In Act One of The Duchess of Malfi, corruption was presented from the beginning as he sets the play on the Italian coast, which in a Jacobean society the audience would associate with corruption. Not only is the setting corrupt, but the characters too. Brothers Ferdinand and Cardinal are both malicious and selfish characters who are greedy and filled with envy. Ferdinand is a turbulent, controlling character who is obsessed with reputation, whereas the Cardinal is a religious man on the outside but in reality he schemes against people he envies and forces lower class people, such as Bosola, to do his dirty work. As the malcontent of the play, Bosola is recognized as a scornful character that has a bitter view on life. These characters contrast to the main character, the Duchess of Malfi who is displayed as to being a pure character who is being corrupted by her pervasive brothers.
John Webster portrays Ferdinand as a virulent character as he has immoral qualities such as he ‘dooms men to death by information’ conveying that Ferdinand plots men’s death just by hearing a rumor that he doesn’t like or think will imperil him. The violent noun ‘dooms’ suggests that there is no escaping Ferdinand’s wrath as he’s so powerful yet wicked. This creates the impression of Ferdinand to the audience as from the beginning he is presented as untrustworthy and unethical. Furthermore the simile, ‘ the law to him is like a foul black cobweb to a spider’ connoting that Ferdinand traps people and has a network of spies working for him. The adjective ‘foul’ further demonstrates his corruptive personality and intentions. To the audience this gives them more of a motive to despise him further as he is greedy and rotten. In addition to this he is exposed as being controlling, ‘laugh when I laugh’, suggesting that not only is he brutal but controlling and manipulative.
The Cardinal is a ‘melancholy church man’, which should mean that he is a respectable, fair person however; the adjective ‘ melancholy’ implies that he is a corruptive person and isn’t fulfilled with helping other and following God. This gives the audience an insight into his deeper personality. Furthermore, ‘he lays worse plots for him than ever was imposed on Hercules’ linking to Greek mythology and the fact that the Cardinal has a reputation to maintain so therefore uses Bosola the court gall to murder for him, the noun ‘plots’ connotes the Cardinal’s evil mind. Not only is he corrupt in this aspect but ‘ will play his five thousand crown at tennis’ symbolizing that he gambles despite his supposed religious status. This brings awareness to the audience that the Cardinal is a corrupted character that uses people and repeatedly sins.
Contrasting to her two brothers and city, the Duchess is presented as to being ‘right noble’ informing the audience that she is pure, fair and noble from the beginning. She is so enchanting that ‘ you only will begin then to be sorry when she doth end her speech’ conveying how she is so alluring that other characters love to hear her speak. Not only is she pure and enchanting but a ‘sweet countenance’. The noun ‘countenance’ implies that she is truly beautiful in addition to her impeccable personality therefore making the audience adore her further for being pure despite the corruption around her.
Overall, Webster presents the idea of corruption in Act 1 of The Duchess of Malfi through the personalities of Ferdinand, Cardinal and Bosola and contrasts it to the appearance and personality of the Duchess in order for the audience to distinguish between the honorable and the wicked.
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