The Duchess of Malfi


John Webster

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Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Analysis

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.
Guilt, Death, and Suffering Theme Icon

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 leading up to her death, even to the point of asking for her violent death in order to put her to sleep. In this way, death is shown as an escape that is preferable to a life of suffering. Death, no matter how gruesome, leads to “excellent company in the other world,” and it frees the Duchess from the control and torture of her brothers. We can also note that the Duchess’ death showcases the play’s exploration of the permanence of death, as an echo rises from her grave in an attempt to tell Antonio of her fate.

While Ferdinand and the Cardinal are directly responsible for much of the suffering and death in the play (including and beyond what’s mentioned above), the suffering they create does not lead to satisfaction or pleasure. Instead, it leads to guilt, as well as to more suffering and more death. Ferdinand, for example, begins to regret his actions immediately after seeing that the Duchess has died; he shows signs of guilt right away when he sees the Duchess’ body. Soon this guilt progresses so far as to drive him mad. He acts so strangely that the doctor believes he has the disease of lycanthropia (that he is a werewolf), and at one point he starts attacking his own shadow. He shows himself to be obsessed with the crime of the Duchess’s death, saying to himself “Strangling is a very quiet death.” Guilt, therefore, has the power to drive someone insane (and ultimately to his death).

As the Cardinal is a religious figure, his guilt (which, in a way, also leads him to death) is expressed in terms of faith instead of insanity. After killing Julia, he is plagued by guilt. He cries out, “Oh, my conscience!” and says that he would pray, but the devil is preventing him. Thus we see that guilt has the power to stop even a Catholic Cardinal from offering prayer. Since he cannot pray, he cannot be forgiven, and he later offers a brief soliloquy in which he explains that he has been thinking about hell, a symptom of his guilty conscience. The association with hell continues, as, in his insanity, Ferdinand becomes convinced that his brother is the devil, and he stabs the Cardinal. Guilt transforms a Cardinal into the devil and apparently indicates that he will go to hell. It’s among the severe consequences of murder and evil.

Finally, Bosola is in a unique situation, as he is forced into killing and experiences guilt throughout the play. In all of his actions, he feels guilty, but this guilt is overwhelmed by a sense of duty to the Duke, emphasizing the play’s suggestion that guilt or preemptive guilt is not enough to deter murder or bad behavior. Ultimately, though, guilt and desire for revenge take precedence over duty. Overwhelmed by guilt for the suffering he has caused, Bosola seeks to right his wrongs. Since he is guilty, however, he also suffers the fate of the diabolical brothers.

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Guilt, Death, and Suffering ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Guilt, Death, and Suffering appears in each scene of The Duchess of Malfi. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Guilt, Death, and Suffering Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi

Below you will find the important quotes in The Duchess of Malfi related to the theme of Guilt, Death, and Suffering.
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:

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

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 Symbols: Poison
Page Number: 1.1.74-80
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

Believe my experience: that realm is never long in quiet where
the ruler is a soldier.

Related Characters: Castruccio (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria
Page Number: 1.2.20-21
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

The Duke there? A most perverse and turbulent nature;
What appears in him mirth is merely outside.
If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh
All honesty out of fashion.

He speaks with others' tongues, and hears men's suits
With others' ears; will seem to sleep o’th' bench
Only to entrap offenders in their answers;
Dooms men to death by information,
Rewards by hearsay.

Related Characters: Antonio Bologna (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, Delio
Page Number: 1.2.82-89
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
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: Daneil de Bosola (speaker), Castruccio, Old Lady
Related Symbols: Disease
Page Number: 2.1.45-51
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 2, Scene 4 Quotes

You may thank me, lady.
I have taken you off your melancholy perch,
Bore you upon my fist, and showed you game,
And let you fly at it. I pray thee, kiss me.
When thou wast with thy husband, thou wast watched
Like a tame elephant - still you are to thank me.

Related Characters: The Cardinal (speaker), Julia
Page Number: 2.4.27-32
Explanation and Analysis:
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.

Page Number: 2.5.67-74
Explanation and Analysis:
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 Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 3.1.72-78
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 3, Scene 5 Quotes

Thou dost blanch mischief;
Wouldst make it white. See, see, like to calm weather
At sea, before a tempest, false hearts speak fair
To those they intend most mischief.

Page Number: 3.5.23-26
Explanation and Analysis:

Thou art happy that thou hast not understanding
To know thy misery; for all our wit
And reading brings us to a truer sense
Of sorrow.

Page Number: 3.5.66-69
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

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

Page Number: 4.1.70-71
Explanation and Analysis:

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

Page Number: 4.1.83-84
Explanation and Analysis:

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 Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 4.1.120-122
Explanation and Analysis:
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), Daneil de Bosola (speaker), Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, Children
Page Number: 4.2.200-214
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Page Number: 4.2.270-278
Explanation and Analysis:
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:
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 Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.2.326-339
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 5, Scene 4 Quotes

BOSOLA: O good Antonio,
I'll whisper one thing in thy dying ear
Shall make thy heart break quickly: thy fair Duchess
And two sweet children -

ANTONIO: Their very names
Kindle a little life in me.

BOSOLA: - are murdered!

ANTONIO: Some men have wished to die
At the hearing of sad tidings. I am glad
That I shall do't in sadness. I would not now
Wish my wounds balmed nor healed, for I have no use
To put my life to.

Related Characters: Antonio Bologna (speaker), Daneil de Bosola (speaker), The Duchess of Malfi
Page Number: 5.4.57-66
Explanation and Analysis:
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
Page Number: 5.5.73-75
Explanation and Analysis:

MALATESTE: Thou wretched thing of blood,
How came Antonio by his death?

BOSOLA: In a mist - I know not how.
Such a mistake as I have often seen
In a play. Oh, I am gone!
We are only like dead walls, or vaulted graves
That, ruined, yields no echo. Fare you well.
It may be pain, but no harm to me to die
In so good a quarrel.

Related Characters: Daneil de Bosola (speaker), Count Malateste (speaker), Antonio Bologna
Related Symbols: Blood
Page Number: 5.5.95-103
Explanation and Analysis: