How is Italy represented in the world dramatized in John Webster's play The Dutchess of Malfi?
For Webster, Italy was not so much a place as it was a psychological condition, an imagined space of unimaginable cruelty, fear and courage, and one dominated by the need for revenge.
During the English Renaissance, Italy was often imagined and presented as a place of moral and even spiritual corruption, and certainly this is true in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi. The importance of the Italian setting in the play is emphasized almost immediately, and Italy is presented in negative terms in a number of different ways. These include the following:
- In Antonio’s opening speech, the virtue of the French royal court is implicitly contrasted with the corruption of aristocratic courts in Italy (1.1.4-22).
- Bosola, who is morally corrupt himself, soon emphasizes the moral corruption of the Cardinal, commenting,
Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil, and make him worse. (1.1.42-44)
Moral corruption was considered bad enough in anyone. Moral corruption in a Christian was considered even worse. Moral corruption in a Christian cleric (such as the Cardinal) was considered perhaps the worst thing of all. In Protestant England, Catholics (especially members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy) were often accused of corruption, and indeed Italy was often associated with corruption because it was the home of Roman Catholicism.
- Just as corruption in a member of the religious hierarchy was considered especially blameworthy, so was corruption in a member of the secular hierarchy as well. Duke Ferdinand, brother of the Cardinal, clearly exemplifies the moral turpitude that was often associated with Italian aristocrats. Thus, Antionio describes the duke as
. . . A most perverse and turbulent nature.
What appears in him mirth is merely outside;
If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh
All honesty out of fashion. (1.2.76-79)
The duke, in other words, is associated with hypocrisy and with hidden dishonesty – two vices often linked, by the English, with the supposed moral corruption of Renaissance Italy. The duke might justly be described as a “Machiavel,” a term used in the English Renaissance to describe someone who displayed the craftiness and deceit often associated, in many English minds, with the Italian political theorist Machiavelli.
- In contrast, the Duchess of Malfi is associated with the kind of virtue that only highlights, by contrast, the corruption of her brothers. Antonio says that in her looks
There speaketh so divine a continence
As cuts off all lascivious and vain hope. (1.2.107-08)
Not all Italians were presented on the English stage as corrupt, but, as the play will soon show, the duchess unfortunately exercises far less power in her native land than do her evil, scheming brothers.