The Duchess of Malfi



  • A tragedy by John Webster (1580 - 1634), firstperformed in London in about 1619. It is a violent and horrific workset in Renaissance Italy. The play describes the fate of the widowedduchess who, contrary to the wishes of her two brothers, the cardinaland Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, secretly weds her steward, Antonio,by whom she becomes pregnant. Her brothers place in her service aspy, Bosola, who keeps them informed of events. Antonio and the duchessseparate and flee. Captured by Ferdinand, the duchess and her childrenare murdered by Bosola with every refinement of cruelty. Bosola, nowremorseful, realizes his master's wish to be rid of him; he killsAntonio and the cardinal, but is himself slain by the now insane Ferdinand.Ferdinand is, in turn, killed by friends of Antonio.

    Perhaps the most memorable modern production of The Duchessof Malfi opened in 1946 in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with ElisabethBergner in the title role. In 1980 the play was successfullyrevived by Adrian Noble at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester,with Helen Mirren as the duchess.

    I suppose you could define a pessimist as a man who thinksJohn Webster's Duchess of Malfi a great play; an optimist asone who believes it actable.
    Ronald Bryden: 'Blood Soaked circus', TheObserver, 18 July 1971