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The Duchess of Malfi Summary and Analysis

by John Webster

Act 3

Act Three, Scene One

Act Three begins some time later.

At the Duchess’s palace, Delio has very recently returned from Rome with Ferdinand. Antonio tells Delio that since he left, the Duchess has had two more children. Delio asks if the brothers know about this yet, and Antonio says that he fears they do, because Ferdinand has been behaving suspiciously since his arrival in Malfi. Delio asks what the common people in Malfi know, and Antonio says they call the Duchess a strumpet, but no one has any idea that they are married.

Ferdinand, the Duchess, and Bosola enter. Ferdinand tells the Duchess that he has found a husband for her, Count Malateste. The Duchess protests and asks to address the rumors about her honor, but Ferdinand insists, “Let me be ever deaf to’it” (3.1.58), and that even if such rumors were true, his powerful love for her could forgive her anything.

Everyone leaves except Ferdinand and Bosola, and Ferdinand asks Bosola what he has uncovered. Bosola shares the rumor that the Duchess has birthed three bastards, but that he has no idea who the father is. Bosola thinks a man unworthy of her has used magic to seduce her, but Ferdinand will have none of it, saying that no herbs or potions can force the will.

Bosola has purloined a key to the Duchess’s bedroom for Ferdinand, and though the latter accepts it, he will not tell Bosola what he intends to do with it. He says that anyone who can predict his behavior would have to know everything, but Bosola tells him he is overestimating himself. Ferdinand is pleased that Bosola speaks honestly instead of flattering him.

Act Three, Scene Two

In the Duchess’s bedroom, she tells Antonio he can’t sleep in her bed this night, but Antonio says he must, and they tease each other good-naturedly. Antonio teases Cariola about being single, and then they leave the Duchess alone so she can prepare for bed.

The Duchess muses to herself how she would expect Antonio to avoid her bed while Ferdinand was in the palace, but she imagines Antonio’s response would be that “love mixed with fear is sweetest” (3.2.66). While she soliloquizes, Ferdinand sneaks in. When she notices him, he hands her a knife for her to kill herself with.

She tells him that she is married, and he warns her that he doesn’t want to know who the husband is because it would lead to such violence as would destroy them both, and he warns the Duchess that she must do everything she can—including cutting out her own tongue—to make sure Ferdinand never discovers his identity.

The Duchess protests that she has done nothing wrong—she is not the only widow to remarry, and she remains pure. Ferdinand tells her that once gone, a good reputation can never be regained, and since she has lost hers, he will never see her again.

He leaves, and Antonio and Cariola return, Antonio carrying a gun. Antonio suspects that Cariola let Ferdinand into the room, and threatens her with the gun, but the Duchess tells him he came in through the gallery and gave her a knife, presumably for her to kill herself with. Bosola knocks at the door and Antonio exits before they let him in.

Bosola reports that Ferdinand has left for Rome, and asks the Duchess why she seems upset. She makes up a story about Antonio falsifying her accounts, a lie that will force him to flee Malfi and hence escape potential harm. She tells Bosola to get her officers to arrest Antonio, and Bosala leaves.

Antonio returns, and the Duchess tells him of her plan. She demands he flee to Ancona, where she will send her treasure to him. When Bosola returns with the officers, the Duchess berates Antonio, but tells them to let him go freely, as she doesn’t want the public to find out about his crimes and blame her. She banishes him, and he leaves.

The Duchess asks for the officers’ opinions of Antonio, and they complain of his tight-fisted behavior towards them. When they leave, Bosola says they were flattering parasites to Antonio when he was doing well, and tells the Duchess that she has made a big mistake and treated the honest and virtuous Antonio unfairly. He speaks at length about Antonio's virtue, until the Duchess, moved to trust him, admits that he is her husband.

Bosola declares himself impressed that she would marry him for his virtues in spite of his lack of rank. The Duchess, comforted, asks him to help keep her secret, and to take her money to Antonio in Ancona where she will meet them in a few days. The Duchess and Cariola exit, leaving Bosola alone to lament that he must tell all to Ferdinand, although he looks forward to the promotion he will receive for doing so.

Act Three, Scene Three

Scene Three is again set in the Cardinal's palace at Rome.

Count Malateste is showing the Cardinal plans for a new fortification at Naples, when Ferdinand enters with Delio, Silvio, and Pescara. Delio and Silvio explain to Ferdinand that Malateste is a soldier only in name—he avoids any real battles and only studies theories of war without actually engaging. They mock the care he takes with his mistress’s scarf.

Bosola arrives and speaks to Ferdinand and the Cardinal privately, while the others discuss what his presence there could mean. They note that Ferdinand and the Cardinal both look furious in reaction to whatever Bosola is telling them.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal are especially distressed that the Duchess is escaping to meet Antonio by pretending to be on a pilgrimage, which Cariola had warned her against. The Cardinal says he’ll have them banished from Ancona immediately, and Ferdinand orders Bosola to tell the Duchess’s son from her previous marriage—who is not mentioned anywhere else in the play—the news. Ferdinand makes plans to intercept her.

Act Three, Scene Four

Scene Four is set at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto. Here, the Cardinal gives up his cardinal’s hat in a ceremony so that he can fight as a soldier. Antonio, the Duchess, and their children arrive, and are banished from Ancona. This all happens in pantomime while the churchmen sing a solemn song. They all exit except for two pilgrims, who discuss what happened and explain that the Pope, spurred by the Cardinal, took the Duchess’s dukedom from her.

Act Three, Scene Five

Scene Five takes place nearby Loretto, following the banishment.

The Duchess and Antonio mourn their current state to Cariola, their children, and their last remaining servants. Bosola brings them a letter from Ferdinand, which asks for Antonio to be sent to him, using double-talk so as to threaten his murder while pretending to offer amity. The Duchess sees through his “riddles” (3.5.41) easily, and so Antonio refuses to go. Bosola scorns his refusal and leaves.

The Duchess, fearful of an ambush, pleads for Antonio to take their oldest son to Milan. He accepts, and they all say their farewells. After Antonio and the older son leave, Bosola and a troop of armed men approach to apprehend the Duchess and her remaining family. Bosola entreats her to forget her lowly husband, but she says that a man’s actions, not his rank, are what matter. She and her family are taken back to her palace as prisoners.


The theme of class becomes most developed here in Act Three. Interestingly, it is first explicitly discussed between Bosola and the Duchess, both of whom are speaking disingenuously in an effort to hide something from the other. They each thus end up acting as the other’s mouthpiece on the issue, as when Bosola berates the Duchess for saying of Antonio, “But he was basely descended” (3.2.160), in response to Bosola listing Antonio’s virtues, for those virtues, he says, matter more than “men’s pedigrees” (3.2.262). The ironic presentation does not mean that the opinions voiced are not honest considerations of the way people approach an individual's status.

When, as a result of Bosola’s protestations, the Duchess admits that she is married to Antonio, Bosola pretends to be filled with joy and admiration that the Duchess would look past rank and wealth to give a man his true due for his character alone. The audience knows not to trust his effusive praise, of course, but it is worth noting that the final tragedy for the Duchess and her family comes out of this very moment, when Bosola uses this praise of looking beyond rank to get her to admit who her husband is.

Yet, as is often true with Bosola, it is impossible to know just how much truth is mixed in with his lies. Once he is alone again on stage, he expresses some reluctance to give his new information to Ferdinand, even though it’s the very information he has been trying to get for about two years. This implies that there may have been some truth to his “friendly speech” (3.2.301), especially since his pervasive melancholy is centered on his own inability to improve his position, and now he sees, embodied in Antonio, that it is, in fact, possible to rise past what custom usually dictates.

Though this contradiction may indicate that Bosola has some respect for the Duchess’s choice in marrying Antonio, he does much to dispel such an interpretation later in the act. For once he has told Ferdinand about Antonio, and so can speak forthrightly without having to lie to try to ensnare the Duchess, he shows much more snobbery about class. For example, when Antonio refuses to act as Ferdinand, through Bosola, wants him to, Bosola says, “This proclaims your breeding/Every small thing draws a base mind to fear” (3.5.52-3). Ferdinand is an obviously dangerous figure, and his attempt to get Antonio to come to him has a double, threatening meaning which is barely even hidden. The Duchess, the embodiment of pedigree, is the first to notice this, and yet Bosola would have it that it is only Antonio’s lack of breeding that makes him fearful of it.

After the sad parting of Antonio and the oldest son with the Duchess and the rest of the children, Bosola comes to take the Duchess into custody. In this powerful scene, Bosola holds up Antonio’s rank as reason enough for the Duchess to forget him completely—“Forget this base, low fellow” (3.5.116). This admonition is all the starker in juxtaposition to the sad leave-taking that preceded it, making Bosola’s directive, and thus his blind judgment based on rank, seem absurd.

When the Duchess responds angrily, he doesn’t even bother to use a full sentence in his reply—“One of no birth” (3.5119)—as though his meaning is so obvious that he doesn’t even need to declare it. This leaves the Duchess an opportunity to stand up for Antonio, and for the unimportance of birth, and she does so beautifully, having the last word in the argument for the moment. Though she first defends him positively, explaining that since a man who is great for his own actions, not his birth, is happiest, then the reverse is also true—“So, to great men, the moral may be stretched:/Men oft are valued high, when th’are most wretch’d” (3.5.140-141). The fixation on Antonio’s rank in the third act, then, becomes also related to question of Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s evil. They have the birth, the power, and the standing that Antonio lacks, but they are the symbol of evil throughout the play.

Act Three also further elucidates the stark differences between what the Duchess actually is, what Ferdinand believes her to be, and what he wants her to be. The image of the Duchess of a reproductive figure and mother that first came in Act Two is expanded here—one of the first things the audience learns in Act Three is that in what has been only moments in the time of the theater, the Duchess has had two more children--she has been an “excellent/Feeder of pedigrees” (3.1.5-6).

In the next scene, the domestic bliss of the Duchess’s marriage is made clear. The Duchess, Antonio, and Cariola tease each other kindly in the Duchess’s bedroom while she prepares to go to bed. The simplicity and easy domestic happiness of this scene create a very different image than all of Ferdinand’s imaginings of the Duchess two scenes earlier, when he sees “her in the shameful act of sin” (2.5.41) in his mind, “Haply with some strong thighed bargeman,/Or one o’th’ wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge” (2.5.42-3).

Ferdinand is incapable of imagining her in a loving relationship. If she has had a child, it must have been a product of her uncontrollable lust and resulting promiscuous behavior. The only other option he can imagine for her, that which he wants, is as a monumentalized figure, forever bowing chastely over her first husband’s tomb, “cased up, like a holy relic” (3.2.140). The irony is of course that for someone so harshly moral about sex, he is most fixated upon it, again a contradiction that can be seen through a lens of repressed incestuous feelings for his twin.

Antonio marks the distinction between this chaste, marble figure the Duchess’s brothers would like her to be and the more earthly figure she actually is when talking to Cariola:

O fie upon this single life. Forgo it.
We read how Daphne, for her peevish flight,
Became a fruitless bay-tree; Syrinx turned
To the pale empty reed; Anaxarete
Was frozen into marble: whereas those
Which married, or proved kind unto their friends,
Were, by a gracious influence, transshaped
Into the olive, pomegranate, mulberry. (3.2.24-31)
The women who remain single are “fruitless,” “pale,” “empty,” “frozen,” “marble,” while the married women become fruit-bearing trees, both beautiful and nourishing to the world around them. This is so preferable to the marble women that Ferdinand and the Cardinal would have, and so far from the lusty widow that they believe the Duchess to be, that their evil against her and her family becomes all the more pronounced.

Finally, a word can be said about the inventive theatricality Webster employs to detail the Duchess and Antonio's banishment from Ancona. Performed as a pantomime dumb-show under a sung hymn, the scene has a great theatrical power both for its economy of storytelling and the irony of pilgrims celebrating through song such a perverse, demented, self-interested line of action.

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