The Duchess of Malfi The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster
by John Webster

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 97,382 words.)