Duchess of Malfi is a tough play to summarize, and harder to categorize. On the surface, it feels like a typical Jacobean tragedy: high body count, contrived means of death (poisoned Bible, anyone?). But just a bit deeper down, it's a meditation on family, and how family can be both a safe harbor and a destructive prison.
Last summer, Humans of New York went to war-torn areas and refugee camps, photographing and interviewing people whose lives were turned upside down by forces far beyond their control. Many of the posts were about family--people living in horrible and terrifying circumstances who said that they were blessed because their family had managed to stay together. As long as their family circle was complete, they had a refuge from the massive forces that were dismantling their world. That's the lesson of Duchess, too. Even when every material thing is taken away from the Duchess, she's able to draw strength from her beloved little family. "All discord without this circumference," she tells Antonio, embracing him, "Is only to be pitied and not feared." It's her life's mission statement.
The Duchess begins the play mired in the worst kind of family--her brothers demean her and control her. Her marriage to the Duke of Malfi was clearly arranged to enhance her family's status; we have no indication that she loved him or was even a little happy in her marriage or sad about being widowed. Her first action in the play is to create the kind of family that will be a haven, a place of blessed peace, far from the machinations of her brothers or their court hangers-on.
She chooses well, and so, in a world where everyone is playing for power, she leads a double life, where she has true happiness and love.
Then, as now, the world hates nothing so much as a woman who makes her own choices and lives by her own rules. The Duchess suffers because she goes against what her brothers want for her. Antonio suffers, too. But never, in the entire play, do they voice regret. They are strong, even in the face of death. Their connection is so powerful that the Duchess is even able to communicate with Antonio from beyond the grave. Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it awhile.
Duchess of Malfi is a story of love, strength, and family. Love conquers all, even werewolves, severed hands, and visitors from the insane asylum.