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Discussion Questions for The Duchess of Malfi

 The Duchess of Malfi is an example of Jacobean tragedy, which is different from the heroic tragedy exemplified by Dr. Faustus.  Heroic tragedy tends to support the values of the hegemony, or the ruling elite, while the tragedy of the later Jacobean period (1610-1625) tends to question those values or at least to suggest that traditional values are not enough to account for the inequities and randomness of evil in the world. 

 The Duchess of Malfi also gives us a chance to see how this time period envisioned heroic womanhood, and to compare the Duchess to an earlier model such as Britomart.  The Duchess’ sexuality in particular comes into question, as she is not the typical romantic virgin but rather is a sexually active mother and also a monarch.  Note particularly which characters endorse her sexuality (and therefore her power) and which condemn it. 

 The various “villains” of the play are less two-dimensional and less self-justifying than in heroic tragedy (think of Othello or Faustus).  This implies that evil is not something we can define as safely “other,” but might be in the spiritual makeup of most people. 

 As you read Duchess, think about what it suggests about the anxieties of the time (1613) that produced and consumed this play.  What does it suggest (however ambiguously) about female sexuality, about religion, about madness, and about aristocratic values and behavior?  


 Discussion Questions-- Choose one to answer for Tuesday, 12/2

1.  Based on Acts 1-3, develop at least two specific character attributes with which you can contrast/compare the Duchess and Britomart of The Faerie Queene.  Keep in mind that both these characters are supposed to be heroic — to embody qualities of womanhood that the culture that produced them particularly values.

2.  Look at the “mad scene” in 4.2.  How do the ravings of the madmen mirror and parody the society that has condemned and imprisoned the Duchess at this point?


A student-generated but still useful "Duchess of Malfi Homepage"

Another helpful study site, with analysis and links

Luminarium's Webster page, with many useful links

Some useful study questions for the play


Synopsis: The Duchess of Malfi

by John Hutton, Ph.D., http://ds.dial.pipex.com/town/lane/xvv88/Home/kmpi/duchmalf.htm

1.1 — Antonio tells Delio about life at the French court. Bosola claims that he has been ill-treated by the Cardinal. Delio explains that Bosola had been in the galleys for murder. Antonio says that he has heard good things about Bosola and is concerned that his bitterness will poison his goodness.

1.2 — Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria enters with lackeys in attendance. Antonio and Delio discuss the Duke's poor qualities and contrast them with the virtue of his sister, the Duchess of Malfi. The Duchess sends Antonio a message to meet with her later. The Cardinal recommends Bosola to the Duke who employs him to keep an eye on the Duchess because neither he nor his brother, the Cardinal, want her to remarry. Meanwhile, Antonio and the Duchess meet. By a legal technicality involving her maid, Cariola, witnessing the 'ceremony' they are married.

2.1 — Bosola and Castruccio discuss being a lawyer. Bosola is rude about an Old Lady's make-up. Bosola has noticed that the Duchess does not look well and is determined to find out why. Antonio tells Delio about the marriage. Bosola offers the Duchess some apricots which she eats with reluctance. The Duchess suddenly goes into labor. To disguise what has happened, Delio suggests that it be put about that Bosola poisoned her with the apricots.

2.2 — Bosola makes more allusions to the Old Lady about the Duchess's pregnancy. To prevent word getting out, the pretext of theft is devised to lock the servants in their rooms. Delio is sent to Rome. He tries to calm Antonio. Cariola brings out Antonio's new-born son.

2.3 — Antonio intercepts Bosola who is still snooping around. Antonio drops the baby's horoscope which confirms to Bosola what has happened, but does not tell him who the father is. The horoscope does not bode well.

2.3 — Castruccio's wife, Julia, is the Cardinal's mistress. News of her husband's arrival comes, but Delio turns up instead. He has heard the Duke's reaction to the news, but tries to remain calm.

2.5 — The Duke is infuriated by the news that his sister has given birth.

3.1 — Two years have passed; the Duchess has given birth to two more children. Delio tells Antonio and the Duchess that the Duke is unnaturally calm, but (when the Duke and Bosola speak) the Duke won't reveal to Bosola what he's plotting.

3.2 — Antonio and the Duchess have a merry conversation. He and Cariola leave as the Duke arrives and berates his sister. After he leaves Bosola comes in. To deflect attention from the situation, the Duchess contrives a story that Antonio has defrauded her. After Bosola goes, she tells Antonio to go to Ancona. Antonio leaves and Bosola reflects that he was a good man. The Duchess tells him that Antonio is her husband. He suggests a means by which she might join him in Ancona. He then goes to tell the Duke, although is not proud of the deed.

3.3 — Delio and Silvio make disparaging remarks about Malateste's martial prowess and Delio give a commentary on Bosola's pedantry. The Cardinal will ask for the Duchess and Antonio to be banished from Ancona. The Duke has some of his cavalry summoned.

3.4 — There is a ceremony in which the Cardinal resigns his hat to go to war. The Duchess and her children are banished from Ancona. The Pope has seized the lands of the Duchy of Malfi.

3.5 — The Duchess and Antonio discuss their plight. The Duchess has had an ominous dream. Bosola delivers a letter from the Duke which attempts to entice Antonio into his clutches. The Duchess advises Antonio to flee to Milan with their eldest son. Bosola returns with a guard to take the Duchess back to her brothers.

4.1 — Bosola reports to Ferdinand that the Duchess is bearing up bravely in her incarceration. The Duke speaks to her in a darkened room because he has vowed not to look on her face. He gives her the hand of a dead man to kiss and shows her effigies of Antonio and her children as if they are dead. Bosola protests at this behaviour. The Duke sends him to Milan after Antonio.

4.2 — The Duke has the Duchess's rooms surrounded by an orchestra of madmen. Bosola arrives with an Executioner to kill the Duchess by having her strangled. Cariola and the children are similarly murdered. The Duke shows no remorse, but his sanity is cracking. The Duchess is not dead but momentarily comes to. Bosola tells her that the Pope has reconciled her brothers with Antonio. She dies. Bosola takes the body away for an honorable burial before going to Milan.

5.1 — Antonio's lands have been confiscated by the Marquis of Pescara and are being handed out to petitioners. To learn more about this, Delio pretends to be a petitioner, but the land goes to Julia instead. Pescara says that it was better that the land should go to someone of ill-repute. Antonio plans to visit the Cardinal in attempt to be reconciled with him.

5.2 — Pescara learns that the Duke has gone mad and thinks he's a werewolf. The Cardinal claims that his brother's madness was induced by the sight of an apparition. He also tries to hide his part in the murders from Bosola. He asks Bosola to kill Antonio. Meanwhile, Julia has fallen in love with Bosola which he uses to try and learn the Cardinal's part in all these events. She gets the information out of the Cardinal, but kisses a poisoned book as a pledge and dies. Bosola now knows the truth and, although he claims he is going to kill Antonio, actually intends to join forces with him.

5.3 — Antonio and Delio visit a ruin where the Duchess's tomb is. An echo gives them prophetic warnings.

5.4 — The Cardinal orders the courtiers to leave the Duke in peace for the night. He warns them that he may test their obedience at some stage. Bosola overhears the Cardinal planning to have him eliminated once he has disposed of Julia's body. Antonio comes to see the Cardinal, but Bosola strikes him down without knowing who it is. He regrets his action and tells Antonio that the Duchess is dead. Antonio dies. Bosola resolves to bring down the Cardinal.

5.5 — Bosola confronts the Cardinal with Antonio's body and declares that he is going to kill him. Although the Cardinal calls for help, the courtiers, remembering his injunction, do nothing. Bosola kills the Servant to prevent him from getting help and then stabs the Cardinal. The Duke arrives, and in his madness kills the Cardinal and mortally wounds Bosola. Bosola kills the Duke as his final act. The courtiers enter and learn the truth from the dying Bosola. Delio arrives with the Duchess's surviving son and hopes to establish him as the Duke of Malfi.

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This page last updated: 09/15/2011

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