The Duchess of Malfi is considered one of Webster's two greatest works and one of the canonical works of Jacobean drama. It is also roundly criticized as being weak, confusing, and illogical. In his thorough overview of more than three centuries of criticism, John Webster and His Critics 1617-1964, Don D. Moore writes that there may be no one other than Webster ‘‘whose plays have received a more varied reception and whose critics have been so divided among themselves on whether the writer was due praise or excoriation.’’ In Webster's own time, The Duchess of Malfi sold enough tickets to be profitable, and the publication of the play in 1623 was accompanied by verses from other playwrights who seem to have found the play worthy of praise.
From the second half of the seventeenth century through the eighteenth, the play was seldom performed and there was no extended criticism of it. Criticism of the nineteenth century tended more toward appreciation than study, and Webster was alternately praised for his overall effect or reviled for specific flaws in logic or ideology. Much of this criticism was based on performances rather than on scrutiny of the text. Academic criticism, beginning in the late nineteenth century, focused at first on uncovering the sources for Webster's understanding of the Duchess's story.
In the twentieth century, dozens of critics have written about the play. William Archer, writing a 1920 article for Nineteenth Century, is typical of those who have found the play lacking. Inspired to examine the play closely after seeing a production, Archer found it ‘‘three hours of coarse and sanguinary melodrama’’ and pronounced it ‘‘fundamentally bad.’’ With unblinking honesty, Archer points out several bits of inconsistency and illogic in the play, including the son of the Duchess and her first husband, who is mentioned only once in the play and then forgotten. Inga-Stina Ekeblad, on the other hand, explains in an article in Review of English Studies that Webster, ‘‘though he often leaves us in confusion,’’ does achieve in this play a fusion of convention and realism, ‘‘creating something structurally new and vital.’’
Psychological questions about the play have been raised by several critics. What is Ferdinand's motive for tormenting his sister? Sheryl Craig believes that the answer lies in the fact that the Duchess and Ferdinand are twins. She explains in an article in Publications of the Missouri Philological Association that for Renaissance audiences, the siblings would have resembled...
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