Welcome to the most kick-ass Duchess of Malfi blog you will read today! I’m Alan Katz, your faithful dramaturg and blogger. We Happy Few are deep in tech rehearsal right now at the Mead Theatre Lab, creating some technical theater magic that will wow you when you come see the show. While they are busy making magic in the present day, I’m going to take you back in time, way back, in fact, to the early 16th century in southern Italy. Here we’ll not only find courts full of plots and panderers, but also our eponymous Duchess, Giovanna d’Aragona, whose tragic life is the subject of John Webster’s play.
Giovanna d’Aragona’s life was tragic, with death following her even from early in her life. Her father, Enrico d’Aragona Marquis of Gerace, was poisoned by mushrooms in 1478 when she was just a year old. She became the Duchess of Malfi through marriage, having wedded late (for her time) at the age of twenty. Her husband died shortly thereafter, widowing her before the age of 30 and giving her sole claim to rule the Duchy of Amalfi. John Webster’s play picks up a while after her husband’s death, with the Duchess ruling the roost.
Here is where our Duchess starts to get into trouble. With the culture of 16th century Italy being as sexist as it was, even a woman of royal blood who was ruling a Duchy had to have a man taking care of business affairs for her. For the Duchess, this man was Antonio Beccadelli Bologna. Now, Antonio was the major domo to the Duchess (sometimes called a butler), so he handled the accounting of her possessions and lands, a chief steward to the household. That isn’t to say that Antonio was just a common peasant. His grandfather was a celebrated Humanist and had been granted citizenship and nobility in the Kingdom of Naples, so Antonio was more of a small-time, up-jumped aristocrat. Despite that rank, Antonio and the Duchess got themselves into trouble when they fell in love. The Duchess was of royal blood (her grandfather was the King of Naples) and loving a mid-status guy like Antonio was frowned upon, especially by her brother Luigi (a Cardinal and the chief power-broker in her family).
SPOILER ALERT! From here to the end of this blog post there are potential SPOILERS! While John Webster didn’t exactly follow the true history of the real Duchess of Malfi, he did incorporate major elements of the history into his play. If you continue reading, you do so at the risk of SPOILING some of the plot twists in the play. If you don’t care about spoilers or have already read the Wikipedia article for the Duchess of Malfi, read on, brave soul. **
The fact that the Duchess and Antonio were in love wasn’t very culturally acceptable, but not uncommon. There are all sorts of examples of royals having affairs with lower nobility at this time in Italy. But, and this is a big but, one thing that was NOT done was a royal marrying someone of a lower class, even a lower noble class. So what do the Duchess and Antonio do? Get married, of course. They were married in a secret ceremony, too, so they definitely knew that they were breaking taboos. Then, the took another step and had children together, which is a pretty hard thing to hide. They wound up not being able to hide it. Cardinal Luigi found out, so the Duchess and Antonio picked up their children and ran. The Cardinal, being a powerful man with connections throughout Italy, found their hiding spot in Ancona, and got them exiled.
Here’s where things get interesting. Antonio escapes to Milan, but the Duchess and her children don’t. They disappear. Tradition holds that the Duchess and her children were either taken back to her palace at Amalfi or to the Torre Dello Ziro on the Amalfi coast. All of the sources agree, however, that none of them were ever seen again. The Cardinal was thought to be the force behind her murder. Soon after, Antonio was spotted going to church in Milan, and, right after he left, he was murdered in the street by a man named Bosola, who was thought to be an agent of the Cardinal. Ironically, after being the prime suspect in the murders of two adults and three children, Cardinal Luigi headed up a Papal Commission investigating secret intrigues. I guess it takes an evil, secretive conspirator to know an evil, secretive conspirator.
Over the next couple of posts, we’ll be featuring some meet-the-cast videos, and a look at the Early Modern adaptation, plus the original production of Duchess of Malfi to see how it influenced the play you are going to go see, starting July 13th!