The Duchess of Malfi

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Themes and Colors
Politics and Corruption Theme Icon
Love and Male Authority Theme Icon
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon
Religion and Sin Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
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.
Religion and Sin Theme Icon

Sin—and the religious consequences of sin—run rampant in The Duchess of Malfi. The tragic forces of the play’s major plotline are primarily driven by sin: it is because they are greedy for her fortune and prideful of their noble blood that the Cardinal and the Duke do not wish the Duchess to remarry. Ferdinand also exhibits a strange incestuous desire for his sister (another glaring sin), which leads in part to his horrible treatment of her. Ferdinand’s rage, lust, pride, and greed all upset him to the point of deformity, and he shocks the Cardinal with the horrible things he talks about doing to punish the Duchess. But Ferdinand also believes that his and the Cardinal’s sins are being avenged by heaven through the Duchess. Further, his last lines before dying echo and reinforce the sentiment that we are punished and suffer fates according to our sins: “Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.” These lines indicate that our own sins and our own actions are responsible for our downfalls.

The Cardinal is a religious figure, and most of the characters acknowledge the dangers of sin, the devil, and hell. Bosola knows, for example, that the devil makes sins look good and calls gracious whatever heaven calls vile. Likewise, the Cardinal at one point enters the stage carrying a religious book and, after murdering Julia, he ponders the nature of hell like a scholar and a believer. But despite this knowledge, most figures (especially the evil ones) are not deterred from sinning, even egregiously. Religion, then, is not presented as a force that prevents bad behavior.

The Duchess, we can note has a particularly conflicting view of religion. She is able to face death with such poise, in part, because she believes that she will meet greet people in her next life (i.e. in heaven). Her last spoken word is even “mercy.” But during her life, she implies that certain religious practices or beliefs are mere superstition. When devising a plan for the Duchess to escape, Bosola suggests that she pretend to make a sacred pilgrimage. The Duchess thinks it is a good idea, but Cariola says that she should not “jest” with religion, and that it is better to avoid a fake pilgrimage. The Duchess doesn’t take this advice seriously, calling Cariola a “superstitious fool.”

Her brothers, though, recognize this tactic. The Cardinal says that she is making “religion her riding hood” to keep her from attention and trouble. Ferdinand’s response is that it “damns her.” He goes on to say that the more pure she pretends to be, given her devious intentions, the fouler she is actually being. In a strange way, this notion echoes the devil’s means of profanity, which is accomplished by taking what heaven calls bad and making it good, and by inverting or twisting what is most pure and most holy. At the same time, we can note that the Cardinal uses his religious influence for immoral purposes. For example, he banishes the Duchess and Antonio in a formal ceremony at a religious shrine, thereby hypocritically doing exactly what he damned the Duchess for doing: using a religious exercise as a façade for personal gain.

Religion in this play, then, is generally acknowledged but ignored by its characters. Though the stakes of sin and mercy are real and high, and most characters acknowledge the dangers of sins, those sins simply prove too tempting for almost everyone in the play. While Webster sometimes shows religion to be a tool used by the suffering to find comfort, it’s more commonly used by the powerful to seize or maintain power, and by the wicked to justify themselves and hide their terrible sins.

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Religion and Sin Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi

Below you will find the important quotes in The Duchess of Malfi related to the theme of Religion and Sin.
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

With all your divinity do but direct me the way to it. I have
known many travel far for it, and yet return as arrant knaves
as they went forth, because they carried themselves always

along with them.

Related Characters: Daniel de Bosola (speaker), The Cardinal
Page Number: 1.1.40-43
Explanation and Analysis:

Bosola says this to the Cardinal after the Cardinal ignores and dismisses him. The Cardinal tells Bosola to go become honest, and Bosola responds with this remark, saying that he wishes the Cardinal, with all his divinity, would show him how to properly become honest. Given what we learn about the Cardinal’s despicable character, this appeal to his divinity might be read as sarcastic.

Bosola goes on to say that he has seen many that went on long journeys seeking to become honest, but they always come back just as bad as when they left, since throughout the entire trip they always carried themselves with them. This seems to suggest that Bosola believes that a person’s true character is essentially set in stone. Bosola reasons that spending time with a knave makes one a knave, so, if you already are a knave, just by spending time with yourself you’re liable to stay one. Bosola’s thoughts on the immobility of character might also be applied to class immobility, which he struggles with in the play.


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Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil and make him worse.

Related Characters: Daniel de Bosola (speaker), The Cardinal, Antonio Bologna, Delio
Page Number: 1.1.44-46
Explanation and Analysis:

The Cardinal ignores Bosola and then leaves, so Bosola says this line to Antonio and Delio. He says that while some men are possessed by the devil, the Cardinal is so foul that he could possess the greatest devil and make that devil worse. Here Bosola hints at the Cardinal’s evil nature hidden beneath the appearance of being a holy figure. Later in the play, Bosola will say that spies are little devils, so by accusing the Cardinal of possessing devils, he alludes to the Cardinal being corrupt and having many spies. That the Cardinal can make the devils worse also suggests an unparalleled magnitude of evil, which will be proved later in the play, as the Cardinal is even less able to feel remorse than Ferdinand.

This foul melancholy
Will poison all his goodness, for, I'll tell you,
If too immoderate sleep be truly said
To be an inward rust unto the soul,
It then doth follow want of action
Breeds all black malcontents, and their close rearing,
Like moths in cloth, do hurt for want of wearing.

Related Characters: Antonio Bologna (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, The Cardinal, Daniel de Bosola, Delio
Related Symbols: Poison
Page Number: 1.1.74-80
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio speaks these lines to Delio at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 after Bosola’s exit. Bosola is frustrated with the Cardinal and with the lack of payment for Bosola’s years of service, and he is therefore melancholy. Antonio comments that Bosola’s bad mood will poison all of his goodness, just as a lack of sleep gets turned inward and hurts the soul. Idleness and lack of action, he says, generate bad behavior, just like moths ruin cloth if you don’t wear it. The lines are essentially an elaboration on the phrase “idle hands are the devil’s plaything,” where external factors like sleep, lack of action, and a sad demeanor propagate inward like a poison and create bad effects.

Interestingly, in Act 1 Scene 3, Ferdinand actually suggests that the reverse is true while trying to convince the Duchess not to remarry. In that moment, Ferdinand argues that bad thoughts and feelings are reflected externally on the face (as opposed to Antonio’s assertion here that sad or bad feelings poison inward).

It’s also worth noting that this speech is somewhat stylistically unique ends with one of the play’s few rhyming couplets.

Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

Some such flashes superficially hang on him, for form; but observe his inward character: he is a melancholy churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the engendering of toads. Where he is jealous of any man he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters.

Related Characters: Antonio Bologna (speaker), The Cardinal, Delio
Page Number: 1.2.70-76
Explanation and Analysis:

While Ferdinand and his courtiers continue discussing war and horses (presumably), Antonio steps aside to tell Delio about the Cardinal. Delio notes to Antonio that the Cardinal seems like a “brave fellow,” but in the excerpt Antonio assures Delio that any appearances are merely superficial. The Cardinal, he says, tries to appear good, but inwardly, he is melancholy, jealous, scheming, conniving, and despicable. He surrounds himself with flatterers, panderers, spies, and, even though he is a Cardinal, he consorts with atheists and other political monsters.

The Cardinal, then, is the exact opposite of the idealized court in France. From the first description of the Cardinal we learn that he is calculating and he strives always to conceal his true inner nature. We also learn that he relies heavily on spies. At hearing these lines, audiences would have their suspicions confirmed that the Italian court in the play is corrupt. We can note early on how important it is to distinguish outward appearance from inward character, something the play continues to explore.

Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

You live in a rank pasture here, i'th' court.
There is a kind of honey-dew that's deadly:
'Twill poison your fame. Look to't. Be not cunning,
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.

Your darkest actions - nay, your privat'st thoughts –
Will come to light.

Related Characters: Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi
Related Symbols: Poison
Page Number: 1.3.218-228
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand speaks these lines to the Duchess while he and the Cardinal are convincing (or ordering) the Duchess not to remarry. He says that the court is like a “rank pasture’ where she lives, and that there is a kind of fruit that will poison her fame, meaning her reputation. Rank here suggests high social status, and the word hints at its other meaning (disgusting), which he will use later to describe the Duchess. He instructs her to be careful, since people whose faces try to conceal false hearts become contorted and turn to witches, who then “give the devil suck.” This gruesome image is notably sexual, which hints at Ferdinand’s incestuous desire.

He goes on to make the argument against internal/external dissonance even more explicit, saying that no matter what she does to conceal it, her darkest actions and most private thoughts will come to light. In one sense, this is a reaffirmation of Ferdinand’s point that cunning in the heart is shown on the face; what is visible outside betrays what’s on the inside, so her secrets will become known. But it is also a controlling imposition of authority over the Duchess, in which Ferdinand essentially forbids her from having any privacy.

Act 2, Scene 5 Quotes

I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopped,
That their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven;
Or dip the sheets they lie in in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in't, and then light them like a match;
Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis,
And give't his lecherous father to renew
The sin of his back.

Related Characters: Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi, The Cardinal
Page Number: 2.5.67-74
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand speaks these horrible lines to his brother the Cardinal after finding out that the Duchess has had an illegitimate child. His desire to control her and to preserve his own honor and bloodline is so extreme that he is thrown into utter outrage, even to the point where the Cardinal continuously must ask him to calm down.

Here, Ferdinand offers a terrifying image of what he would to the Duchess for revenge: burn her and her lover in a coal pit with closed vents to prevent her from going to heaven, or dip their bed sheets in sulfur, wrap them up, and light them on fire, or boil the bastard child and give it to the father. These violent ravings, which contain small religious references, are indicative of Ferdinand’s true character and his incestuous jealousy of his sister. His outbursts also show the way his carefully constructed façade begins to crack, as his interior begins to, according to the Cardinal, deform him.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

Do you think that herbs or charms
Can force the will? Some trials have been made
In this foolish practice, but the ingredients
Were lenitive poisons, such as are of force
To make the patient mad; and straight the witch
Swears, by equivocation, they are in love.
The witchcraft lies in her rank blood.

Related Characters: Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi, Daniel de Bosola
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 3.1.72-78
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand speaks these lines to Bosola after Bosola wonders if someone has used a love potion on the Duchess. Contrasting Bosola, Ferdinand does not believe in love potions. He says that some trials have been done, but in most cases it was discovered that the ingredients were poisons to drive someone into insanity and get them to think or mistakenly admit that they were in love. Ferdinand claims, on the other hand, that the Duchess doesn’t need any witchcraft other than her rank blood. Rank here contains the dual meaning of status and disgusting, though the status implication is secondary here, as Ferdinand surely intends the negative connotation of the word. It’s important to note, too, that the validity of superstition comes up throughout the play, and while Webster does not attempt to resolve the question, bringing up superstition usually foreshadows catastrophe.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

That's the greatest torture souls feel in hell:
In hell that they must live, and cannot die.

Related Characters: The Duchess of Malfi (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, The Cardinal, Antonio Bologna, Daniel de Bosola, Children
Page Number: 4.1.70-71
Explanation and Analysis:

The Duchess offers these dejected lines after Ferdinand has forced her to kiss a dead man’s hand and has shown her silhouettes meant to convince her that Antonio and her children are dead. Upon learning that her family is dead, the Duchess loses all will to live, and she asks Bosola to kille her. Bosola denies her and says she must live, to which she responds that it’s the greatest torture felt in hell: souls in hell have to live and cannot die. Living without her love and her children makes existence pain and suffering. Simply being alive in this state and being denied a death is torture to the Duchess. This torture is, however, a ruse by Ferdinand’s design, as her family is (for now) still alive. This also foreshadows the way in which the Duchess will ultimately wrest control over her destiny from her brothers by relishing the death that they serve her. Instead of letting death be the punishment it’s intended to be, the Duchess will view her death as liberation.

I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in't 'gainst my will.

Related Characters: The Duchess of Malfi (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, The Cardinal, Antonio Bologna, Children
Page Number: 4.1.83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

The Duchess speaks this meta-theatrical line in another expression of her frustration that she cannot die. Since she believes Antonio and her children are dead, she no longer wants to live. As stated above, existence is torturous to the Duchess, which is exactly what Ferdinand intends. Here the Duchess expresses this frustration by comparing the world to a “tedious theatre” in which she is forced to play a part against her will. Webster makes uncanny, meta-theatrical references this one throughout the play, especially in situations that the characters seem to recognize as excessively tragic, theatrical, or dramatic. In a way, it lets Webster have his melodrama while also winking to the audience that he’s aware of its absurdity.

Damn her! That body of hers,
While that my blood ran pure in't, was more worth
Than that which thou wouldst comfort, called a soul.

Related Characters: Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi, Daniel de Bosola
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 4.1.120-122
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand knows that his torture of the Duchess is working, as she is convinced that her family is dead and it agonizes her. Bosola tries to convince Ferdinand to stop torturing her now, but Ferdinand is still furious. He cries out for her to be damned, and he says that, while his blood ran pure through her, her body was worth more than her soul. He suggests, too, that Bosola is attempting to comfort her by ending the torture, which is something she does not deserve.

First of all, such an image reinforces the notion that Ferdinand did not want the Duchess to marry for selfish reasons; he feared that her remarriage would taint his own noble blood. This comment also shows Ferdinand’s immense pride for his own status and bloodline. The notion that when the Duchess was pure her body was worth more than her soul, however, is a somewhat sacrilegious inversion of Christian doctrine, which classically holds the soul above the body. Ferdinand’s preference of the Duchess’s body over her soul indicates his evil nature and also may stem from his incestuous desire for her.

Act 4, Scene 2 Quotes

BOSOLA: Doth not death fright you?

DUCHESS: Who would be afraid on't,
Knowing to meet such excellent company
In th'other world?

I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange, geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways.
…Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.

Related Characters: The Duchess of Malfi (speaker), Daniel de Bosola (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, The Cardinal
Page Number: 4.2.200-214
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange happens in the moments before the Duchess’s death. In the face of her executioner, she remains proud, composed, and unafraid, saying that she doesn’t fear death because she knows she’ll meet excellent company in the other world (meaning heaven). Though previously she dismissed religion as foolish superstition, in the face of death the Duchess turns to religion for comfort.

She continues that she is not afraid because there are ten thousand ways to die, and some doors to death so strange that they can be opened both ways. The implication of this statement is that death can come by being killed, but also by murdering (the implication, perhaps, is that the act of murder destroys the murderer’s soul). The final lines demonstrate the Duchess’s defiance of her brothers’ will. Not only is she unafraid to face a death that is meant to terrify her, but because she thinks her family is dead and her life is torturous, she actually greets death as the best gift her brothers can give. Even in dying, she denies them the satisfaction of controlling her.

Only, I must confess, I had a hope,
Had she continued widow, to have gained
An infinite mass of treasure by her death,
And that was the main cause: her marriage -
That drew a stream of gall quite through my heart.
For thee - as we observe in tragedies
That a good actor many times is cursed
For playing a villain's part - I hate thee for't,
And, for my sake, say thou hast done much ill well.

Related Characters: Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi, Daniel de Bosola
Page Number: 4.2.270-278
Explanation and Analysis:

Ferdinand speaks these lines over the Duchess’s dead body, expressing his instant remorse for having her killed. He confesses finally that the reason he wanted her not to remarry was that he hoped to secure his own inheritance of her large fortune. Of course, the subtext of much of his speech throughout the play implies that another reason he wanted the Duchess dead was his own conflict over his incestuous desire for her, though he still does not confess this outright. He continues in another meta-theatrical moment, saying to Bosola that, as in tragedies, sometimes a good actor is cursed to play a villain.

This is clearly a reference to Bosola, as Bosola, despite his good nature, has done such a good job carrying out the evil that he was ordered to commit. This sentiment, that Bosola is a good actor forced into a bad role, is one that Bosola himself will later echo, and it signifies that he feels guilty for his crimes and does not want to commit them. Regardless, evil wins over, since Bosola ultimately has more respect for his sense of duty, his desire for wealth , and his yearning for improved social status than for his moral scruples.

Act 5, Scene 1 Quotes

It may be that the sudden apprehension
Of danger - for I'll go in mine own shape –
When he shall see it fraught with love and duty,
May draw the poison out of him, and work
A friendly reconcilement. If it fail,
Yet it shall rid me of this infamous calling;
For better fall once than be ever falling.

Related Characters: Antonio Bologna (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi, The Cardinal, Delio
Related Symbols: Poison
Page Number: 5.1.67-73
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio speaks these lines to Delio outside of the Cardinal’s palace. He plans to confront the Cardinal in a last ditch attempt to reconcile. He says that he hopes that sudden fear in the Cardinal (since Antonio will be appearing without disguise) will draw the poison of hate out of the Cardinal and help bring about a reconciliation between Antonio and the Cardinal. Antonio is especially hopeful that the Cardinal be sympathetic to Antonio once he sees that Antonio is driven by love and duty. Here hatred is compared to a poison, which, once removed from the body, will leave the body cured.

Antonio continues that if he fails, he’ll at least be out of this horrible situation, and he concludes that he would rather fall once by risking everything than continuously fall for the rest of his life. Such a decision to take a large risk shows growth in Antonio, who was hesitant to take large risks when being courted by the Duchess. It also shows the tremendous stakes of the encounter—if Antonio fails, he is likely to die.

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

O poor Antonio! Though nothing be so needful
To thy estate as pity, yet I find
Nothing so dangerous.
… How this man
Bears up in blood, seems fearless! Why, 'tis well:
Security some men call the suburbs of hell -
Only a dead wall between. Well, good Antonio,
I'll seek thee out, and all my care shall be
To put thee into safety from the reach
Of these most cruel biters that have got
Some of thy blood already. It may be
I'll join with thee in a most just revenge.

Related Characters: Daniel de Bosola (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, The Cardinal, Antonio Bologna, Julia
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.2.326-339
Explanation and Analysis:

Bosola speaks this soliloquy after the Cardinal kills Julia and instructs Bosola to kill Antonio. Bosola agrees, but once alone on stage, he expresses his pity for Antonio. At the same time, he recognizes that pitying Antonio puts him in a very dangerous position, since Antonio is “[borne] up in blood,” meaning both that he is brave and that blood is being spilled everywhere around him.

Bosola goes on to say that security is considered by some to be the suburb of hell, so he’ll take a risk and try to help Antonio to safety from the Cardinal and Ferdinand (thereby moving Bosola from the “suburb of hell” towards heaven). Bosola even says that he might join with Antonio and seek revenge. This moment demonstrates that Bosola’s guilt and sense of moral obligation has finally outweighed his sense of duty to the Duke. Though he felt bad throughout the play, it is only now that he is overwhelmed by this guilt and driven to act virtuously. This shows that Bosola, who has long been envious of the benefits that fell on Antonio based on his worth as a man, is generally good natured, too—though the amount of time it took him to act on his good nature justifies the Duchess’s choice of Antonio as her suitor rather than Bosola.

Act 5, Scene 5 Quotes

My sister! Oh, my sister! There's the cause on't.
Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.

Related Characters: Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.5.73-75
Explanation and Analysis:

These are Ferdinand’s final lines, spoken after he has stabbed Bosola and his brother, whom he mistook for the devil. First, Ferdinand calls out to his sister; this is fitting given that he has been driven insane by guilt over his role in her death, and also because during her life he was utterly controlling and harbored secret incestuous desires for her.

He then concludes the sentiment that has been building throughout the play, one that he suspected when he first learned that the Duchess disobeyed him. Whether we fall because of our ambition, our blood (which here means both our family and our passion), or our lust (both Ferdinand’s incestuous lust and the Duchess’s lust for Antonio), we perish because of our own sins and our own actions. Such a system of religious and moral judgment seems fitting in a world in which we are not always rewarded for our merit—it means that death can bring punishment or reward for those who did not receive what they deserved in life.