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Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

4. Secrets and Secretaries

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the theme of secrets and secretaries in the play, focusing in particular on: (i) the dramatic irony in the play, with things that seem obvious to us (e.g. the Duchess' pregnancy) being somehow unknown to the characters on stage; (ii) the secrets that the play keeps from us, the audience, e.g. the consummation of the Duchess' relation with Antonio, the motivations of Ferdinand and the Cardinal in relation to their sister, etc.; (iii) the extent to which marriages and pregnancies could be kept secret in the early modern world: the tradition of handfasting, Mary Tudor's phantom pregnancies, etc.; (iv) the play's interest in statecraft, the workings of the court, and the rules of succession – and the extent to which public and private intersect on these issues; (v) the architecture of the play – rooms within rooms, locked doors, etc. – and the extent to which boundaries were permeable or impermeable in the early modern world – both literally and legally; (vi) the importance of 'secretaries' as people who are able to keep secrets – Antonio as the Duchess' secretary, Cariola as another secretary; (vii) the play's interest in belief and trustworthiness; and (viii) the intersection of language, props and gesture in the scene between Julia and the Cardinal near the end of the play: the idea of Julia's bosom as a "grave", the connection between the bound book and Julia's binding to death ("I have bound thee to 't by death"), the difference between appearances and reality, between exterior and interior, etc.


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores John Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi'. In the first module, we think about stereotypes about women in early modern England and their presentation on stage. After that, we introduce the Duchess of Malfi itself – when it was written and first performed, its key preoccupations, etc; – before turning in the third module to the theme of bodies and spaces in the play. In the fourth module, we think about the theme of secrets and secretaries (the words are etymologically related), before turning in the fifth module the play's critical history, from contemporary reactions of the play to the most recent scholarship.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Smith, H. (2021, March 24). Webster: The Duchess of Malfi - Secrets and Secretaries [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Webster: The Duchess of Malfi – Secrets and Secretaries." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Mar 2021,