In the Amalfi palace, the Duchess and Cariola hear a horrible noise offstage. Cariola says that it’s the cohort of madmen that Ferdinand relocated from the asylum to torture the Duchess and keep her sleepless. The Duchess replies that the madmen’s noise and nonsense actually keep her distracted, while silence and reason drive her insane. She then asks Cariola to tell her a tragic tale to make her own grief seem smaller. She comments that, like a bird in a cage, she will not live long. The Duchess says she wishes it were possible to commune with the dead so that she could learn from them. She says it’s a miracle that she hasn’t gone insane yet, but she acknowledges that she is becoming more comfortable with her suffering.
While the madmen are intended to keep the Duchess up at night as a torture, they have the opposite affect, as having silence and time to think upset her. Even in imprisonment, the Duchess subverts her brother’s authority. As she becomes accustomed to her pain and suffering, the Duchess acknowledges that she isn’t likely to live much longer. Her own resistance to going insane will later be contrasted with Ferdinand’s insanity.
A servant then enters and informs them that Ferdinand is sending in the madmen as a sort of cure to treat her melancholy. The servant describes some of the madmen who will enter, including a mad lawyer, a secular priest, a doctor, an astrologer and a crazed English tailor. The madmen enter, sing a song, take turns speaking nonsense, and do a dance. Then Bosola enters, disguised as an old man, and the madmen and the servant exit.
This parade of madmen seems almost humorous and light hearted compared to the actions that follow. The Duchess, we know, does not respond to the madmen torture as Ferdinand expected, and they inadvertently act as a momentary cure for her misery.
Bosola says that he has come to make the Duchess’s tomb. She asks if he thinks that she is sick, 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 responds that she is a mummy. He launches into a speech about the fragility of flesh and he likens the body to a prison of the soul. She asks if she is his duchess, and he responds that she’s a great woman and that her hairs are going gray early. He tells her that she loses sleep because of her debauchery.
Unlike Ferdinand, who said the body was worth more than the soul, Bosola calls the body the soul’s prison. He also says that the Duchess’s body is sick with some undetectable disease, and that she is losing sleep because of the way she has been acting. Such a diagnosis recalls Antonio’s comment at the beginning of the play that Bosola’s melancholy, like sleeplessness, would lead to physical consequences.
At this point, the Duchess proclaims that she is still the Duchess of Malfi. She calls Bosola plain (though she doesn’t know his identity), and he responds that he’s simply a tomb maker there to flatter the dead. She asks what the tomb will be made of and how the dead are prepared in the tombs before asking him why he has really come. He says that he’ll explain, and as he says it Executioners enter with a coffin, cords, and a bell. Bosola tells the Duchess that the executioners are a present from her brothers, and that she is going to die.
Even in the face of torture and death, the Duchess remains proud and confident in her identity. Part of what makes her character so dignified is her ability to keep composure, virtue, and dignity even in moments of distress and utter despair. She even keeps up her sharp wit in discussion with the man she knows is about to have her killed.
In the face of this horror, she says that she has obedience in her blood and explains that death does not frighten her. Bosola rings the bell, and then gives a rhyming speech to prepare the Duchess for death. Cariola starts yelling for help, but the Duchess knows that it is hopeless and, as executioners force Cariola out, the Duchess asks Cariola to look after her children. The Duchess says she’s not afraid of death since she’ll meet such good company in the next world. Bosola replies that the cord should terrify her, but she says that it doesn’t matter how she dies, since there are thousands of ways to die. She asks her killers to tell her brothers that death is the best gift that they can give her, and she asks them to give her body to her women once she is dead. Once one executioner agrees, she tells him to pull strongly. The Duchess kneels and calls out for violent death to serve as a stupefying drug and put her to sleep. The executioners then strangle her.
Continuing to maintain fearlessness and pride, the Duchess says she’s unafraid of death. She remains calm while Cariola panics, in part because she has faith that she’ll meet good people in heaven. We can note that while she was dismissive of religion earlier in the play, at death’s door she seems to embrace it as a comforting factor. She’s also comforted by the fact that everyone dies, and that there are thousands of ways for a person to die. Finally, since she thinks that her family is dead, she considers existence to be simply pain and suffering. In a final subversion of her brothers’ will, she treats the death as the best gift they could give her.
Bosola instructs some of the executioners to go and strangle the children. Cariola is brought by other executioners back into the room, and she begins begging for her life. She says that she can’t die yet, since she hasn’t had a judicial hearing, but Bosola ignores this. She pleads that she is engaged, but an executioner says that the noose will be her wedding ring. She tells them that if she dies now she’ll be damned since she hasn’t been to confession for two years, and she even says that she’s pregnant, but they strangle her anyway and exit with her body.
The onstage death of the children is possibly the most brutal moment in the play. Cariola begging for her life is also gruesome. Interestingly, while she was careful about religion earlier in the play and advised against the pilgrimage ruse, here she says (possibly just to save herself) that she’ll go to hell for skipping confession for two years. This might be a lie, however, as we have no indication that she’s been engaged or pregnant before now.
Ferdinand enters and asks if the Duchess is dead, to which Bosola responds that she is. Bosola asks what the children have done to deserve this fate, but Ferdinand says the death of young wolves is not to be pitied. He stares at the Duchess’s body, and Bosola asks if this causes him to weep, since, while other sins speak, “murder shrieks out” and “blood flies upwards” to heaven. Ferdinand says that she died young, but Bosola says he thinks she suffered for too long and covers her face.
Bosola seems immediately disgusted with what he feels he has been forced to do. Murder, he says, is the loudest (implying the worst) sin, a turning point from his position that dishonesty was worse than murder. Bosola seems to understand that, by the end, the Duchess’s life was pure suffering.
Ferdinand then reveals that he and the Duchess were twins, and he asks Bosola to uncover her face. He asks why Bosola didn’t pity the Duchess and disobey him, saying that if Bosola had disobeyed he might have prevented this revenge from happening. Ferdinand confesses that he had hoped that the Duchess wouldn’t marry so that he could inherit her wealth, and he adds that Bosola is like a good actor cursed to play a villain in a tragedy. Bosola asks for payment, and Ferdinand says that he’ll pay him with a pardon, since technically the death was ordered extra-judicially and is therefore a murder. Ferdinand threateningly tells Bosola that Bosola will die for this crime, and when Bosola asks who will reveal it, Ferdinand responds that wolves will find the Duchess’s grave and dig her up to reveal the murder.
Though he doesn’t pity the children, upon seeing the Duchess’s body Ferdinand immediately begins to show remorse. He begins back tracking, wishing that Bosola, who felt obligated to obey, had done something to prevent the Duchess from dying. Here he reveals the reason for wanting the Duchess not to marry, though he does not mention his incestuous desire. In another meta-theatrical moment, he calls Bosola a good actor forced to play a villain in a tragedy, a perfect metaphor for Bosola being a good person forced to be a killer.
Bosola demands his payment, but Ferdinand rebuffs Bosola’s request and tells him to get out of his sight. Bosola says that Ferdinand and his brother have rotten hearts, and that they are truly brothers since treason, like the plague, runs in the blood. Bosola says that he feels like he has woken up from a dream and is now angry at himself for serving the Duke even though he hated what he was doing. Bosola says he only obeyed because he believed his duty to the Duke was greater than his guilt and his desire not to do the evil acts. The Duke admits it was an act of darkness, and exits.
Though he feels guilty, Bosola wants his payment and increased social status. Bosola seems shocked and becomes even more disillusioned with the actions he’s been forced into, and he begins to reassess whether his moral duty or duty to the Duke is greater. Ferdinand’s admission that it was a dark mistake to kill the Duchess is the first indication that he is beginning to unravel.
Bosola reflects that if he had the opportunity to do everything again, he wouldn’t trade peace of conscience for all of the wealth in Europe. He then notices that the Duchess is stirring, and he calls on her soul to return and lead his to hell. For a moment, she wakes up and says “Antonio?” Bosola tells her that her husband is in fact alive, explaining briefly that the dead bodies she saw were tricks. The Duchess cries “mercy” and then dies for real.
Bosola regrets compromising his morals for the promise of wealth and an improved social status. The Duchess comes back to life only long enough for audiences to think she might live, only to be crushed when she dies for real a moment later. It’s ironic that, after the merciless violence she has experienced, her final word is “mercy.”
Bosola cries over her death, exhibiting what he calls “manly sorrow,” and he notes that he wishes that he had allowed these emotions to sway him when she was still alive. He decides to carry out her last will by bringing her body to the women like she requested. Afterwards, he says, he’ll head to Milan.
Crying manly tears, Bosola exhibits a small reversal of gender roles. This is apparent, too, in his wish that he had allowed his moral duty and his emotions to overpower his sense of duty to the murderous Ferdinand.