The Duchess of Malfi


John Webster

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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.

Politics and Corruption

The Duchess of Malfi takes place in Roman Catholic Italy, which English Renaissance audiences would have associated with the stereotype of “sophisticated corruption.” The play begins with Antonio’s speech about his recent return from the French court; he praises France and offers the play’s notion of an ideal royal state. The French king, Antonio reports, in order to bring everything to order, has rid himself of all flatterers and “infamous persons” because he rightly…

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Love and Male Authority

The Duchess of Malfi explores love and male authority in a traditional society in which women are subjected to the wills of men. The Cardinal’s illicit relationship with Julia provides an example of a woman successfully controlled by a man. Julia is depicted according to the stereotype of a fickle woman, while the Cardinal is the constant figure of authority. Webster even uses animal imagery to describe their relationship: the Cardinal is metaphorically a…

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Guilt, Death, and Suffering

Put simply, this play is filled with death and suffering. In a tragedy, the deaths of most of the main characters are pretty much guaranteed, but Webster achieves a spectacular level of horror with the way that characters are killed and the tortures they undergo beforehand. In light of the Duchess being subjected to imprisonment, torture, and execution, it’s notable that death itself doesn’t frighten her. The Duchess possesses composure and dignity in the moments…

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Religion and Sin

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…

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The Duchess’s marriage to Antonio is not just remarkable because she was the pursuer and because she married against her brothers’ will. It is also remarkable because she married someone of a lower class. During their courtship, Antonio is careful not to appear to ambitious, which is considered dangerous for someone in a lower class. Further, in the marriage scene, the Duchess laments the misery of being high born, which forces her to woo…

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