The Duchess of Malfi is generally considered to be John Webster’s masterpiece. The story is based on actual events that took place in Italy in the early sixteenth century. The Duchess, a woman of true blue blood and a widow to boot, falls in love with a man far below her station. This is resented by her brothers who fear they will lose her patrimony if she marries. They find an agent in a hardened criminal whom they put in her service. Eventually, she and her children are eliminated.
Act 1, Scene 1
The play opens in Malfi, in the presence-chamber (the room where royalty would receive visitors) in the Duchess’s palace. Antonio and Delio enter. Antonio Bologna is the steward of the Duchess’s household; Delio is his friend. Antonio has been away in France visiting the French court, and Delio asks him what he thinks of it. Antonio tells him he admires the French king very much, because the king has dismissed all the yes-men and immoral hangers-on, and has rewarded men who tell him the truth about court corruption. Antonio believes it is a noble duty to advise royal persons about morally sensitive matters.
Daniel de Bosola enters, along with the Cardinal, who is one of the Duchess’s brothers. Bosola is pestering the Cardinal about not being justly rewarded for service he has fulfilled for the Cardinal-in fact, Bosola says, he was in the galleys (that is, serving as an oarsman in a warship) for two years in the Cardinal’s service. The Cardinal puts him off, telling him he wishes Bosola could be honest. As the Cardinal leaves, Bosola responds sarcastically that the Cardinal, being a man of divinity, should teach him how; after the Cardinal exits, Bosola declares that the Cardinal is worse than any devil. Antonio asks him what he is talking about. Bosola says that the Cardinal and his brother (Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria – the Duchess’s other brother) are rich and corrupt and that they do not reward faithful service. Bosola departs after a few more bitter comments. Delio tells Antonio that Bosola had been in the galleys for seven years, serving time for a murder reputedly ordered by the Cardinal. Then Delio reminds Antonio that he had promised to tell Delio about all the noblemen and courtiers.
Ferdinand enters with Castruchio, Silvio, Roderigo, Grisolan, and attendants. The group has been at a sporting contest where Antonio has triumphed most often. Ferdinand asks when they will give up the games and get to real action, and Castruccio tells him he should not wish to go to war, but rather he should send deputies to war in his place. Ferdinand changes the subject to a witticism that Julia, Castruchio’s wife, made about a wounded soldier. Then he changes the subject again, asking what his companions think of his horse. The men banter about the horse, but Ferdinand chides Roderigo and Grisolan for laughing when he is not laughing. Ferdinand tells Silvio he will visit him in Milan soon. Ferdinand tells Antonio he is a good horseman and asks him what he thinks of good horsemanship. Antonio says good horsemanship elevates the mind to noble action; Ferdinand agrees.
The Cardinal reenters, along with the Duchess, Cariola, and Julia. In an aside, Delio reminds Antonio of his promise and asks him about the Cardinal. Antonio tells Delio the Cardinal is a scheming church politician who uses informers and bribes to get what he wants, and that what Delio has heard about the Cardinal being a brave and sporting fellow who courts women is true only outwardly, “for form.” Delio asks about Ferdinand, the Cardinal’s brother. Antonio says much the same thing about him- that his mirth is outward only, and that he uses informers and hearsay to doom men to death. Antonio tells Delio that the two brothers are corrupt and scheming, but that their sister the Duchess is good and noble as well as beautiful. Cariola interrupts Antonio’s rapturous comments to tell him he must attend the Duchess in the gallery in half an hour. Antonio and Delio exit.
Ferdinand asks the Duchess to appoint Bosola as her horseman (stable keeper). The Duchess says Ferdinand’s recommendation is evidence of Bosola’s worthiness.
Silvio says his goodbyes to Ferdinand and the Duchess. Ferdinand asks Silvio to commend them to “all our noble friends at the leaguer” (military camp). The Duchess offers to transport Silvio in her coaches. Everyone exits except Ferdinand and the Cardinal.
The Cardinal tells Ferdinand to make use of Bosola now that he’s going to be part of the Duchess’s household. Ferdinand says Antonio would have been a better choice, but the Cardinal tells Ferdinand that Antonio is too honest for the role Ferdinand has in mind. The Cardinal exits; Bosola reenters, telling Ferdinand he was summoned there. The men have an exchange about how the Cardinal has treated Bosola. Ferdinand gives Bosola gold; Bosola assumes he must kill someone to earn it. Ferdinand says he might in the future, but for now, he must live in the palace and spy on the Duchess. The Duchess is a young widow, and Ferdinand wants to know who her suitors are because he does not want her to remarry. Bosola reluctantly accepts the task of being Ferdinand’s spy, believing he is indebted to Ferdinand because Ferdinand procured the provisor ship of the horse for him.
Act 1, Scene 2
Ferdinand, the Duchess, the Cardinal, and Cariola enter a gallery in the palace. The brothers tell the Duchess they are leaving and that she must use her own discretion about suitors. The men tell her she should not marry again and she assures them she will not. The brothers warn her against marrying secretly. The Cardinal exits. The Duchess tells Ferdinand she believes their warnings were rehearsed. Ferdinand shows her a dagger and issues a veiled threat. Then he makes a final admonition that the Duchess understands as a lewd warning against giving in to sexual desire, but he says he is merely talking about the lure of smooth-talking men.
After Ferdinand exits, the Duchess declares that her brothers’ threats will not prevent her from the marriage she has planned. Cariola pledges her secrecy and devotion. The Duchess asks Cariola to hide behind the curtain when Antonio comes in.
When Antonio enters, the Duchess tells him to get pen and ink, as she is going to dictate her will to him. It soon becomes clear she is proposing to Antonio. The Duchess says it is a misery of the highborn that they must woo because no one will woo them. The woman then declares her love for Antonio, and though he declares himself unworthy of her, he pledges his devotion to her. Cariola comes out from behind the arras and serves as a witness to their declared marriage. Antonio asks the Duchess what her brothers will do; she assures him that in time the storm will blow over. The Duchess and Antonio exit; Cariola declares that the Duchess is a great woman but that she pities her.
Act 2, Scene 1
This scene takes place in a room in the Duchess’s palace. Bosola and Castruccio enter, bantering about Castruchio’s ambition to be a great courtier. Bosola is exercising his usual melancholic/choleric manner, talking nonsensically, and Castruccio is playing along. An old lady enters, and Bosola engages her in insulting banter about her appearance. After a long speech about the diseased and transitory nature of life, Bosola tells Castruchio his wife has gone to Rome and tells Castruchio and the old lady to go to the wells at Lucca; he has work to do. Castruccio and the old lady exit. Bosola says he suspects the Duchess is pregnant and he hatches a plot to disclose her pregnancy with the first apricots of the spring.
Antonio and Delio enter, talking together aside. Antonio discloses his secret marriage with the Duchess to Delio, who is amazed. Antonio swears him to secrecy.
Antonio tells Bosola to stop pretending to be melancholy; he deduces that Bosola is acting melancholy so as not to appear big-headed about his position in the palace. Bosola declares he wants simply to be honest. The man says the same evil passions motivate all people, highborn as well as poor.
The Duchess and her ladies enter. The Duchess takes Antonio’s arm, saying she is growing fat and is short of breath. The Duchess tells Bosola to provide her with a litter, such as the one the Duchess of Florence rode in. Bosola says the Duchess of Florence rode in it when she was pregnant; the Duchess agrees, then bursts out impatiently that she is troubled “with the mother” (footnote indicates this means “hysteria”). Bosola plays on the phrase in an aside. The Duchess changes the subject, beginning a conversation with Antonio about how the French wear hats in court. Bosola gives the Duchess the apricots and she eats them with great relish; in asides, Bosola declares that his trick has worked-he has proven she is pregnant. Suddenly the Duchess feels unwell and must hasten to the chamber. As she and her ladies exit, she tells Antonio she fears she is undone. Bosola exits on the other side of the stage.
Antonio tells Delio he is afraid the Duchess has gone into labour before the time he has arranged to spirit her away somewhere. Delio advises him to use the apricots as an excuse for the Duchess’s indisposed condition; he tells Antonio to make it known that the apricots were poisoned.
Act 2, Scene 2
In a hall in the palace, Bosola enters, gloating about his confirmed knowledge of the Duchess’s pregnancy. An old lady enters and tells him she is in a hurry. Bosola engages her in more of his caustic banter, making it clear that he knows about the pregnancy. The old lady exits.
Antonio, Delio, Roderigo, and Grisolan enter. Antonio orders all the court gates shut and all officers of the court called. Grisolan goes to do these things, returning quickly with servants. In an aside, Bosola worries that the apricots were poisoned without his knowledge. Two servants joke together about a “French plot” and make crude jokes about a Swiss man being caught in the Duchess’s chamber. Antonio tells the officers that jewels worth four thousand ducats have been stolen from the Duchess’s cabinet; all officers are to be locked in their rooms until sunrise. Bosola challenges one of the servants who had been talking about the “Switzer,” and the servant declares that the story had been believably reported by one of the blackguards (lowly servants). Everyone exits except Antonio and Delio. Antonio sends Delio ahead to Rome, entrusting him with his life and secrets. Delio pledges his loyalty and wishes Antonio joyous fatherhood. Delio exits. Cariola enters and tells Antonio he has a son.
Act 2, Scene 3
In the courtyard of the Duchess’s palace, Bosola enters, declaring that he was sure he heard a shriek from the Duchess’s rooms. Bosola suspects that everyone has been confined to their lodgings to keep them from discovering the Duchess is giving birth.
Antonio enters with a candle and a drawn sword. Bosola declares himself Antonio’s friend; Antonio, in an aside, calls Bosola a mole. Bosola says it is cold but Antonio is sweating and looking wild. Antonio says he has been working out which jewels were taken. Bosola asks what he has discovered, and Antonio says a better question is why Bosola is out and about when all have been ordered to stay in their quarters. Bosola claims he has come to the courtyard to pray. Antonio tells Bosola to pray that the apricots he gave the Duchess were not poisoned; Bosola takes great offence. Antonio tells Bosola he is the chief suspect in the jewel theft. Bosola says if he is ruined he may take Antonio down with him. Antonio suddenly has a nosebleed; in an aside, he says that a superstitious person would take it as an omen and he tells Bosola he may not pass the door to the Duchess’ lodgings. On his way out, he drops something.
Bosola finds the paper Antonio dropped; it is the baby’s nativity (including a sort of fortune-telling narrative foretelling a short life and violent death). Bosola says he understands now that Antonio is the Duchess’s bawd, and that the Duchess’s confinement will be blamed on Bosola’s allegedly poisoned apricots. Wishing he knew who the father of the baby was, he determines to send a letter to the Duchess’s brothers via Castruccio.
Act 2, Scene 4
The Cardinal and Julia are in a room in the Cardinal’s palace in Rome. Julia has come to Rome without her husband, telling him she was visiting to make religious devotion. Julia and the Cardinal are discussing their ongoing affair. A servant comes to tell Julia there is a messenger from Malfi to see her. The Cardinal exits; Delio enters. Delio tells Julia (who in an aside identifies Delio as one of her old suitors) that her husband Castruchio has hurried to Rome and he offers Julia money to become his mistress. Meanwhile, the servant reenters to announce that Castruccio has delivered a letter to Ferdinand that has made him angry. Julia exits. Delio declares that he fears Antonio has been betrayed.
Act 2, Scene 5
In another room in the Cardinal’s palace, the Cardinal and Ferdinand enter, discussing the letter Ferdinand has received. Ferdinand is furious; he declares he will kill the Duchess and her lover and their child. Ferdinand rages and rants while the Cardinal attempts to calm him down. Finally, Ferdinand declares that he will do nothing until he knows who the father of the Duchess’s child is.
Act 3, Scene 1
In a room in the Duchess’s palace, Antonio greets Delio after Delio has been away for several years. Antonio tells Delio that since he last saw the Duchess, she has had a daughter and another son. Delio asks what the Duchess’s brothers think of her having more children. Antonio tells him that Ferdinand seems to be storing up his anger as if in hibernation. Meanwhile, the common people are saying the Duchess is a strumpet, while the nobility is noticing that Antonio is gaining wealth. Antonio says they would never dream of the real reason that he is married to and loves the Duchess-and assume that he is somehow cheating the Duchess out of her holdings.
Ferdinand enters on his way to bed and he tells the Duchess she is to marry Count Malatesta; she tells Ferdinand that when she chooses a husband, she will choose a man more worthy of Ferdinand’s honour than the Count. The Duchess tells Ferdinand she needs to talk with him privately about a rumour being spread about her. Ferdinand tells her not to believe it, and that he will not believe it: “Go, be safe in your own innocency.” The Duchess is relieved, thinking the air has been cleared. The Duchess, Antonio, and Delio exit. Bosola reports to Ferdinand what he has learned through spying – that the Duchess is reputed to have had three children, but no one knows who the father is. Bosola gives Ferdinand the key he has stolen to the Duchess’s room. Ferdinand vows to force a confession from the Duchess that night.
Act 3, Scene 2
The Duchess, Antonio, and Cariola enter the Duchess’s bed-chamber. The group banters about love and marriage, and the Duchess tells Antonio he cannot spend the night with her tonight. Antonio teases Cariola about wanting never to marry. The Duchess’s mood shifts, and Antonio and Cariola leave the room. The Duchess talks to herself about her fear stemming from Ferdinand’s presence at court, which Antonio scoffs at. While she is talking, Ferdinand sneaks into the room, leaps out at her, and gives her a dagger. Ferdinand tells her she is hideous and shameful; she pleads with him that she is married and asks whether he would like to meet her husband. Ferdinand tells her he had intended to discover the man’s identity, but he has changed his mind. Then he addresses the Duchess’s husband, saying that he assumes the man is listening and tells him he must never reveal his identity. Ferdinand tells the Duchess she must conceal her husband; lock him in a cell, if she wishes to keep him alive. The Duchess protests that Ferdinand is overreacting because her reputation is safe. However, he tells her she has abandoned her reputation and declares that he will never see her again and he leaves.
Antonio and Cariola reenter, Antonio with a pistol. Antonio accuses Cariola of betraying them, but Cariola protests her innocence. Antonio wishes Ferdinand would return so that he could declare his love for the Duchess. The Duchess shows him the dagger Ferdinand left for her, and they both surmise that he intended her to kill herself with it. Suddenly Bosola knocks on the door, and as Antonio exits, the Duchess tells Antonio she has already arranged for his getaway. Bosola enters and tells the Duchess that Ferdinand has suddenly left for Rome, telling Bosola as he left that the Duchess was“undone.” The Duchess tells Bosola that Antonio has dealt falsely with the household accounts; she orders Bosola to call up the officers.
Bosola exits to get the officers. Antonio reenters and the Duchess quickly tells him of her plan to accuse him of a crime to cover up his escape. Bosola reenters with the officers. The Duchess and Antonio enact their accuser/accused “scene” for the officers and Antonio exits after the Duchess declares that she is confiscating all he has to satisfy the household accounts he has allegedly neglected to the point of great loss. The Duchess then asks the officers what they think of Antonio, and they respond with various insulting comments. The Duchess dismisses the officers and asks Bosola what he thinks of the officers’ characterization of Antonio. Bosola responds that they have been entirely unjust and that Antonio is a great and virtuous man, despite being lowborn. The Duchess is delighted to hear Bosola’s high praise of Antonio and confides to Bosola that Antonio is her husband and the father of her three children. Bosola swears confidentiality and loyalty to her and Antonio, and she entrusts him with her money and tells him to follow Antonio to the secret rendezvous in Ancona, where she will soon reunite with Antonio. Bosola agrees but suggests the Duchess pretend to leave on a pilgrimage to a shrine near Ancona, to lend more believability to her departure. The Duchess agrees, dismissing Cariola’s protestation about using religion falsely as mere superstition. The Duchess and Cariola leave. Bosola remains, declaring that he must reveal everything to Ferdinand and that his service as a spy will surely elevate his station in life.
Act 3, Scene 3
The Cardinal, Ferdinand, Malateste, Pescara, Silvio, and Delio are in a room in the Cardinal’s palace at Rome. The Cardinal and Malateste are discussing a minor military plot. Meanwhile, Delio and Silvio are telling Ferdinand that Malateste is not a genuine soldier, but merely a foppish lord playing at being a soldier. As they are making jests about Malateste, Bosola enters and speaks to Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Silvio, Delio, and Pescara comment on the anger and violence that are apparent in Ferdinand’s and the Cardinal’s faces as Bosola speaks to them. Ferdinand declares that the Duchess’s false pilgrimage damns her. The Cardinal says he will ask Ancona to banish the Duchess, Antonio, and their children. Ferdinand tells Bosola to write to the Duchess’s son from her first marriage, the young Duke of Malfi, and to gather 150 horsemen.
Act 3, Scene 4
At the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, two pilgrims are talking about the upcoming ceremony in which the Cardinal will resign his position to become a soldier. Without dialogue, the Cardinal’s ceremony is enacted, followed by an enactment of the banishment, by the Cardinal and the state of Ancona, of Antonio, the Duchess, and their children. During these unspoken enactments, the churchmen sing a solemn song. After all but the two pilgrims exit, the pilgrims discuss the ceremony and the banishment. The pilgrims’ voice surprise that the Duchess would have married such a lowly man, but declare that the Cardinal’s cruelty was out of proportion. The men also report that the Cardinal has convinced the Pope to confiscate all of the Duchess’s property and they lament Antonio’s great misfortune.
Act 3, Scene 5
Near Loretto, we see the Duchess, Antonio, their children, Cariola, and some servants. The Duchess and Antonio talk about how few servants they have left-most have fled now that the Duchess and Antonio and their children have been banished from Ancona and stripped of property. The Duchess tells Antonio about a dream she had in which the diamonds on her crown were suddenly changed to pearls; he interprets this to mean she will soon weep.
Bosola enters with a letter from Ferdinand, declaring that Ferdinand sends his love. The Duchess reads parts of the letter aloud, showing that Ferdinand has couched threats against Antonio while supposedly innocently summoning him to court. The Duchess declares her complete mistrust of Ferdinand; Antonio says he will not obey the summons. Bosola declares that Antonio’s refusal to go to Ferdinand out of fear for his life reflects his low breeding. Bosola leaves. The Duchess tells Antonio to flee with their oldest son, fearing an ambush is planned against them all. Antonio and the Duchess exchange a wrenching farewell as he departs with the oldest boy. Cariola sees a troop of soldiers coming toward them.
Bosola reenters wearing a mask and accompanied by a guard. Bosola tells the Duchess that her brothers offer pity and safety, which she does not believe. Bosola tells the Duchess to forget lowborn Antonio, and she defends Antonio’s virtue. The Duchess asserts her bravery in the face of oppression, and all exit for her palace, where her brothers summon her.
Act 4, Scene 1
Ferdinand and Bosola enter a room in the Duchess’s palace at Malfi. Ferdinand is receiving Bosola’s report on how nobly the Duchess is bearing her imprisonment. Ferdinand dismisses Bosola, and then exits. The Duchess enters, and Bosola tells her Ferdinand must speak to her in the dark so as not to break his vow never to see her again. Ferdinand reenters in the dark and professes an offering of peace. Ferdinand gives her a dead man’s hand, which the Duchess understands to be his own; she comments on how cold his hand is. Then she demands lights and discovers he has given her a severed hand. Ferdinand exits. A curtain is drawn to reveal the waxen figures of Antonio and the children as if they are dead. Bosola counsels her to stop grieving now that they are dead and irrecoverable. The Duchess declares that she wishes she were dead. Bosola tells her she must live, and she tells him that would be the greatest torture. The Duchess declares that she will go curse rather than pray and she exits with a servant. Ferdinand returns and gloats about the emotional torture he is putting the Duchess through. Bosola asks him to stop and to take pity on his sister. Ferdinand vows to bring all the madmen from the local hospital to torture the Duchess with their raving outside her room. Bosola demands that Ferdinand not send him to the Duchess again unless on a mission of true comfort. Ferdinand tells Bosola he will soon send him to Milan, where Antonio is.
Act 4, Scene 2
The Duchess and Cariola are discussing the noise of the madmen sent by Ferdinand. The Duchess tells Cariola that the madmen are actually helping to keep her sane. A servant enters and tells the Duchess that Ferdinand intends the madmen to cure her melancholy. The Duchess tells the servant to bring in the madmen and they come in and sing a song about dying for love. Then several madmen have a crazy conversation amongst themselves. After that, eight madmen do a dance. Then Bosola, disguised as an old man, enters. The servant and the madmen exit. Bosola tells the Duchess he has come to make her tomb. The two of them banter about death and tombs, and then executioners enter with a coffin, cords, and a bell. Bosola tells the Duchess the coffin is a present from her brothers. Cariola is dismayed, but the Duchess is calm and she asks Cariola to take care of her children. The executioners force Cariola to leave. The Duchess tells Bosola to tell her brothers that death is the best gift they can give her now and the executioners strangle her. Bosola orders them to find Cariola and to strangle the children. Some of the executioners leave and then return with Cariola, who fights with Bosola and the executioners before being strangled. The executioners carry away Cariola’s body, leaving Bosola with the strangled Duchess.
Ferdinand comes in and Bosola shows him the strangled Duchess and children (the latter, as stage directions, indicate, probably behind a curtain that Bosola draws open). Ferdinand reveals that he and the Duchess were twins. Ferdinand asks Bosola why Bosola did not pity her and whisk her away to the sanctuary. Bosola protests that he was following Ferdinand’s orders in killing the Duchess and her children. Ferdinand tells him he should have disobeyed such a crazy order, and confesses that his main motive was gaining the Duchess’s property for himself. Ferdinand tells Bosola he hates him for doing so much evil so well. Bosola reminds Ferdinand of his promised reward to Bosola, but Ferdinand refuses to acknowledge his own culpability in the murder and insists he will destroy Bosola. Bosola says he is angry with himself, now that he fully understands what awful things he has done in striving to be a true servant rather than an honest man. Ferdinand leaves suddenly, leaving Bosola with the Duchess. Suddenly she stirs, and Bosola pleads with her to live and so retrieve him from the hell he has made for himself. The Duchess regains consciousness long enough for him to tell her Antonio and the children are alive, and that Antonio is reconciled with her brothers through the Pope’s action, but she dies. Bosola repents and declares that he will fulfil the Duchess’s last wish of having her body entrusted to some good women for burial.
Act 5, Scene 1
Antonio and Delio are in a public place in Milan, discussing whether Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s proffered reconciliation with Antonio is genuine. Delio doubts it since Pescara has reportedly been seizing some of Antonio’s lands. As Pescara approaches, Delio tells Antonio he will determine whether this is true by asking Pescara for some of Antonio’s former property. Antonio hides while Delio talks with Pescara, but before he can determine whether Antonio is safe, they are interrupted by Julia. Julia gives Pescara a letter from the Cardinal that requests that Pescara give her the same piece of land Delio has just asked for. Pescara grants the request, and Julia leaves. Delio protests to Pescara, who explains that because the land was essentially stolen from Antonio by the Cardinal, it would have been wrong to give it to Delio, who is his friend; but the Cardinal’s mistress is welcome to such tainted property. Pescara then exits, saying he must visit Ferdinand, who is sick. Antonio vows to sneak into the Cardinal’s room that night and try to frighten him into reconciling or die in the attempt. Delio again vows loyalty to Antonio.
Act 5, Scene 2
In the Cardinal’s palace, Pescara and a doctor are discussing Ferdinand, who the doctor says is suffering from the belief that he is a werewolf; Ferdinand has been found roaming the streets with dead body parts he has dug up out of graves. The doctor says Ferdinand is doing better after his treatment, but that he may relapse.
Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Malateste, and Bosola enter. Ferdinand demands to be left alone, then attacks his own shadow and talks nonsense. The doctor attempts to scare Ferdinand out of his crazy behavior, but Ferdinand rants and runs off. Pescara asks the Cardinal whether he knows why his brother has gone insane. The Cardinal admits in an aside that he must lie; he tells them a tale about Ferdinand seeing a ghost that reputedly appears only when someone in their family dies, and that the apparition has scared him out of his wits. Bosola tells the Cardinal he must speak with him. All the others exit, with Pescara voicing their get-well wishes for Ferdinand as they go.
In an aside, the Cardinal says he must not let on to Bosola that he was behind the order to kill the Duchess, wanting all the blame to appear to be Ferdinand’s. The Cardinal asks Bosola how the Duchess is doing. The Cardinal outwardly takes Bosola’s wild-eyed response to be a result of Ferdinand’s madness, as Ferdinand has been Bosola’s master. The Cardinal promises to reward Bosola if he does one thing for him. Bosola promises to do whatever it is.
The men are interrupted by Julia, who enters and asks the Cardinal to come into supper. Inside, she admires Bosola. The Cardinal dismisses her. Immediately he tells Bosola to kill Antonio, who is somewhere in Milan. The Cardinal says while Antonio lives, his sister cannot marry, and he has found a match for her. Bosola promises to do the deed. The Cardinal leaves. Bosola remarks that the cardinal’s apparent ignorance of the Duchess’s murder is evidence of his scheming, but determines that he must follow the Cardinal’s example.
Julia reenters, carrying a pistol and she demands that Bosola tell her how he managed to poison her with a love potion and declares her love for him that has brought her so much pain, with the only solution being death. Julia is determined to woo Bosola, and Bosola decides to use her to his advantage. Bosola asks her to determine the cause of the Cardinal’s recent melancholy. Julia immediately agrees and sends him out so she can begin working. The Cardinal returns, looking for servants, who enter immediately. The Cardinal tells them not to talk with Ferdinand unless he, the Cardinal, knows about it; in an aside, he reveals that he is afraid Ferdinand will reveal the truth about the Duchess’s murder. The servant exit.
The Cardinal notices Julia and declares out of her hearing that he is tired of her. Julia demands to know what is bothering him, and he refuses to tell her. Julia pesters him until he finally tells her that the Duchess and two of her children were killed by his order four days before. The woman says she cannot keep this secret, but he makes her promise to keep it and she swears by kissing the book he tells her to kiss. Then he tells her she will keep the secret because the book was poisoned. Bosolareenters, revealing that he has heard the Cardinal’s confession and Julia dies. Bosola extracts a promise of reward from the Cardinal and promises to kill Antonio for further reward. The Cardinal gives him a master key for his lodgings and tells him to hide Julia’s body in her room, saying he will make it known she died of the plague. The Cardinal exits. Bosola swears he will do anything but kill Antonio, that indeed he will find him and protect him from the Cardinal’s evil plots. Bosola imagines the Duchess haunts him and prays to achieve true penitence.
Act 5, Scene
In a fortification in Milan, Antonio and Delio are talking about Antonio’s plan to frighten the Cardinal in his room that night. As they talk, an Echo begins repeating Antonio’s words, even seeming to counsel him with his own words. Delio tells Antonio he should not go on his dangerous errand, but Antonio insists he will risk all rather than continuing to live “by halves,” in hiding. Delio promises to fetchAntonio’s son and comes soon to support him.
Act 5, Scene 4
In the Cardinal’s palace, the Cardinal tells Pescara, Malateste, Roderigo, and Grisolan not to watch over the sick Ferdinand that night because he has recovered quite well. The Cardinal tells them Ferdinand himself has asked that they not come to him, even if they hear noises. The Cardinal makes them promise and tells them he may test their promise by making terrible noises himself. Everyone agrees not to come, no matter what the disturbance. The group all exit, leaving the Cardinal alone. The Cardinal confesses that he extracted their promise so that he would have the freedom to dispose of Julia’s body and he says that after Bosola brings Julia’s body, he is going to kill Bosola. The Cardinalexits.
Bosola enters, saying that he has overheard the Cardinal’s promise to kill him. Ferdinand enters, talking about strangling in general; he exits, apparently not having seen Bosola.
Antonio and a servant enter. The servant goes to get a dark lantern, and Bosola stabs Antonio. The servant returns with the lantern, and Antonio and Bosola each realize who the other is. Bosolarealizes he has stabbed the man he wanted to save. Bosola tells Antonio that the Duchess and the two younger children are dead. Antonio says he is glad to be dying as he hears this news. Antonio wishes his remaining son will stay away from the princes’ courts. Antonio dies. Bosola tells the servant to take Antonio’s body to the Cardinal’s lodgings.
Act 5, Scene 5
In another room in the palace, the Cardinal is reading a book and struggling with his conscience. Bosola and the servant carrying Antonio’s body enter. Bosola declares he has come to kill the Cardinal. The Cardinal cries out for help, then offers money to Bosola. Bosola says he will allow the Cardinal to retreat no further than Julia’s chamber. The Cardinal keeps yelling for help. Pescara and the rest enter above and listen to the Cardinal yelling, but they do not go to help because they believe he is feigning madness as he said he might. Pescara alone goes to help, while Roderigo and the rest believe he will be ridiculed for breaking his promise.
Bosola kills the servant so that he cannot open the door to rescuers. The Cardinal asks Bosolawhy he is attacking him; Bosola points to the dead Antonio and declares that he killed him by mistake, and tells the Cardinal that his subornation of the Duchess’s death was a crime against Justice herself. Bosola stabs the Cardinal twice as the Cardinal cries out for help. Ferdinand enters, calling for a fresh horse and guards. The Cardinal says, “Help me; I am your brother,” but Ferdinand wounds him as well as Bosola. Bosola stabs Ferdinand. As Ferdinand dies, he declares that his sister was the cause of their fall. Ferdinand dies.
Pescara and the rest enter as Bosola and the Cardinal lie dying. Bosola reveals to them that the Cardinal and Ferdinand were behind the Duchess’s murder, that he himself killed Antonio; that theCardinal killed Julia; and that he himself has been an actor in all these treacheries. The Cardinal dies after asking to be forgotten. Pescara asks Bosola how Antonio came to die. Bosola tells him it was a simple mistake. Bosola declares that worthy people should not fear dying noble deaths, but that his end is quite different. Bosola dies.
Delio enters with Antonio’s only remaining son. Malateste tells him he is too late. Delio invites those present to join forces in establishing the boy in his mother’s rightful place. The evils that have transpired, he says, will melt away like snow in the sunshine; what will last is the integrity of life.