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The Duchess of Malfi

Comments on Act 3 Scene 4

Critics are divided as to whether this “feigned pilgrimage” should be considered a pragmatic move by the Duchess to protect her family or a sacrilegious deception. In her excellent article Jill Ingram argues that the Duchess, like her brothers, is a Machiavellian character, lying and deceiving to achieve her ends, but unlike them, her actions do not destroy her integrity as a noble person or her essential goodness.

The character type of the machiavel was drawn from popular prejudice toward the famous Italian author of The Prince, a political work which English critics understood to advocate the immoral conduct of rulers. The machiavel was a stock villain in Renaissance plays, a deceiving hypocrite who uses the pretense of virtue to cover his ambitious and malevolent schemes, such as Shakespeare’s Richard III. The Cardinal “matches this prototype with his amoral, political maneuvers up the church hierarchy. Antonio believes that ‘the devil speaks’ in the Cardinal’s words (1.2.108).” In most Renaissance plays “God’s justice” awaits such villains, who reveal their guilt in last-minute confessions before dying. However, “the Duchess meets her fate with self-composure and without guilt” (137).

“The Duchess … uses machiavellian tactics but is not villainous.” Webster distinguishes her dissembling conduct from the others by the Renaissance concept of casuistry. “Casuistry used rules of religion and morality to resolve personal ethical conflicts in specific instances. … Just as casuists [of the early 17th century] authorized a latitude for certain forms of verbal deception, certain characters in Renaissance plays are dramatized as successfully circumventing some rules of moral conduct ” (135-6).

Popular religious manuals on casuistry discussed the rationale and moral justification for deception in cases where, for instance, a Catholic or Puritan was forced to take an oath of allegiance to the Church of England. Even James I had as a motto: “He who does not know how to dissimilate does not know how to reign.” In the case of the Duchess, the tyrannical restrictions placed on her by her brothers forces her to borrow from their machiavellian handbook and to lie against her better nature for the sake of protecting her marriage, children, and her honor. “The discourse of casuistry removes some of the stigma from lying, making it a viable tool for even the virtuous” (147).

“For the Duchess, love itself warrants lies, dissimulation, and scheming” (140). She acknowledges that her false actions are unworthy of her: “Oh misery, methinks unjust actions should wear these masks and curtains, and not we” (3.2). She calls her ruse that Antonio has stolen from her “a noble lie, ‘cause it must shield our honors” (3.2).

Role-playing was a typical tool of the machiavel, but “knowing the difference between the role and the essential self was what distinguished the virtuous machiavel from its sinister cousin” (147). The Duchess deceives in order to remain true to herself, her sense of self-determination and self-worth, as seen in her declaration, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” Virtuous machiavels such as the Duchess offer a positive, moral example “because ultimately they expose truth rather than obscure it” (154).

Jill Phillips Ingram, “The Noble Lie: Casuistry and Machiavellism in The Duchess of Malfi,” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 31.1 (Summer 2005), 135-160.


Dumbshows were common features in many Renaissance plays. In Hamlet the Players perform a pantomime version of the “Murder of Gonzago” prior to the actual scene, which Hamlet fears may give away his plot too soon. However, dumbshows are rare in modern productions.

In the 1985 National Theater production (with Ian McKellan as Bosola), the scene opened with the Cardinal at prayer. As the Duchess approached him, he arose and suddenly slapped her, which was followed by a blackout, screams, thunder and lightning.

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