The Duchess of Malfi is a Jacobean-era novel written by John Webster in around 1613. As a play it was performed at London’s Globe theatre.
The play begins as a love story, when the Duchess marries a man beneath her class (Antonio). The play ends as a nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers (The Cardinal and Ferdinand) seek to take their revenge on her (they didn’t want her to marry Antonio ).
The novel is available open-source here: The Duchess of Malfi
According to the Gutenberg Project, “Webster’s tragedies come toward the close of the great series of tragedies of blood and revenge, in which “The Spanish Tragedy” and “Hamlet” are landmarks.”
Jacobean Tragedy — This genre of play had a dark mood to it. This type of tragedy was also known as Revenge Tragedy and was extremely popular in the Jacobean era.
The Jacobean era (1567–1625) is the period in English history that centres on the reign of James I of England.
The plot of a typical Tragedy — (a) The protagonist suffers an emotional loss like death of a person he/she loved or betrayal. (b) The protagonist then seeks to avenge the loss (get revenge).
The Duchess of Malfi is based on a story in Painter’s “Palace of Pleasure,” which itself was translated from the Italian novelist, Bandello.
In the play we learn about the life of the rich in the Italian Renaissance period. The play highlights the fierce quest of pleasure and the recklessness of crime. Webster gives lots of detail on the darker recesses of the human heart.
 William Painter (c. 1540–1595) was an English author and translator. He worked in the Tower of London and was accused of fraud; stealing money from England’s government!
 Matteo Bandello (c. 1480–1562) was an Italian Bishop who also wrote short stories (some of which William Shakespeare adapted into his plays.
As you can see below, the Royal Shakespeare Company still act out the play today, some 405 years later!!! In some ways the play is about exploring the balance of power between the two genders which is of contemporary interest.
Synopsis & The Duchess of Malfi
Key protagonists (main characters):
Antonio – doesn’t like aristocrats. He is honest and a good judge of other people’s character. He secretly marry the Duchess. [he dies]
The Cardinal – one of the Duchess’s two brothers. He is corrupt and even though he is a Catholic Priest who should be celibate, he keeps a mistress who he has sex with. He arranged for Bosola to spy on the Duchess. [he dies]
Ferdinand – is the other brother of the Duchess (here twin) he is a lunatic (crazy). He is the twin brother of the Duchess. Unlike his rational brother the Cardinal, Ferdinand has rages and violent outbursts. As a result of his regret for hiring Bosola to kill the Duchess, he gradually loses his sanity… He believes he is a wolf. [he dies]
Daniel de Bosola – starts as a servant/spy working for the Cardinal (against the Duchess). He is involved in the murder of the Duchess and some of her children. But, when he sees the nobility of the way the Duchess faced her execution, he feels guilty, and then seeks to avenge them (he switches sides and wants to kill the brothers). [he dies]
The Duchess is the head of state and is the most powerful character in the play. She’s a widow with two brothers. One of them is her twin [Ferdinand] and the other is a Roman Catholic cardinal. Both of her brothers want to control her and stop her from marrying Antonio because they would loose access to the family’s wealth. However, she ignores them and remarries [Antonio]. Together with her new husband they have three children.
Over the course of the play her brothers (and their helpers such as Bosola) try to destroy her, however she defends herself and fight them back. Ultimately the play is about survival for her, her new husband and here children. However, the Duchess is executed, so are two of her three children; the cardinal is murdered and Antonio is accidentally killed, and finally both Bosola and Ferdinand kill each other in a brutal knife fight.
The play has five acts (chapters)
Act 1 —
Ferdinand, threatens and disowns the Duchess. In an attempt to escape, the Duchess and Antonio make up a story that Antonio had tricked her out of her fortune and therefore must runaway to another country.
Act 2 —
The Duchess takes Bosola into her confidence and tells him her secrets. She does not know that Bosola is Ferdinand’s spy. She arranges for Bosola to deliver her jewellery to Antonio at his hiding-place. The Duchess plans to meet up with Antonio later on.
Act 3 —
The Cardinal hears of the plan and gets angry. He 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. In Malfi they die at the hands of Bosola’s executioners, who are under Ferdinand’s orders.
Act 4 —
This experience, combined with a long-standing sense of injustice and lacking personal identity, leads Bosola to turn against the brothers, and he decides to take up the cause of “Revenge for the Duchess of Malfi.”
Act 5 —
The Cardinal confesses his part in the killing of the Duchess to his mistress, Julia, then murders Julia with a poisoned Bible. Later on, Bosola overhears the Cardinal plotting to kill him. In return, Bosola visits the chapel to kill the Cardinal whilst he is praying. Instead, he mistakenly kills Antonio, who has just returned to Malfi to meet the Cardinal. Bosola then stabs the Cardinal, who dies. After that, Ferdinand and Bosola stab each other to death. Interestingly one of the Duchess’s children—her first son—survives!