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?

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