The Duchess of Malfi Essays and Criticism
by John Webster

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Webster's Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure

(Drama for Students)

When John Webster sat down to write The Duchess of Malfi, he had several goals in mind. He was a professional playwright, trying to earn a living and support a large family by writing plays that people would pay to see. To achieve that goal, he needed a fascinating story with enough intrigue and violence to appeal to his audience. He wanted, as all artists do, to earn a reputation for quality. Although he was writing plays to be performed on the London stage during his lifetime (he never could have dreamed that five hundred years later scholars would be studying the texts of his plays in libraries and classrooms—without even seeing them performed), he shared the awareness of his age that art is a continuum, that the literature of one period influences, and is influenced by, the literature of other times. As a serious writer, he followed literary convention, finding the idea for his story from early sixteenth-century Italy via a late sixteenth-century English collection of stories, and finding the structure for his play in first century Rome.

Although the idea of ‘‘imitation,’’ or borrowing ideas and even phrases from earlier models, might strike the modern reader as hack work, simple cobbling together of other people's ideas, the task Webster faced was quite difficult. He had before him two or three versions of the story of one Giovanna, who in 1490 at the age of twelve married a man who would later become Duke of Amalfi and leave her a widow at twenty. At least one of these retellings was in English prose; one may have been in Italian. To create the play as he envisioned it, Webster had to follow the general arc of the true story, which some of his audience would have read in William Painter's collection The Palace of Pleasure, turn narrative into drama, create dialogue and render it in blank verse, and shape the whole thing into the five-act structure that he had inherited from the Roman philosopher Seneca. Webster saw The Duchess of Malfi as a tragedy, and in Renaissance England, a tragedy called for Seneca's five acts.

The idea of following a pattern in creating art may be counterintuitive, but it is actually quite common. Anyone who has been to a lot of movies knows about the plot that runs ‘‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.’’ Even audiences who could not articulate the pattern are subconsciously aware of it—they know what to expect, and part of the pleasure in watching the film is in seeing the old story unfold in a new way. Many romance novels are written with strict formulas that dictate how many chapters the book will run, which chapter will include the heroine's first meeting with her dream man, and so on. Epics from the Iliad and the Odyssey to The Call of the Wild and Star Wars follow the same arc. We like pattern, we expect it, and we rely on it to help us make sense of complexity.

The idea that a drama might be divided into five parts actually came from Aristotle a Greek philosopher in the third century B.C. Four hundred years later, the Roman playwright Seneca refined Aristotle's ideas and wrote nine tragedies in five acts, each act having a particular function in the drama. Elizabethan playwrights knew Seneca's plays and used them as a model for their own work, and Webster is among those whose own tragedies follow Seneca's pattern of Exposition, Complication, Climax, Resolution, and Catastrophe. Or do they?

In Seneca's plan, the first act presents the Exposition, or the background information an audience needs to understand the play. This act will introduce the characters, establish the setting, and hint at the conflicts to come. This is clearly what happens in act 1 of The Duchess of Malfi . We meet Antonio, Delio, Bosola, the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and the Duchess. Because a drama typically does not have a narrator who steps in to interpret characters for the audience, Webster creates reasons for the characters to talk about each other. Delio asks Antonio ‘‘to make me the partaker of the...

(The entire section is 8,477 words.)