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.
Religion and Sin ThemeTracker
Religion and Sin Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi
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.
Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil and make him worse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.