John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

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John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi


Both brothers are clearly furious at the news, making explicit the kind of rank-based disquiet I discussed earlier. Both give vent to misogynist commonplaces, such as the following:

                                   Foolish men,
That e’er will trust their honour in a bark
Made of so slight weak bullrush as is woman,
Apt every minute to sink it!


Yet, Ferdinand’s anger seems different in kind from the Cardinal’s. Indeed, the Cardinal is as shocked by his brother’s ravings as any member of the audience, and his alarmed responses confirm that Ferdinand’s attitude to the Duchess is obsessive and pathological: ‘Speak lower’ (2.5.4); ‘Why do you make yourself / So wild a tempest?’ (2.5.16–17); ‘You fly beyond your reason’ (2.5.46); ‘Are you stark mad?’ (2.5.66).

Activity 6

How did you respond to Ferdinand’s conduct in this scene? Did it surprise you, or do you think that Webster’s characterisation of the Duke of Calabria in Act 1 lays the foundations for his conduct here? Go back through Act 1 and see if you can find any suggestions of the kind of mental instability represented in this scene.


In Act 1, before the brothers gang up on their sister in an effort to bully her into submission, Ferdinand tells Bosola that he ‘would not have her marry again’ (1.1.262). This blanket hostility to a second marriage goes beyond anything voiced by the Cardinal, who is much more concerned about the prospect of an inappropriate union. In reply, Bosola says only ‘No, sir?’ (1.1.262), yet this unchallenging response is enough to spark the highly defensive ‘Do not you ask the reason, but be satisfied / I say I would not’ (1.1.263–4). Webster seems to be deliberately arousing our curiosity about Ferdinand’s motives here, giving us a glance of the turbulent, unstable personality Antonio mentioned earlier in the scene. Later, when the brothers confront the Duchess, it is Ferdinand whose language is compulsively sexual, culminating in the dirty joke about the lamprey we considered earlier. He goes on to brandish their father’s dagger at her – a gesture many critics have interpreted in phallic terms.

It is these suggestions of an intensely sexualised attitude towards his sister that burst into the open in Act 2, Scene 5. Ferdinand is gripped by fevered, voyeuristic visions of his sister having sex with working-class men characterised by their physical vigour and attractiveness:

Happily with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar; or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.


The lines register a fear of encroachment by men whose lower rank is compensated for by their superior masculinity. But what the verse chiefly conveys is Ferdinand’s loss of control: he cannot stop himself from visualising the Duchess ‘in the shameful act of sin’ (2.5.41). He asks his brother ‘Talk to me somewhat quickly’ (2.5.39), in a futile attempt to shut down an imagination that immediately goes on to enumerate a selection of possible low-class sexual partners. When he shouts ‘’Tis not your whore’s milk that shall quench my wild-fire, / But your whore’s blood!’ (2.5.47–8), his words are so deranged as to be unintelligible, though his obsession with his sister’s body remains clear, as does his powerful urge to do violence to her.

It is probably fair to say that nowadays most critics of the play agree that what underlies Ferdinand’s relationship with his sister is unconscious incestuous desire. Indeed, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, when he adapted The Duchess of Malfi in 1946, appended a prologue in which Ferdinand confesses his incestuous passion for his sister. What seems to drive Ferdinand’s collapse into hysteria in Act 2, Scene 5 is a ferocious sexual jealousy that seems bent not just on the destruction but the obliteration of the loved object. So he imagines ‘hewing’ the Duchess ‘to pieces’ (2.5.31) and, in the following passage, rehearses with demented relish different ways of annihilating her and her family:

                                I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal pit with the ventage stopped,
That their cursed smoke might not ascend to heaven;
Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in’t and then light them like a match;
Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis
And give’t his lecherous father to renew
The sin of his back.


There is a longing here for a revenge so total that the offending physical selves will cease to exist. There is also a desire to punish the father for his lechery by making him eat his child – a form of retribution Webster would have known from Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, in which the protagonist avenges himself on his enemy Tamora by killing her two sons and baking them in a pie which he feeds to her at a dinner party.

By this point in the play there can be no doubt in our minds that Ferdinand is the play’s principal villain, albeit a fascinating one. Yet even here, Webster injects a moral dimension, suggesting that the Duke of Calabria’s furious desire for vengeance stems in part from guilt:

                           I could kill her now
In you, or in myself, for I do think
It is some sin in us heaven doth revenge
By her.


These cryptic lines imply that Ferdinand’s savagery derives in part from a self-loathing which he projects onto his sister. As with Bosola and Antonio, Webster seems keen to endow Ferdinand with a degree of psychological complexity.


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