A Roundtable - Religious Thought and Sin

This recording is a rare and special treat because three...count them...three members of the English department were joined by a 'Man of the Cloth' to discuss a couple of questions, typical of the OCR examination. Be sure to have a notebook on hand for this podcast because there are some real gems, related to the conect in which 'Malfi' and 'Paradise Lost' were written.

The Duchess of Malfi - Act 5

The Duchess of Malfi

Act 5 Seminar Discussion




5.1 Antonio, Delio, Pescara

v Again, there is a sense of time having passed between the acts. What does the audience quickly realise and what effect does this have on Antonio and Delio’s discussion?

v The central incident of the scene, Pescara’s granting of Antonio’s confiscated lands to Julia in preference to Delio, seems a narrative contrivance. What do you think its purpose is? (Consider the themes of morality and rule).


5.2 Ferdinand’s madness; Bosola is ordered to kill Antonio; Julia tries to seduce Bosola; Julia is killed!

v Discuss Ferdinand’ s madness scene. What is the tone of, for example, Ferdinand attacking his own shadow? What has happened to Ferdinand’s dramatic stature, and why do you think Webster has done this?

v Discuss the Cardinal in this scene. What evidence is there of his growing discomfort?

v The Julia and Bosola scene is a parody of the earlier scenes of wooing, concealment and union played out by the Duchess, Antonio and Cariola. What are the crucial differences and what is Webster’s purpose in echoing the earlier scene?

v Discuss Julia’s final lines. What is Bosola’s reaction to her death?

v How is the Cardinal’s method of murdering Julia significant?

v Look at Bosola’s soliliquy which ends the scene:

Language: discuss Bosola’s use of abstract nouns (pity, revenge etc). What does this suggest? What is the effect of ‘the Duchess/Haunts me still’? What possible interpretations are there of ‘O penitence, let me truly taste thy cup,/That throws men down, only to raise them up’?


5.3  The Echo Scene

v How does Webster make this scene haunting and moving?

v What ideas of tragic fate can be found in this scene?


5.4 The death of Antonio

v Why does the Cardinal make Pescara and the other lords promise to stay in their rooms no matter what they hear?

v Are you persuaded by the Cardinal’s apparent crisis of conscience in line 25?

v Discuss the tone of Antonio’s death, especially lines 56-60. Do you find it darkly comic or serious in tone?

v Discuss Bosola’s famous line “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded/Which way please them.” Is this the moral universe of the play?


5.5 Deaths of Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola; Resolution (or is it?)

v How does the Cardinal’s opening speech fit into the moral universe of the play?

v How does Webster exploit the Cardinal’s plan in 5.4 to darkly comic effect? What style of story does this remind you of?

v Why does Bosola kill the servant?

v Why does Bosola instruct the Cardinal to pray in line 37?

v Read the note on p338 about line 45. What other metadramatic moments can you find in this final scene?

v Look closely at the final moments of Bosola, The Cardinal and Ferdinand. How do their last lines shed light on their characters? Are their souls damned? What would the original audience think?

v Characters in this scene muse on the subjects of life, death, and the afterlife. Make notes on what Ferdinand, Bosola and the Cardinal say on these subjects.

v The resolution of the play is an all-male affair. In what ways are traditional masculine rites enacted? How do the mentions of the Duchess undercut this?

v Delio promotes Antonio’s eldest son (and only survivor of Antonio and the Duchess’ family) to the dukedom of Malfi. How does Webster undercut this ‘happy’ ending? What suggestions are there that the boy’s claim is dubious and/or dangerous?

You can download a copy of this text here


The Duchess of Malfi - Act 4

The Duchess of Malfi

Act 4 Seminar Discussion


4.1 Ferdinand and Bosola; Bosola and the Duchess (1-29)

v Bosola praises the Duchess to her brother. What impresses him about the Duchess? Do you think his admiration of her is genuine?

v Discuss the Duchess’ question to Bosola: “Why dost thou wrap thy poisoned pills/In gold and sugar?” How might the audience respond to this?


4.1 Enter Ferdinand in darkness- dead hand and wax figures scene (29-108)

v How does Webster use the ‘dead man’s hand’ to create tension in the audience?

v The reveal of the wax figures drives the Duchess to despair. Find quotations that show she has despaired. How does Bosola react?

v What do you make of Bosola’s judgement of Ferdinand at the end of this scene, and of his refusal to see the Duchess again ‘in mine own shape’?


4.2  Madmen scene

v Why does the Duchess ask Cariola to tell her ‘some dismal tragedy’?

v How would you describe the Duchess’ state of mind here?


4.2 The death of the Duchess and Cariola

v How does the Duchess react to Bosola (in disguise) telling her he has come to make her tomb?

v ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’ is a key line. It has been interpreted quite differently by different actresses. What are the possible interpretations of this line?

v Although Bosola orchestrates her death, is there any evidence he is trying to comfort the Duchess or to offer her spiritual preparation for death?

v What facets of the Duchess’ character do we see in her death?

v How is the murder of the children handled?

v How does the manner of Cariola’s death contrast with that of the Duchess?



4. 2 Ferdinand and Bosola

v Find evidence of Bosola’s guilt and his anger at Ferdinand.

v Discuss Ferdinand’s reactions in this scene. How has his language to describe the Duchess changed?


4.2 Bosola and the Duchess

v Why does Bosola tell the Duchess about the wax figures trick when she revives?

v What are the possible interpretations of the Duchess’ last word, ‘Mercy’?


Essay: Close reading commentary on the death of the Duchess. 

You can download a copy of this text here

The Duchess of Amalfi - Act 3

The Duchess of Malfi

Act 3 Seminar Discussion


3.1 Antonio and Delio (1-37)

v How does Webster handle the jump forwards in time in this Act?

v What is the gossip about the Duchess amongst the people of Malfi? What about Antonio?


3.1 Enter Ferdinand, Duchess, Bosola (38-56)

v How does Webster further share a joke with the audience about the two years that have passed in the world of the play in lines 38-9?

v There are echoes of which Shakespeare tragedy in Ferdinand’s instruction to the Duchess to marry the Count Malateste? How does this affect the audience?

v What do you notice about Ferdinand’s language in response to the Duchess’ mentioning the rumours about her? How does she respond to his speech?


3.1 Ferdinand and Bosola

v What ideas about fate are presented in this dialogue?

v Consider Bosola’s theory about the Duchess: do you think he really believes in potions and sorcery? How would you direct an actor to read these lines? What is Ferdinand’s response to Bosola’s theory?

v Bosola criticises Ferdinand in 89-91. What do you make of Ferdinand’s response?


3.2 Duchess, Cariola, Antonio bedroom scene

v How does Webster create a sense of relaxed domesticity in the opening of this scene? What is the marriage of the Duchess and Antonio like?


3. 2 Duchess and Ferdinand Confrontation

v Discuss the effect of the action and lines in 53-70. In particular, what facets of the Duchess’ character are shown?

v Discuss Ferdinand’s language in this scene. How does it add to the pattern of his language and imagery so far?

v What is the Duchess’ defence? Consider her key lines 108-110. Is she right?


3.2 Antonio leaves court; the Duchess confides in Bosola

v What lie does the Duchess tell to explain her sending Antonio away to safety?

v Consider lines 180-206. How might the Duchess’ and Antonio’s exchange be understood differently by the surrounding officers, each other and the audience?

v Discuss Bosola’s motives and feelings in this scene. Is he genuine in his praise of Antonio? Consider his lines 272-282 and his soliliquy at the end of the scene.


3.3The Cardinal and Ferdinand discuss their next move

v What is the significance of the Cardinal ‘turning soldier’?

v What is ironic about The Cardinal’s line 58?

v Note the nature of the brothers’ different responses. How do the Cardinal’s plans show his motives and character?


3.4Dumb Show and Pilgrims

v What is the dramatic function of the pilgrims in this scene? Discuss their judgement on the characters and events of the play.


3.5 The Duchess, Antonio, Bosola

v How does Webster emphasise the Duchess’ changed fortunes?

v Note the imagery used by The Duchess and Antonio in the opening of the scene.

v What do you make of Bosola’s insult to Antonio in 51-54?

v How does Webster make the parting of the Duchess and Antonio moving?


3.5 Bosola arrests the Duchess

v On Bosola’s re-entrance he is wearing a mask. Why do you think he does this?

v Consider the Duchess’ speech at the end of the scene. What imagery does she use to put forward her philosophy? How might Bosola respond to these ideas?


Essay Question: How has Webster presented the character of the Duchess in the play so far?

You can download a copy of the text here

The Duchess of Malfi - Act 2

The Duchess of Malfi


Act 2 Seminar Discussion



2.1 Bosola, Castrucchio and Old Lady (lines 1-68)

v How does Bosola satirise courtly behaviour and the law at the expense of Castrucchio?

v Consider Bosola’s insulting words to the old lady. What imagery dies he use? How does this black comedy highlight the serious theme of womanhood in the play?

v What significant change happens at line 50 and why?


2.1 Bosola tricks the Duchess (apricots scene) lines 69-177

v What do you notice about the language Bosola uses when describing the Duchess’ symptoms of pregnancy?

v What is Antonio’s explanation for Bosola’s melancholy?

v How does Webster use word play and asides to build tension in lines 114-164?

v What is Delio and Antonio’s plan at the end of the scene?


2.2 The Duchess gives birth

v Bosola abuses the old woman again. Discuss his language and the imagery he uses. Why is this scene particularly tense?

v Why do you think Webster has the bawdy discussion between the servants about the supposed intruder in this scene?

v What contrast is drawn between Delio and Antonio at the close of this scene?


2.3 Bosola and Antonio- the horoscope

v How is the dialogue between Bosola and Antonio exploited for dramatic effect in this scene?

v Discuss the significance of objects in this scene (Bosola’s ‘dark lantern’, his candle and drawn sword, the horoscope, the handkerchief.) How might the horoscope impact the end of the play?

v Consider Antonio’s and Bosola’s final lines of the scene (51-52;76-77)These are examples of Webster’s frequent sententiae, rhyming couplets which express moral observations about the world of the play. Do you read these moments as artificial, or do they fit the characters?


2.4 Julia, the Cardinal and Delio

v The Cardinal’s hypocrisy and sin is obvious in the scene. What about Delio? Does his behaviour change the way the audience thinks of him, and his role at the end of the play?

v In what ways might Julia be read as a ‘foil’ to the Duchess? See OCR 1.9 on Love and Sexuality.

v This scene does little to advance the plot. Why do you think Webster included it?


2.5 Ferdinand and the Cardinal react to the news (from Bosola) that the Duchess has had a child

v Make a spider diagram or table to chart the language and imagery used by each brother. Note the differences in their responses.

v Complete the sheet tasks: Is Ferdinand simply a misogynist?


Essay question: Discuss ideas about women presented in Act 2. 

You can download a copy of the text here

The Duchess of Malfi - Act 1

The Duchess of Malfi


Act 1 Seminar Discussion


1.1 The French Court Lines 1-22

v What does Antonio ‘admire’ about the French court?

v See the images/text on James I’s court. How might this have been received in 1623 London?

v Consider this line: But if’t chance/Some cursed example poison’t near the head,/’Death and diseases through the whole land spread.’ Considering this is the very beginning of the play, what effect does Webster intend here?

v Structure/Thematic: Why do you think Webster opens with this lengthy section about the ‘French court’, when the play is set in an Italian one?


1.1 Meet Bosola Lines 23-80

v What do you notice about Bosola’s language and the imagery he uses?

v What about the form of his speech- how is it different? Why do you think this is?

v What does Antonio think of Bosola in lines 74-82?


1.2 Meet Ferdinand; Antonio tells Delio about the brothers and the Duchess Lines 1-129

v What is Castruccio’s advice to Ferdinand?

v What impression do you get of Ferdinand as a ruler in this scene?

v How does Antonio describe the Cardinal, Ferdinand and the Duchess? Find a good quotation describing the differences between the siblings.

v The Duchess, the titular character, has been on stage since line 66. Why do you think Webster has not yet given her a line?


1.2 The brothers and the Duchess Lines 129-255

v How does Bosola feel about spying for Ferdinand? What kind of language does he use to describe his new ‘job’?

v Make a note of the different language and imagery used by The Cardinal and Ferdinand to demand the Duchess does not re-marry. Do their motives appear to you to be the same?

v Discuss the ‘poniard’ scene. What are the possible interpretations?


1.2 The Duchess and Antonio wooing and marriage lines 256-412

v What is the Duchess’ tragic mistake at the opening of this section? Could this be read as a (tragic) character flaw, or is the Duchess purely a victim?

v Find and make a note of the word play the Duchess uses to hint at her intentions, beginning with line 284.

v What is the symbolism of the Duchess drawing Antonio to his feet in lines 326-330?

v Discuss the Duchess’ line This is flesh and blood, sir:’Tis not the figure cut in alabaster/Kneels at my husband’s tomb. (363-5) What are the facets of the Duchess and how are they at conflict with each other?

v Find quotations that convey the couple’s ideas about marriage (lines 386ff) How do sex, children and the church fit into their philosophy?

v Cariola ends the scene, and with it Act 1. What does she fear, and why does Webster close the Act this way?

Essay Question: How does Webster explore the theme of rule in Act 1 of The Duchess of Malfi?

You can download a copy of this text here