oliver's The Duchess of Malfi, staged at Oxford in 1971.
  • Television - In 1972, produced by the BBC
  • Television - A Question of Happiness #1: A Question About Hell, an adaptation by Kingsley Amis in which the names of all the characters are changed
  • Audio - In 1980, produced by the BBC
  • Recording - (excerpts only) In 1952, read by Dylan Thomas by Caedmon

In popular culture

  • Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (Williams, Collins Sons & Co Ltd. 1976) uses the lines Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young as the novel's central refrain.

  • Cover Her Face by P. D. James (initial copyright 1962) uses the first part of the quote as the title and as a comment made by the first witness on the scene of a young murdered woman.

  • The Skull Beneath the Skin by P. D. James centers around an aging actress who plans to perform The Duchess of Malfi in a Victorian castle theatre. The novel takes its title from T. S. Eliot's famous characterization of Webster's work in his poem 'Whispers of Immortality'.

  • Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice uses the lines Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young, as a quote from Lestat to his vampire child, Claudia.

  • Echo & the Bunnymen mentioned this play along with John Webster and The White Devil in their song "My White Devil" on their Porcupine album.

  • Vol 2 of Anthony Powell's 'Dance to the Music of Time' includes visit to a performance of the play, where the minor character Moreland is in love with the actress playing Julia.


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