The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Take a position on where Bosola stands in the fight between good and evil in the play.

    Bosola is a complicated character in a play where most characters are obviously good or evil. His actions have dire consequences for the Duchess and her family, but unlike the Cardinal and Ferdinand, he shows reluctance to carry out these actions, and as he is essentially the only character who addresses the audience directly, we get a great sense of his internal struggle. This struggle is further represented in his complicated motivations, which veer from a seeming desire to do right by others to unfiltered self-interest. He is thus the character who represents the battle ground for the fight between good and evil, and though evil largely wins, he does manage in the end to eliminate all of the evil characters and pave the way so that the Duchess’s surviving son can possibly grow up in a better world.

  2. 2

    Do a close reading of Delio’s closing speech.

    Delio’s closing speech offers a note of hope after all the devastation in the play. He presents the Duchess and Antonio’s son as a symbol of hope, and as the goodness created by the reproductive woman is essential to the play, this is deeply significant. In addition, he stresses how the Cardinal and Ferdinand will leave no legacy, while the Duchess’s “Integrity of life” (5.5.119) means she will leave behind a good, lasting legacy, which is another important theme in the play. Structurally, this speech gives the audience a lens through which to understand the play that has preceded it, to judge the values and realize Webster's message that we ultimately will reap what we sow, even if not on this Earth.

  3. 3

    Compare and contrast the Duchess’s death with those of her husband and brothers, and explain the importance.

    The Duchess’s death scene is long, full of rituals and chaos, but she remains completely calm in the center of it. She faces death fearlessly, with worry only for her children, and she dies seemingly at peace. To some extent, this clam is explained by her belief that her family has died, but it also reflects her integrity and inner strength, her lack of self-interest. In contrast, Antonio dies by an unfortunate accident, and then Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola die in a chaotic scene involving cries for help, insanity, and gloomy proclamations. The vast distinction serves to emphasize the Duchess’s courageous goodness, and show how her brothers’ evil could not reduce her to their level, even in death. On the other hand, the brothers, so defined by perverse self-interest and corruption, resist death and die in an undignified manner.

  4. 4

    Present and defend a position on why Ferdinand reacts so strongly to the Duchess’s remarriage.

    Though Ferdinand tells Bosola he didn’t want the Duchess to remarry because he wanted to inherit her fortune, the reality is clearly more complicated than that. He is obsessed with her reputation and her sexuality to the extent that when she remarries and he can no longer control either, it deranges him, and his propensity towards anger takes him over. One can also argue a psychological interpretation, which suggests that Ferdinand is driven by repressed incestuous feelings that, when they lead to the destruction of her body, drive him insane.

  5. 5

    Compare and contrast the Duchess as the audience sees her to the figure described by her brothers.

    Ferdinand calls the Duchess a “lusty widow,” (1.1.331), and imagines her being sweet-talked by a man into giving up her honor, or sleeping with all sorts of different men. This is completely different from what the audience sees of her. Yes, she marries hastily, but it is for a love that she has clearly chosen for herself—Antonio is far too passive to sweet-talk her into anything—and even after they are wed, she declares that they can stay chaste if he wishes it. They don’t, of course, as evidenced by their three children, but the engendering of innocence is a positive virtue, a far cry from the unfettered sexuality Ferdinand imagines her engaging in.

  6. 6

    Explain how the symbols of light and dark are used in the play.

    Throughout the play, the Duchess is associated with light, and her brothers are associated with darkness. This both reflects the battle between good and evil, and reflects the life-producing actions of the Duchess in contrast to the life-corrupting and life–destroying actions of the brothers. When all three characters are dead, Delio’s describes the faded legacy of the brothers as a snowprint melting in the light of the sun, suggesting that the Duchess's light was ultimately capable of defeating their darkness.

  7. 7

    What is the importance of justice in the play?

    Justice in The Duchess of Malfi is ironically perverted by the very characters who claim to seek and represent it, because of the evil of their desires and actions. The clearest example are the Duke Ferdinand and Cardinal, both of whom are authority figures whose self-interest leads to a perversion of their influence and makes the world dark in their image. However, Bosola's grapple with justice is far more nuanced. Bosola tries to make his dark deeds acceptable by framing them as part of systematic justice, but once Ferdinand denies him support for this delusion by denying anyone had the authority to order those deeds, Bosola reframes his understanding of his actions, and thereby realizes the true injustice of what he has done. In the end, justice in the play is rarely pursued outside of self-interest, considering that even once Bosola decides to bring retribution to the evil brothers, it is a manifestation of having been ignored and denied a reward. All in all, the world of this play is one without much justice, and even the final glimpse of hope at the end does not promise that will change.

  8. 8

    Who is the most courageous character in the play? Defend your choice.

    The Duchess is far more courageous than any other character in the play. The contrast between her death scene, in which she faces death unflinchingly, and the death scene of her brothers, in which they rage cowardly against impending death, reveals the extent of her inner strength. Where they rely on the prestige of their authority to justify their actions but ultimately are not saved by those, the Duchess has only her inner strength to lead her, and it ultimately leads her son to be the sole survivor of the major parties. In fact, her choice to marry Antonio in the face of both her brothers' threats and the class expectations of her world, shows her strength. Her husband, though a good and virtuous man, is mostly ineffectual and reactive, reflected in his rather random death scene. By living as she pleases, and then accepting the cost of that with courageous calm, the Duchess reveals herself to be uncommonly brave.

  9. 9

    Despite everything that happens, could one say that the Duchess defeats her brothers in the play? Explain.

    Although the Duchess loses her freedom, her family, and her life, in the end she leaves a profound, positive legacy in the form of her one surviving son, while her brothers wipe themselves and their own evil out. Ferdinand's attempts to demean her by driving her insane reveal her strength, whereas his subsequent insanity shows him to be a weaker person. Further, they both lose more than their lives by the play's tragic end. Ferdinand loses his sanity, partially when he confronts the way she accepts her death, and the Cardinal loses his reputation by dying in such an undignified way, marked with such heinous sins in the presence of his courtiers. In these ways, she defeats them.

  10. 10

    What is the importance of the motif of hell and the devil in the play?

    Hell, fire, and the devil are associated with the Cardinal and Ferdinand throughout the play, and this frames the evil that they do as unleashing hell on Earth. Though they are in many ways simply driven by self-interest, the extent of their cruelty marks them as significantly more demented than as can be explained by simple selfishness. This theme of hell on Earth explains several elements. First is the theatricality, which grows progressively more grotesque as the play progresses, and which would not be justified by a more subtle, psychological construction of their evil. More importantly, the extent of their evil engenders a world that is larger than them, so much larger that they themselves are ultimately destroyed by that very evil. Bosola stands as a battleground wherein the audience witnesses the effect of this hell, and through him do the villains finally face comeuppance. The legacy of the Duchess’s goodness finally wipes it out, so though she is dead, she ultimately defeats them. Of course, one could argue that the simple and short final statement does not negate the worldview that Webster reveals through most of the play, and so this hell is only temporarily sated for the sake of audience enjoyment.