The Duchess of Malfi is generally considered to be John Webster’s greatest work. He probably wrote it in either 1613 or 1614, and it was first staged before the end of 1614. The play was first performed by the prestigious King’s Men acting troupe at the Blackfriars Theater, though the remainder of its initial run might have been housed at the Globe Theatre.
The Duchess of Malfi tells the story of the Duchess—who is never named—and her attempts to live in peace with her loving husband and children, attempts that ultimately fail due to the machinations and greed of her hostile brothers. Widowed young, the Duchess secretly remarries the manager of her household and bears three children with him. When her brothers’ spy Bosola discovers and reports the secret, the deranged Ferdinand and more coolly evil Cardinal set about to destroy her and her family. After they succeed, Bosola, repentant, turns against them, and the three of them destroy each other.
The play is based on the true story of Giovanna of Aragon, Duchess of Malfi, who was widowed at about 20 years old and then secretly wed Antonio Bologna in a service witnessed only by her waiting-woman, a similar situation to that which Webster dramatized. Though not all the details of the historical situation are known, the major plot points of the true story are the same as Webster’s version, save the retribution visited upon the brothers. In real life, the guilty parties were never brought to any justice.
In The Duchess of Malfi, Webster uses many of the techniques of the revenge play--a form that was starting to fall out of fashion at the time of the play’s first staging--but for different and usually more complex purpose. The structure of the play, though simpler than that used in Webster’s The White Devil, is still fairly unorthodox. For example, the tragic and climactic scene of the heroine’s death occurs in the fourth act, leaving an entire act to follow. Many consider Webster’s vivid and masterful use of language to be the play’s greatest strength.
The Duchess of Malfi was well-received upon its first staging, and continues to be considered by most critics as Webster’s finest work. It is still the focus of much scholarship, and is staged regularly in the theater.