Study Guide

The Duchess of Malfi Tone

By John Webster

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Universal Truth of Webster Plays: life is harsh.

We've talked about this over in the "Suffering" section of Themes, but the darkness of Webster's worldview is so pervasive and so consistent that it infects the tone of the play. The play's action tends to follow this template:

  • Danger threatens a character.
  • Character gets scared, audience gets scared with them.
  • Character thinks up some way to fix/avoid the danger, audience gets its hopes up along with them.
  • Things fall apart, character gets crushed, audience tears its hair out in frustration and agony. Crying often ensues.

Webster takes the idea of "the light at the end of the tunnel is just an oncoming train about to squash you flat" and turns it into a narrative cycle: the Duchess discovers in Act 3 that her brothers are on to her and makes plans to flee the court with her family. Yay! Bosola redirects her right into her brothers' clutches. Agony! The Duchess dies, but then comes back to life for a moment. Yay! And then dies. For real this time. Agony.

Geez, Webster, what did we ever do to you?

There's a lot of talk about Fate in The Duchess of Malfi, and characters tend to either come down on the side of thinking Fate has it in for them, or that Fate just doesn't care (take a look at the "Suffering" Theme for more). The audience, though, has a bird's eye view of all of the action, and gets to see beyond the trials of the individual characters to look at the big picture: you have all of these characters, some good, some really not good, and ultimately none of them can catch a break.

That's Webster for you: life's a you-know-what, and then you die.


You probably had to pay really close attention to keep track of what was happening in this play—where is the Duchess? Are her kids okay? Actually, how many kids does she even have? Oh, wait, those aren't even really her kids, they're just mannequins Ferdinand made to freak her out. Do the brothers know she's married to Antonio, or just that she's had children?

This confusion doesn't mean you're not reading the play properly. It's built into the way that the play is written.

So much of the plot of The Duchess of Malfi is driven by people's secrets: their efforts to keep them, to figure out other people's secrets, to keep it secret that they know other people's secrets. By Act 3, the characters and the audience are both embroiled in a vast, twisted web of lies, secrets, and insecure loyalties. It's a regular soap opera up in this joint.

We'll Be Watching You

One of the main ways that Webster makes the audience sensitive to this lies-built-on-top-of-lies feeling is his tendency to write scenes with people observing other people. Think, for instance, of the very first scene of the play: we're introduced to all of the major characters of the play, but not directly. Instead, we see them come onstage and hear what Antonio and Delio say about them. And when the Duchess is proposing to Antonio, they're not alone—Cariola's watching, and she actually delivers the last lines of the first act to comment on what she's seen. Then there's Act 3 Scene 4, which is presented entirely from the point of view of two random pilgrims you never see again. Get the picture?

This people-watching pattern pops up again and again, and even though the audience knows more about Who Knows What than any of the play's characters (except, perhaps, for Bosola. There's a reason he's a superspy, people), even they find it hard to keep up with it all because the play's action is so frequently conveyed through the messed up and biased lens of other people's perceptions.

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