“Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”
— Ferdinand, after looking at the dead body of his sister the Duchess. Act 4, Sc.2
The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre, tragic play, written by the English dramatist John Webster and first performed in 1614 at the Globe Theatre in London. Published for the first time in 1623, the play is loosely based on true events that occurred between about 1508 and 1513, recounted in William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1567). The Duchess was Giovanna d’Aragona, whose father, Arrigo d’Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, was an illegitimate son of Ferdinand I of Naples. Her husbands were Alfonso Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi, and (as in the play) Antonio Bologna.
The play begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers exact their revenge, destroying themselves in the process.
The play is sometimes ridiculed by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster’s poetic language, give it a continuing interest, and it is still performed in the 21st century.
“His tone had a finality to it, and a sadness that touched me to the quick. He was saying farewell to Lestat, that’s what he was doing, and I knew that Lestat’s slumber was so deep and so troubled, that even such a dreadful message from Louis might not rouse him at all.”
— David Talbot