The Duchess of Malfi

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The Duchess of Malfi Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Webster

John Webster led a relatively obscure life. The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown. He was born in London, probably in 1580, to Elizabeth Coates and his father, also named John Webster, who was a tailor in London. It’s thought that Webster attended the reputable Merchant Taylor’s School, though it is uncertain whether he did or not. He began his career collaborating with other playwrights, writing The Malcontent with John Marston in 1604 and Westward Ho with Thomas Dekker in 1607. In 1605 or 1606, Webster married Sara Peniall, a 17-year-old girl who was seven months pregnant at the time. They had several children. Little else is known about Webster, though we know from a reference to him in the past tense in a 1634 publication that he was dead by that year.
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Historical Context of The Duchess of Malfi

Webster wrote The Duchess of Malfi ten years into the Jacobean era in England and only a few years before Shakespeare’s death. The play is based on an Italian novella, which in turn is based on true historical events. The real Duchess, Giovanna d'Aragona, married Antonio Beccadelli in secret and bore him three children. She was murdered by her brothers, one of whom was a Cardinal, in 1510. Webster’s main changes to the true story are that Antonio didn’t die until a few years after the Duchess’ death, and Bosola’s repentance and ultimate betrayal and murder of the brothers is fictionalized, as the two were never accused or killed.

Other Books Related to The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi takes most of its plot from The Palace of Pleasure by William Painter, which is the translation of an adaptation of an Italian novella. Webster is known for his play The White Devil, which is also set in Roman Catholic Italy. The Duchess of Malfi contains echoes of other Elizabethan revenge tragedies, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Coriolanus, and King Lear. Webster also references Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Key Facts about The Duchess of Malfi
  • Full Title: The Tragedy of the Duchess of Malfi
  • When Written: 1612-13
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1623
  • Literary Period: Jacobean Drama
  • Genre: Tragedy
  • Setting: Roman Catholic Italy: Amalfi, Rome, Loreto, and Milan
  • Climax: The Duchess is killed / Antonio, Duke Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola all kill each other
  • Antagonist: Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal

Extra Credit for The Duchess of Malfi

Based on Fact. The principal story of The Duchess of Malfi is factual. Giovanna d’Aragona was married at age twelve in 1490. Five months after her husband’s death (in 1499) Giovanna gave birth to their son and became the regent of Amalfi since the duke (her son) was an infant. Antonio Beccadelli was hired to run her estate, and the two secretly married, had children, and faced the wrath of Giovanna’s brothers, one of whom was truly a Cardinal.

The King’s Men. The Duchess of Malfi was first performed by the King’s Men, the theatre company to which Shakespeare belonged that performed all of his work. Though Shakespeare himself might not have acted in the first production of The Duchess of Malfi, the production was filled with his friends and peers. Richard Burbage, for example, who first played famous characters such as Hamlet and King Lear, was the first to play Duke Ferdinand. Henry Condell, one of the editors and publishers of Shakespeare’s First Folio, first played the Cardinal.