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The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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In the wooing scene in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (act 1, scene 3), is the Duchess's speech written in prose or blank verse?

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The difference between blank verse and prose lies in the rhythm, but it can certainly be more difficult to identify the difference between the two in the works of early modern writers other than Shakespeare—simply because, if we are used to the works of Shakespeare, where the distinction is very clear, the writing of a playwright like Webster will seem less rhythmic. Shakespeare's blank verse tends to use very regular iambic pentameter—each line spoken will have five clear points of emphasis, each of which is known as a foot, or iamb.

Webster's language here is less distinctive. However, he adheres to the same general set of rules for versification as other playwrights of the time: namely, iambic pentameter is used to indicate a character of higher rank, whereas more common characters will speak in prose. Occasionally, rhymed verse will be used, often to end a scene.

Webster marks out the first full line of the Duchess's speech in clear iambic pentameter to make it obvious that she is, in fact, speaking in blank verse rather than in prose:


One can shift the emphases slightly—we might place emphasis on the "Y" of "misery", for example, rather than on "born"—but it is fairly difficult to pronounce this line without sounding out the five clear iambs which mark out blank verse during this period.

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The Duchess speaks in blank verse throughout this scene, as does Antonio. The general rule in Jacobean drama is that the higher the social class of a character and the more public or formal the situation, the more likely they are to speak in blank verse. Lower-class characters and those speaking in private will more often use prose. In addition to this, prose is usually regarded as more suitable for comedy and blank verse for tragedy. It is not difficult to find exceptions but, given these general guidelines, blank verse is exactly what one would expect to find here.

Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The rhythm of the iambics, however, is seldom perfectly regular. Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights did not aim for completely smooth lines, which would have become monotonous, and Webster often varies the meter, most often with an extra syllable. The first full line of the Duchess's longest speech here is ten syllables:

The misery of us that are born great!

However, even this deviates slightly from strict iambic pentameter, which would place a stress on the word "are," an unnatural inflection which no actress would use in speaking the line. The next line is:

We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us.

Here we have eleven syllables. It would be tempting to elide the initial "a" of "are," as we generally do in casual speech. However, pronouncing the line exactly as written gives a weight to the initial "we" which is balanced by the eleventh syllable "us," rendering the contrast more pointed and bringing out the chiasmus. The following two lines, however, are perfectly smooth. In any case, the overall effect is invariably more rhythmic than prose would be.

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The wooing scene of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (Act 1, scene 3) is written in blank verse, as can be seen by consulting, for instance, the edition of the play in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. However, the rhythms of the verse are supple and often unpredictable, often giving the speeches the flavor of prose.  Few of the lines in this scene, for example, are written in the kind of regular iambic pentameter made famous in Christopher Marlowe’s line (from Doctor Faustus) “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Occasionally Webster offers such a line, as in the Duchess’s comment, “And as a tyrant doubles with his words” (1.3.146). Even this line, however, might be scanned as slightly irregular, especially if “as” and “with” were not heavily stressed in reading.  More typical of the speeches in this scene, however, are lines such as these two by the Duchess:

The misery of us that are born great!

We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us . . . (1.3.144-45)

The second line here is particularly difficult to scan, especially in its second half. Webster, like Shakespeare in his late plays, seems to have been writing verse that was often hard to distinguish from prose, partly to make the voices of his characters sound more realistic and natural and partly to avoid the kind of utter predictability that is found in the less inventive playwrights of the period.

Regular, predictable lines of iambic meter do occur, as when the Duchess says to Antonio,

I thank you, gentle love:

And ’cause you shall not come to me in debt . . . (1.3.164-65)

More typical, however, are the immediately ensuing lines:

Being now my steward, here upon your lips

I sign your Quietus est. This you should have begged now . . .  (1.3.66-67)




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