The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster in 1612-13, was rewritten by William Poel for the Independent Theatre Society.
John Webster. The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. by C. Vaughan. London: Aldine House, 1900.
by Suriya Ahmed, Mitchell Lewis, Derrick Martinez, and Azra Tosic
In Act I, Antonio returns from France and meets up with Delio who greets and welcomes Antonio back from his trip. Antonio tells Delio about his trip and how it was a success. Bosola, a former convict, complains a lot about the court and begins to voice his displeasure with the cardinal. Bosola main complaints were about the social system and how one ascended to the top while others stayed still at the bottom of the hierarchy. Bosola complains that the cardinal has henchmen who commit crimes and do not suffer the consequences once they are caught. After complaining about his social status, Bosola receives a crucial role to help the Duchess. Ferdinand has secured the Duchess’s approval for Bosola to watch over and care for the horses. Later in the scene, The Duchess tells Cariola that she does not intend to be a widow for the rest of her and that she actually wants to marry someone—Antonio, specifically. Cariola marries them without the Duchess’s brothers knowing.
Act II takes place nine months later, and the Duchess is pregnant with Antonio’s child. Bosola realizes this and plans to feed her apricots because they are known to induce labor. She eats them, immediately becomes ill, and rushes off to her bedroom. The Duchess and Antonio decides to say that the Duchess has fallen ill with some disease. When Antonio confronts Bosola about whether the apricots were poisoned he drops a piece of paper, which turns out to be a horoscope for a baby, confirming Bosolo’s suspicion that the Duchess is pregnant. He then decides to send this evidence to the Duchess’s brothers, who are unaware of her secret marriage and assume that the baby is illegitimate. Ferdinand angrily states that he will not take any action against his sister until he figures out who the baby’s father is.
In Act III, several years later, Antonio meets Delio again. He tells Delio that he has had two more children, and then he asks if the Cardinal had found out about his affairs with the Duchess. Delio confirms that both the Cardinal and Ferdinand seemed to be onto him. The Duchess, Ferdinand, and Bosola enter. The Duchess says that she wants to address the rumors that have been going around, but she is interrupted by Ferdinand’s outbursts. He mentions that he does not want to hear it, but if they were true he would still forgive her. She leaves with Antonio and Delio. Bosolo tells Ferdinand that the Duchess has had three more children. Ferdinand then asks for a key to the Duchess’s private room so that he may figure it out. He goes to the Duchess’s room and hands her a knife so that she can kill herself. She tells Ferdinand that she is married and will not kill herself. She then asks if he would like to see her husband. He rejects her offer and leaves the room in a rage. Antonio and Cariola then enter. Antonio has a pistol with him as he feared for his wife. After that, they devise a plan for Antonio to leave and go to the town of Ancona. Bosola enters and the Duchess tells him that Antonio is a thief who has stolen from her and she demands he be removed from her home. Once the officers escort Antonio out, the Duchess confesses to Bosolo that Antonio is her husband and the father of their children. Meanwhile, the Cardinal and Ferdinand converse with Delio. Their conversation ends when Bosola enters and tells the Cardinal and Ferdinand about the Duchess’s husband and children. The Cardinal concludes that the Duchess has deceived them so Antonio could get away. Ferdinand swears that the Duchess will not get away with this. When the Duchess arrives at the city to meet Antonio, the Cardinal meets her here, takes her wedding ring, and banishes her and her entire family from Ancona. Bosola enters with an invitation from Ferdinand asking to meet with Antonio. Both Antonio and the Duchess suspect that this is a set-up, so they decline. The Duchess tells Antonio to take their oldest son to Milan where they will be safe. After they leave, Bosolo gives the Duchess no choice but to leave with him.
In Act IV, the Duchess is now a prisoner in her own home. In darkness, Ferdinand visits her. He begins to curse her and then deceives her into believing that her children and husband are dead. The Duchess grieves and wishes for death. Ferdinand wishes to deprive her of sleep so that she can begin to go insane while he looks for her husband whom he knows is in Milan. Eventually, Ferdinand sends Bosolo into her cell to hang her. The Duchess is not afraid to die because she has not done anything wrong, so she goes willingly. When she is dead, Ferdinand enters and explains that all he ever wanted was to inherit his sister’s fortune. When Bosola asks for a reward for his loyalty to Ferdinand and his brother, Ferdinand tells him that this was an unlawful execution and therefore a murder and that he would be to blame for the death of the Duchess. Bosola continues to ask for his payment but Ferdinand just tells him to get out of his sight. As Bosolo reflects on all that he’s done wrong, he notices that the Duchess is twitching. Before she dies, he tells her that her husband is still alive. Bosolo heads to Milan to avenge her.
In the final Act, Antonio asks Delio if he could become friends with the Duchess’s brothers. Delio tells him that it is not possible and any appearances to the contrary are a trap. Antonio finds the hidden cell where he plans to get the Duchess’ brothers to like him by talking to them. Ferdinand comes down with a mental illness and does not want to be cured, so he makes a big deal in front of the doctor. Pescara, who is a soldier, asks the Cardinal if Ferdinand is okay, and the Cardinal makes up a story to prove that he is not. Although the Cardinal is involved in the Duchess’s murder, he pretends to be unaware of her death. Meanwhile, The Cardinal and Bosolo plan to follow Delio to Antonio. Bosolo asks Julia to spy on the Cardinal and she agrees. Later, she is poisoned by the Cardinal when he tricks her into kissing a book. Bosolo enters to see Julia dead and demands payment for his services to Ferdinand and to keep this secret, but he is met with more threats from the Cardinal. Back at the Duchess’s home, Antonio hears echoes from the Duchess’s grave. The echoes say that Antonio is next to die and Bosola as well once he fulfills his service to him. Bosola attempts to find Antonio back at the Duchess’s home and when he finds him, he accidently mistakes him for the Cardinal and stabs him. As Antonio dies slowly, he thinks about his love and their kids. He is confused about why Bosola stabbed him. Bosola explains his mistake and vows to avenge him and the Duchess. Bosola enters the Cardinal’s room telling him that he has come to take his life and how he took Antonio’s life by accident. Ferdinand enters and thinks that the Cardinal has been overtaken by the devil, so he does not offer help. Instead, Ferdinand stabs both the Cardinal and Bosola. Bosola stabs Ferdinand back. Bosola and the Cardinal both die. At the end, Delio enters with Antonio’s only surviving child and promises to raise the boy as a legacy to his parents.
by Naamah Armstrong (ORCA summer program, 2016)
The Duchess of Malfi is a dark tragedy that pulls the heartstrings of the audience from the moment we dive in. The author sparks our attention immediately through the mysterious undertone of suspicion, corruption, and an impending evil expected by the vigorous Antonio. Antonio has just come back from France, and is telling Delio about how France is ruled by a king who seeks to reduce the state and people to a fixed order, which he wishes to bring also to Italy as it is far more corrupt. Antonio foreshadows an upcoming evil that he believes should be warned throughout the kingdom before lives are lost and innocent blood is betrayed. We are given clues of this corruption through the questioning of Cardinal’s morals as he is known to love piety yet lives a double life. It is seen in this first scene that Bosola has recently been released from prison for murder. In this current time, there is a rise in the questioning of the Roman Catholic Church and the compromising of the truth to suit the desires of the corrupt leadership. Automatically we are drawn to Antonio’s desire for justice and righteousness, thus being on his side to see it served.
In the next scene, we are introduced to Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brother, who is bent on keeping her heart hostage by having Bosola be a spy for him in order to keep her from being remarried. Unexpectedly, love’s grip is much too powerful to keep the Duchess chained to her past. Ferdinand and Bosola continuously try to persuade the Duchess not to remarry, and irritatedly she makes clear that her intentions are to remain chaste and stay a widow. But as the plot deepens, so does the curiosity of interest. Antonio is placed in servitude to the Duchess, and it is through this that they cannot resist the spirit of attraction that pulls them closer as they begin to fall in love with each other. This leads to the Duchess proposing to Antonio with the help of her maid, and they secretly marry. Because of the discrepancy in their social statuses, they have to keep their relationship undercover to protect their identities.
Nine months later, Bosola begins to suspect that the Duchess is pregnant, and he tries to prove it by giving her apricots to make her ill. When she accepts the apricots, she gets sick and runs off to her bedroom, giving Bosola a deeper confidence that what he insinuated was correct. He finds further verification in a horoscope about the baby that was written by Antonio, and it prompts him to “share the good news” with her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal. When they discover the news, they are enraged and send people to capture the lovers, without knowing the father of what they believe to be an illegitimate child.
After a couple of years, Delio, the friend of Antonio, visits the palace of the Duchess. At this point she has had two more children. Things become quite heated as Ferdinand returns with an unquenchable rage to destroy the secret lover of his dear sister. In his deep anger he banishes her from his sight. Desiring to protect Antonio, she sends him out of the city for the false accusation of stealing from her. In his false sense of righteousness, Bosola uses this as an opportunity to try to “protect” the Duchess, which actually causes her to release the secret of her marriage to Antonio. With this news he chases after Antonio with what seems like a heart to win Antonio back for her, but in reality this turns into a scheme to banish the both of them. When Ferdinand hears the truth of the matter, his anger causes him to send a threatening letter to his sister, breaking up her family to avoid further conflict. Soon after, the Duchess and two of her children are taken captive.
The next act opens with countless tactics of torture inflicted upon the Duchess by Ferdinand. No matter how intense the suffering Ferdinand puts her through, she remains firm. His sanity only drains as her faithfulness remains. Although she believes the lies about her family behind dead, nothing can shake her from facing death with a deep peace in her heart and the soundness of her mind. Her life is ended as she is strangled. Next her two children and her maid are also killed at the command of her insane brother. Ferdinand comes to see the corpses, and suddenly he is filled with regret, wishing to take back all that he ordered Bosola to do out of his rash anger. Bosola also is filled with deep sorrow for all that he caused as he shares the hope of an alive Antonio.
In Act Five the insanity of Ferdinand has intensified, and the Cardinal is in denial of his sister’s death. Ferdinand now believes himself to be a wolf as he goes around digging holes in graves. The Cardinal, seeking revenge, bribes Bosola to murder Antonio. Later Bosola uses the confession of Julia (the Cardinal’s mistress) and her love for him to manipulate her to making the Cardinal admit involvement in the death of the Duchess. More bloodshed carries on as Bosola continues to manipulate his way to his reward up until he decides to side with Antonio to avenge the death of the Duchess. He accidentally kills Antonio, which then leads to the deaths of Ferdinand, Bosola, and the Cardinal. Only the son of the Duchess remains, and he is proclaimed ruler of the nations.