The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster: Summary, Analysis & Themes

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David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

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Linsey Betts

Linsey is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in English Literature at Claremont Graduate University and has taught students of all ages in English and the humanities for 10 years.

John Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi' is a Senecan tragedy about a young widow who remarries for love. Review a summary of the play, then analyze its major themes of corruption, Catholicism, and gender. Updated: 10/11/2021

John Webster Information

Everyone knows William Shakespeare, but Shakespeare was just one of many great writers working during the English Renaissance, a period of great art and literature lasting from the late 15th to the early 17th century. Many of the best writers of the periods were, like Shakespeare, playwrights who wrote their work to be performed. And one of the best, and most notorious, of Shakespeare's contemporaries was John Webster, famous playwright of the English Renaissance.

Born in 1580, Webster was younger than Shakespeare and came to prominence in the final years of Shakespeare's career. Webster's plays are known for spectacular and disturbing depictions of violence. Like modern filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Webster pushed the boundaries on what was acceptable to be shown on the stage, and his plays are known for their dramatic spectacles of violence. Perhaps no play better demonstrates this than The Duchess of Malfi.

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  • 0:00 John Webster Information
  • 0:57 Plot Summary
  • 2:06 Analysis: Senecan Tragedy
  • 3:18 Major Themes
  • 6:08 Lesson Summary
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Plot Summary

Set in the Italian city of Malfi, the play tells the story of the Duchess, a young widow who falls in love with the lower-class Antonio. The Duchess' evil brothers, Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal, don't really approve of the Duchess marrying Antonio. However, the Duchess and Antonio marry in secret and have three children before being found out.

The Duchess and Antonio attempt to run away and Antonio and their eldest child manage to escape. However, the Duchess is betrayed by her servant Bosola, who was secretly working for Ferdinand, and the Duchess and her two younger children are executed. The injustice of this turns Bosola against the Cardinal and Ferdinand and he swears to exact revenge for the Duchess.

The play ends in an escalating chain of violence, as first the Cardinal confesses his role in the murders to his mistress and then murders her. Bosola then mistakenly kills a returning Antonio, thinking him to be the Cardinal. Bosola eventually succeeds in killing the Cardinal and then he and Ferdinand kill each other in a brawl. The play ends with Antonio and the Duchess' eldest son taking his place as heir to Malfi.

Analysis: Senecan Tragedy

The Duchess of Malfi, like most of Webter's work, is a part of the genre of drama known as 'Senecan tragedy,' named for the Roman playwright Seneca, who is credited with inventing the form. While typical tragedies, such as Oedipus Rex or King Lear feature a great man who is destroyed by a fatal flaw in his character, Senecan tragedy is marked by a love of bloody, spectacular violence and a focus on revenge. Revenge runs throughout The Duchess of Malfi. The Cardinal and Ferdinand first exact revenge on the Duchess for disobeying them and then Bosola vows to take revenge on them in turn.

The Duchess of Malfi is best known for its spectacular and disturbing violence. While violence was a common part of plays in the English Renaissance, Webster's are remarkable for the inventive and grotesque ways in which that violence is depicted. This includes scenes of dark humor, such as when Ferdinand convinces the Duchess that Antonio is dead by giving what he says his Antonio's severed hand, but is actually a wax figure. It also includes scenes offensive to the sensibilities of the time, such as the Cardinal using a poisoned Bible to murder his mistress.

Major Themes

The Duchess of Malfi deals with many major themes. We'll look at them here.


The Duchess of Malfi displays both political and religious corruption. Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal represent, respectively, political and religious power, and both use that power to serve their own desire for revenge. They are examples of what happens when too much power is given to one person.

While the Cardinal and Ferdinand use their power to take their revenge, it's because of their power that Bosola must take revenge as well. Like many heroes of revenge tragedies, like Hamlet, Bosola cannot rely on the rule of law, because the agents of that law are themselves corrupt. So, Bosola must take revenge himself and kill Ferdinand and the Cardinal, dying himself in the process.

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Additional Activities

The Duchess of Malfi: Review and Comprehension

In this lesson, we learned that The Duchess of Malfi is a masterful tale of love, politics, and social status written by John Webster during the English Renaissance. Through its address of themes such as corruption, social class, religion, gender, and familial relationships, the play also commented on contemporary issues facing English society. Answer the following questions to review and reinforce your knowledge of the play.

Characters and Relationships

1. Which characters are siblings in the story, and what are their social statuses?

2. Why was the Duchess' desire to marry Antonio so distasteful to the Duke and the Cardinal?

3. What is ironic about the outcome of the story where Antonio and the Duchess' son becomes the Duke of Malfi?

Society and Religion

4. What elements of the story are exaggerated to show English distrust of Catholicism?

5. What are the specific elements of the play that make it a Senecan tragedy?

6. In what way does Webster portray Bosola as the product of a corrupt society?

Example Answers

3. Despite the Duke's and the Cardinal's attempts to prevent the Duchess' marriage to a lower-class man and to punish her after her marriage, the product of that "shameful" marriage becomes the heir to the family fortune and title.

4. The evil character of the Cardinal, his hypocrisy in committing murder and fornication, and his behavior toward his own sister are exaggerated indications of English distrust of Catholic countries and their figureheads. This evil man is the opposite of what his religious position is supposed to represent.

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