The Duchess of Malfi Questions and Answers
by John Webster

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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.

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Webster, like Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists, uses Italy as a dramatic setting as it allows him to explore sensitive domestic political themes. In that sense, The Duchess of Malfi can be seen as a commentary on certain aspects of contemporary English political life. The English were generally fascinated by Italian culture, finding it both repellent and attractive in roughly equal measure.

The overwhelmingly Catholic Italians were naturally objects of suspicion to the Protestant English. They were widely held in the English imagination to be superstitious and backward, enslaved by a tyrannical Pope. Their political life was often seen to be blood-thirsty and barbarous, characterized by chronic instability and internecine warfare, their courts seething cauldrons of lust and endless backstairs intrigue. Whatever the English may have felt about the Italians, they recognized that their political culture provided a rich source of material for drama, especially tragedy.

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