What are some similarities and differences of plot and character between John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and William Shakespeare's Othello?
John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and William Shakespeare's Othello both are considered revenge tragedies. This genre, influenced by the Roman playwright Seneca, was extremely common in the English Renaissance, and typically featured evil villains, wronged protagonists seeking vengeance, dramatic plots including betrayals and subterfuges, exotic settings (especially Italy) and bloody violence onstage; corpses litter the stage at the end of most plays in the genre.
The first area of comparison between the plays lies in the nature of the protagonists. The Duchess is an Italian female and Othello a Moorish male. Both protagonists are deeply in love and married to the people they love. In both cases, the relationships are disrupted by external influences. Othello is made jealous by Iago's innuendo about Desdemona. The Duchess is separated from her husband and eventually killed by siblings jealous of her position. While the Duchess and Antonio have children, Othello and Desdemona do not. While both the Duchess and Antonio are killed by antagonists in the play, Othello kills Desdemona and commits suicide.
Perhaps the greatest difference in the play is moral ambiguity. In Webster's play, there are purely good and purely evil characters. The protagonist in Othello is a more complex and conflicted character, capable of great nobility, but flawed and prone to jealousy and rage.
Love is the central catalyst for tragedy in both plays. Both plays also involve title characters who engage in what others perceive as transgressive love. Othello transgresses in some eyes (most pointedly his own, given his insecurities) as an older black man, a "moor," marrying a younger white woman. The Duchess transgresses, first by remarrying at all—a "virtuous" widow in that period, according to Thomas Overbury's Characters, "receives but one man's impression." Second, because she has promised her evil brothers that she will not remarry, the Duchess transgresses in their eyes by marrying in secret.
Although Othello is marrying for the first time while the Duchess remarries, both marriages are punished and both plays pivot on male fears that women, who are supposed to be chaste, are secretly whores or "strumpets" whose sexuality cannot be adequately controlled.
In both plays, an evil underling causes death. However, in Webster's play Bosola murders the Duchess whereas Iago manipulates Othello into smothering Desdemona.
As far as character goes, Othello is racked with the insecurities of a middle-aged man married to a younger woman who fears he is not truly sexually attractive to her. The Duchess is secure in her love and has strong self-esteem but is punished for daring to step out from under the control of patriarchy in the form of her malevolent brothers.