A summary of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi – a gory tale of revenge and dark humour. *Warning, spoilers ahead!
The Duchess falls in love with her steward, Antonio. Her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal tell her not to remarry (she was recently widowed). She agrees and they leave for Rome. But they don’t trust their sister and hire a servant, Bosola, to spy on her.
Once they’ve gone, the Duchess meets Antonio. They confess their love for each other, she proposes and they are married in secret.
Nine months later, Bosola suspects the Duchess is pregnant. He hatches a plan to present her with apricots (believed to induce labour). She eats them and immediately becomes ill.
The Duchess gives birth to a son. His father, Antonio, writes his newborn a horoscope, but then loses it. Bosola finds the horoscope – proof that the Duchess had a child. He tells her brothers, who are furious with her (they don't know she is married).
TWO YEARS LATER
The Duchess and Antonio have two more children.
Ferdinand returns from Rome and hides in his sister’s bedroom. When Antonio leaves he reveals himself, gives the Duchess a dagger and tells her to kill herself. She tells him she’s married, making him even more angry. He leaves saying he will never see her again.
ESCAPE FROM MALFI
The Duchess persuades Antonio to flee to Ancona. Bosola tricks the Duchess into telling him who the father of her children is, and where he is. Bosola takes this information straight to her brothers.
The Duchess and her children meet Antonio in Ancona. The Cardinal finds them, takes their wedding rings and banishes them. The Duchess forces Antonio to flee to Milan with their eldest son.
IMPRISONMENT AND execution
Bosola imprisons the Duchess and her two younger children. In prison, a furious Ferdinand tricks the Duchess into believing that Antonio and her eldest son are both dead.
Bosola pleads for her life, but the Duchess and her two children are strangled. Ferdinand is overwhelmed with remorse and blames Bosola for the murders.
A BLOODY END
Ferdinand joins the Cardinal in his palace in Milan, but has now lost his mind and believes he is a wolf.
The Cardinal offers Bosola a reward for murdering Antonio. Bosola accepts but plots to kill the two brothers instead. He conceals himself in the Cardinal's room, but accidentally attacks and kills Antonio instead.
Bosola confronts the Cardinal, and in the ensuing fight, Ferdinand is woken from his madness and joins in. Bosola stabs the Cardinal, while Ferdinand and Bosola strike each other – all three die. Antonio’s friend, Delio, arrives too late to save anyone, but promises to raise Antonio’s eldest son in the image of his parents.