Find out when The Duchess of Malfi was written and first performed, and which real-life events inspired John Webster to write it.
John Webster’s blood-soaked tragedy was first performed by the King’s Men (the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged) at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in 1614, before being later revived at the outdoor Globe Theatre. It was published nine years later in 1623 (the same year as Shakespeare’s First Folio), in Quarto edition.
Jacobean dramatists found Italy, as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the centre of Catholic authority, fascinating, and used the (often horrifying) events that happened there as subject matter for their plays. Italy also became a theatrical metaphor, allowing dramatists to criticise the court of King James I of England by setting their plays in the distant European country.
Webster did base The Duchess of Malfi on actual events in Italy. Giovanna d’Aragona was the real-life Duchess of Amalfi, and was widowed at the early age of 19 in 1498. She fell in love with her steward, Antonio of Bologna, and married him in secret, bearing him three children before her brothers discovered the truth and supposedly murdered her for it.
His principal source for the story was William Painter’s collected volume of tales The Palace of Pleasure (1567). Painter’s volume contained translations of many stories by French, Italian and Greek writers, including François de Belleforest’s adaptation of Matteo Bandello’s Novelle (1554). Bandello supposedly knew Antonio of Bologna personally – so his novella can be seen as a first-hand account of real-life events.