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Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

2. The Duchess of Malfi

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About this Lecture


In this module, we provide an introduction to the play itself, focusing in particular on: (i) when the play was written and first performed; (ii) the figure of Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi; (iii) the play's first performance "privately at the Blackfriars, and publicly at the Globe" and the relationship between public and private spaces more generally in the play; (iv) the location of the Blackfriars Theatre on the site of a former monastery (hence the name), and the sense in which early 17th-century England was still haunted by its Catholic past; (v) the differences between the printed version of the play and what was performed on stage; (vi) the original cast for the Duchess of Malfi; (vii) the quote from Horace on the title page, and the play's self-consciousness as a source of quotable sententiae; (viii) the resonances of Italy to an early-modern audience: political scandal and Catholicism (which were not entirely separate phenomena); (ix) the play's exploration of power, corruption and hierarchy, and the extent to which this reflects the English court rather than anything on the continent; and (x) the play's popularity through the ages.


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 - The Duchess of Malfi [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

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