John Webster


I. Webster’s contribution to Renaissance Drama:

1. Combination of sublime poetry and lurid gothic horror.

2. Creation of rebellious, independent, sexually active heroines.

3. Vision of a metaphysically dark, morally corrupt, death-ridden world II.

II Themes of the play The Duchess of Malfi

1. Flattery and corruption of the court.
2. The Duchess’s self-assertion in sexual matters.
3. Bosola as a cynic—despising the corruption of the world but not rising above it (cynicism returned upon himself).
4. The Duke’s incestuous resentment over the Duchess.
5. The Duke’s consequent madness.
6. The idea of women’s treachery.
7. Omens of bad fortune.
8. Invocation of death imagery.

  1. III. Plot summary:

The recently widowed Duchess of Malfi is forbidden by her brothers, The Cardinal and Ferdinand, to remarry. Defying them, she seeks a clandestine alliance with her steward, Antonio. He accepts her advances and they are secretly married. Meanwhile, the Duchess’ brothers enlist Bosola, a spy, to monitor their sister’s actions; he joins the Duchess’ household.

After a number of years, the Duchess becomes pregnant and bears Antonio’s child. They disguise her pregnancy but Bosola discovers the ruse and informs Ferdinand, who is outraged. However, the brothers choose to refrain from revenge until they know who fathered the child.

The Duchess and Antonio have two more children before Ferdinand visits his sister. Though treating her with affection, he still believes the Duchess’ children to be bastards. Ferdinand contrives a late visit to the Duchess’ bedchamber where he confronts her with her indiscretions. She reveals her marriage; Ferdinand declares it unacceptable. When he departs, he leaves a knife, encouraging her to commit suicide. Instead, the Duchess, to save herhusband Antonio, publicly condemns and exiles him, claiming that he failed to pay certain bills, thereby removing him from harm. She plans on joining him shortly in exile.

The Duchess mistakenly takes Bosola into her confidence and acting on his advice, she goes to the shrine of Loretto, before joining Antonio. At the same time, Bosola travels to Naples, informing Ferdinand of the Duchess’ plans and Antonio’s role. Ferdinand pursues them.

After reuniting with Antonio and revealing their marriage to her household, the Duchess’ staff deserts her. Bosola, clearly in the service of Ferdinand, brings a letter subtly demanding Antonio’s death. After Bosola leaves carrying her refusal to her brother, the Duchess, believing herself safe, urges Antonio to take their eldest son and escape to Milan, which he does.

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