The play begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers exact their revenge, destroying themselves in the process.
The play is sometimes ridiculed by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster's poetic language, give it a continuing interest, and it is still performed in the 21st century.
The Duchess' lunatic and incestuously obsessed brother Ferdinand threatens and disowns her. In an attempt to escape, the Duchess and Antonio concoct a story that Antonio has swindled her out of her fortune and has to flee into exile. She takes Bosola into her confidence, not knowing that he is Ferdinand's spy, and arranges that he will deliver her jewellery to Antonio at his hiding-place in Ancona. She will join them later, whilst pretending to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby. The Cardinal hears of the plan, instructs Bosola to banish the two lovers, and sends soldiers to capture them. Antonio escapes with their eldest son, but the Duchess, her maid and her two younger children are returned to Malfi and, under instructions from Ferdinand, die at the hands of executioners under Bosola's command. This experience, combined with a long-standing sense of injustice and his own feeling of a lack of identity, turns Bosola against the Cardinal and his brother, deciding to take up the cause of "Revenge for the Duchess of Malfi" (V.2).
The Cardinal confesses to his mistress Julia his part in the killing of the Duchess, and then murders her to silence her, using a poisoned Bible. Next, Bosola overhears the Cardinal plotting to kill him (though he accepts what he sees as punishment for his actions), and so visits the darkened chapel to kill the Cardinal at his prayers. Instead, he mistakenly kills Antonio, who has just returned to Malfi to attempt a reconciliation with the Cardinal. Bosola stabs Ferdinand, who dies. In the brawl that follows, Cardinal and Bosola stab each other to death.
Antonio's elder son by the Duchess appears in the final scene, and takes his place as the heir to the Malfi fortune, despite his father's explicit wish that his son "fly the court of princes", a corrupt and increasingly deadly environment.
The quarto's cast list allows more precision about casting than is usually available. Richard Burbage and Joseph Taylor successively played Ferdinand to Henry Condell's Cardinal. John Lowin played Bosola; William Ostler was Antonio. Boy player Richard Sharpe originated the title role. Nicholas Tooley played Forobosco, and Robert Pallant doubled numerous minor roles, including Cariola.
The quarto title page announces that the play was performed at both the Globe Theater and at Blackfriars; however, in tone and in some details of staging (particularly the use of special lighting effects) the play is clearly meant primarily for the indoor stage.
By the early eighteenth century, Webster's violence and sexual frankness had gone out of taste. In 1733, Lewis Theobald wrote and directed an adaptation, The Fatal Secret; the play imposed neoclassical unities on the play, for instance by eliminating the Duchess's child and preserving the Duchess at the end. By mid-century, the play had fallen with Webster out of the repertory, where it stayed until the Romantic revival of Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt.
In 1850, after a generation of critical interest and theatrical neglect, the play was staged by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells, with Isabella Glyn in the title role. The text was adapted by Richard Henry Horne. The production was favorably reviewed by The Athenaeum; George Henry Lewes, however, registered disapproval of the play's violence and what he termed its shoddy construction: "Instead of ‘holding the mirror up to nature,’ this drama holds the mirror up to Madame Tussauds." These would become the cornerstones of criticisms of Webster for the next century. Still, the play was popular enough for Glyn to revive her performance periodically for the next two decades.
Shortly after, Duchess came to the United States. Working with Horne's text, director James Stark staged a production in San Francisco; this version is noteworthy for a sentimental apotheosis Stark added, in which the Duchess and Ferdinand are reunited in heaven. The most popular American productions, however, were produced by Wilmarth Waller and his wife Emma.
William Poel staged the play at the Opera Comique in 1892, with Mary Rorke as the Duchess and Murray Carson as Bosola. Poel's playscript followed Webster's text closely apart from scene rearrangements; however, reaction had set in, and the production received generally scathing reviews. William Archer, England's chief proponent of Ibsen's new drama, took advantage of the occasion to lambast what he saw as the overestimation of Elizabethan theater in general.
In 1919, the Phoenix Society revived the play in London for the first time in two decades. The production featured Cathleen Nesbitt as the Duchess; Robert Forquerson played Ferdinand. The production was widely disparaged. For many of the newspaper critics, the failure indicated that Webster had become a "curio"; T. S. Eliot, conversely, argued that the production had failed to uncover the elements that made Webster a great dramatist--specifically his poetry. A 1935 production at the Embassy Theatre received similarly negative reviews; Ivor Brown noted that the audience left "rather with superior smiles than with emotional surrender." In 1938, a production was broadcast on BBC television; it was no better received than the previous two stage productions.
In the aftermath of World War II, George Rylands directed a production at the Haymarket Theatre that, at last caught the public mood. John Gielgud, as Ferdinand, accentuated the element of incestuous passion in that character's treatment of the Duchess (played by Peggy Ashcroft). Cecil Trouncer was Bosola. Edmund Wilson was perhaps the first to note that the play struck an audience differently in the wake of the revelation of the Holocaust; this note is, from 1945 on, continually struck in discussions of the appropriateness of Webster for the modern age. A 1946 production on Broadway did not fare as well; Rylands attempted to duplicate his London staging with John Carradine as Ferdinand and Elisabeth Bergner as the Duchess. W. H. Auden adapted Webster's text for the modern audience. However, the production's most notable innovation was in the character of Bosola, which was played by Canada Lee in whiteface. The production received savage reviews from the popular press, and it fared little better in the literary reviews.
The first successful postwar performance in America was staged at the off-Broadway Phoenix Theatre in 1957. Directed by Jack Landau, who had earlier staged a brief but well-reviewed White Devil, the production emphasized (and succeeded as) Grand Guignol. As Walter Kerr put it, "Blood runs right over the footlights, spreads slowly up the aisle and spills well out into Second Avenue."
Ashcroft returned as the Duchess in a 1960 production at the Aldwych Theatre. The play was directed by Donald McWhinnie; Eric Porter played Ferdinand and Max Adrian the Cardinal. Patrick Wymark played Bosola. The production received generally favorable but lukewarm reviews. In 1971, Clifford Williams directed the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Judi Dench took the title role, with Geoffrey Hutchings as Bosola and Emrys James as the Cardinal. Dench's husband Michael Williams played Ferdinand, casting which highlighted the sexual element of the play's siblings.
In 1980, Adrian Noble directed the play at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. This production received excellent notices; it was transferred to London, where it won the London Drama Critic's Award for best play. Helen Mirren played the title role; Mike Gwilym played Ferdinand, and Bob Hoskins played Bosola. Pete Postlethwaite was Antonio. Mirren's performance received special acclaim.
The actor-centered troupe led by Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge chose Webster's play as one of their first productions. The production premiered in January 1986 in the Lyttelton Theatre of the Royal National Theatre. Philip Prowse's direction was highly stylized, the scenic backdrop segmented, and the actors' movements tightly controlled. The result, as Jarka Burian noted, was "a unified, consistent mise-en-scene...without enough inner turbulence to create a completely satisfying theatre experience." Eleanor Bron played the Duchess; Mckellen played Bosola, Jonathan Hyde Ferdinand, and Petheridge the Cardinal.
The Swan staged a new production in 1989; Harriet Walter took the part of the Duchess; Nigel Terry and Stephen Boxer alternated as Bosola; Bruce Alexander was Ferdinand and Russell Dixon the Cardinal.