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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster

Book Overview: 

John Webster's bloody Jacobean tragedy exposes the decadence of the Italian court. The virtuous Duchess of Malfi, a young widow, secretly marries her steward Antonio, and is subsequently persecuted by her brothers: the sexually obsessed and eventually mad Ferdinand, and the corrupt Cardinal.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .Would often reason thus. DUCHESS. Pray, let 's hear it. ANTONIO. Say a man never marry, nor have children, What takes that from him? Only the bare name Of being a father, or the weak delight To see the little wanton ride a-cock-horse Upon a painted stick, or hear him chatter Like a taught starling. DUCHESS. Fie, fie, what 's all this? One of your eyes is blood-shot; use my ring to 't. They say 'tis very sovereign. 'Twas my wedding-ring, And I did vow never to part with it But to my second husband. ANTONIO. You have parted with it now. DUCHESS. Yes, to help your eye-sight. ANTONIO. You have made me stark blind. DUCHESS. How? ANTONIO. There is a saucy and ambitious devil Is dancing in this circle. DUCHESS. Remove him. ANTONIO. How? DUCHESS. There needs small conjuration, when your finger May do it: thus. Is it fit? [She puts the r. . . Read More

Community Reviews

This was heartbreaking.

This play, the work of John Webster, a master of Jacobean tragedy, was first produced in London in 1614.

Act I: Although there are characters here who are dangerous – Bosola, the Cardinal, Ferdinand – the most memorable are the Duchess herself, sister of the latter two and a young widow, and Anton...more

Life is a desperate business carried on by demented apes and ending in a welter of blood and shit. Everybody knows this, more or less, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded now and then. That, as I take it, is one of the modest functions of literature, reassuring us that we're all down here in the h...more

This play, the finest Jacobean drama outside the Shakespeare canon, is not only a gem of poetry and wit, but also a meditation on the vanity of public life and the inevitability of death. The satiric prose is filled with such poetic imagery and the subtle verse is so sharp in its commentary that...more

Catching up with the classics #31

Really almost a 2? I’m not really sure how I feel about this play? It just seemed like pointless violence and hatred.

Other sins only speak, murder shreiks out:
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.

Oh mercy, revenge upon the cursed Vengeful in five sumptuous acts of poetry, racy bits and bloodshed. The initial revengers are a creepy pair of powerful brothers miffe...more

A great play, I have been lucky enough to see it performed twice. The most recent was with the wonderful Gemma Artherton playing the lead role at the Wannamaker theatre.

Instead of reading this Masterpiece as a FALLEN TRAGEDY, approach it as a SUBLIMALLY HEIGHTENED MELODRAMA and see the wonders! The play will open itself to unimagined readings!!! Must try.

Everybody’s favourite Jacobean tragedy (other than those by Shakespeare), really the only one that is played today with any regularity, The Duchess of Malfi has it all: a good story, great writing, enough comedy to keep it entertaining, complex characters, quotable lines and superb stagecraft. Th...more


"Black-birds fatten best in hard weather"

It’s a still-performed play in our days. Though its best place for representation had been, for long, the Blacks Friars Theater. According to scholar James Shapiro, it’s a “story of intrigue and murder”…”a bloody dark work”of 1623.

Webster surely based hi...more

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