Explore the ways in which Webster introduces his characters and themes in the play The Duchess of Malfi.

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Explore the ways in which Webster introduces his characters and themes in the play The Duchess of Malfi

In the opening of The Duchess of Malfi takes place between Delio and Antonio, a steward of the Duchess and his friend. Webster makes his audience aware that Antonio has journeyed outside Malfi, to France. The words “France, Frenchman, French” all appear within the first four lines of the text, a blunt indicator to ensure that the audience, however inattentive, grasps the point that Antonio has been absent from Malfi. He supports this point by referring to the timespan since Antonio last saw Delio, “You have been long in France.” The word “long” suggests that a considerable time has passed since he was last resident in Malfi. Equally, Delio’s description of Antonio, as a “very formal frenchman in habit” infers that Antonio had been in France for long enough to adopt French fashions, rather than his native Italian dress.

Altogether, Webster, in the opening burst sets up Antonio as a stranger to Malfi, but an adopted resident of the French court. Thus, when Delio asks the open ended-question the audience appreciate Antonio speaks from experience built from a lengthy duration in France:  

“How do you like the French court?”

Webster’s question does not ask a specific question, rather it demands a lengthy reply. Antonio’s response is not the view of an outsider whose short stay failed to unearth negative aspects of the foreign reign. Instead he speaks from fact due to the time he spent in France. The reply is informative, as expected from a character who is cast as a “formal frenchman” with a straightforward answer then an extended explanation. Antonio “admires” the French system, which he sets up as the benchmark from which the audience must view the court of Malfi. In his speech, vital to the context of the play setting, Antonio first describes the French king as “judicious” suggesting wisdom and fairness.

Antonio then goes on to mention that “flattering sycophants” were banished from the court. Thus, between the wisdom of the king, and the lack of falsities in France, a government has been created where justice flowed from a “common fountain.”  Webster uses the metaphorical image of a common fountain for two reasons. Webster wishes to note to the audience that the French court is “common,” not in the sense that it fails in the traditional hierarchy of power, but rather that justice in France is “common.” Justice is handed down through “silver drops” to every subject of the relm no matter their rank. Equally, “common” as the adjective to the font (representation of justice) suggests that it is not extraordinary for justice to be offered to the people of France, rather that it is a “common” occurrence.

The description of the French court by Antonio gives way to a less positive account of the mores in the duchy of Malfi. The rhyming couplet below explains that it is vital for a country to have fair noble leaders, else the badness would filter down and infect the whole being:

        “Some curs’d example poison’t near the head

         Death and diseases through the whole land spread”

Without just and wise leaders, “poisen, death (and) disease” shall corrupt and infest the state of Malfi. The words “poisen, death and disease” all offer negative connotations, and the audience is thus trebly assured of the fate that happens when malign figures wrest control of the state. The idea of these corruptions “spread(ing)” throughout Malfi suggests that it acts similar to a cancer, where one cell of disease can cause the failing of the whole. Webster explains the problems in Malfi via the use of the imagery of “Death and disease.” Corruption is thus portrayed as a plague, spreading and seeping through the honourable and righteous, infecting and poisoning it. Malfi is also crafted in this way as a being, the state personified as a “head.”

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 The entry of the theme of corruption gives focus to the first act, the comparison between France and Malfi being first implied and then illustrated later in the act. Indeed the conversation between Bosola and the Cardinal both sets the scene and surprises the audience at the same time: its effect is to question the foundations upon which Malfi was created.  A Cardinal must be an upright figure of faith and goodness, yet this is far from the picture that is presented by Webster. The description of the Cardinal as a “great fellow were able to possess the greatest ...

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