E211 John Webster Questions
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Assigned: The Duchess of Malfi (1461-1535).

The Duchess of Malfi

Act 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what does Antonio suggest about how best to maintain a court or govern a realm, based on his observances in France, from whence he has just returned? What is his opinion of Daniel de Bosola?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what "suit" does Bosola press upon the Cardinal? What grievances does he lay bare to Delio after the Cardinal leaves the stage? What does he think of the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand of Calabria?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what "portrait" of the Duchess of Malfi does Antonio offer Delio -- what virtues does he claim she possesses? Does any other exchange in this scene call Antonio's idyllic portrait into question? If so, what is it?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, what employments do Ferdinand and the Cardinal determine upon for Bosola, and why? How does Bosola react to the requests and offers he receives? The scene certainly proves him a villain, but what complexity and subtlety of character might it also be said to introduce as well?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, why doesn't Ferdinand want his sister the Duchess to remarry? As for the Duchess, how does she respond to the Duke's challenge, and what determination does she reveal after he exits and before her conversation with Antonio?

6. In Act 1, Scene 3, the Duchess courts and informally weds her steward Antonio. In what manner does she woo him? How does Antonio take the news of her desire to marry him? What concerns seem to account for his reaction?

7. In Act 1, Scene 3, to what extent does the Duchess understand the dangers her secret marriage has created for her as ruler of Malfi? To what extent does she understand the power of the resistance she will continue to meet?

Act 2

8. In Act 2, Scene 1 (lines 20-57), Bosola speaks with an old woman about the art of makeup. What philosophical lesson does Bosola infer from his “meditation” on face-painting?

9. In Act 2, Scene 1, what stratagem does Bosola devise for exposing the Duchess, whom he correctly suspects to be pregnant? What is the outcome of this plan in the next two scenes -- how much does Bosola know about the Duchess' situation at this point, and what does Antonio do to manage the danger to himself and the Duchess?

10. In Act 2, Scene 5, how does Duke Ferdinand react to the news that his sister the Duchess has had a child against his wishes? Does it seem rational? What would you suggest underlies his reaction?

Act 3

11. In Act 3, Scene 1, what assumptions are the public beginning to make about the Duchess, and about Antonio as her steward? Also in this scene, what accounts for the respect Ferdinand shows for Bosola when the two confer about the Duchess?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, when she is surprised by Duke Ferdinand, how well does the Duchess defend herself against his angry condemnation of her determination to follow her desires? What exactly is her counter-argument, and how sound is it, considering her status as a political or public figure?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, how does Bosola win the Duchess' confidence regarding her scheme to leave Malfi for Ancona -- what qualities as a "politician" (in his Machiavellian sense of intelligence-gatherer and manipulator) does he show in this scene?

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, what plan do the Cardinal and Ferdinand settle on to deal with the Duchess? Why is the Cardinal resigning his high position in the Church?

15. In Act 3, Scene 4, why do you suppose Webster represents the banishment of the Duchess and Antonio in a “dumb show” rather than handling this event in a more realistic manner?

16. In Act 3, Scene 5, when Bosola arrives with a guard to escort the Duchess back to her Palace, how does she take this turn of events that leaves her a prisoner in her own realm? What philosophical observations does she offer to explain her reaction?

Act 4

17. In Act 4, Scene 1, in what state of mind does the Duchess meet her death? Is her death what you would call that of a "tragic hero"? Why or why not? Also, what purpose does the playwright's representation of Cariola's death serve in this scene?

18. In Act 4, Scene 2, what part does Bosola play in the Duchess' murder? In the wake of her death (including the point where she briefly revives), how credible do you find Bosola's change of heart about his role in the evil that has been done? Does it redeem him to any significant degree? Why or why not?

Act 5

19. In Act 5, Scene 2, what does Bosola find out about the Cardinal, and by what means? What motivates the Cardinal to plot the death of Antonio, and why does he poison Julia? What change has taken place in Bosola by this point?

20. How does Antonio understand his own situation in Scenes 1 and 3? What does he suppose concerning the Duchess, and what hint does his conversation with an Echo provide? What tragic misunderstanding causes Bosola to kill Antonio?

21. In Act 5, Scene 5, what features make this final scene, in which Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola meet their fates, a classic "revenge tragedy" ending (beyond the simple fact that several characters die)? How are the deaths particularly appropriate to each man, and what lesson might an audience draw from them?

Edition: Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 1 (Vols. ABC) 0-393-92833-0.