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Amberli Prieto

Term Paper: The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster was written in the seventeenth century, in a time

period referred to as the Jacobean era. A Jacobean tragedy is a type of play that the era is famous

for. A Jacobean tragedy essentially is a play in which the protagonist’s downfall is long and

great. Within these types of plays typically, macabre themes are very present. Macabre themes

are characterized by extremely morbid, grim and ghastly atmospheres. Macabre themes focus

greatly on death and symbolic representations of death. Jacobean tragedies almost always consist

of some vengeful character or characters trying to destroy the protagonist. These types of

tragedies also contain a lot of blood, guts and all kinds of gore imaginable. Violence is quite the

norm in these extremely entertaining works of literature. The Duchess of Malfi is an incredible

and exemplary example of a Jacobean tragedy.

The Duchess of Malfi is a quintessential example of a Jacobean tragedy. The Duchess of

Malfi contains all the themes aforementioned in the paragraph above. The play includes the

macabre characteristics which are very typical of the era. In the play, the protagonist, the

Duchess is overcome by her cruel and scheming brothers. The Duchess is a grand and powerful

woman and is the perfect protagonist, but her angry, vengeful and merciless brothers feel

threatened by her and in turn kill her and her family in a very dramatic and graphic way.

Throughout the play there are many examples of macabre-like metaphors such as in Act 2 Scene

4, Ferdinand says “I would have their bodies burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopped, that

their cursed smoke might not ascend to heaven” referring to what he would like to do to his sister

and her family. In that line he is saying that he wants to burn her and her children but not even

allow the smoke that is caused by the fire to reach Heaven’s Gates, which is awfully graphic and
overly dramatic. Also in Act 4 Scene 2, when Bosola says “Other sins only speak; murder

shrieks out. The element of water moistens the earth, but blood flies upwards, and bedews the

heavens” after having the Duchess, Cariola, and her children strangled. He uses the word shrieks

instead of shouts or yells because it has a darker, grimmer connotation. Webster is very aware of

the language he uses and it is quite clear that he could write one hell of a Jacobean tragedy.

Little is known about John Webster’s life outside of his work as a playwright. It assumed

that he was born sometime in 1580 and he died around 1634. Webster wrote several plays

comedies, and tragedies alike but he is most known for two of his tragedies; The White Devil and

The Duchess of Malfi. According to Wikipedia, those two plays are considered to be

“masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage.” Also according to Wikipedia, “Webster

has received a reputation for being the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatist with the most

unsparingly dark vision of human nature.” Webster was very aware of what his audience was

interested and that helped to make him a successful playwright, a contemporary of

Shakespeare’s, and a playwright whose plays are still being read and revered today.

Back in the 17th century audiences were interested in vengeful, overdramatic, gory,

violent plays. A phenomenon that was taking place during the 17th century was the shift of focus

from the church and religion to the scientific movement, and logical reasoning. Audiences were

growing less concerned with God and religion and more concerned with this new movement.

Although religion wasn’t the basis for all theater anymore, religious practices and beliefs were

still pretty subtly incorporated into the works of the time. Often the goriest, most violent and

most graphic plays thrived; plays like The Duchess of Malfi and many others.

The themes that are ever-present in The Duchess of Malfi definitely kept an audience

back in the 17th century entertained. The play is the epitome of everything a Jacobean tragedy
should be. There is vengeance, inequality of the classes, women’s sexuality, forbidden love,

corruption, and most importantly betrayal.

The vengeance theme is one of the most popular in Jacobean tragedies. The Duchess of

Malfi incorporates vengeance all throughout the play. The Duchess’ brothers, mainly Ferdinand

plans to get back at his sister for “attainting” their “royal blood,” as said in Act 2 Scene 5. At

this point in the play the brothers have received word that their sister has bore a child but they

don’t know who the father is. Cardinal and Ferdinand are both intensely angry but Cardinal

seems to have some bit of doubt that this is possible. Throughout the play the brothers scheme

and finally come up with a plan to deal with this “family problem” of theirs. Another instance

where vengeance takes place during the play is Bosola, after killing the Duchess, her children

and Cariola, receives no payment and is solely pardoned for his actions by Ferdinand. Bosola

goes to Cardinal who then asks him to kill Antonio. At this point Bosola is extremely suspicious

and this is where he begins to trade teams. Vengeance and spite forces him to trade sides.

The inequality of the classes is another theme present in the play with Antonio and the

Duchess. The Duchess is more powerful than her husband Antonio, who is a lowly worker on

her estate. This is quite a paradox, considering that the play takes place in an extremely

patriarchal society. The Duchess married Antonio for love, and during the daytime when others

are present she is superior, but at night or whenever they are alone a typical patriarchal marriage

arises. When Antonio in Act 3 Scene 2 says “my rule is only at night,” he is conceding to the fact

that he is of a lower class than his wife, the Duchess of Amalfi.

Women back in the time when The Duchess of Malfi took place were expected to be

passive, and have no real control of their own lives. A woman choosing her own husband and

marrying against her brothers wishes in secret definitely was more than frowned upon. A woman
was not allowed to express herself sexually and her sexuality was completely ignored and

repressed. The Duchess, was no ordinary woman, she is a woman of noble birth and has a great

deal of power but that made no difference in her “ability” to chose a husband on her own.

Forbidden love was also a theme that was common within Jacobean plays. The love

shared between the Duchess and Antonio definitely was a twisted form of that classic Romeo

and Juliet story that audiences just adored. The Duchess was forbidden to marry by her

controlling and meddling brothers. Defying them alone made the romance forbidden, but what

makes it all the worse is that Antonio is beneath her in status and wealth. The concept of

forbidden love enticed audiences.

The theme of corruption was truly a crowd pleaser, but playwrights had to be very careful

when depicting corruption especially in government. Often the plays would be set in different

countries like Italy or France in order to not upset the monarchy. The Duchess of Malfi is set in

Italy. The Duchess’ brothers are powerful figures in the Italian government and are very corrupt.

For example, Ferdinand orders the murder of the Duchess and her children without any trial or

fair judgment passed upon her. To make this scenario worse he then denounces Bosola for killing

the Duchess without a sanctioned trial or jury in Act 4 Scene 2 “Did any ceremonial form of law

doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury deliver her conviction up I’th’court? Where shalt

though find this judgment registered unless in Hell?”

The most prominent theme in the text has to be that of betrayal. In the beginning the

Duchess betrays her family and her brothers by remarrying after she swears never to do so. But

this betrayal is small in comparison to the other betrayals in the play. Cardinal and Ferdinand

betray their sister in a way that can never be forgiven. They kill her and her family in cold blood

without any hesitations. The brothers also betray Antonio when they tell him to go back and
they won’t harm him at all and end up killing him. Perhaps the biggest and most important

betrayal that occurs during the play is the brothers’ betrayal of the ever faithful Bosola, which in

turn forces him to betray and kill them.

In most Jacobean tragedies, relationships between people are often very complex, even

though the people are not. Bosola and the brothers, the Duchess and her brothers, and the

Duchess and Antonio are perhaps the most interesting, and most intricate inter-character

relationships throughout the play.

The Cardinal throughout the course of the play never seems to show any kind of emotion

or sympathy. Ferdinand is the Duchess’ twin brother and he unlike the Cardinal is stricken with

emotion and eventually loses his sanity. Bosola is a typical mercenary. He is loyal but only for a

high price. At the beginning of the play the Cardinal and Ferdinand make Bosola the stable man

at the Duchess’ estate, but his true job is to spy on her. It is not the first time he is hired to do the

Cardinal’s dirty work. In Act 1 Scene 1 Delio tells Antonio that he knew Bosola spent seven

years in prison, committing a murder that the Cardinal supposedly ordered. Throughout the

entire play Bosola appears to be quite faithful to the two conniving brothers, but after having the

Duchess killed and not receiving any form of payment he vows to protect Antonio, the next

victim on the brothers’ list.

The Duchess and her brothers, Cardinal and Ferdinand have an unusual relationship with

each other. The Cardinal, the eldest of the three siblings is a cold, heartless and a corrupt member

of the Roman Catholic Church. Ferdinand is the Duchess’ twin brother and an extremely

emotional and erratic character. Towards the end of the play he feels remorse for killing his

sister. The relationship that the three share is really rather interesting, it appears that the Cardinal

is the dominant sibling in the relationship. That is possibly due to the fact that he is the first born,
but quite possibly because he is much more mentally stable then his brother and his sister is a

woman. The Duchess regardless is a very independent and powerful force to be reckoned with.

Her decision to re-marry against her brothers wishes shows how strong of a woman she is.

The Duchess and Antonio have an extremely complex relationship. The Duchess is

higher in class and status but she chooses to marry him for love. Antonio is employed by the

Duchess but is courted and wooed by her and falls in love and marries her. Since the marriage is

forbidden they keep it a secret. Antonio is the most pure character of all. He stands to gain

nothing from the marriage and in turn it costs him his life. The love between Antonio and the

Duchess is unconventional but true and short-lived.

There are many aspects of the play The Duchess of Malfi that make it the perfect

example of a Jacobean tragedy. All the themes of vengeance, inequality of the classes,

women’s sexuality, forbidden love, corruption, and most importantly betrayal definitely

set this play aside from others of the era. Webster masterfully created Romeo and Juliet

type of love story and placed it in an even more strenuous environment. The characters

are all extremely dramatic and have very complicated and intricate relationships with

each other. One thing is for certain, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, is a great and highly

entertaining play not just for the Jacobean era but for all time.