John Webster - The Duchess of Malfi

The action of this 17th century tragedy takes place in Italy. The young widowed Duchess secretly marries Antonio Bologna, her own steward. She does so against the will of her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who forbid her to remarry. When they discover the truth, the brothers plot to kill the woman, her husband and their three children in revenge for the Duchess’ disobedience. The avengers, however, do not kill the Duchess themselves but appoint Daniel De Bosola, gentleman of the horse, to do the horrible job for them.

The chosen passages concentrate upon the atmosphere of sick, obsessive horror which the brothers prepare for their sister in order for her to go mad. It would obviously be easier for her to plunge herself into insanity and yet, even when surrounded by the lunatics, the Duchess remains calm and never loses her composure, aware of being the duchess, dignified. The malicious plotters are merciless. They act with the calculated, stone coldness although there is, in fact, lack of balance, between the “crime” their sister had committed and the punishment she received.

Despite the fact that the scenes are rather short, there can be quite a number of people on stage. The several Madmen, who should evoke fear, may wear long black robes and have blood-red lips. In the final scene we can also have the Executioners dressed in red and, in the background, the Children with ropes round their necks. Unlike Ferdinand and Bosola, who are nervous and energetic, the Duchess should always be calm and proud. In order to emphasise the atmosphere of horror, we can prepare such props as a huge rectangular box for the tomb and an artificial hand the Duchess will be given to shake.


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