The Duchess of Malfi: Tragedy - Summary and Analysis

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Summary
      The Duchess of Malfi written by John Webster was acted by Shakespeare's Company and revised a little later. It is a better play than his earlier one The White Devil. The plot, derived from Bandello through Painter and based on very early Sixteenth century history has been made as absurd as possible. The Duchess who has contracted a marriage of love with her honest and knightly master of the household keeps it secret from her two domineering brothers. They have engaged a spy, Bosola in her palace to inform them of the matters. Years pass, while Bosola pries and plots. Children are born and grow to maturity before the wicked brothers find a motive for their cruelty. The brothers persecute the Duchess and subject her to horrible torture. First, she is offered a dead man's hand in the dark; she is shown the wax figures of Antonio and her children appearing as if as they were dead. Thirdly, mad men are let loose upon her and they talk, and sing and dance before her. Next comes Bosola accompanied by executioners with coffin, cords and a bell, and she is strangled to death.

The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi

Critical Analysis
      The Duchess of Malfi is in the tradition of Revenge tragedy made popular by Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. It is, however, different from The Spanish Tragedy as a revenge drama. Here Cardinal and Duke Frederick, the two wicked brothers are revengers. The Duchess who remains gentle and firm is subjected to all kinds of persecutions. Bosola is the tool vilain employed by the wicked brothers to spy on their sister and torment her. The motive of revenge is weak. Cardinal is a greater villain than the Duke Frederick. Bosola is a frustrated scholar who turns a villain. Bosola at the end takes revenge on the Duke Frederick and the Cardinal. His cynical reflections on love and life and the morbid imagery mark the decadence of Jacobean tragedy. It is melodramatic and sensational. Its plot is very weak and is full of horrible and macabre elements. But it is greater than the Spanish Tragedy and other plays of the genre in its characterisation, poetry and dramatic imagery.

      The Duchess of Malfi is one of the finest creations in Elizabethan drama, no other female character outside Shakespeare surpasses her in vividness and subtlety. In the midst of tortures and persecutions, she declares, "I am Duchess of Malfi still." she is transformed by persecution and becomes in her despair a lofty and solemn figure. It is rich in poetry and imagery. When the Duchess is killed, Ferdinand, one of the persecutors cannot bear the sight of his sister's dead face: "Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle. She died young"

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