Breakfast illustration of bacon, eggs, and coffee with the silhouetted images of the Duchess' evil brothers, one on each side

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

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 biblical twins, whose ‘‘conflicts with each other are symbolic of their conflicts with God; one twin is the chosen one, God's elect, and the other twin is the outsider.’’ Much more common is the opinion expressed by James Calderwood in Essays in Criticism that within Ferdinand's actions are ‘‘unmistakable suggestions of incestuous jealousy.’’ Calderwood finds that when Ferdinand becomes aware of his own sinful desires, he becomes a ‘‘physician-priest-executioner who seeks the purgation of his own tainted blood in the purging of hers.’’

Another central question that has engaged critics grows out of the fact that the title character dies in act 4. Is the Duchess really the main character of the play, and if so, what is the play about? Charles Hallett and Elaine Hallett in The Revenger's Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs write that the play is a drama of initiation, much like Hamlet, and that the Duchess is at the heart of it: ‘‘The test she must pass is whether she will remain the woman she was, once she sees what the world is.’’ Kimberly Turner examines the play as a critique of the female ruler within the context of Renaissance patriarchy in an article in the Ben Jonson Journal and finds that Webster creates a new kind of female hero who ‘‘participates actively in her own life.’’

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