Loss, hatred, the inescapable corruption of human society: these are a few of John Webster's favorite things. It's not hard to come away from watching (or reading) The Duchess of Malfi thinking it should be billed as "Watch Bad Things Happen to Good People." And there are several points where Webster seems to write in little moments of hope just so he can sucker punch you with some more agony.
Particularly in the second half of the play, Webster starts playing on the idea of contemptus mundi, which generally refers to the idea that the world is a wretched, empty place compared to the fulfillment found in religious contemplation. Webster's personal spin on the age-old concept of contemptus mundi takes a sharp turn, though, at the "but heaven can still save you!" part and spirals into something a lot more like "life sucks and then you die."
Questions About Suffering
Close to her death, the Duchess voices several times that death will be a welcome escape from life. Do you think the play takes any position on the question of heaven?
Does Webster's world have a default setting of "Suffering"? Or, is the world we see in the play made horrible by the actions of a few bad people?
Is Ferdinand's eventual madness punishment for his bad deeds?
Many of the characters comment about their own degree of suffering, and think about the cause or purpose of it—take a look at those different attitudes. For instance, how does Bosola's conception of his suffering differ from the Duchess's?
Chew on This
The fact that, at the end, the bad guys are dead and the Duchess's son is left to rule shows that there is in fact a guiding force of good at work.
The fact that almost all of the characters of the play—good, bad, and in-between—are dead by the end shows that there is no overarching principle at work, stuff just happens regardless of whether you're a good guy or a bad guy.