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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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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The Duchess of Malfi

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