The Duchess of Malfi

Pdf fan
Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Disease Symbol Analysis

Disease Symbol Icon

References to disease, both figurative and literal, are made throughout the play. In an early speech, Bosola seems to indicate that disfigurement and disease signify a perversion and animalization of humanity. Two clear examples of the way disease is used are the Duchess’s pregnancy and Ferdinand’s Lycanthopia. When the Duchess is pregnant, it’s her morning sickness that alerts Bosola to her pregnancy. And when the Duke is driven insane by his guilt, it manifests in what the Doctor diagnoses as Lycanthropia (werewolf syndrome). In both cases, disease is an outward manifestation of some inward guilt, sin, or secret.

Disease Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi

The The Duchess of Malfi quotes below all refer to the symbol of Disease. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of The Duchess of Malfi published in 2015.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

A prince's court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver drops in general; but if't chance
Some cursed example poison't near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.
And what is't makes this blessèd government
But a most provident council, who dare freely
Inform him the corruption of the times.

Related Characters: Antonio Bologna (speaker), Delio
Related Symbols: Poison, Disease
Page Number: 1.1.11-18
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio speaks these lines at the beginning of the play while describing to Delio his recent trip to the French court. His praise of the properly functioning French court sets up an implicit comparison with the Italian court, which is known to be corrupt. He compares a court to a fountain, saying that goodness should flow throughout a country. However, the structure of a government is such that if it is poisoned near the head (the monarch), then disease, death, and despair will spread throughout the land. This poisoning near the head could come from someone whispering in the ear of the ruler, which suggests early on the way that poison will be used to represent secrets in the play.

Part of what makes a government successful, Antonio argues, is a council that is unafraid to speak freely and to inform the monarch of corruption. In contrast to this ideal court, we’ll see that the Italian court is filled with flatterers, and the corruption sprouts directly from the very top of the fountain itself. These lines can be seen as Webster’s assessment of ideal and flawed governments.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other The Duchess of Malfi quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

What thing is in this outward form of man
To be beloved? We account it ominous
If nature do produce a colt or lamb,
A fawn or goat, in any limb resembling
A man, and fly from't as a prodigy.
Man stands amazed to see his deformity
In any other creature but himself.

Related Characters: Daniel de Bosola (speaker), Castruccio, Old Lady
Related Symbols: Disease
Page Number: 2.1.45-51
Explanation and Analysis:

Bosola says these lines after making fun of Castruccio and making fun of an Old Lady for wearing cosmetics. He ruminates on the disgusting nature of man, asking what in our outward form should be appreciated or liked. In this way, he continues the play’s exploration of interior and exterior by noting that when we see anything resembling a human in another animal, we think it is horrible—we’re able to see our deformities, in other words, only in that which is external to ourselves. This isn’t evidence that we aren’t deformed, but rather evidence that we aren’t inclined to see ourselves as we are. He goes on to note that human diseases are often named for animals, which blurs the lines between human and beast and foreshadows Ferdinand’s belief that he is a werewolf towards the end of the play.

Get the entire The Duchess of Malfi LitChart as a printable PDF.
The duchess of malfi.pdf.medium

Disease Symbol Timeline in The Duchess of Malfi

The timeline below shows where the symbol Disease appears in The Duchess of Malfi. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, Scene 1
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
...it is properly functioning, but if the fountain is poisoned near the head, death and disease flow to the country. The king is also surrounded by council and people who are... (full context)
Act 2, Scene 1
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
...closet must be filled with items used for witchcraft, and that he’d rather eat a plague-ridden pigeon than kiss a woman who was fasting. (full context)
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
...we see anything resembling humans in other animals, but in our own bodies we have diseases that are named for animals. Even though we are covered in a rotten and dead... (full context)
Love and Male Authority Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
...ask him if he’s trying to become wise. Bosola then compares wisdom to a skin disease running all over a body. Simplicity, he says makes happiness, and even the slightest wisdom... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 1
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
Love and Male Authority Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Religion and Sin Theme Icon
...which she can never recover. The Duchess replies that this knowledge consumes her like a disease, and she asks to be tied to the dead body so she can freeze to... (full context)
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
Love and Male Authority Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
...going on to curse the stars, the seasons, and the whole world. She calls for plague and disease to consume families, and for those families to be remembered only for the... (full context)
Act 4, Scene 2
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
Love and Male Authority Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Religion and Sin Theme Icon
...and he responds that he does, and that it’s all the more dangerous since the disease is unfelt and therefore undetectable to her. She asks if he knows her, and he... (full context)
Act 5, Scene 2
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Religion and Sin Theme Icon
...a Doctor discuss the condition of the Duke. The doctor says that Ferdinand has the disease lycanthropia, which causes people to imagine that they are transformed into wolves and to dig... (full context)