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The Duchess of Malfi

Comments on Act 2 Scene 4

“The sight of a Cardinal and his mistress flirting on stage would have fueled anti-Catholic sentiments in [Protestant English] audiences” (Marcus).

This scene, indeed the part of Julia, is frequently cut in productions, which is a shame as her character adds much detail and interest to the play. In this scene we see her as the adulterous partner of the Cardinal, revealing another side of his devious nature (note how he plays with her emotions like a pet bird), and also as a potential lover of Delio. Some criticize this minor subplot for going nowhere (Delio’s interest is never mentioned again), but it uncovers the seamy underbelly of deception and immorality in the court, even among the more noble and loyal characters.

Moreover, Julia serves as a foil for the character of the Duchess, being another strong-willed and independent woman of the court. Both conduct their love affairs in secret, although the Duchess does go through at least the pretense of a legitimate marriage. As we will see later in the play, the cruel deaths of both the Duchess and Julia at the hands of the brothers have a strong impact on Bosola and his all-too-late conversion.

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