The Duchess of Malfi is a tragic play by John Webster (written around 1612-13) based on the life of the Italian aristocrat Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi (1478 - 1510). Her life indeed seems to have captured the imagination of Renaissance writers; aside from The Duchess of Malfi, there is a story in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1566; from which Webster got his inspiration) and the play El mayordomo de la Duquesa Amalfi (The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward) by Lope de Vega (late 16th / early 17th Century). She was married at the age of 12 to Alfonso Piccolomini, who became the Duke of Almalfi in 1493. He was killed just five years later at the age of thirty. In 1499, a few months after his death Giovanna gave birth to their son, Alfonso, who with his birth became the next Duke of Almalfi. She later fell in love with Antonio Beccadelli her steward, and the two married in secret, unable to tell her family for fear of disgrace. Eventually, in 1511, she left Almalfi for Ancona where Antonio was waiting for her, however when the secret was revealed her brother Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona had them expelled from the city. They went to Siena, then attempted to go to Venice however they were caught and brought back to Amalfi. Antonio stayed in Milan where he was killed by the Cardinal's men, but it would appear that the Duchess and her three children (by Antonio) were murdered. Whilst in Milan Antonio met Matteo Bandello and told him the tale: Bandello was an author (whose stories inspired Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline, and Twelfth Night) and he recorded the story of the Duchess of Malfi, part of his collection known now as The novels of Matteo Bandello.
|Illustration of the 1900 edition ofThe Duchess of Malfi.|
Webster's play follows these events beginning after the death of Alfonso Piccolomini, the Duke of Malfi and the arrival of Antonio. Her brothers Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal are adamant that their sister must not get re-married, which will maintain her political position (particularly strong as the now Duke of Malfi is only an infant). They convince her to employ Daniel de Bosla, who will spy on her. Despite promising that she will never remarry she falls in love with Antonio Bologna and proposes to him. He accepts and they keep their marriage a secret; de Bosla is aware that she is having an affair with a man, but is unsure who the man is. He duly informs the brothers; Ferdinand confronts her and she reveals that she is indeed marry. Whilst preparing to flee, she makes the mistake of telling Bosla the man to whom she is married is Antonio. The brothers follow her around Italy and eventually capture her and strangler her and her two children. Bosla's guilty conscience finally gets the better of him and he helps Antonio, however, in an attempt to kill the Cardinal he kills Antonio. Ultimately he does end up killing both the Cardinal and Ferdinand, but dies in the fight. The young duke is then taken in by Delio, Antonio's friend, with the hope "To establish this young hopeful gentleman / In's mother's right."
The Duchess of Malfi is a dark play on corruption and betrayal. Giovanna is a striking character, determined to make her decisions; remarkable given the time period. There is that suggestion that she "wilfulness" is responsible for the whole debacle, but, more interestingly, it's the reaction to her independence that lead to the tragedy, not the fact that she attempted independence. Her enemies, her brothers that is, are truly vile; in this respect it's an easy play with the 'goodies' on one side and the 'baddies' on the other. Yet events in it make it particularly complex, it's not an easy play to follow but it's worth the effort. Webster is excellent in his portrayal of suffering, fear, and injustice, so good in fact I did feel a little flat having read it. Still, a brilliant work. It's only my second Webster (the first being The White Devil) and I do think this is my favourite of the two.