Examine the ways in which the political and familial contexts and relationships are established in Act I of "The Duchess of Malfi"

Authors Avatar

Examine the ways in which the political and familial contexts and relationships are established in Act I of the play.

The politics of the Italian Court in the play are revealed to the audience as corrupt and unethical, also exposing the state of the English Court in this period.  Webster could not have written about it directly and so it is shown through the setting in Malfi.  This corruption is mainly embodied by Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who are the most politically powerful characters in the play.  Their power in the Court is reflected in their familial relationships with the Duchess.

        The venality of the Court in Malfi is first suggested by Antonio who describes the general make-up of politics in any region using the analogy of a fountain, ‘whence should flow pure silver drops’ but can be poisoned at the top thereby, ‘death and diseases through the whole land spread.’ As it seems to have done in Malfi, as the two most powerful figures are so moraless.  Antonio is also describing the effectiveness and purity of the French Court in this dialogue, which emphasises the corruption in Italy.  Bosola who himself is seemingly amoral, being introduced to the audience by Antonio as the ‘court-gall’, directly refers to Ferdinand and his brother, the Cardinal likening them to ‘plum trees that grow crooked’.  He suggests that too much power and riches has made them so,  but also that they are surrounded by ‘flatt’ring sycophants’ who are like ‘crows’ and ‘caterpillars’ and use them to gain power and wealth for themselves.  This analogy can be linked with Antonio’s, to say that the corruption at the top of Ferdinand and the Cardinal has affected the rest of the court and made them equally depraved and greedy.  It is ironic that Bosola describes these people with such distaste as he himself is a flattering ‘pander’ hoping to improve his position in court.

Join now!

        The Cardinal could be seen as possibly the most underhanded character  in the play because he is supposed to be a man of God and so his crookedness is emphasised.  In the Cardinal’s first appearance Bosola mocks his religious position, shown by the hyperbole, ‘With all your divinity,’ thus revealing the Cardinal’s religious values to be almost non-existent.  Delio explains Bosola’s bitterness towards the Cardinal to Antonio, and reveals that he was put in the galleys for seven years for a murder he was commissioned to do by the Cardinal. This blatant unjust act again is an example of his ...

This is a preview of the whole essay