English 201: English Literature to 1700
Prof. Boyer

Reading Questions for John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi
The best beginning procedure is always to read the assignment all the way through, keeping track of characters, so that you know what's happening. If possible, read the whole work first. Try to get the big picture of the play (or act, or scene) before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to read the work closely with these questions in mind. (In the discussion below, page and line numbers in parentheses refer to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1 or 1A [2000] unless otherwise indicated.)

A note on line numbering in The Duchess of Malfi: It is traditional to refer to plays by act, scene, and line numbers rather than page numbers (thus Delio first speaks at 1.1.1; Bosola first speaks at 1.1.29).

A note on the historical background of the play: The play is based on the true story of Giovanna d'Aragona, who was married to the Duke of Amalfi in 1490 when she was about 12. He died of the gout when she was about 19-20; they had one son who inherited his title. She and Antonio married about 1504 (she was 26). The marriage was revealed in 1511 and Antonio was killed in 1513. The Spanish playwright Lope de Vega also wrote a play based on the same story, El mayordomo de la duquesa de Amalfi (The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward), available in English translation in the Saint Xavier University library.

Act 1
Act 2
Act 3
Act 4
Act 5

Act 1 (pages 1433-1446)

1.1

1.

Notice in the Dramatis Personae on page 1433 that Antonio is the Duchess's Steward. Thus he is in the same position in her household as Malvolio is in Olivia's household in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

2.

Where has Antonio been at the beginning of the play? How does he like the Court there (1.1.4-22)?

3.

What does Antonio think of Bosola (1.1.22-28)?

4.

What is Bosola asking the Cardinal for (1.1.29-44)? How does Bosola describe the Cardinal and Ferdinand to Antonio and Delio (1.1.45-62)?

5.

How do Delio and Antonio describe Bosola after Bosola leaves (1.1.63-75)? Note the mention of melancholy in line 69 (and throughout the play), and see the introduction to the play on page 1432. The most important writer on melancholy in the early seventeenth century was Robert Burton; see pages 1560-1569 for a selection from his Anatomy of Melancholy.

1.2

1.

What sort of person/ruler is Ferdinand? How does what he says at 1.2.40-42 compare with what Antonio said about the French Court in 1.1.5-22, page 1433?

2.

Who is Castruccio, and what do we learn about his wife in 1.2.23-28 and 45-52? (What he says isn't important to remember, but watch for his wife during the play.)

3.

How does Antonio describe the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and the Duchess for Delio (1.2.64-118).

4.

Note that your book is wrong if it says, as mine does, that the Cardinal speaks lines 119-120. The speaker must be Cariola. Why might our editor have made that mistake? (Think about what would happen if speech prefixes were abbreviated, using, perhaps, only the first three letters of the name or title.) What is Cariola's message to Antonio? Would the Cardinal have said this?

5.

What does Ferdinand ask his sister the Duchess to do (1.2.121-126)? Does she agree? When the Cardinal and Ferdinand are alone at line 131, what does the Cardinal tell Ferdinand to do about Bosola (1.2.131-138)?

6.

What happens when Bosola talks with Ferdinand (1.2.138-197)? What does Bosola agree to do? What reasons does Ferdinand give for not wanting his sister to marry again (lines 162-165)? What sort of person does Bosola seem to be? Does he match the descriptions we have had of him and what we have seen of him before?

1.3

(some editions continue 1.2 because Ferdinand remains onstage)

1.

What do the Cardinal and Ferdinand tell the Duchess (1.3.1-47)? What two reasons do the brothers have in lines 3-8? ("Luxurious" in line 6 means "lascivious.") What does Ferdinand warn her will happen (lines 21-24 and 37-47)?

2.

How does the Duchess respond when her brothers have left (1.3.48-56)? Notice her last speech before Antonio enters (1.3.65-68). Is she being courageous, or just stupid? (This is an important question. In a sense, your reading of the play depends at least in part on your answer to this question.)

3.

How does the wooing occur (1.3.68-176)? What is Antonio's response in lines 124-132? Is this a rational response? What does she think her brothers' response will be (lines 169-174)?

4.

What sort of marriage ceremony do they have (1.3.177-202)? How does Cariola respond (1.3.203-205)? What do these three lines do for the tone of the scene?

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Act 2 (pages 1446-1459)

2.1

1.

What is Bosola's attitude toward women and makeup (2.1.1-39)? What sort of imagery does he use in lines 40-55? What does he tell Castruccio and the Old Lady in lines 56-57? (Remember to keep track of Castruccio's wife.)

2.

What does Bosola suspect and what is his plan (2.1.58-66)? What happens when the Duchess enters (2.1.99-149)? How does Delio tell Antonio to handle the problem (2.1.150-163)?

2.2

1.

What does Antonio do and say in 2.2.24-28? What is Bosola's response (2.2.29-31)? What explanation do the servants have (2.2.31-40)? Why does Antonio order all the officers locked in their chambers (2.2.41-51)?

2.

What has really happened (2.2.55-75, especially 72-75)?

2.3

1.

What does Antonio suggest that Bosola did (2.3.10-52)?

2.

What mistake does Antonio make and what does Bosola learn from it (2.3.53-62)? What does Bosola think Antonio's role in this is (2.3.63-75)? Does Bosola know who the father is? Where is Castruccio going?

2.4

1.

Who is Julia and why has she come to Rome (2.4.1-41)? Who has come to see her and with what news (2.4.41-45)? What is Julia's connection to Delio (2.4.46-67)?

2.

What news does Castruccio bring, and what does Delio fear (2.4.67-83)?

2.5

1.

What is Ferdinand's response to the news (2.5.1-80)? Does this sound like someone who will sooner or later forgive and forget (as the Duchess thinks her brothers will in 1.3.169-174 on page 1445)? Does this sound like someone rational? Note especially 2.5.38-46 and 67-74. What will Ferdinand do for the time being (2.5.77-80)?

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Act 3 (pages 1459-1477)

3.1

1.

What two people have come to Amalfi (3.1.1-3)? How many children do the Duchess and Antonio now have (3.1.5-7)?

2.

How does Ferdinand now act out his resolution in 2.5.77-80 (3.1.21-24 and 37-39)? Why has Ferdinand come to the Duchess's court (3.1.39-41)? Why does the Duchess think everything is all right (3.1.46-56)?

3.

What does Bosola report to Ferdinand (3.1.56-93)? What does Ferdinand think of sorcery and potions? What has Bosola obtained (3.1.79-81)?

3.2

1.

What are Antonio, Cariola, and the Duchess joking about at the beginning of the scene (3.2.1-51)? What joke to Antonio and Cariola decide to play on the Duchess (3.2.52-55)?

2.

What happens after Antonio and Cariola leave (3.2.56-138)? What does the Duchess expect when she sees Ferdinand (lines 67-69)? What does she tell him (line 80)? How does he respond? To whom is Ferdinand speaking in lines 88-97 and what does he say? What does Ferdinand tell the duchess to do to keep her husband safe from him (lines 97-107)? What does he promise as he leaves (line 134, 138)?

3.

What happens when Bosola enters (3.2.158-170)? Whom does the Duchess blame, and for what?

4.

What plan does the Duchess have (3.2.171-178)? What are the Duchess and Antonio doing when Bosola returns at line 157?

5.

What happens when the Duchess talks to Bosola (3.2.206-303)? What mistake does she make (line 257)? How good is Bosola at covering his surprise (lines 258-261)?

6.

What will Bosola do (3.2.304-312)?

3.3

1.

What is the Cardinal preparing to do (3.3.1-8)?

2.

What does Ferdinand do when he learns about Antonio (3.3.47)? How does this compare with what he said he was doing until the Duchess's husband was known?

3.

Then how do Ferdinand and the Cardinal respond to the news (3.3.52-68)?

3.4

1.

What ceremony at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto do we witness (3.4.1-22)? What else happens?

2.

What do we learn from the pilgrims (3.4.23-43)?

3.5

1.

What has happened to the Duchess and Antonio (3.5.1-17)? Why does the Duchess envy the birds (3.5.17-20)?

2.

What request does Bosola bring from Ferdinand and how is it answered (3.5.21-53)?

3.

What plans do the Duchess and Antonio have now (3.5.53-89)?

4.

Who arrives after Antonio and his son leave (3.5.90-95)? Does the Duchess know it is Bosola? (See the marginal note explaining "vizarded" and pay attention to Bosola's costumes from here on.)

5.

What is to happen to the Duchess and how does she take it (3.5.95-141)?

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Act 4 (pages 1477-1490)

4.1

1.

How does Bosola describe the Duchess in imprisonment to Ferdinand and how does he respond (4.1.1-17)?

2.

What does Bosola tell the Duchess (4.1.18-29)? How will Ferdinand keep his earlier promise?

3.

What does Ferdinand give the Duchess in the dark, and what further is she shown (4.1.30-61)? How does the Duchess respond (4.1.62-110)? What does Bosola mean in line 99?

4.

Why is Ferdinand doing this and what will he do next (4.1.111-131)?

5.

What is changing in Bosola (4.1.132-137)?

6.

Where is Antonio and what will Bosola's next task be (4.1.137-141)?

4.2

1.

How is the Duchess responding to the noise of the madmen (4.2.1-36)? What is her miracle (lines 22-23)? What show has Ferdinand provided for her (4.2.37-105)?

2.

What disguise does Bosola use when he returns? (See the stage direction after line 105.) What does he have to say about death (lines 113-120)? What is the tone of the Duchess's great line "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (4.2.128)? How does Bosola respond (lines 129-131)? What does he say his profession is in line 133?

3.

What present does she receive from her brothers (4.2.148-150)? What show does she get this time (lines 147-177)? How does Cariola respond (lines 178-179)? How does the Duchess respond (lines 180-187)?

4.

Read the Duchess's death scene carefully (4.2.187-218) carefully to see how well the Duchess faces death. Does Cariola face death as well as the Duchess does (4.2.219-237)?

5.

What are Ferdinand's and Bosola's responses to the deaths (4.2.237-252)? Note especially what Ferdinand says in lines 239-240, 245, and 247-249.

6.

How does Ferdinand treat Bosola in 4.2.252-315? What will Bosola's reward be? Will this please Bosola? Notice the repetition of the wolf image in lines 240 and 289-291. Keep this image in mind.

7.

What action does Bosola perform in line 316? What happens in line 321? How does Bosola begin to right the wrongs (4.2.321-333)? Does Bosola tell the truth in lines 332-333?

8.

Where will Bosola go now (4.2.334-355)? How and why is he changing?

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Act 5 (pages 1490-1507)

5.1

1.

What is Antonio hoping for (5.1.1-2)? What does Delio report is going on (5.1.2-14)? What will he do to prove it (5.1.15-17)?

2.

In 5.1.18-56 what does Delio request from the Marquis of Pescara and how successful is he? Who gets what he asked for? Why didn't Delio get it?

3.

Who has arrived in Milan and in what shape (5.1.56-59)?

4.

What does Antonio plan to do (5.1.60-76)?

5.2

1.

What is Ferdinand suffering from (5.2.1-27)? Does this fit with what we already know of him? Notice especially his wonderful description in lines 16-18. Is Ferdinand convincingly mad when we see him (5.2.28-73)? What has caused his madness? (See lines 49-50 and compare 4.2.289-291 and 5.2.9-15.) How does the Cardinal explain his brother's madness (5.2.80-92)?

2.

How does the Cardinal treat Bosola (5.2.96-112)? Who is Julia and how does she respond to Bosola (line 114)? What does the Cardinal want Bosola to do next (5.2.115-137)?

3.

What does Julia accuse Bosola of (5.2.143-153)? How does Bosola turn this to his advantage (5.2.153-212)? What does Bosola ask her to find out? How will Julia let him find out the information immediately?

4.

How does the Cardinal feel about Julia (5.2.213-219)? What does she ask him to tell her, what does he warn her about, and what does he finally tell her (5.2.219-260)? What happens to Julia, and what does the Cardinal learn (2.5.260-278)? Notice Julia's death line (5.2.277-278) and watch for other death lines for a sense of how Webster's characters view death, and life.

5.

What does Bosola agree to do for the Cardinal (5.2.278-306)? When and how will they get rid of Julia's body (5.2.307-315)? What does the Cardinal give Bosola (line 313)?

6.

What does Bosola really intend to do and why (5.2.316-334)?

5.3

1.

What interesting theatrical effect does Webster achieve in this scene?

2.

What warning does Delio give Antonio (5.3.27-28)? Does Delio get support from the echo? Why will he go to the Cardinal (5.3.45-49)? What will Delio do to support him (5.2.50-53)? Do you think this will work? From what we heard in 5.2, who else will be at the Cardinal's house that night?

5.4

1.

What instructions does the Cardinal give to his guests (5.4.1-20)? Is this a good idea? Why had he done this and what does he plan to do (5.4.21-29)?

2.

When Bosola enters, whom did he hear and so whom does he expect to enter (5.4.30-32)? Who actually enters? What does he mean by lines 31-32? Remember that it's night and dark.

3.

What happens when Antonio enters (5.4.40-43)? Whom does Bosola think it is? How does Bosola respond when he knows what has happened (5.4.44-57)? What is Antonio's dying message (5.4.58-70). What does Bosola plan next (5.4.74-82)?

5.5

1.

What is bothering the Cardinal (5.5.1-7)?

2.

What happens when Bosola enters (5.5.8-18)? What do the guests do when the Cardinal calls for help (5.5.18-31)? What happens to the Cardinal (5.5.32-45)?

3.

Where does Ferdinand think he is, and what happens when he enters (5.5.46-60)? What does Bosola then do (5.5.61-63)? What is Ferdinand's last great line (5.5.64-66)? What else does he say as he dies (5.5.69-71)?

4.

How does Bosola explain all this to the guests, including his dying line (5.5.78-85, 92-103)? Webster is especially good in writing dying lines. One of the best is in his other great play, The White Devil, in which the character Flamineo has the following dying speech (note especially the underlined portion):

O recover like a spent taper, for a flash,
And instantly go out.
Let all that belong to great men remember th'old wives' tradition,
to be like the lions i'th' Tower on Candlemas day, to mourn if the
sun shine, for fear of the pitiful remainder of winter to come.
'Tis well yet there's some goodness in my death,
My life was a black charnel: I have caught
An everlasting cold. I have lost my voice
Most irrecoverably
. Farewell, glorious villains.
This busy trade of life appears most vain,
Since rest breeds rest, where all seek pain by pain.
Let no harsh flattering bells resound my kness.
Strike, thunder, and strike loud to my farewell.

Candlemas, February 2, has been alternatively known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Tower is the Tower of London, so this is an English, not an Italian, reference. The date and the story should reveal the ancestor (or alternative version) of something we still celebrate, but without noting the religious feast day on which it occurs.

5.

What is Delio's final message (5.5.108-119)? Is this an effective summary/moral for the play?

6.

A final, general question. The boy in Shakespeare in Love who likes to play with rats is John Webster, our playwright, at age 13. What in The Duchess of Malfi might have led the screenwriters to create a character like that to represent John Webster? Were they right?

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