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The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

Introductory Note

Of John Webster's life almost nothing is known. The dates 1580-1625 given for his birth and death are conjectural inferences, about which the best that can be said is that no known facts contradict them.

The first notice of Webster so far discovered shows that he was collaborating in the production of plays for the theatrical manager, Henslowe, in 1602, and of such collaboration he seems to have done a considerable amount. Four plays exist which he wrote alone, "The White Devil," "The Duchess of Malfi," "The Devil's Law-Case," and "Appius and Virginia."

"The Duchess of Malfi" was published in 1623, but the date of writing may have been as early as 1611. It is based on a story in Painter's "Palace of Pleasure," translated from the Italian novelist, Bandello; and it is entirely possible that it has a foundation in fact. In any case, it portrays with a terrible vividness one side of the court life of the Italian Renaissance; and its picture of the fierce quest of pleasure, the recklessness of crime, and the worldliness of the great princes of the Church finds only too ready corroboration in the annals of the time.

Webster's tragedies come toward the close of the great series of tragedies of blood and revenge, in which "The Spanish Tragedy" and "Hamlet" are landmarks, but before decadence can fairly be said to have set in. He, indeed, loads his scene with horrors almost past the point which modern taste can bear; but the intensity of his dramatic situations, and his superb power of flashing in a single line a light into the recesses of the human heart at the crises of supreme emotion, redeems him from mere sensationalism, and places his best things in the first rank of dramatic writing.

The Duchess of Malfi

Dramatis Personae FERDINAND [Duke of Calabria]. CARDINAL [his brother]. ANTONIO [BOLOGNA, Steward of the Household to the Duchess]. DELIO [his friend]. DANIEL DE BOSOLA [Gentleman of the Horse to the Duchess]. [CASTRUCCIO, an old Lord]. MARQUIS OF PESCARA. [COUNT] MALATESTI. RODERIGO, > SILVIO, > [Lords]. GRISOLAN, > DOCTOR. The Several Madmen.

DUCHESS [OF MALFI]. CARIOLA [her woman]. [JULIA, Castruccio's wife, and] the Cardinal's mistress. [Old Lady].

Ladies, Three Young Children, Two Pilgrims, Executioners, Court Officers, and Attendants.

Act I

Scene I<1>


DELIO. You are welcome to your country, dear Antonio; You have been long in France, and you return A very formal Frenchman in your habit: How do you like the French court?

ANTONIO. I admire it: In seeking to reduce both state and people To a fix'd order, their judicious king Begins at home; quits first his royal palace Of flattering sycophants, of dissolute And infamous persons,--which he sweetly terms His master's master-piece, the work of heaven; Considering duly that a prince's court Is like a common fountain, whence should flow Pure silver drops in general, but if 't chance Some curs'd example poison 't near the head, Death and diseases through the whole land spread. And what is 't makes this blessed government But a most provident council, who dare freely Inform him the corruption of the times? Though some o' the court hold it presumption To instruct princes what they ought to do, It is a noble duty to inform them What they ought to foresee.<2>--Here comes Bosola, The only court-gall; yet I observe his railing Is not for simple love of piety: Indeed, he rails at those things which he wants; Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud, Bloody, or envious, as any man, If he had means to be so.--Here's the cardinal.


BOSOLA. I do haunt you still.


BOSOLA. I have done you better service than to be slighted thus. Miserable age, where only the reward of doing well is the doing of it!

CARDINAL. You enforce your merit too much.

BOSOLA. I fell into the galleys in your service: where, for two years together, I wore two towels instead of a shirt, with a knot on the shoulder, after the fashion of a Roman mantle. Slighted thus! I will thrive some way. Black-birds fatten best in hard weather; why not I in these dog-days?

CARDINAL. Would you could become honest!

BOSOLA. 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. [Exit CARDINAL.] Are you gone? Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil, and make him worse.

ANTONIO. He hath denied thee some suit?

BOSOLA. He and his brother are like plum-trees that grow crooked over standing-pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flattering panders, I would hang on their ears like a horseleech, till I were full, and then drop off. I pray, leave me. Who would rely upon these miserable dependencies, in expectation to be advanc'd to-morrow? What creature ever fed worse than hoping Tantalus? Nor ever died any man more fearfully than he that hoped for a pardon. There are rewards for hawks and dogs when they have done us service; but for a soldier that hazards his limbs in a battle, nothing but a kind of geometry is his last supportation.

DELIO. Geometry?

BOSOLA. Ay, to hang in a fair pair of slings, take his latter swing in the world upon an honourable pair of crutches, from hospital to hospital. Fare ye well, sir: and yet do not you scorn us; for places in the court are but like beds in the hospital, where this man's head lies at that man's foot, and so lower and lower. [Exit.]

DELIO. I knew this fellow seven years in the galleys For a notorious murder; and 'twas thought The cardinal suborn'd it: he was releas'd By the French general, Gaston de Foix, When he recover'd Naples.

ANTONIO. 'Tis great pity He should be thus neglected: I have heard He 's very valiant. 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, If then doth follow want of action Breeds all black malcontents; and their close rearing, Like moths in cloth, do hurt for want of wearing.

Scene II<3>


DELIO. The presence 'gins to fill: you promis'd me To make me the partaker of the natures Of some of your great courtiers.

ANTONIO. The lord cardinal's And other strangers' that are now in court? I shall.--Here comes the great Calabrian duke.

[Enter FERDINAND and Attendants]

FERDINAND. Who took the ring oftenest?<4>

SILVIO. Antonio Bologna, my lord.

FERDINAND. Our sister duchess' great-master of her household? Give him the jewel.--When shall we leave this sportive action, and fall to action indeed?


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