The Duchess of Malfi John Webster
The following entry presents criticism of Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1613). See also John Webster Criticism.
The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most frequently revived Jacobean plays other than those of Shakespeare. Indeed, estimations of The Duchess of Malfi, along with Webster's other great tragedy, The White Devil, have led some critics to rank Webster second only to Shakespeare as a writer of tragedy. The source of one of the stage's great female characters, The Duchess of Malfi centers on the character of the Duchess, in whom audiences observe a provocative mixing of sensuality, passion, rage, piety, and virtue. The play as a whole features a complex interweaving of lechery, incest, murder, and torture with nobility, tenderness, and forgiveness. The darkness and horror of The Duchess of Malfi are dramatically compelling, but its unexpected glimpses of light give it a complexity and richness that have maintained the interest of scholars and audiences for centuries.
Plot and Major Characters
A hallmark of Webster's drama is its depiction of strong women characters. In The White Devil Vittoria Corombona is powerful and intelligent, if also wicked; the title character of The Duchess of Malfi is strong, independent, and noble. The heart of the story is the relationship between the widowed Duchess and her steward, Antonio, whom she secretly marries, defying both social convention and the wishes of her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, her twin. The brothers want the Duchess to remain unmarried, appealing to Christian piety; however, as the play later reveals, greed and incestuous lust are their true motivations. Years pass before they discover the truth about her marriage, which is uncovered by the spy Daniel de Bosola. At the behest of Ferdinand, Bosola kills the Duchess, but is then overwhelmed with remorse. Bosola plans to save Antonio, who had escaped, and punish the brothers, but he mistakenly kills Antonio instead. Bosola then attacks the Cardinal, but is himself attacked by Ferdinand. Bosola succeeds in killing both brothers, but is himself killed in the process. The play concludes with the presentation of Antonio's son, who is the sole surviving member of the family. Webster had many sources to draw upon in writing the play, which is based on a true story, though his chief was William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567).
One of Webster's chief contributions to the development of the tale was his characterization of the major figures, particularly the Duchess herself. Ferdinand is the Duke of Calabria, a menacing man who appears obsessed with the repression of sexual impulses. Though he is the twin brother of the Duchess, he is cruel to her from the beginning of the play, and his employment of Bosola as a spy is an indication of his distrustful nature. Ferdinand's brother, the Cardinal, is similarly cruel, but whereas Ferdinand is hot-tempered, the Cardinal is cold and calculating. His affiliation with the church lends him a seemingly supernatural power, but that power is evil; more than once, the Cardinal is affiliated with the devil. In an act symbolic of his diabolic alliance, the Cardinal murders his secret lover, Julia, with a poisoned Bible. The Duchess stands in contrast to her brothers, but she is not flawless. In her scenes with Antonio, she is unabashedly sexual. She is passionate and sometimes haughty, though she is also maternally tender, dignified, and pious. During her torture and death at the hands of Ferdinand and Bosola, she demonstrates a Christian attitude of forgiveness and confidence in her salvation. The ambiguity of her character is crystallized when she says as she dies, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” a line capable of various interpretations. The character of Antonio lacks the complexity of the three siblings; he is more a victim than an actor in the tragedy. He is a worthy man, though of a lower class than the Duchess, and his distaste for lechery stands in contrast to the lustfulness of nearly every other man in the play. His nobility, however, seems naïve in the context of the court. By contrast, the world-weary attitude of Bosola reveals his understanding of the court's intrigues. Bosola begins the play as cynical and self-serving. As he manipulates the Duchess into revealing the truth to him, he appears utterly without scruples or compassion. Yet the transformation of Bosola in the final act of the play leaves his character open to interpretation. He dies as he lived, a murderer; yet his recognition of the Duchess's virtue and his pity for her make him a more sympathetic figure than the brothers who hired him.
Themes central to The Duchess of Malfi include identity, sexuality, and power, which are all closely intertwined in the tragedy. The theme of identity is carried through the play in several ways. The twin relationship between Ferdinand and the Duchess makes the characters mirrors for each other; the frequent presence of mirrors as stage props makes the metaphor explicit. The Duchess also battles with the issue of conflicting public and private identities: her status as an aristocratic lady contests with her love for the lower-born Antonio, and the connection between birth and identity is an open question throughout the play. Her brothers press upon her the identity of the virtuous widow, one that she is unwilling to accept. When she says, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” it is not clear whether she is affirming or lamenting this identity. The theme of sexuality is tied to identity, particularly in regards to Ferdinand and the Duchess; his apparent desire for her is a perversion of socially acceptable sexuality as well as a kind of narcissism. Sexuality is generally linked to danger and violence, as the most explicitly sexual characters are shown to be the most evil. Even the comparatively healthy sexuality of the Duchess is considered suspect, a sign of excess passion, even if it is not, as Ferdinand and the Cardinal would imagine, a mark of depravity. Moreover, although the Duchess has neither Ferdinand's incestuous desires nor the Cardinal's affairs, it is in one sense her sexuality that propels the violence of the play. The desire for power, however, is also a controlling force in the drama; the Duchess's brothers are driven by a desire to control the family fortune. More generally, however, the play opens the question of the bases of power and authority, and who rightfully holds it. The corrupted authority of Ferdinand and the Cardinal casts doubt on the power they wield, while the nobility of the Duchess as she faces her death suggests the possibility of a different sort of authority.
Initial response to Webster's play was strong. For decades the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries as one of the great tragedies of the English Renaissance. The role of the Duchess continues to be a favorite of leading actresses, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Juliet Stevenson. As critic John Russell Brown has suggested, The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form and the themes of the play. Webster's talent as a technician has been a matter of some debate. In his study of Webster's dramatic art, Charles R. Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights successfully to create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred. But because the Duchess dies in the fourth act, the fifth act is sometimes seen as disconnected from the coherent whole of the first four acts. Early critics considered this a sign of Webster's lesser skill as a playwright, but more recently scholars have suggested that Webster employed a complex structure that is not flawed but rather sophisticated and innovative. Christina Luckyj's study of form in Webster's work proposes a different model for understanding the structure of his plays, suggesting a pattern of repetition and circular movement rather than a linear progression through consecutive acts. Jacqueline Pearson has considered the play in generic terms, maintaining that the difference between the fifth act and the others is the presence of tragicomic elements, setting the final scenes apart from the pure tragedy of the earlier part of the play. As M. C. Bradbrook has pointed out, The Duchess of Malfi also incorporates the dramatic form of the masque, a genre that would have been readily recognized and understood by a Renaissance audience. A trend toward feminist studies of Renaissance drama in the late 1980s and 1990s brought the Duchess to the attention of several scholars. As a strong, sexual woman who nonetheless dies proclaiming Christian piety and forgiveness, the Duchess has resisted definitive interpretation. The model of subversion and containment applied by some critics to much Renaissance drama seems to suit the Duchess, who is severely punished for her private violations of patriarchal order. Yet as Emily Bartles has argued, the Duchess's seeming complicity in her “containment” poses a challenge to that model. The containment of her sexuality has particularly interested critics. Dympna Callaghan and Laura Behling are among those feminist scholars who have included the Duchess in studies of the discourse of sexuality. As Behling has suggested, in the character of the Duchess relations between gender, sexuality, and power are brought to the fore, presenting a challenge to traditional notions of authority that is left unresolved.