The Duchess of Malfi Questions and Answers
by John Webster

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Can The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster be called a revenge tragedy?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The Duchess of Malfi contains elements of the revenge drama, a popular form in 17th century because audiences enjoyed the onstage violence and bloodshed. However, it also veers from the classical revenge drama. In a purer revenge drama, such as Hamlet, a hero takes revenge on someone who deserves punishment in order to restore justice and honor to a corrupted environment, but in this play, the brothers act violently against the Duchess not because she has overtly dishonored them, but because they don't like that she has remarried. Their revenge is thus not legitimate. Further, the Duchess, even though the play's heroine and title character, dies before getting revenge on those who hurt her. However, the play does include many dead bodies, a salient aspect of this genre, and Bosola, in a change of heart after participating in their murders, decides he wants to avenge the Duchess and Antonio. Moral corruption, a mainstay of the revenge drama, saturates this play. For example, the Cardinal, who should be an exemplar of Christian chastity and virtue, not only has a mistress, but also murders her.

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The revenge tragedy is a genre that was common in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. It was modelled primarily on Seneca's tragedies, especially the Medea. The earliest work of the genre is usually held to be Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, but there are many other examples, including The Revenger's Tragedy, Webster's The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614),  and Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and, of course Hamlet.

These tragedies are normally centered on a protagonist who has been wronged and is seeking revenge in an obsessive manner. They usually feature intense melodrama and violence, moral corruption, and a sort of blank verse with many metrical variations.  They are often set in Italy.

 

 

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