Act Five, Scene One
Act Five begins in a public place in Milan.
Delio counsels Antonio that the proffered peace from the Cardinal and Ferdinand is likely to be a trap. When the Marquis of Pescara approaches, Antonio hides and Delio asks to be granted some of the land that had been seized from Antonio. Pescara denies his request, and Julia approaches with a letter from the Cardinal, asking for the same land. Pescara grants it to her, and when Delio confronts him about his refusal, Pescara tells him that he wouldn’t want to give land taken from someone in such a shameful way to a friend—Delio—but as Julia is a strumpet, it’s good enough for her.
Pescara says that Ferdinand has come to Milan and is rumored to be sick or crazy. He leaves to visit him. Antonio comes out from hiding and tells Delio he plans to visit the Cardinal in his bedroom tonight to either reconcile, or face his punishment and get it over with.
Act Five, Scene Two
Scene Two is set in the residence of the Cardinal and Ferdinand.
Ferdinand’s doctor tells Pescara that Ferdinand is suffering from lycanthropia--he believes himself to be a wolf, and goes to dig up bodies in graveyards at night. He’s been doing better since the doctor started treating him, but the doctor fears a relapse.
Ferdinand enters with Malateste and the Cardinal, and Bosola enters separately. Ferdinand asks to be alone, and then proceeds to attack his own shadow. The doctor tries to intimidate Ferdinand so that he’ll follow his orders, but it doesn’t work and Ferdinand leaves, followed by the doctor.
Pescara asks the Cardinal how Ferdinand came to this state, and the Cardinal makes up a story about Ferdinand seeing a ghost, which started his loss of sanity. Everyone leaves except Bosola and the Cardinal, who doesn’t want Bosola to know he was involved in planning the Duchess’s death, so he pretends to not know she is dead. He tells Bosola that if he finds and kills Antonio, the Cardinal will give him whatever advancement he desires.
Right after the Cardinal leaves, Julia enters with a gun, threatening to kill Bosola so that her obsessive love for him will end—which she believes he caused with a love potion. Bosola denies having given her anything, and they embrace. Bosola asks her to prove her love for him by finding out what’s wrong with the Cardinal, and she agrees, telling him to hide and she’ll do it right away.
Bosola hides and the Cardinal enters with his servants. He says, aside, that he is wearying of Julia and wants to get rid of her any way he can. She asks him what’s bothering him, and though at first he refuses to tell, finally he confesses to having engineered his sister's death. He makes her swear to keep his secret by kissing on a bible, but he has poisoned it and she dies almost immediately.
Bosola reveals himself to ask for his reward for killing the Duchess, since Ferdinand is too crazy to give it. The Cardinal tells him he will have it once he kills Antonio, which Bosola agrees to do. The Cardinal gives him a key so he can come after dark to help him remove Julia’s body. The Cardinal leaves, and Bosola reveals that he will search out Antonio to protect him, or to offer to join him in avenging the Duchess’s murder.
Act Five, Scene Three
Delio and Antonio are near the Cardinal’s palace, discussing the haunting echo that comes from the Duchess’s tomb. Antonio is particularly haunted by it, as it does indeed seem to repeat snippets of his speech that have agency and meaning. Delio tries to convince Antonio not to go to the Cardinal’s chamber, but Antonio says he would rather die than continue to half-live.
Act Five, Scene Four
Scene Four returns to the residence of the Cardinal and Ferdinand.
The Cardinal, Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan enter. The Cardinal tells them not to stay with Ferdinand tonight because having people around makes him worse, although in reality he simply wants to ensure that no one is around when he gets rid of Julia’s body. He further tells them of a plan to imitate Ferdinand's insanity in an attempt to get his confidence, and so they should ignore any extreme sounds or cries they might hear. They swear they won’t go to Ferdinand no matter what they hear from his room. Everyone leaves except the Cardinal. He confesses to himself a plan to kill Bosola as soon as Bosola has killed Antonio and removed Julia's body.
The Cardinal exits, and Bosola enters, having overheard the Cardinal’s plan to kill him. Ferdinand enters, speaking of strangling, which Bosola assumes is about him. Antonio and a servant follow, and Bosola, frightened and not realizing who it is, stabs Antonio fatally. Before he dies, Bosola tells Antonio what happened to his family. Bosola is devastated by his mistake, and tells the servant to take Antonio’s body to Julia’s room.
Act Five, Scene Five
The final scene is set in a different chamber in the same Milan residence.
The Cardinal enters, debating to himself the nature of hell and wondering aloud "how tedious is a guilty conscience!" (5.5.4). Bosola enters, followed by a servant who carries Antonio's body. Bosola tells the Cardinal that he has come to kill him, and though the Cardinal first tries to call for help, then to bribe Bosola to let him live, but Bosola is determined. Above, Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan hear the Cardinal’s cries for help, but they think he is testing them as he told them he might, so they don’t go to him, except for Pescara, who thinks he sounds truly in trouble. The others follow because they want to see Pescara humiliated.
Bosola tells the Cardinal that he is going to kill him to avenge the Duchess and Antonio’s deaths, and then stabs him. The Cardinal continues to call for help. Ferdinand comes in and, not understanding the situation, wounds the Cardinal further, after which he stabs Bosola. Bosola kills Ferdinand.
Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan enter. Bosola explains why he has killed Ferdinand and the Cardinal, but the Cardinal blames Ferdinand for their sister's death before he dies. Bosola explains that he killed Antonio accidentally, and then he too dies. Delio enters with the eldest son of Antonio and the Duchess's marriage, the sole survivor of the family, and the men pledge to help give him a good life to honor his mother and father.
The Duchess is unquestionably the heroine of The Duchess of Malfi, so many critics have questioned Webster’s choice to have her tragic, heroic death scene in the fourth act rather than the fifth. This placement leaves room for the play’s themes to be tied up, and for the tragic destruction of the Duchess and her family to be avenged through Bosola, who in this act finally gets to fight on the side of the good that he claimed to have had inside him all along. In many ways, this structure suggests that Bosola is the central figure of the play. Validating this claim is the fact that Webster listed Bosola first in the cast list, a rather rare occurrence in the day for characters of low rank.
The opening lines of the act underscore Antonio’s weakness. He does not yet know that his wife and two of his children are dead, but the audience has just seen them tragically murdered, so when he asks, “What think you of my hope of reconcilement/To the Aragonian brethren” (5.1.1-2), the dramatic irony paints him as not only only naive but horrifically callous. In his insistence on meeting with the Cardinal to beg peace, his ultimate ineffectiveness as a husband and father and protector of his family is made brutally clear, and the fact that even his death is no more than a tragic accident shows how he has never really been more than a frame to the vivacity, power, and courage of the Duchess. None of this is meant to negate his honor and goodness, but rather to suggest the ineffectiveness of such virtues in a world this corrupt.
This act also reveals the cracks in the seemingly all powerful Cardinal’s strength. He represents cold, calculating, removed evil, having managed to exert his will throughout the play while keeping his hands clean, and as such he has seemed indomitable. This illusion has been maintained partially by his brief presence on stage in the previous acts—he usually comes on, has a few lines and directives, and goes off again. In Act Five, however, he is more present, and he fails to maintain control when exposed for longer periods of time.
His first mistake is to believe that he can still control Bosola with the promise of rewards to come but never intended, as he and his brother have done all along. Though Bosola does accidentally kill Antonio, as the Cardinal wished, it was the opposite of his intent, and the Cardinal’s trust allows him to access the Cardinal alone and so kill him. The Cardinal also overestimates Julia’s love for him, and underestimates her cunning, and thereby exposes the secret that gives the hidden Bosola imperative to put the final chain of events in motion. These mistakes, and the fact that he signs his own death warrant in his schemes to keep the courtiers from coming to his chamber, show that his Machiavellian scheming is in fact short-sighted and fallible.
The Cardinal and Ferdinand both, on different scales, show the destructive power that evil ultimately has on the very perpetrators of that evil. With Ferdinand, this is very obvious. Though he has shown some small signs of madness all along, and certainly irrationality, in the fifth act, he is completely undone, fighting his own shadow and digging up corpses, believing himself to be a wolf. Though there is foreshadowing of this lycanthropia throughout the play, the real turning point comes when Ferdinand is faced with the face of his sister’s corpse. Her goodness, and the price she paid because of his evil, is too much for him, and he goes off to hunt a badger—clearly an indication that his total loss of sanity has begun. One can also understand this from a psychological standpoint - if we think of his intense hatred of his sister's sexuality as symptomatic of repressed incestuous feeling, then his insanity here represents a transference of those perverted feelings once she has died and can no longer serve as a receptacle for his displaced feelings.
For the Cardinal, his self-destruction is more subtle, but still distinct. Besides the chips in his facade already mentioned and the mistakes that allow Bosola to kill him, in the last scene his spirit is diminished. The scene opens with him fearing hell, and what it has in store for him, and for the first time he shows signs of guilt for all of the evil he has done. In stark opposition to the Duchess and her calm, dignified death, he cries for help repeatedly as he is attacked. Bosola tells him, “Now it seems thy greatness was only outward,/For thou fall’st faster of thyself than calamity/Can drive thee” (5.5.42-44), and this is reflected in his powerlessness to draw aid, to help himself, and in his final, melancholic plea to “Be laid by, and never thought of” (5.5.89).
The pattern of death in Act Five is utterly distinct from that in Act Four, further cementing the image of the courageous Duchess. The Duchess gets a long lead up, elaborate rituals, and her body is left isolated on the stage to set her apart, not to mention the courage and dignity with which she faces her executioners, and the hope with which she looks to the afterlife. In Act Five, however, Antonio dies in a case of mistaken identity, the Cardinal calls uselessly for help while both Bosola and Ferdinand attack him, Ferdinand gives Bosola his death blow seemingly at random—all is chaos, cowardice, and hopelessness in the face of death. For she who lived her life virtuously and in pursuit of her own happiness, a dignified death in possible. For most of us, who it seems Webster believes would live our lives mired in self-interest, deception, and cruelty, death will come in an undignified manner.
Though the play is mostly overwrought with evil, it does end on a hopeful note. One member of the Duchess’s family survives, her and Antonio’s oldest son. The representatives of evil have all destroyed each other, and “These wretched eminent things/Leave no more fame behind ‘em than should one/Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow” (5.5.112-4) which will melt in the sun. They can do no more harm from beyond the grave, but though the Duchess is also dead, she can do good, for it is in the Duchess’s “right” (5.5.112) that Delio and the surviving gentlemen intend to raise the son, this symbol of hope, who the Duchess and Antonio created in and left as a testament to their love. The only dark spot on this otherwise hopeful ending is the worldview that Webster paints so vividly, one where evil and human self-interest is the status quo, and so even what starts pure has the potential to grow corrupt.