Broad Questions, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, Honours, Honours 3rd Year, Main Text, Summary, Themes

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster: Summary & Analysis

The Duchess of Malfi Summary

The play begins at the Duchess of Malfi’s palace in Amalfi. Antonio, the Duchess’s steward, has just returned from the French court to Amalfi, where his friend and confidant Delio greets him. Delio asks what Antonio considered his time in France, and Antonio responds that the French king is ruling well by ridding himself of flatterers and by treating his court sort of a fountain; good flows throughout the land when it’s properly functioning, but if the fountain is poisoned near the top, death and disease flow to the country. The king is additionally surrounded by the council and other people who are unafraid to warn him and speak their minds.
Antonio’s opening praise of the French court sets up a comparison to the Italian court, which contemporary audiences would have related to sophisticated corruption. a perfect court, he says, should spread goodness throughout a rustic, but the structure of the state is such naturally it’s vulnerable to poisoning by way of corruption or abuse of power. From the very start of the play, we are told that death and suffering have the potential to cascade downward from the top of a government.

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Politics and Corruption Theme Icon Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon Class Theme Icon
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Antonio changes the topic as he sees Bosola, a former employee of the Cardinal and known murderer, entering the space. Antonio then describes Bosola as a person who satirizes and speaks against the court, but only because he lacks the wealth and power to really participate. After a couple of moments the Cardinal enters, and Delio and Antonio stand aside while the Cardinal and Bosola talk.
Bosola apparently takes a critical position in reference to government and courtly affairs, but Antonio believes this is often only the case because Bosola lacks the cash to be a courtier or a noble.
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Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon Class Theme Icon
Bosola tries to speak to the Cardinal, but the Cardinal is extremely dismissive. Bosola believes he deserves better treatment, as he was formerly employed by the Cardinal and ended up serving a sentence within the galleys (forced labor whose severity is second only to the death sentence) while in his employment. The Cardinal dismisses Bosola and exits, then Antonio and Delio approach.
The implication here (one that’s reinforced later) is that the Cardinal ordered Bosola to commit the murder that landed him within the galleys. this is often an early indication that the Cardinal is corrupt, though he tries to preserve his image by ignoring and not associating with Bosola.
Active Themes
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon Religion and Sin Theme Icon Class Theme Icon
Related Quotes with Explanations
Blue quotation bubble icon linking to a crucial quote related to this summary and analysis.

Blue quotation bubble icon linking to a crucial quote related to this summary and analysis.
Antonio asks Bosola what happened within the conversation, to which Bosola replies that the Cardinal and his brother are like plum trees rich with fruit, but only ate up by crows, magpies, and caterpillars. He says that he hopes to be one among their flatterers in order that he can reap the advantages, advance his social stationthen leave. Bosola remarks that dogs and hawks get rewards after the battle, but soldiers only get slings and crutches. He compares places in court to hospital beds then exits.

The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi Analysis

Malfi’s court
Malfi’s court. Residence of the duchess of Malfi in Italy. Original set descriptions are sparse, and therefore the central importance of the setting isn’t such a lot in its physical nature as its function as a location where characters good (the duchess and her husband Antonio) and evil (Duke Ferdinand, the cardinal, and therefore the duchess’s brothers) can meet and interact. Without it being specifically stated, there’s a transparent sense that this tragedy unfolds largely within walls which, by the top of the play, became the prison of the duchess. because the play unfolds there’s increased emphasis on the themes of darkness and lightweightresulting in greater use of lanterns. the main purpose of all the settings during this play is to supply a physical space where the characters can speak, for ultimately The Duchess of Malfi is about the failure of human relationships as shown within the disease of language itself.
Ruined abbey
Ruined abbey. Abandoned church that has been transformed into a fortification. When Antonio is lured to his death, the foremost notable feature of the place is its startling echo, which is so pervasive and realistic that the superstitious believe it’s a spirit that speaks to the living. The echo catches and repeats ironic refrains of dialogue which permit Webster to underscore the inexorable fatality that has enmeshed the characters.
Cardinal’s residence
Cardinal’s residence. At the conclusion of the drama, language again becomes an important part of the physical setting because the cardinal strictly orders his supporters to not rush to his aid regardless of how loudly he might involve assistance. because the cardinal is killed to revenge the deaths of the duchess, her husband Antonio, and her children, his minions listen above the scene of the action but don’t interfere until it’s too late. once more, language and action are fatally separated.

The Renaissance

The term “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and therefore the period referred to as the Renaissance was a time of latest beginnings in Europe, an emergence from the center Ages. The Renaissance brought with it new ways of brooding about science, religion, philosophy, and art. During the sooner medieval period, Europeans had come to consider themselves as insignificant creatures subject to and inferior to divine beings. When some Italian scholars began to read ancient Latin and Greek texts that had been ignored for hundreds of years, they began to seem for tactics to mix contemporary Christian thought with the classical belief in human capabilities. This belief in what’s now called Renaissance humanism drove a replacement passion for celebrating human endeavor and potential. the perfect “Renaissance man” would be talented in science, mathematics, poetry, art, and athletics.
As an intellectual movement, the Renaissance touched every aspect of life. Science and exploration proliferated. Political theorists attempted to use the simplest features of classical thought, and none secular reformers asserted the rights of the commoner to possess direct access to Biblical texts.

There was a replacement passion for reading classical literature within the original Greek and Latin and for incorporating mythology into literature and art. New forms emerged, supported classical forms because the revenge tragedy grew out of the study of Senecan tragedy. Literature, including drama, moved beyond its role as an outgrowth of the church and turned to stories that celebrated or decried human capabilities.
Of course, there was no particular day on which the center Ages ended and therefore the Renaissance began. The transformation happened over a few years and didn’t affect every country at an equivalent time. Generally, the Renaissance is claimed to possess begun in Italy during the fourteenth century and to possess reached England a few centuries later. the peak of the English Renaissance was during the sixteenth century and therefore the beginning of the seventeenth. Webster’s career comes at the top of this eraand therefore the Duchess of Malfi shows many traces of its creation.

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