Set in the court of Malfi (Amalfi) in Italy, 1504-10.
The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with Antonio, who is
only a lowly steward, but her brothers forbid her to remarry on
account of not wanting to share the inheritance
She marries him in secret and bears several children
Ferdinand, her lunatic and incestuous brother, threatens her and then disowns her as his sister.
For an escape, her and Antonio make up a story that he has connedher out of her fortune and that she has to flee into exile. Taking Bosola into her confidence, not knowing that he is actually Ferdinand’s spy, and arranges that he will deliver her jewellery to Antonio where he is hiding in Ancona, a nearby town.
She is supposed to join them later under the pretence of undertaking a pilgrimage. The Cardinal hears of this and tells Bosola to banish them both. Antonio escapes with their eldest son but the Duchess and the two youngest children are returned to Malfi and executed.
Bosola turns against the Cardinal and his brother and takes up the cause of exacting her revenge
The Cardinal confesses to Julia, his mistress, then he murders her so that she is silenced, using a poisoned Bible.
Bosola overhears the Cardinal plotting to kill him so insteadvisits the darkened chapel to kill the Cardinal at his prayers. He kills Antonio by mistake, who has just come back to Malfi to try and reconcile with the Cardinal. He kills the Cardinal by stabbing him, and then Ferdinand and Bosola stab each other to death.
Antonio’s elder son by the Duchess comes back and claims the Malfi fortune, even though his father has told him to ‘fly the court of princes’ as it is a corrupt and ever more deadly environment.