GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi Themes

by John Webster

Major Themes

Hell on Earth

The Duchess of Malfi is a play replete with darkness, both literal and figurative. There are good figures, and these characters are associated with light. On the other hand, the brothers, who exhibit unrelenting evil, are associated with motifs of darkness, fire, the devil, and sin.

The idea that the brothers have unleashed hell on Earth is most apparent in the fourth act, which includes utter horrors like fake corpses, a severed hand, a plethora of madmen, and most centrally, the vicious murders of the Duchess and her children. The Duchess, a symbol of motherhood and light, is unfazed by these horrors because she believes her family already dead, but she does explain that “the earth” seems made “of flaming sulphur” (4.2.26). And when Bosola tells her she must keep living, she makes it clear that hell is truly on Earth—“That’s the greatest torture souls feel in hell,/In hell: that they must live, and cannot die” (4.1.70-1),

The Cardinal and Ferdinand are particularly responsible for bringing this fire to her world. Ferdinand is constantly associated with fire, by others and in his own language. He says only the Duchess’s “whore’s blood” can put out his “wild-fire” (2.5.46-7), he imagines killing her children by having them “burning in a coal-pit” (2.5.69), lighting “them like a match” after dipping them in “sulphur” (2.5.71-2). Additionally, he is associated with salamanders—at the time of the play, thought to live in fire—multiple times.

Both brothers are also even more directly connected to hell through constant associations with the devil. Antonio says “the devil speaks in” (1.1.177) the Cardinal’s lips, and Bosola describes Ferdinand's manipulation as: “Thus the devil/Candies all sins o’er” (1.1.266-7). These are but two of several instances.

This hell on Earth serves to emphasize just how virtuous the Duchess is, and how much better for the world her kind of domestic love and child-rearing is than the greed and selfishness of her brothers. The hell that they create in the end destroys them, too—as Ferdinand says, “Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust” (5.5.72). Ferdinand goes mad, the Cardinal loses all hope, and both die, leaving no legacy behind them.


Disguise—masking reality, hiding one’s true intentions, presenting a false front—is a major theme in The Duchess of Malfi. The most obvious symbol of this is Bosola. The distinction between what he says and how he acts is so vast that even the audience, who is given access to his private thoughts through soliloquies and asides, has trouble understanding his motivations.

He is a spy, and is thus constantly disguising his motives and his true feelings. Further, in the fourth act, he literally disguises himself as an old man. However, he also repeatedly shows disgust for the act of disguising. He is reluctant to take on the role of spy, and notes that “the devil/Candies all sin o’er” (1.1.266-7), thus associating the act of disguising with evil, and he scorns how men “delight/To hide” (2.1.53-4) their “rotten and dead body” (2.1.53) “eaten up of lice and worms” (2.1.51) “in rich tissue” (2.1.54). Thus, he is both the character who most thoroughly employs disguise, and the one most aware of its sinful, unattractive nature.

Disguise is so prevalent in the play that even the Duchess, the paragon of light, must employ it. In her first appearance on stage, she tells her brothers, “I’ll never marry” (1.1.293), and then before the scene is even over, she has proposed to and married Antonio. Clearly, she had disguised her true intentions from them. She then manages to have three children with Antonio without ever revealing their marriage, and even when the discovery of the marriage becomes imminent, she quickly devises an excuse to send Antonio out of harm’s way.

Yet this dishonesty is not meant to reflect poorly on the Duchess. Instead, it shows just how profoundly corrupt her brothers have made the world, in that the Duchess must disguise a good and pure love simply to survive. Her use of disguise reveals her energy and resourcefulness in her fight for what is good on this Earth.

The Fertile Woman

Evil in The Duchess of Malfi is a powerful and pervasive force that manages to destroy almost all that is good, but it is not all-powerful. At the end of the play, the Duchess's oldest son survives to carry on her and Antonio's legacy, which provides a symbol of hope tied in with the play's greatest force for good: the fertile and reproductive female.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal both express dark views on female sexuality. When they find out that the Duchess has a son, they cannot imagine this being the result of love, or of a legitimate marriage, but they instead imagine the boy as a product of wanton lust. Ferdinand goes so far as to describe the men he imagines having sex with his sister.

The reality of a woman's fertility, though, is the complete opposite. After Antonio and the Duchess wed, she says they can remain chaste if he wants, suggesting that their marriage is not based on an all-consuming lust. They do, clearly, sleep together and produce three children, but this reflects only the loving creation of family. The scene in which Antonio, the Duchess, and Cariola tease each other reveals a comfortable domestic bliss, not a hotbed of fiery passion. And, also in this scene, the goodness of such a love is emphasized when Antonio berates Cariola for wanting to stay single. He argues that in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, those women who scorned love and lovers were turned into barren plants or stone, while those who married became fruitful trees, bestowing gifts to the world.

Though Antonio’s first description of the Duchess is arguably unrealistic, she is revealed through the play as figure very much of the earth. She is fat with pregnancy in the second act, “an excellent/Feeder of pedigrees” (3.1.5-6), and manages to birth three children over two acts. Even when she is about to die, rather than transition into a saintly figure, she retains her ties to the earth for one last moment, asking Cariola to give her son some cold medicine, and to let her daughter say her prayers. Her domestic duties remain paramount to her, even as she prepares to leave the earth forever.

Once all the evil has been done, all that remains of this family that had epitomized domestic bliss is its eldest son. In the midst of all the destruction, this product of love and the reproductive woman, will be raised as a testament to the goodness of his mother. Thus, her power as a good mother, in the end, is greater than her brothers’ evil.

The Perversion of Justice

In The Duchess of Malfi, justice fails completely as a force for good; instead, it is corrupted into a tool for Ferdinand and the Cardinal. The rules that govern their world are perverse and immoral, so the justice they seek to enact inherently becomes perverse and immoral itself. Delio prepares the audience for this in the first act, when he says of Ferdinand,

Then the law to him
Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider:
He makes it his dwelling, and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him. (1.1.168-71)
The law, which should uphold peace and fairness, is instead a “foul” trap that Ferdinand uses to benefit himself.

Once the Duchess is dead and Ferdinand is overcome with regret, he himself points out how he has misused justice, when he asks, “Did any ceremonial form of law/Doom her to not-being?” (4.2.292-3). Bosola, to assuage his own guilt, has imagined the Duchess's murder as an officially sanctioned act. He describes himself as “the common bellman/That usually is sent to condemned persons” (4.2.164-5), as if she had actually been condemned by a judge or jury. When Ferdinand disabuses this notion by arguing he (Ferdinand) holds no authority with which to condemn the Duchess to death, Bosola says, “The office of justice is perverted quite/When one thief hangs another” (4.2.298-9). Only now, when it corrupted justice is working directly against him, does he realize how perverted their system truly is.


The importance of class and rank is questioned throughout The Duchess of Malfi. Those characters who place the most value on it are those who do the most damage to the world of the play, while the Duchess fights for the idea that a man’s worth is reflected by his actions and character, not by his title.

The Duchess’s marriage to Antonio is clearly a happy one, at least until exposed to the machinations of her brothers. They have three children and a clearly-expressed love for each other. Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s disgust about her marriage is thus particularly repulsive, especially since their only specific complaint revolves around his lower class.

Ironically, Bosola is first to defend the Duchess’s choice to marry Antonio regardless of his class, although he is arguably lying when he does so. He takes it so far as to praise not just the Duchess, but their progressive age for allowing such a union, and he says that her example will spread hope to all those who aspire to rise above their natural station. His speech is tempered by the dramatic irony, the audience’s knowledge that he is being disingenuous, and indeed, his success in fooling the Duchess by lavishing such praise on Antonio is what inspires her to confess her secret to him, a confession that will cost her her life.

Once the need for deceit is gone, Bosola makes his true feelings known, and he, like the Cardinal and Ferdinand, thinks Antonio’s class make him an unworthy match for the Duchess. This gives the Duchess the chance to defend her choice, and in doing so she shows that not only does Antonio’s worth greatly exceed many men of higher rank—Count Malateste, for one—but many noble men are the “most wretch’d” (3.5.141), like her brothers. Nobility is not inherently evil, as the Duchess herself is noble, but it has “neither heat, nor light” (4.2.137), and thus isn’t inherently good, either.

The Costs of Evil

Evil is incontrovertibly destructive in The Duchess of Malfi, taking a loving family of five and reducing it to one young survivor. It is also, however, deeply destructive to those who perpetrate it, and not just their victims. Not only do the three pillars of evil in the play--the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and Bosola--all die by the end of the fifth act, but they also each pay a special penance that elucidates just how terrible evil can be to those who employ it.

Ferdinand is the most obvious example. Throughout the play, his anger is so intense that he seems almost deranged, but he does not truly lose his mind until the murder of his twin sister. The change comes so suddenly after her death--he leaves the stage to go hunt badger--that it is clearly a result of the evil he has done. In addition, the form his lunacy takes--digging up corpses and believing himself to be a wolf--is also intricately connected to his guilt, as he says that “The wolf shall find her grave, and scrape it up” “to discover/The horrid murder” (4.2.301-3).

For the Cardinal, the costs are more subtle. He pays with his life, of course, but he also gives up what he values most throughout the play--his reputation. Whereas the cause of Ferdinand’s anger towards his sister is not entirely clear, the Cardinal's resentment is clearly based around the family’s reputation--“Shall our blood/The royal blood of Aragon and Castile,/Be thus attainted?” (2.5.21-3). When he dies, the state of their family is in such shambles that he wants to be blotted out completely--”I pray, let me/Be laid by, and never thought of” (5.5.88-9), and Delio makes it clear that he will get his wish, since the evil brothers have left nothing behind to be remembered.

The price Bosola pays is more complicated, in the same way that his participation in the evil is more complicated. By the end, he wants to redeem himself, at least partially, for all he has done. Instead, he accidentally kills Antonio, destroying his last chance to perpetrate good. He does succeed in killing Ferdinand and the Cardinal, but arguably only because Ferdinand gets involved and wounds the Cardinal himself. Bosola has a small amount of peace in knowing that he loses his life in ending theirs, but because of the evil he has perpetrated, he finds no true peace, evidenced by his final speech, in which he reflects on the darkness he helped create in the world.

Thus, the characters who employ evil in the play ultimately pay for it with more than simply their lives.

Reputation and Legacy

The characters in The Duchess of Malfi are deeply concerned about reputation and legacy. Ferdinand and the Cardinal are obsessed with the Duchess’s reputation, and how it affects their own. When they warn her not to be a “lusty widow” (1.1.331) before leaving her alone in Malfi, they are driven by a fear that her behavior will “poison” her “fame” (1.1.299). Later, when they discover that she has had a child, it is partially the tainting of their “royal blood” (2.5.22) that concerns them. Ferdinand tells the Duchess that, having parted from her good reputation, he will never see her, his twin sister, again.

Yet because of their obsessive concern with their family’s reputation, the brothers ironically leave no legacy. The Cardinal’s very last words are a plea to be “never thought of” (5.5.89), and Delio explains that the brothers’ legacy will last no longer than a print in snow when the sun comes out. The Duchess, conversely, doesn’t care about her reputation or her family’s name, and her goodness creates a lasting and positive legacy that might outlive her and her brothers, represented in the care Delio and the others will take to raise her surviving son in her honor. This idea is so central to the play that it gets the closing lines--”Integrity of life is fame’s best friend/Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end” (5.5.119-20). The Duchess needed no shallow concern with reputation in order to ensure a noble legacy “beyond death,” but rather simply the “integrity of life” that she reflected.

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