The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play, written by the English dramatist John Webster and first performed in 1614 at the Globe Theatre in London. It is loosely based on true events that occurred between about 1508 and 1513, recounted in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1567). It 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 citation needed. 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.
The play is set in the court of Malfi (now Amalfi), Italy over the period 1504 to 1510. The Duchess, recently widowed, falls in love with Antonio, but her brothers, not wishing her to share their inheritance, forbid her from remarrying. However, she secretly marries Antonio, a lowly steward, and bears him several children.
The Duchess's 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 Ancona. 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 executed by Bosola. 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. Ferdinand, who by this time has gone mad, 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.
In other works