The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is a revenge tragedy play. It is set in Roman Catholic Italy and is loosely based on a true story. The Duchess is a young widow and rules the town of Amalfi. She has two brothers, Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand, who is her twin.
The Duchess is forbidden to remarry by her brothers. They show it as if it’s to keep their family honor and lineage true, but actually want to steal her inheritance by not letting her have children. Antonio is the Duchess’s steward. The Duchess becomes very fond of him, and it is clear that Antonio’s intentions toward the duchess are out of love. They get married secretly and have had three kids over the years. Their marriage remains a secret. Although Cardinal and Ferdinand know about the children and are furious, they bide their time till they know who her husband is. Once the secret is revealed, their plan is set in motion.
It’s very difficult to explain the plot in brief because there are a lot of things going on with numerous characters. The play is dramatic in its approach, but since it’s made to be performed, it makes sense and didn’t bother me much. The characters of The Duchess and Antonio are the ones who are good from start to end. They value love and family over everything else and honorable people. It’s the character dynamics, internal and external that make this play interesting. The way each character has its own arc which makes perfect sense, and how they end up even if it is bittersweet.
Antonio wants to try to diffuse the situation before things get out of hand, and The Duchess stays brave in the face of her brothers’ actions. Cardinal and Ferdinand are both questionable, with Cardinal being completely evil. Ferdinand has some sense of consciousness, but both are greedy and selfish. Bosola is a spy sent by Ferdinand to the Duchess’s estate. He does what he is asked to do by Ferdinand, but he does seem to have a soft spot for Antonio and the Duchess. He seems almost like a grey character. He feels guilty for the Duchess and even helps when can in small ways, and ultimately, is the reason both brothers are dead.
Politics and corruption is a major theme in the play. Apparently, this is what Italy was thought of at the time by the British that their politics and corruption went hand in hand. Cardinal and Ferdinand are the biggest contributors to this theme. It begins with them wanting to seize power from the Duchess. Throughout the play, they have illicit dealing and schemes to push their agenda. In the end, these actions are the reason that leads to the death of every major character leaving a sort of vacuum of power and government collapse. There is even a comparison with the French as Antonio has returned from France and talks about his experiences there.
The gender roles prevalent at the time are also an underlining theme throughout the play. The Duchess is ordered by her brothers to not remarry. The character of Julia has a relationship with Cardinal, and later, Bosola. She wants them to tell her how she can prove her love. They have the power in their relationships and she doesn’t, she doesn’t even want to be equal in any way. The Duchess on the other hand subverts these traditional gender roles. She is the one who courts Antonio, and there is a difference in their societal positions too. She does against her brothers and the norms of society because it’s not what she wants. But, the Duchess and Antonio’s relationship is a partnership. Both value and love each other.
The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is an exciting read. The plot has a lot of twists and turns, at times, too many. In the end, all seems to work for the story. The characters and the themes are interesting which keeps you engaged. It takes time and patience for me to read plays for some reason because you have to read a lot between the lines and the language. But, it is a good revenge tragedy play and kept me interested throughout.
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