Tempt Me Further Tour | April 10 – June 16, 2013

John Webster’s brutal and astonishing play tells the story of one of the stage’s greatest women and two of its greatest villains. The widowed Duchess of Malfi tragically defies her two powerful brothers by secretly marrying her household steward. When they uncover her deception, the brothers plot a series of horrific events that leads them all to destruction in this dark tapestry of sibling rivalry, forbidden love, unquenchable ambition, and ensuing madness.

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens in the play
  • In Malfi, Italy, Antonio (the widowed Duchess’s steward) and his friend Delio observe the goings-on at court.
  • Bosola, a former soldier, has recently been freed after seven years in prison for killing at the command of the Duchess’s elder brother, the Cardinal. However, the Cardinal will not acknowledge his debt to Bosola.
  • The Duchess’s twin brother Ferdinand and the Cardinal urge their sister to accept Bosola as a servant and then the brothers hire Bosola to spy on the Duchess.
  • The Duchess’s brothers warn her not to marry, but she secretly marries Antonio.
  • Months later, after hiding her marriage and a pregnancy, the Duchess eats apricots from Bosola, who has grown suspicious. She becomes ill and goes into labor. Antonio invents a story of stolen jewels to keep the household in their rooms during the secret childbirth. Bosola finds a paper that reveals the Duchess has had a son.
  • In Rome, the Cardinal rendezvous with Julia, his mistress. Antonio’s friend Delio arrives and propositions Julia, but she refuses him.
  • In another part of the Cardinal’s palace, Ferdinand receives 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.
Several years pass
  • The Duchess and Antonio have two more children, but their marriage is still a secret, and Bosola still has not discovered the identity of the father.
  • Ferdinand arrives at the Duchess’s palace to confront her. 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 exiles Antonio to safety by pretending that he has stolen money and been banished. The couple plans to reunite in Ancona, where the Duchess will pretend to make a pilgrimage to a town nearby.
  • In her grief, the Duchess confides in Bosola, telling him everything.
  • Bosola goes to Rome to tell what he knows and find his reward; the Duchess’s 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 once again.
  • Antonio takes their oldest son and flees to Milan. Bosola, in disguise, arrests the Duchess and takes her to her palace.
  • Horrors, executions, madmen, ghostly visitations, confessions, and many deaths ensue.
Notes from the Director
The pulse of a thriller

Here are some notes I sent the actors as they prepped for rehearsals:

  • Probably a little younger than Shakespeare, John Webster spent a lot of his writing career collaborating with other playwrights.
  • Like television and film writers today, Elizabethan/Jacobean playwrights often worked in teams.
  • Because Shakespeare is the most famous of those playwrights today, we often forget that his thirty-something solo plays were somewhat of an anomaly in this golden age of English drama.
  • Mr. Webster, did, however, write two masterful plays by himself: The Duchess of Malfi in 1612 and The White Devil in 1614. (Shakespeare wrote his last solo play The Tempest, in 1611.)


  • We’re doing Duchess because it is a masterpiece from the English Renaissance.
  • Although they are similar in some ways, Duchess is different from Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, in part, because of the love story between the Duchess and Antonio at the center of the play that shines brightly in a dark world.
  • But, just like our own world can be, the Malfi in Duchess is both a palace and a prison; it has its own corrupt, cynical darkness.
  • We have to look for the humanity in each character, the things that others might label good and evil; we should not be attempting to put halos or horns on the characters, we should try to figure out what each character wants/needs/strives for in any given moment and then play that moment. Let the audience do the labeling…if they want to.

Many will ask you what memorizing/performing Webster is like compared to Shakespeare. As you climb inside the lines and skin and brains and hearts of your individual characters, you will form your opinions; but remember these thoughts:

  • Webster wrote a magnificent play with wonderful, three-dimensional characters.
  • Webster’s verse is remarkable, period. Some will say “but it’s not Shakespeare.” I say “so what.” Webster isn’t Shakespeare, but that doesn’t have any bearing on how great this play is. Cee Lo Green isn’t the Avett Brothers who aren’t Bruce Springsteen who isn’t Lady Gaga who isn’t Madonna who isn’t Taylor Swift who isn’t Bob Dylan who isn’t Buddy Holly who isn’t the Beatles. So what.
  • Find the rhythms of your characters; don’t negatively judge the writing, find what’s great about it and just play it. Even inside one play, a writer will give different linguistic flavors to different characters. Find your flavors and savor them.


  • Some words/phrases/quotes that relate to the play: throbbing with passion, breathtaking, beautiful, your actions will follow you full circle round, adventurous, chamber of horrors, an incredible love story, obsession, like Shakespeare – Webster doesn’t try to explain evil, blood, madness, one of the greatest plays in the language, figure of virtue vs. malevolent brothers, intense, frightening, the pulse of a thriller, when introduced to her executioners she says “I forgive them.”
  • Duchess may be the most often produced Renaissance tragedy not written by Shakespeare. But that fact doesn’t mean that the majority of our audiences will be familiar with it. One of the joys of this tour and our Spring Season in the Blackfriars is that we will be introducing this great play to many folks. So it’s important that we don’t suck.

ASC Co-founder and Artistic Director