The heart of the story is the relationship between the widowed Duchess and her steward, Antonio, whom she secretly marries, defying both social convention and the wishes of her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, her twin.
The model of subversion and containment applied by some critics to much Renaissance drama seems to suit the Duchess, who is severely punished for her private violations of patriarchal order.
The twin relationship between Ferdinand and the Duchess makes the characters mirrors for each other; the frequent presence of mirrors as stage props makes the metaphor explicit. Yet the transformation of Bosola in the final act of the play leaves his character open to interpretation.
The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most frequently revived Jacobean plays other than those of Shakespeare. As critic John Russell Brown has suggested, The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences.
Though he is the twin brother of the Duchess, he is cruel to her from the beginning of the play, and his employment of Bosola as a spy is an indication of his distrustful nature.
The containment of her sexuality has particularly interested critics. A trend toward feminist studies of Renaissance drama in the late s and s brought the Duchess to the attention of several scholars.
The theme of identity is carried through the play in several ways. In her scenes with Antonio, she is unabashedly sexual. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form Major themes of duchess of malfi the themes of the play.
Bosola plans to save Antonio, who had escaped, and punish the brothers, but he mistakenly kills Antonio instead. The corrupted authority of Ferdinand and the Cardinal casts doubt on the power they wield, while the nobility of the Duchess as she faces her death suggests the possibility of a different sort of authority.
The character of Antonio lacks the complexity of the three siblings; he is more a victim than an actor in the tragedy. Bosola then attacks the Cardinal, but is himself attacked by Ferdinand. Sexuality is generally linked to danger and violence, as the most explicitly sexual characters are shown to be the most evil.
Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights successfully to create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred.
The Duchess also battles with the issue of conflicting public and private identities: The brothers want the Duchess to remain unmarried, appealing to Christian piety; however, as the play later reveals, greed and incestuous lust are their true motivations.
Ferdinand is the Duke of Calabria, a menacing man who appears obsessed with the repression of sexual impulses. Bosola succeeds in killing both brothers, but is himself killed in the process. In an act symbolic of his diabolic alliance, the Cardinal murders his secret lover, Julia, with a poisoned Bible.
Dympna Callaghan and Laura Behling are among those feminist scholars who have included the Duchess in studies of the discourse of sexuality. Major Themes Themes central to The Duchess of Malfi include identity, sexuality, and power, which are all closely intertwined in the tragedy.
For decades the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries as one of the great tragedies of the English Renaissance. During her torture and death at the hands of Ferdinand and Bosola, she demonstrates a Christian attitude of forgiveness and confidence in her salvation.
As Behling has suggested, in the character of the Duchess relations between gender, sexuality, and power are brought to the fore, presenting a challenge to traditional notions of authority that is left unresolved. The theme of sexuality is tied to identity, particularly in regards to Ferdinand and the Duchess; his apparent desire for her is a perversion of socially acceptable sexuality as well as a kind of narcissism.
The role of the Duchess continues to be a favorite of leading actresses, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Juliet Stevenson.
At the behest of Ferdinand, Bosola kills the Duchess, but is then overwhelmed with remorse. Even the comparatively healthy sexuality of the Duchess is considered suspect, a sign of excess passion, even if it is not, as Ferdinand and the Cardinal would imagine, a mark of depravity.
The darkness and horror of The Duchess of Malfi are dramatically compelling, but its unexpected glimpses of light give it a complexity and richness that have maintained the interest of scholars and audiences for centuries.
His affiliation with the church lends him a seemingly supernatural power, but that power is evil; more than once, the Cardinal is affiliated with the devil. Bosola begins the play as cynical and self-serving. Bradbrook has pointed out, The Duchess of Malfi also incorporates the dramatic form of the masque, a genre that would have been readily recognized and understood by a Renaissance audience.
She is passionate and sometimes haughty, though she is also maternally tender, dignified, and pious. Years pass before they discover the truth about her marriage, which is uncovered by the spy Daniel de Bosola.
In The White Devil Vittoria Corombona is powerful and intelligent, if also wicked; the title character of The Duchess of Malfi is strong, independent, and noble. See also John Webster Criticism. He is a worthy man, though of a lower class than the Duchess, and his distaste for lechery stands in contrast to the lustfulness of nearly every other man in the play.
But because the Duchess dies in the fourth act, the fifth act is sometimes seen as disconnected from the coherent whole of the first four acts. The play as a whole features a complex interweaving of lechery, incest, murder, and torture with nobility, tenderness, and forgiveness.
Jacqueline Pearson has considered the play in generic terms, maintaining that the difference between the fifth act and the others is the presence of tragicomic elements, setting the final scenes apart from the pure tragedy of the earlier part of the play.The Duchess of Malfi on the original Jacobean stage 11 Major themes within the text 13 The Skull Beneath the Skin – in rehearsal with Assistant Director Simon Evans The Duchess of Malfi Themes Family The Duchess's desire to beget herself a shiny new family with the man of her choice directly clashes with her brothers' desire that she remain their single, obedient sister.
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Duchess of Malfi, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work. Ginsburg, Jacob. "The Duchess of Malfi Themes." LitCharts. LitCharts LLC, 19 Apr Web.
15 Aug Ginsburg, Jacob. "The Duchess of Malfi Themes." LitCharts. Major Themes Hell on Earth The Duchess of Malfi is a play replete with darkness, both literal and figurative.
There are good figures, and these characters are associated with light. The Duchess of Malfi study guide contains a biography of John Webster, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
In the Duchess of Malfi following christian ethics tend to course more harm than good The Duchess was quite nice through out which ultimately end in her death 'The reward of doing well is the doing of it'.Download