Little is known of John Webster’s life, although the title page of his pageant, Monuments of Honour (1624), calls him a merchant-tailor. In the custom of Jacobean playwrights, he often collaborated, probably with Thomas Dekker, a practice supported by Philip Henslowe, whose Diary (1961) gives much information about the theater of the period. Webster’s reputation rests almost entirely upon The White Devil (c. 1609-1612), and The Duchess of Malfi. Both are studies of illicit love, revenge, murder, and intrigues worthy of the Machiavellians that so appealed to Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences.
The Duchess of Malfi is a finer play than The White Devil, in part because of the noble character of the duchess herself. Her story has the reputation of being the best poetic tragedy written after William Shakespeare’s, and the work reveals Webster’s powers to present themes of great moral seriousness in magnificent language while also creating flesh-and-blood characters. Webster and Shakespeare mastered thinking in images so well that the images develop themes and meaning as fully as does the plot.
Some critics have noted that the violence of Webster’s revenge-and-blood tragedies may obscure their finer qualities. George Bernard Shaw referred to Webster as “a Tussaud-laureate.” Despite the melodramatic or surrealistic qualities of his work, however, few critics underestimate Webster’s brilliance as a psychologist. His work shows its descent from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585-1589), Senecan tragedy, and the medieval morality play, and the dramas reflect a preoccupation with death and the tempestuous history of the Renaissance period. Many of the dramas are set in Italy, the epitome of evil locales to Renaissance English.
The duchess of Malfi was an actual Italian figure, but Webster’s immediate source was William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1566), a collection of tediously moral stories, which was in turn based on twenty-five novellas of Matteo Bandello that also provided themes for several plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Painter concentrates on two major sins, or weaknesses: the duchess’s sensuality and Antonio’s excessive ambition. Bosola is referred to only once in Painter’s story. Webster does not alter Painter’s version so much as he enlarges it by surrounding the limited world of the lovers with other worlds: the corrupt court of Amalfi and the religious state of Rome. He thereby exposes a universal corruption that expands concentrically beyond the lovers’ chambered world. He enlarges and magnifies the role of the villain Bosola and uses him to bind the various worlds together. The resulting revenge tragedy treats the question of personal honor (still tied to feudal values), the political and moral problems of lawlessness, and the supreme question—human vengeance and divine or Providential vengeance.
Webster creates this fallen world through the actions of the duchess, Ferdinand, the cardinal, Antonio, and Bosola, particularizing the questions as to what true love should do in the presence of family pride and social taboos; how an individual can rise in an evil, power-dominated world without undergoing corruption; and, finally, whether people create their own heaven or hell. The topic of free will is both implicit and explicit throughout the play: People are responsible for the choices they make. Webster forces the smaller worlds into collision in the working out of these themes, and tragic destruction ensues. Providence finally asserts its influence through the hope vested in the duchess and Antonio’s innocent son.
The duchess of the play is a headstrong but noble woman who says to her executioners: “Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength/ Must pull down heaven upon me.” Nobility notwithstanding, her “passion is out of place,” for Antonio is but head steward of her household. In wooing Antonio she denies the chain of being on its social level. Even at the moment when she and Antonio confess their love, they are therefore threatened. In act 1, scene 3 (lines 176-181), she tries to ease his fears:
Ant.: But for your brothers?Duch.: Do not think of them:All discord without this circumferenceIs only to be pitied, not fear’d:Yet, should they know it, time will easilyScatter the tempest.
Her optimism is that of the pure soul, but she misjudges the power of those outside “this circumference.” Her willfulness and passion are lust in the eyes of her brothers, the Church, and society at large. Webster communicates the sweetness of the romance, however, so thoroughly that the lovers are totally sympathetic throughout.
Second to the duchess in importance is Bosola, a symbol of Webster’s disgust with an era that admired ambition but provided little opportunity for its honest realization. This melancholy scholar perverts his intelligence to “serve” Ferdinand and the cardinal, representatives of political and ecclesiastical corruption. Bosola’s evil actions continue after the duchess’s murder so that Webster can complete the theme of corruption. This accounts for the extended action of acts 4 and 5, which some critics have found objectionable. Ultimately, Bosola recognizes his misplaced devotion and his responsibility for the horrors, a recognition too sudden for some readers. Outside Shakespeare’s works, however, dramatic characters of the period seldom change gradually, a vestige of the parent morality plays.
Even Ferdinand (who may hide incestuous feelings for his sister) accepts his guilt when he says, “Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,/ Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.” Ferdinand’s marvelous image, which refers to all the characters, is characteristic of the powerful figurative language throughout the play. The image identifies the characters as the most precious of jewels, yet paradoxically made of dust. The place of human beings a little below the angels is secure, Webster declares, only so long as they act in accordance with the moral laws established by Providence. People rise or fall by their own acts. Delio’s words that close the play are Webster’s imagistic final comment upon the fallen of Amalfi: “These wretched eminent things/ Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one/ Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow.”