Comparing John Donne's "Songs and Sonnets" with John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi", what are some main similarities and differences ?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Although detailed comparisons and contrasts between Donne’s Songs and Sonets [sic] and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi would take far more space than is available here, a few suggestions can nevertheless be offered.  Consider, for instance, the episode in the play in which the Duchess indicates her desire to marry Antonio (Act I, Scene 3).  Aspects of this episode resemble aspects of Donne’s poetry in a number of ways, including the following:

  • Antonio’s admiring reference to "the sacrament of marriage" (1.3.93) resembles the celebration of married love found in various poems by Donne, such as “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” To the extent that this scene in Webster’s play celebrates true love, it resembles similar celebrations in many of Donne’s poems, such as “The Good Morrow.”
  • The dialogue between Antonio and the Duchess is often laced with witty sexual innuendo, as in Antonio’s clever references to coupling in sheets (1.3.96). Neither Donne nor Webster shies away from sexual wit.
  • Webster, like Donne, enjoys paradoxical language, as when the Duchess gives Antonio her ring to help his bloodshot eye and thus restore his eyesight. He then paradoxically replies, “You have made me stark blind” (1.3.114). Consider, too, the Duchess’s later paradoxical words to Antonio:

. . . Go, go brag

You have left me heartless; mine [my heart] is in your bosom . . . (1.3.151-52)

  • The lines just quoted exemplify another trait that this scene from Webster's play shares with many poems written by Donne: a penchant for general witty cleverness, not just sexual wit.
  • Webster employs clever metaphors, as Donne also does.  One example occurs when the Duchess refers to the top of Antonio’s head as his “goodly roof” (1.3.120).
  • All in all, the scene between the Duchess and Antonio is witty, humorous, and unconventional, traits also often found in Donne’s poetry.

However, several key differences between Donne’s poems and this scene of Webster’s play are also worth mentioning.  They include the following:

  • In the play, the Duchess has a great deal to say.  In Donne’s poems, however, almost all the talking is done by males.
  • In the play, it is the Duchess who courts Antonio, rather than vice versa; in Donne’s poems, however, it is almost always men who court women.
  • Few of the women presented in Donne’s poems are as open as the Duchess is in expressing what she calls “violent passions” (1.3.148).  Usually, in Donne’s poems, such passions are almost always expressed by men.

Many other similarities and differences between Donne's poems and Webster's play might be explored, but there is insufficient space to do so here.

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