We close our play with Delio, Antonio's BFF, coming on stage right after Bosola, the Cardinal, and Ferdinand have all killed each other. He's brought in the only surviving son of Antonio and the Duchess, and closes the play by saying,
[…] Let us make noble use
Of this great ruin; and join all our force
To establish this young hopeful gentleman
In's mother's right. These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind 'em than should one
Fall in a frost and leave his print in snow:
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts…
"Integrity of life is fame's best friend,
which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end." (5.5.109-115, 119-120)
Sounds pretty rosy, right? "Yeah, this is all sucks really hard, but if we can just raise this kid right and make sure he takes over his mom's duchy, everything'll be just swell, and we can pretend that none of these shenanigans ever went down, just like snow melting in the spring." The real question is, after sitting through several hours of heart-wrenching agony, are you buying this?
That last bit about the "integrity of life" is drawing pretty directly from Horace's Odes 1.22, whose opening lines explain that, if you're living a morally upright life, you've got nothing to worry about from threats like wolves or the weapons of your enemies. So, Delio says, as long as you're living life on the straight and narrow, it's all going to turn out okay (um, what about Antonio?).
A lot of readers feel pretty dubious about this ending; the play has so far been so crushingly cynical that Delio's whole "yeah, bad stuff happens, but then it fades away, and living nobly is what really counts in the end!" schtick just doesn't hold up.
Does Killing Off the Majority of the Characters Hit the Social Reset Button?
Now that basically everyone's dead and all of the action's over, what's the status of the court?
Well, there're a few ways of looking at it.
From one perspective, this final scene looks like it re-establishes the patriarchal pattern that society has been forcing on the Duchess: a man is once again taking over the duchy. Well, yeah, that's true, but let's look a little closer. This kid isn't the son of the original Duke of Malfi, and he isn't claiming his noble title based on his own patrilineage: he's being installed, as Delio says, "In's mother's right" (5.5.112). Hmm.
Moreover, our boy-duke is the son of Antonio, not some noble. This is actually pretty funny when you think about it. After the Cardinal and (especially) Ferdinand spend the entire play doing everything they can to keep their bloodline totally pure and aristocratic, in the end the only surviving member of their family, who will assume control over the bloodline, is a boy that they would consider a degenerate half-breed. Seriously, they'd call this kid a Mudblood.
So, actually, you can read this last act as affirming the idea that the product of Duchess's subversive marriage (the son) in fact corrects the horribly corrupt system that destroyed the marriage itself.
Apart from the question of the purity of the aristocracy, think about this: the Duchess spends most of the play juggling her political and domestic roles. So what do you think of the fact that the ending essentially melds the two, with her son (the result of her role as a mother) inheriting the duchy (the result of her role as a ruler)?
Delio: A Glass-Half-Full Kind of Guy in a Glass-Half-Empty Kind of Play
While it looks like there's reason to feel good about this kid's ascendency, that still leaves Delio's last words:
Integrity of life is fame's best friend,
which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.(5.5.119-120)
Seriously? You should check out the "Suffering Theme" for more on this (the fact that we even have a Suffering Theme tells you something about this play), but the short story is that whatever hopes the characters have for divine reward for good behavior dissolve to vanishing throughout the course of the play.
We see this most clearly through Bosola's eyes, who famously concludes that men are "merely the stars' tennis balls," because there's neither reward nor punishment for good or evil. We think play seems to vindicate that idea. Bosola doesn't get rewarded for doing the right thing in the end, and Ferdinand and the Cardinal die as much by accident as they do by Bosola's retribution.
We'd love to believe Delio, but in the end "integrity of life" doesn't appear to have gotten anybody very far.