For me the outstanding performance was that of Pip Brignall (@PipBrignall) playing Ferdinand as a slightly fey, always unstable, mercurial character who could flip from tenderness to rage as quickly as any spoiled princeling. Jack Christie (@ChristieWJ) was also magnificent as Bosola and made sense of this character's continual oscillations between cruelty and remorse. Thomas Winsor (@ThomasWinsor) as Antonio and Jess Murphy (@MariaFlorentina) as The Duchess were also brilliant.
The core of the plot is that The Duchess of Malfi, a widow, secretly marries her steward Antonio Bologna from love despite having been warned by her brothers (who want to inherit her estates) not to do so. Ferdinand is incandescent with fury when he discovers that his sister has had a child; her reputation is shot. The other brother, The Cardinal, is also angry but very cold and controlled. They take their revenge. When the identity of the father is known Ferdinand locks his sister away and tortures her with fake tableaux of her husband and eldest son dead, and with madmen, before he has her, her children and her maidservant strangled by Bosola. Both Bosola and Ferdinand and then filled with remorse and Ferdinand, who has killed his twin, blames Bosola and goes mad. Bosola, fearing for his life, plots to kill the two brothers but kills Antonio by mistake before killing F and The C and getting killed himself.
A twisting plot and the motivations of the characters are difficult, especially Bosola who is filled with remorse before he kills the Duchess. Webster wasn't good on plot. The story that Ferdinand wants his sister's money only appears in Act 5. People confess when they should keep their mouths shut, the Cardinal's mistress falls in love with Bosola (and so betrays the Cardinal) in the space of a single line, she revives from death for just a moment to give a final speech before finally dying; lots of stupidities.
But the poetry is exquisite.
The Cardinal and his brother "are like plum-trees that grow crooked over standing-pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flattering panders, I would hang on their ears like a horseleech, till I were full, and then drop off." The Cardinal "is a melancholy churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the engend'ring of toads".
"The law to him
Is like a foul, black cobweb to a spider, -
He makes it his dwelling and a prison
To entangle those shall feed him."
When the Duke relies on face to speak character Bosola says
"There's no more credit to be given to the face
Than to a sick man's urine, which some call
The physician's whore, because she cozens him."
When Duke offers Bosola gold. Bosola distrusts:
"Never rain'd such showers as these
Without thunderbolts i' the tail of them. - Whose throat must I cut?"
"'Diamonds are of most value,
They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers' hands.'
'Whores by that rule are precious.'"
"Like the irregular crab,
Which, though't goes backwards, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way"
"The marriage night
Is the entrance into some prison."
"And those joys,
Those lustful pleasures, are like heavy sleeps
Which do fore-run man's mischief."
"Say a man never marry, nor have children,
What takes that from him? Only the bare name
Of being a father, or the weak delight
To see the little wanton ride a-cock-horse
Upon a painted stick, or hear him chatter
Like a taught starling."
"He's a fool
That, being a-cold, would thrust his hands i' the fire
To warm them."
"Search the heads of the greatest rivers in the world, you shall find them but bubbles of water."
"Though lust do mask in ne'er so strange disguise,
She's oft found witty but is never wise."
That hath a little fing'ring on the the lute,
Yet cannot tune it."
Ferdinand is very angry. He threatens :
"Of her bleeding heart I make sponge ...
... I might toss her palace 'bout her ears,
Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,
And lay her general territory as waste ...
"We must not now use balsamum, but fire,
The smarting cupping-glass, for that's the means
To purge infected blood ...
... my imagination will carry me
To see her, in the shameful act of sin ...
... with some strong-thigh'd bargeman;
Or one o' th' wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge,
Or toss the bar, or else some lowly squire
That carries coal up to her privy lodgings ...
... I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopp'd,
That their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven:
Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in't, and then light them like a match;
Or else boil their bastard to a cullis,
And give 't his lecherous father, to renew
The sin of his back ...
Till I know who leaps my sister, I'll not stir:
That known, I'll find scorpions to string my whips,
And fix her in a general eclipse."WOW!
A: We'll sleep together: -
D: Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?
C: My lord, I lie with her often; and I know
She'll much disquiet you ...
For she's the sprawling'st bedfellow.
[to A] Wherefore still when you lie with my lady
Do you rise so early?
A: Labouring men
Count the clock oft'nest Cariola,
Are glad when their task's ended."
"A politician is the devil's quilted anvil -
He fashions all sins on him, and the blows
Are never heard: he may work in a lady's chamber,
As here for proof."
"With such a pity men preserve alive
Pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough
To be eaten."
"Man is most happy when's own actions
Be arguments and examples of his virtue."
"I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in 't 'gainst my will."
"I am acquainted with sad misery
As the tann'd galley-slave is with his oar"
"What's this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste; our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in. Dids't thou ever see a lark in a cage? such is the soul in the body: this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o'er our heads, like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison."
"I know death has ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways."
"Murder shrieks out:
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards, and bedews the heavens."
"Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young."
"I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits,
Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done't."
"I'll go hunt the badger, by owl-light"
"Your bright eyes
Carry a quiver of darts in them, sharper
"Like the mice
That forsake falling houses, I would shift
To other dependance."
"Are you so far in love with sorrow,
You cannot part with part of it?"
"The only way to make thee keep my counsel
Is not to tell thee."
"I must look to my footing:
In such slippery ice-pavements, men had need
To be frost-nail'd well; they may break their necks else ...
Security some men call the suburbs of hell
Only a dead wall between."
"Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."
"I would sooner swim to the Bermudas on
Two politicians' rotten bladders, tied
Together with an intelligencer's heart-string,
Than depend on so changeable a prince's favour."
"I will no longer study in the book
Of another;s heart"
103 pages; May 2017