The many mentions of heaven and hell throughout The Duchess of Malfi are overwhelming. There are at least twenty instances of the word heaven throughout the play, and even more references to acts or attributes that would be characteristic of a person going to heaven. The use of the word grows and peaks, from the first page (scene 1) of the play, until the moment the Duchess dies. From that point until the end, there are only two more instances of the word heaven, and it seems to have been substituted with the metaphorical use of church, prayer, virtue, justice and balance. Human morality is explored in the dualities of heaven and hell, in the same way that Webster pits Fortune against Virtue (Wisdom) in the play. Although we know early on that the Duchess is doomed to a tragic fate and that ultimately her fate seals the fate of those around her, the audience gets tortured by having to plod through watching the characters make poor decisions that defy wisdom and self-knowledge. In a popular image of Fortune and Virtue, Fortune’s side represents all that is unstable, worldly and materialistic, including the devil and temptation. Ferdinand dwells in this realm, and references to hell would be aligned with this side as well. On the Virtue side (God’s side), all that is just and good is represented, including Wisdom and Self-Knowledge. Although Duchess’ wisdom isn’t enough to save her from death, her ability to maintain her dignity at the hand of her murderer, is one example of how she possesses extraordinary virtue (Thomson, 474-478). Webster is relentless in his religious references and their incongruities. Of all people, Bosola (a morally vacant murderer) reminds Duchess how she should carry herself as a Christian, even in the face of death (Kermode, 527).
Fire and hell imagery is more prevalent than heavenly references, both in frequency and persistence throughout the play. In alignment with the morality based character analysis that I’ve presented, most of the references to fire, the devil, and hell (or some derivative), are made by Ferdinand and Bosola. Thirty-seven pages in the play contain a mention of fire (inclusive of: smoke, boil, heat, coals), hell, devil, and sin (inclusive of: evil, revenge and deception). Biblical references correlate fire with emotions such as anger and sorrow, and is also personified as female. “Fire is kindled in mine anger” (Deuteronomy 32 1:22), and “sorrows of hell compassed me about” are such examples (2 Sam: 22). Similarly, this circling, or ring of emotion is mentioned alongside the devil early in the play when Antonio is being propositioned by the Duchess in Act I, Scene II. “There is a saucy and ambitious devil is dancing in this circle” he says in response to her overtures (479). Likewise, in Act III, Scene V, when Duchess is given the letter from Ferdinand banishing she and her family from the land, she makes an observation about her brother’s distrust of Antonio and says ironically, “He will by no means believe his heart is with him until he see it: the devil is not cunning enough to circumvent us in riddles.” Both Duchess and Antonio will die as a result of Ferdinand’s evil.
Kermode, Frank. The Duchess of Malfi: Seven Masterpieces of Jacobean Drama. New York: ModernLibrary, 2005. Print.
Thomson, Leslie. “Fortune and Virtue in The Duchess of Malfi.” Comparative Drama 33.4 (Winter 1999 2000): 474-494. JSTOR. Web. 19 Feb. 2014