Study Guide

The Duchess of Malfi Introduction

By John Webster

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The Duchess of Malfi Introduction


This one's a doozy, dear Shmoopers. You're gonna want your tissues, pint of chunky monkey, and whatever fluffy animal is handy ready to intervene when it all gets to be too much.

If most scholars had to describe John Webster and his work in one word, that word would probably be "bleak." Webster's definitely got a rep, and it's not undeserved: his two most famous works, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, illustrate an unrelentingly black and cynical worldview, so much so that Webster has been immortalized by T.S. Eliot as the man who "was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin" (from Whispers of Immortality, 1-2).

To be fair to Webster, it's not all his fault: both of his major tragedies are based on real life events. The Duchess of Malfi, which he wrote around 1612, is about an actual historical couple who'd lived about a hundred years before. That's right—the Duchess and Antonio were real people, whose marriage ended up going about as well as it does in Webster's play (which is to say, not well at all). Most of the characters are based on real people, although Webster definitely spiced things up a bit.

On the surface, The Duchess of Malfi is about a widowed noblewoman who defies the wishes of her elder brothers and secretly marries her non-aristocratic steward, Antonio, out of love, and then faces the terrible (and, at times, impressively creative) retribution of her brothers. But there's more to it than that.

While there's a lot of intense, interesting stuff going on in this play (check out "Why Should I Care?" below for more) The Duchess of Malfi is probably most famous for its depiction of the Duchess herself. As the widow of the Duke of Malfi, the Duchess is in an almost unique position among Renaissance women because she not only has legit legal rights, but she also has considerable political power. In addition, our girl's got the personality to match all that power: she's independent, smart, strong willed, and doesn't see why she can't have it all—sovereignty, motherhood, sexual freedom, and the hubby of her choice.

Problem is, not only are her brothers maniacally fixated on controlling her, but she lives in a world that isn't ready for her. See, the Duchess faces the dual problem of (1) being an independent woman in a society that doesn't really know how to handle independent women and (2) trying to maintain a family on the down-low while hanging onto her power as a ruler.

Webster's depiction of the Duchess's hopes, struggles and ultimate destruction in the face of these obstacles has led many critics to argue that, in this play, Webster managed to create what Shakespeare himself never really did: a truly tragic female protagonist.

What is The Duchess of Malfi About and Why Should I Care?

Ontological mobility: it's obsessed mankind for thousands of years, it'll bag you a mighty impressive Scrabble score, and it's at the heart of The Duchess of Malfi.

Um, okay. But what is it?

Simply put, it refers to the ability to shift the nature of your own existence. Sounds impressive, but how does it tie in with The Duchess of Malfi? Well, nothing is stable in this play, and one of its main difficulties is keeping track of all of the movement, whether it be across geographic spaces, social barriers, or lines of loyalties. All of this motion is swirling around the main instability of the play: identity. None of our characters can ever quite pinpoint who they heck they are.

From moment to moment, these characters are changing—the Duchess, for instance, can start a scene embracing her role as a wife, but at the drop of a hat shifts into the sister, or the prince, or the mother. Bosola agrees to serve Ferdinand in large part because his own identity is so insecure—who and what is he? A Malcontent? A spy? A disillusioned ex-con? Antonio has to both secretly be the Duchess's husband while pretending to everyone else that he's just her employee.

You get the picture: these people have identities coming out their ears. Not only are most of the characters pretending to the world to be something they're not, but they themselves are constantly wrestling with the fluid uncertainty of their roles in society.

That's because this play takes place at a time when traditional concepts of identity were undergoing some major renovations. Before, people had more or less been born into their lot in life, but now they were beginning to be able to shape their own lives and livelihoods. At the time, this was a huge upset to the old-school social hierarchy.

If you think these issues are a thing of the past, though, think again: all of those buzzwords you hear in your daily life—the American Dream, Women's Lib, new money, old money—all exist because we still have some sort of template for what each person's proper place in the world is, and our cultural ideas and instincts about it are still really unresolved.

Apart from all of this deep stuff, there's also the fact that, from a dramatic standpoint, this play has got it all: forbidden love, spies, betrayal, doomed nobility, werewolves—well, okay, just the one werewolf, but still—and a poisoned bible, just to top it off. The point is, if you thought Renaissance plays were a snore, you haven't seen this one yet.

The Duchess of Malfi Resources


Luminarium's John Webster Page
This is a site with links to all of Webster's work (even the bad stuff), a nice big page for criticism, and a biography detailing what very little we know about Webster.

Harvard Classics Online Edition
Check out this easily navigable online version of the play, complete with line numbers and footnotes. You never know how hard it can be to find an online edition with line numbers until you start looking, so appreciate what your Shmoop-Yoda has done for you.


The Duchess of Malfi (1971)
This BBC-produced, traditionally staged version of the play should do the trick for your viewing needs.


Theater Review of Old Vic production
This (rather lukewarm) review of the 2012 Old Vic stage production contains some great tidbits.

New York Times Review of Old Vic production
The same production was given a more favorable review by the NYT, where it is fittingly introduced as "the most compelling of the carnage-heavy productions I saw."

Jim Warren's Stage Notes
Here's a set of notes that Jim Warren, the director of the 2012 American Shakespeare Center staging of the play, sent to his cast members. One of our personal favorite is "We're doing Duchess because it is a masterpiece." Tell it like it is, Jim.


1972 Film Version on YouTube
This links you to the first part of the 1972 BBC version of the play—featuring a suitably hunky Antonio, as well as fabulous and fabulously impractical costumes—graciously uploaded (and may it remain so) to YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

Clip From 2010 Stage-To-Film Production
This is actually a trailer clip for the full DVD, but it shows you the crazy three-way murder of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and Bosola in Act 5.

Clips from Eileen Connolly's Adaptation
A lady named Eilen Connolly took it upon herself to adapt a very…different and experimental theater version of The Duchess of Malfi, complete with modern dance segments and additional text. It's definitely wacky, but it all goes to show that people are still playing around with this text in interesting (if sometimes kind of weird) ways.


Librivox Recording of the Play
For those long road trips when you get a hankerin' for some Webster, there's always Librivox. Check out this full-length recording featuring a different voice actor for each character, so you always know who's who.

Podcast Lecture
Here's an excellent lecture done on podcast by Emma Smith, a professor at Hertford College, Oxford. In addition to great feminist approach to the play, it also addresses the literary history of the original Duchess of Malfi story.


1623 Title Page
Original title page of the published edition, complete with old time-y Renaissance spelling.

Helen Mirren…
… as the Duchess.

Judi Dench
Who wore it better? The part, we mean.

Title Page of The Second Tome of the Palace of Pleasure
This is the title page for William Painter's The Second Tome of the Palace of Pleasure, which contained a (heavily moralized) version of the Duchess of Malfi story, and served as the principle source material for Webster's play.

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