hope this helps anyone who's doing the exam on tues.
Duchess of Malfi Summary Act I: The Duchess of Malfi is divided into five acts, each comprising several scenes. In the three scenes of act 1, the major characters and conflicts are introduced. The setting is the Italian city of Amalfi in the sixteenth century, in the audience chamber or "presence'' of the widowed Duchess. Antonio, the Duchess's steward, talks with his friend Delio as they observe the others who pass through the chamber. The first to enter are the Cardinal and Bosola. Although Bosola has recently been released after serving seven years for a murder he committed at the behest of the Cardinal, the Cardinal is cold to him and will not acknowledge his debt.
Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, enters with his entourage. Ferdinand learns that Antonio has proven himself the best at a knightly competition, and he congratulates Antonio for his prowess and for his eloquent speech. When the Cardinal reenters with the Duchess, Antonio gives Delio his impression of the three siblings: the Cardinal is jealous and vengeful, Ferdinand is "'""'"perverse and turbulent,"'""'" and the Duchess is sweet and noble. Ferdinand asks the Duchess to accept Bosola as a servant, and she agrees; in fact, the brothers have hired Bosola to spy on the Duchess.
The two brothers warn the Duchess not to remarry, and she promises that she will not. However, as soon as they leave her chamber, she summons Antonio and the two perform a private marriage ceremony, with the Duchess's trusted servant Cariola as witness. Act II: The second act, which has five scenes, begins several months later, as the Duchess is about to give birth to a child. Her marriage to Antonio is still secret, and she has concealed her pregnancy by wearing loose clothing. Bosola, however, suspects that she is pregnant and tries to trap her by giving her a present of apricots. When she devours them hungrily and then vomits, he has confirmation of the pregnancy but does not reveal what he knows. The incident sends the Duchess into labor, and she is rushed to her chamber.
To avoid suspicion that the Duchess is giving birth, a ruse is invented: it is announced that jewels have been stolen, and everyone must stay in his or her room while a search is conducted. The Duchess delivers a healthy son, and when Cariola tells Antonio the good news, he prepares a set of calculations based on astrology to determine the baby's future. Meanwhile, Bosola sneaks out to the courtyard beneath the Duchess's window and hears her crying out. Antonio finds him there, and they argue about Bosola having left his room. As he leaves Bosola, Antonio accidentally drops the paper on which he has written his astrological notes, and Bosola retrieves it, discovering that a baby has been born to the Duchess—a baby who will have a short life. Bosola knows that Antonio is in on the secret but does not consider that a man of Antonio's social class could be the father.
In Rome, the Cardinal meets in his chamber with Julia, his mistress. Delio arrives and propositions Julia, but she refuses him. In another part of the Cardinal's palace, Ferdinand has received a letter from Bosola, telling him of the baby's birth. The Cardinal and Ferdinand discuss their sister's betrayal, and Ferdinand's rage takes him to the brink of insanity. Act III: Several years pass before the five scenes in act 3 take place. The Duchess has given birth to two more children, but her marriage is still a secret, and Bosola still has not discovered the identity of the father. Ferdinand, finally stirred to action, arrives at the Duchess's palace to confront her. To play an affectionate joke on her, Antonio and Cariola step out of the room while the Duchess is talking to herself in the mirror, and Ferdinand comes into the room at the same moment. He accuses her of shaming the family with her promiscuity, and although she tells him that she is married, he vows never to look at her again.
Afraid of Ferdinand's anger, the Duchess sends Antonio to safety by pretending that he has stolen money and been banished. Tenderly, the couple say goodbye to each other, planning to reunite in Ancona. In her grief, the Duchess confides in Bosola, telling him everything. Bosola plots to entrap the Duchess and Antonio. He speeds to Rome to tell what he knows and find his reward, and the brothers respond with expected fury. The Cardinal decides to contact the authorities at Ancona and have the Duchess and her family banished.
At the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, the Duchess and Antonio review their situation. Bosola brings a letter from Ferdinand calling for Antonio's death, and Antonio and the Duchess say goodbye again. They know that this will be their final parting. Antonio takes their oldest son and flees to Milan. The Duchess is arrested by Bosola, in disguise, and taken by guards to her palace. Act IV: Act 4: with its two scenes set in the Duchess's chambers, moves quickly. Trying to drive her to despair so that she will be damned as well as killed, Ferdinand arranges for a series of horrors. He visits the Duchess in a darkened room (because he has vowed never to see her again) and places in her hand a dead man's hand that she will assume to be Antonio's. He shows her wax figures that look like the bodies of Antonio and the three children. He arranges for eight madmen to scream outside her window. Through it all, the Duchess maintains her quiet nobility, saying "'""'"I am Duchess of Malfi still,"'""'" and Bosola begins to feel a grudging respect for her.
Finally, Bosola brings two executioners to the Duchess's chamber, and they strangle her. She faces her death with dignity. Cariola is also strangled, though she resists her death with all her energy. Off stage, the two younger children are strangled. When Ferdinand sees his dead sister, he has a dramatic change of heart, and rather than rewarding Bosola, he blames him for the murders.
Act V: The action of the five scenes of act 5 is also rapid. Four days after the events in the Cardinal has had all of Antonio's property seized. Antonio decides to visit the Cardinal and attempt a reconciliation. Ferdinand's madness has increased, and he has been seen digging up bodies in the cemetery and carrying a man's leg over his shoulder. Bosola arrives in Milan, and he and the Cardinal try to determine what the other knows. The Cardinal pretends that he does not know the Duchess is dead, so that he will not seem to have been involved in the murder, but Bosola persuades Julia to find out the truth. The Cardinal confesses to Julia that he has had his sister killed, but then he immediately kills Julia with a poisoned book.
Outside the Cardinal's home, Antonio and Delio speak with a ghostly echo that comes from the Duchess's grave. Bosola vows to protect Antonio from harm, but he accidentally kills Antonio with his sword, mistaking him for the Cardinal, who has promised to kill Bosola. In the final scene, an anguished Bosola kills the Cardinal's servant and stabs the Cardinal. Ferdinand rushes in and stabs Bosola and the Cardinal. Bosola stabs Ferdinand. As they all lie dead, Delio enters with Antonio's son and calls for a unified effort to support the young man as the new Duke.
thought this might be mentioning too:
webster's malfi was different from other renaissance plays because he had a strong female lead character; other playwrights reflected the views of society as women being suboordinate and powerful women were the subject of controversy, the main example being queen elizabeth tudor. powerful women were considered evil and unnatural (example: lady macbeth) and the general view was that "women are a perfect ornament of men" (cornelius a lapide, 17th century critic) an example of such women is helen of troy as conjured by marlow's faustus for his own entertainment and pleasure.
also, another point worth mentioning might be that the duchess of malfi was inspirational to john ford, who used ferdinand's incestuous feelings towards his sister to develop the incestuous relationship of his characters giovanni and annabelle in his play ''tis pity she's a whore' and he also used the idea of a per verba commitment between the two on bended knee as the duchess and antonio made in her chamber.