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Antonio is the Duchess's secret hubby-cum-baby-daddy, doomed both by social stigma and the Duchess's crazy brothers. Before that, though, he was her steward.
In case you aren't in the early modern know, a steward is basically the guy who sits right below the noble, and is responsible for running his (or, in this case, her) household. In the duchy of Malfi, Antonio is to the Duchess as Commander Riker is to Captain Picard. Got it? For another hunky steward, check out one of our personal favorites, the Steward of Gondor.
Your first impression of Antonio is that he's a straight guy in a crooked world: he's honest, hardworking, and super loyal to his mistress, the Duchess, in a play where the court is portrayed as pervasively, inescapably corrupt.
Antonio opens the play with his BFF Delio, and they act as a kind of Chorus to introduce us to Bosola, Ferdinand, the Cardinal and the Duchess as they come onstage. In this sense, Antonio actually has a lot of narrative power. Before you ever hear about any of these other, really important people, you see them through Antonio's eyes. In that first scene he comes across as a guy with well-developed personal views on politics, service, and the individual people he deals with: he's of the opinion that
[…] a prince's court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver drops in general, but if't chance
Some cursed example poison near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread. (1.1.11-15)
To Antonio, he and the Duchess are manning the helm of Malfi's "common fountain," and they have to set an example of integrity for all of the Duchess's subjects. Ferdinand and the Cardinal, with their corruption and self-serving ambition, are exactly the kind of guys who "poison" the court and, by extension, the people they rule.
So, while Antonio's still just a steward at this point, he's a character with lots of authority—he's respected for his good work, his skill with a lance, and his integrity.
Once Antonio marries the Duchess, though, things change.
Socially, Antonio's now between a rock and a hard place. By Renaissance standards, he's in one sense supposed to be the Duchess's superior (her "overseer," as the Duchess herself once mentions) because he's the husband and she's the wife, but at the same time he's also supposed to be her subordinate because she's the aristocrat and he's her employee.
In addition to the social inequality problem, Antonio also doesn't come off as being nearly as strong a person as the Duchess: she's bold, strong-willed, and able to come up with schemes to circumvent her brothers at the drop of a hat, all of which are qualities that Antonio basically lacks. As a result, their marriage ends up mirroring their professional relationship. She takes the reigns, and he follows her lead. Yep, Antonio most definitely does not wear the pants in this marriage.
For all that Antonio's a good guy, he doesn't really do all that much after he marries the Duchess. In fact, the only time you really see Antonio formulate and execute an actual plan is when he goes and tries to patch things up with the Cardinal in Act 5, which is not only super misguided and naïve, but also, as you remember, not successful. In the worst way.
For somebody who accuses Bosola of "want of action," Antonio doesn't come off as much of a do-er either. Even in the scene where he and Cariola are watching Ferdinand draw a dagger on the Duchess in her bedroom, he doesn't come crashing out of hiding to defend her, he stays back and lets her handle it. When Antonio eventually emerges, the Duchess immediately starts making plans and giving orders, which Antonio deftly, immediately obeys.
While Antonio's dual status as husband and employee is a complicated one, the general gist of his story (the first half of it, at least) is that he's a really good guy who is rewarded and socially elevated precisely because he's a really good guy.
Something that you have to wonder about, though, is whether Antonio himself is really gunning for social advancement. When the Duchess first proposes, he freaks out, because he knows that marrying the Duchess means socially leveling with an aristocrat and, as he says to her, "Ambition, madam, is a great man's madness" (1.1.412). We'll say.
Initially, at least, one the things that really sets Antonio apart is that he appears content with his position in the court. As Bosola repeatedly notes, "places in the court are but like beds in the hospital, / where this man's head lies at that man's foot, and so lower, / and lower" (1.1.65-67). In other words, all of the courtiers below the head honchos (in this case, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and the Duchess) are scrambling over each others' backs to gain favor so that they can climb one rung higher on the social ladder.
And Antonio is one of the very few exceptions. Even Bosola, though not a huge fan of Antonio personally, is very clear-eyed about Antonio's merits, and when defending Antonio against the Duchess's pretenses of firing him he describes Antonio as "a soldier that thought it / As beastly to know his own value too little / As devilish to acknowledge it too much" (3.2.247-49). By Bosola's ruler, one of Antonio's greatest attributes isn't servile humility, but rather the fact that he knows exactly where he stands in the grand scheme of things, and that he isn't looking to claw his way up the social ladder.
That said, it's not clear that Antonio lacks ambition, and his feelings on his new status are pretty murky—head on over to the "Society and Class Theme" for the scoop.
Antonio's not a dumb guy, nor is he blind to the evil of the Duchess's brothers (he is, in fact, the person who introduces them to us as Really Evil Dudes). How is it, then, that after everything that he and the Duchess go through, he thinks he can go explain himself to the Cardinal and hug it out with his brothers-in-law?
It's kind of odd that, although Antonio is the husband who loves her, Bosola emerges as the Duchess's real champion in the end.
What do you think is the point of having Bosola kill Antonio by accident? There's almost an entire act leading up to the Duchess's own execution, and when it comes, all "I am Duchess of Malfi still," "mine eyes dazzle," etc., it's a show-stopper. With Antonio, he basically just gets snuffed out, totally by accident, and without much fanfare—in dramatic terms, his death actually serves more to develop Bosola than Antonio himself. You have to wonder whether this is Webster's way of showing that all of the characters really are the "stars' tennis balls," as Bosola claims, or if a good guy like Antonio just never stood a real chance in the nasty world Webster writes about.
Antonio's a good guy, but you won't find a whole lot of papers entitled "An Edgy New Analysis of That Timelessly Fascinating Character, Antonio of Bologna." The Duchess of Malfi is famous for having psychologically complex characters, like Ferdinand or Bosola, and while Antonio has his moments, he ends up coming across more as a character type, rather than a dynamic, round, and interesting guy. When you think of Antonio, you probably think of the things he stands for—honesty, social inferiority, and devotion. You probably don't spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out what he's thinking, or why he's doing what he's doing, because there just isn't as much to him as there is to the other characters.