Notes on the play
The Duchess Of Malfi - Commentary On Important Scenes
Act I, Scene I
Genres: Renaissance Tragedies - Revenge Tragedy / Romantic Tragedy
Bosola: Complex / Contradictory character /
Anti-hero / Dark perspective
Spokesman for the play - Demands audiences
"Valiant" / "Melancholic moods, poisoned his goodness"
Sees self as realist. Actually more of a dillusioned idealist
Antonio: Noble in character - Not in birth
virtues of the French Court - Contrast to Italian rulers
of the time
European setting - Allows corruption of the time to be criticized
without public censor
Act I, Scene II
Duchess and Brothers
present - Duchess never referred to by Name.
describes them as showing outward hypocracy - "mirth
Frequently compared to the Devil
Ferdinand: Public role
Totally against marriage - Shades of incestuous tendancies - Describes
sister as "Lustful whore"
Cardinal: Behind the scenes - Employs aid
Agrees with marriage, only if the families status is
Duchess: Strong / Passionate / Courageous / Sensual /
Threatens society - "In temperament she is a
heroine of Shakespeares Romantic Comedies"
Modern context - James had
his Cousin imprisoned for marrying beneath herself
new, less conventional concepts being explored - Given the status of Hero
She is a woman lost in a corrupt world of men / Has no female equals /
A free spirit, living in a ristrictive society
Embarks on a tragic
journey - Solitary in both physical and spiritual
Shakespeare - She is the female protagonist - Threatening
1. Not subservient to men - Ignores her Brothers / Woo's
2. Places personal desires above the welfare of state - Caesar
example of this culminating in his downfall
3. Places passion
above reason - Blinded by passion / Poor judge of
character - Perception of
women at the time
Act II, Scene II
Bosola: Differs from Hamlet
in his perception of human nature
Sees the human form as disgusting /
Views the living as walking
corpses "Though we bear a rotten and dead body,
we hide it in tissue"
Act II, Scene IV
Julia: Adds interest to
the play / Adulterous partner of the Cardinal
Has her emotions played
with like a pet
Representation of the seamy underbelly of deception
within the Court
She is the femenine equal to the
Duchess - Independant / Strong willed
(Killed by Brothers)
The Brothers - Contrasting psychology of Brothers - Hot and cold
Necrophelia - Ferdinands obsession with duchesses body /
and taking corpses
Necrophelia - Represented by Cardinal
through his political hatred of
love and life
Duchess as if she has betrayed him and he is her
lover - Incestuous
Doesnt even recognize these incestuous tendancies in himself
Imagery: Storms and fires - Release of passions
Machiavellian dealings - Cool reason
Puritan Concerns - The alliance of
Church and State doesnt insure Holy
Order - Opens door to Tyranny
Cardinal: Mater of passion / Deficiency of feeling
and tedious experiment in physical gratification, devoid of
Theory Of Humous
Explanation of human behaviour
- Idea that bodily fluids (blood /
phlegm / choler / black bile) determines
Imbalance of fluids - Inexplicable behaviour
(Reflected by Webster)
1. Duchess - Sanguine (Full Blooded / Robust /
Full of life)
2. Bosola - Melancholic (Depressed / Moody / Cynical)
3. Cardinal - Phlegmatic (Impassive / unemotional / stoic)
Duke - Choleric (Angry / Hot tempered)
Act III, Scene II
Dramatic and bold contrasts begin to emerge - Love Play becomes a
deadly and incestuous play - Ferdinand at the helm.
Lovers - At
ease with each other (sexual banter) - Duchess in charge
showing her superior strength
Ferdinands arrival - Destroys the idyllic
Ferdinand - Desires power over Duchess, sexual and fraternal.
remains reluctant to inflict harm himself)
are evident, yet Ferdinand claims his only concern
is that of the family
Duchess - Her strength of character remains evident through all
darkness. She remains defiant and unrepentant until death.
"Whether i am doom'd to live or die, i shall do so like a prince"
This forshadows her later quote "I am the Duchess of Malfi"
Duchess - Offers confidence in Bosola (Accomplished liar vs Naive
Act III, Scene III
Webster - Likes to chain scenes
together using verbal links (Making an
intricate web of images)
Witches / Witchcraft - Constant references to these are seen
throughout the play.
Discussing secret marriage - Bosola suspects
Bosola describes the makeup of the old lady and suspects her
for a shop of witchcraft.
Act III, Scene V
Medieval perspective (Moral order designed by God) -
Contrast of his
optimism and the actions of the play.
Jacobean tragedy - Lack of
confidence about moral order of the world
Old structures in society
were breaking down
Machiavellian principles - Divorcing politics from
Scientists - Materialistic views of the universe
(Natural laws vs
Apocalyptic religions - Preaching
the end of the world. (Progressive
moral decay since the fall of Adam)
Astronomical discoveries - stars were not fixed / dark spots on the
The ideology of a perfect unchanging creation Vs The gradually
Webster - Discovers moral order in the dignity of
humans as opposed to faith.
Montaigne(French Essayist) - Challenged
Rennaisance concept that humans are superior to animals.
"On the wild
benifit of nature live / happier than we"
Animals are kind to young /
Faithful / Peaceful
Act IV, Scene I
Grotesque - Typical of
Jacobean Tragegy, the play uses effects such as
the severed hand and wax
corpses (Inspired by Roman plays of Seneca)
Webster - More than horror
and sensationalism (Ferdinand desires to
punish his sister / control his
sister / control her body and soul)
Fredinand aims to kill her and in
addition break her spirit through
We focus on
the Duchess' response rather than the horror inflicted.
"She beholds horror and we behold her, our attention is
fixed on the
Duchess because she is so deeply and pitiably human in
Act IV, Scene II
Duchess - Remains elevated from the corrupt
world she leaves behind
(Maintains her sense of self worth)
Alexander "one expression of that continual declaration of human
Duchess - Her vitality and lust for life cling to
existence after she
has been strangled (Speaks in the echo)
to convert Bosola
Discovery - Ferdinand and Duchess are twins (Normally
Ferdinand clings to idea of
Financial reasoning, covering up his true
jealousy of Antonio.
Fedinand - Self Loathing (Attacks his own shadow as if it were a form
of his other self)
Act V, Scene III
Echo Scene - Derived
from classical literature
Greek Roots (Aristophanes parodies echo scene
Andromeda) - Love story of Narcissus and Echo (Girl doomed
speak through others words)
Renaissance examples - Thomas
Dekkers "Old Fortunatus"
The Duchess Of Malfi - Commentary On
Antonio and The Duchess
- Some say Antonios inferiority = limited importance as character.
Other claim he is a mouthpiece for Websters own opinions and judgements.
- The relationship emphasises inequalities of power. (Gender and social status)
- Antonios dying speech conveys how his life consisted of more promise than performance "we follow after bubbles blown in th'air"
- Antonio and Delio's dialogue portray the possibilities of how a court may be run, in contrast to the corrupt court at Amalfi.
- Antonio is describes by Bosola as "cedar planted by a spring". This shows his virtues.In contrast he describes the Brothers as "plum that grow crooked"
- Antonio = Device to make points about society at the time (His inability to reach the Duchesses status in the sense of blood, yet he can in intellect)
- In context - Powerful women were seen as a threat to a male dominated society (Queen Elizabeth Tudor)
- Duchess - Lusty character, in Renaissance terms "The lusty widow"
(Dialogue full of sexual innuendo)
- She has all the qualities Antonio lacks. These qualities were seen as undesirable at the time
- She has a dislike for darkness - contrasts from Ferdinands dark disguise.
- The irony in this is that Webster is commenting on womens rights at a time when only men could act on the stage.
- Webster = Law related background (Awareness of issue relating to womens rights)
- Blank verse Renaissance Dramas = unrhymed iambic pentametre (5 stresses / 10 sylabbles per line)
- This is broken to show and emphasise the Duchesses refusal to be restrained and unbalanced nature
- Antonio is like Banquo in the sense he feels his feeling for the Duchess are "Mad Ambition. (Idea that ambition culminates in downfall)
- Corruption - Rife in court (Duchess and Antonio untainted) - Even the Cardianal, a religious man is dishonest and corrupt
Act by Act Quiz
Here are the questions
Here are the answers ..... no peeking!
A useful way to revise the text ..... click below to open
A really useful and interesting website on the Duchess of Malfi by the Open University (unfortunately it only covers Act 1 and 2. Quality, though.
Click this link and explore the site.
Or download this document:
Four worksheets to help you focus on key ideas and themes
Articles and Critical views
We follow after bubbles
Theme of futility.
The Ring and Identity
A discussion of some symbols in the play
A theological approach
Some very useful references here
Feminine Stereotypes in Jacobean Drama