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 understands that a court “is like a common fountain.” Usually goodness flows, but if it is poisoned near the head (i.e., the monarch), death spreads throughout the entire fountain (the entire nation). The French court is especially good because there is a council unafraid to inform the King of the “corruption of the times.” Some advisors tell rulers what to do, but in France the advisors tell the King what he should foresee. It’s ideal that France is filled with nobles willing to speak against corruption and give genuine advice to rulers.
Webster juxtaposes the ideal court of France with the political situation in Italy, whose corruption is exemplified by Duke Ferdinand and his brother the Cardinal, who deal illicitly throughout the play. Both men make efforts to appear temperate, courtly, and honorable, but inside, they are both evil and corrupt. The Cardinal, for example, lays elaborate plots against anyone he is jealous of or doesn’t like, and he surrounds himself with flatterers, spies, and “a thousand such political monsters.” He is so corrupt as to have attempted to bribe his way into becoming Pope. Likewise, Duke Ferdinand is perverse and corrupt. He is duplicitous and relies heavily on spies. Delio even describes the Duke as a spider and the law as his web: he uses the laws of the country as a means of security for himself and as a weapon against his enemies. It is through spies that the two find out about the Duchess’ marriage and children, and through continual abuse of power that they break her family apart and ultimately slaughter them.
The Duchess of Malfi makes an argument about ideal government and the dangers (both physical and spiritual) of corruption. Though there are momentary gains and successes achieved by the brothers’ plans, ultimately the play ends with the slaughter of nearly everyone involved in their web of influence. This ending suggests that corruption yields disastrous results; even beyond death, corruption can lead to damnation. This point is made explicitly when Bosola tells Ferdinand that taking a higher position in exchange for spying on the Duchess would make him a traitor and Ferdinand a corruptor, thereby leading both of them to hell.
Finally, the death of all of the play’s major figures of political power leaves a vacuum at the end of the play; there is no new leader to take over. To show this, the play’s final lines, often reserved for the highest-ranking character, are spoken by a mere courier. Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s positions aren’t filled, but are merely left vacant at the play’s end. Thus political corruption and duplicitous behavior has the potential to lead to dire personal and religious consequences, and possibly to the collapse of government itself.
Politics and Corruption ThemeTracker
Politics and Corruption Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi
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.
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.
Believe my experience: that realm is never long in quiet where
the ruler is a soldier.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do I not dream? Can this ambitious age
Have so much goodness in't as to prefer
A man merely for worth, without these shadows
Of wealth and painted honours? Possible?
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.
Thou art happy that thou hast not understanding
To know thy misery; for all our wit
And reading brings us to a truer sense
That's the greatest torture souls feel in hell:
In hell that they must live, and cannot die.
I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in't 'gainst my will.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.