Breakfast illustration of bacon, eggs, and coffee with the silhouetted images of the Duchess' evil brothers, one on each side

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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Discuss The Duchess of Malfi in relation to the revenge play tradition.

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The Duchess of Malfi, a play written by John Webster, was first performed around 1613 and first printed in 1623. To briefly summarize, the Duchess of Malfi is a young widow who falls in love with Antonio, her steward. This is essentially a mixed marriage in the sense that it is a love match between two people who would have been considered social "unequals" in the early modern period. Despite the fact that the Duchess’ brothers, Ferdinand and Cardinal, warn her against marrying and losing her chastity, she decides to marry Antonio anyway. The two have three children in secret. Through a spy named Bosola, the brothers find out that the Duchess has borne children, but they do not know the identity of the father, nor that she has gotten married. Both brothers are furious and Ferdinand first attempts to induce the Duchess to kill herself. In response, she attempts to protect Antonio and her children by sending them away, but she is found out by Bosola. All of the members of this family are then banished. While Antonio and the eldest son flee, the Duchess and two other children are imprisoned. In prison, they are strangled by Ferdinand, who begins to go insane. In the end, nearly everyone ends up dying a horrible death, and the only person who survives is eldest son of the Duchess and Antonio.

The play is gory, tragic, and full of dark humor. It features many of the common elements of the revenge play. Quite obviously, we have overlapping instances of revenge being sought, from the Duchess’ brothers seeking revenge on her and Antonio, to Bosola and Antonio seeking revenge on the brothers. Beyond that, however, we also have the gory and undeserved murder of a heroic martyr, in this case, the Duchess. We also have social commentary on an important issue such as early modern social structures and what happens to those who attempt to challenge them. There is also an astounding amount of bloodshed and death, as well as eventual madness in those who have perpetrated this mass bloodshed.

I should note, however, that some have argued that the play actually inverts the usual structure of revenge tragedy through the character of Bosola. Though he is instrumental in the wrongful death of the Duchess and her children, he sort of follows in her footsteps in his own transgression and ends up being instrumental in the seemingly just deaths of her cruel brothers as well.

For more, I would recommend reading the play itself, Christina Luckyj’s introduction to The Duchess of Malfi: A Critical Guide, as well as the websites below.

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Critically speaking, The Duchess of Malfi is considered to be a Jacobean era (1603-1625) revenge play, or revenge tragedy. In writing The Duchess of Malfi, Webster borrowed elements form other sources including William Painter and Sir Philip Sydney. He incorporated selected elements of revenge tragedy tradition but adopted them to accommodate his theme and dramatic purpose.

Elements of revenge tragedy are:
1. A secret murder of a good leader by a bad person.
2. The visitation of the victim's ghost to someone like a son.
3. Scheming and plotting with disguise and intrigue conducted by both avenger (revenge taker) and murderer.
4. Dead bodies slowly increasing in number.
5. The avenger falls into madness, either real or pretended (feigned), or another character does.
6. Mass violence of some sort in the resolution.
7. A final catastrophe that ends in the avenger's own death.

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