Webster’s Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure
Last Updated on April 26, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1880
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 natures / Of some of your great courtiers,’’ and Antonio obliges by standing off to the side and commenting on the personalities of Bosola and the three siblings. Likewise, the Cardinal and Ferdinand talk about Antonio, so it is established early on that Antonio's ‘‘nature is too honest.’’ Lines such as ‘‘I knew this fellow seven years in the galleys / For a notorious murder’’ and ‘‘Here comes the great Calabrian duke’’ serve the purpose of conveying information to help the audience make sense of what will come.
Setting is established beginning in the first line, when Delio says, ‘‘You are welcome to your country, dear Antonio— / You have been long in France.’’ Throughout the act, there are references to Naples, Milan, the sea coast, and other locations in Italy. The central conflict is set in motion when the Cardinal and Ferdinand order the Duchess to remain unmarried, and she defies them by marrying Antonio. When the first act ends, the audience has gotten everything expected from the Exposition.
Act 2, according to Seneca, should present the Complication, sometimes called the Rising Action. In this section, the forces that will be opposed gather together and intersect—that is, they become complicated. In the second act of The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess gives birth to the first child of her marriage to Antonio, Bosola's suspicions are raised and then confirmed, Bosola shares the knowledge of the birth with Ferdinand and the Cardinal, and Ferdinand begins his descent into madness. With the Duchess and Antonio on one side, and Bosola, the Cardinal and Ferdinand gathered on the other, the action pauses, as on the night before a great battle.
In fact, the action pauses for several years, while the Duchess gives birth to two more children and Bosola tries to determine who their father is. Seneca placed the Climax, the turning point and the moment of the highest emotional response, in act 3. In The Duchess of Malfi, act 3 presents the sweetly touching scene with Antonio and the Duchess in the bed chamber, immediately followed by Ferdinand's sudden appearance. Coming at the center of the play, the scene between the Duchess and Antonio is the last moment of happiness they will share; from this point on, there is a steady progression of sorrow and torment until both are dead. The rapid juxtaposition of the Duchess's happiness with her husband and conflict with her brother takes the audience on a rapidly shifting roller coaster of emotion, rather like the ‘‘whirlwind’’ that takes Ferdinand away. This is followed by a tender parting as Antonio flees, the Duchess's innocent sharing of her secret with Bosola, another tearful parting, and the Duchess's arrest.
Act 4 presents the Resolution of the conflict, sometimes called the Falling Action. As the hero ascended in stature through act 2, the hero descends through act 4. Act 5 is the Catastrophe, or the conclusion. Typically, the hero of a tragedy dies in act 5, often accompanied by more deaths. Here The Duchess of Malfi seems to break from the five-act structure of Seneca. The Duchess does not decline in any significant way through act 4. In the face of unspeakable torment, she remains dignified and noble, ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi still.’’ She does not die bravely, a result of her tragic flaw, in act 5, because she has already died in act 4. (In addition, it would seem to be a perversion of the notion of tragic flaw to find one in the Duchess, whose only error seems to have been in marrying for love.) What might this mean? How can the hero die in act 4? If she does, what is act 5 for?
What if the play is not really about the Duchess after all? Some critics have identified Bosola as the only character in The Duchess of Malfi who undergoes any psychological growth or change. Could he be the real hero of the play? What would the five-act structure look like if one foregrounded Bosola instead of the Duchess?
Act 1 presents the Exposition. The audience is introduced to the characters and setting, but they pay perhaps more attention to Bosola's situation. He has just returned from seven years in prison for a murder he committed for the Cardinal. The Cardinal shows Bosola no gratitude but secretly arranges for him to be hired by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess. Act 1 ends with Bosola in position, poised for action.
Act 2 is the Complication, or the Rising Action. After at least nine months of fruitless spying, Bosola suspects and confirms a pregnancy through a combination of his own wiles (the apricot trick) and good fortune (Antonio's dropping the paper). Bosola's star is certainly rising. His letter to Ferdinand shows that he has done his job well, and Bosola might well expect a reward for his success. However, the letter to Ferdinand ironically ‘‘hath put him out of his wits,’’ driving Ferdinand's attention far away from his faithful servant.
In act 3, the audience finds a turning point and a strong emotional response. Bosola begins to turn away from Ferdinand and finds himself speaking admiringly of Antonio. When the Duchess sends Antonio away for supposedly stealing from her, Bosola scolds her for not seeing Antonio's true value: ‘‘Both his virtue and form deserv'd a far better fortune.’’ Learning that the Duchess and Antonio are married, he wonders ‘‘can this ambitious age / Have so much goodness in't?’’ It is his highest moment. One admires the eloquence with which he celebrates virtue, but his path from this point is a steady descent. The next time the audience sees him, he is himself again, arresting the Duchess and speaking ill of Antonio's humble birth.
Act 4 finds Bosola in Resolution or Falling Action. Trying to drive the Duchess to despair, he turns to despair himself and cannot even face her without a disguise. He continues to do Ferdinand's bidding, bringing the madmen and supervising the murders of the Duchess, the children, and Cariola, but his heart is not in it. At the end of the act, he realizes that Ferdinand has no intention of paying him for his evil work. He has chosen poorly, misread the world, lived a life in which he ‘‘rather sought / To appear a true servant, than an honest man.’’ Now, he sees the flaw (the tragic flaw) in his thinking, and says ‘‘I am angry with myself, now that I wake.’’ In act 5, the spiraling descent continues, until Bosola has killed Antonio, a servant, the Cardinal, and Ferdinand, and until he dies himself. Of all the characters, he is the only one whose thinking has changed in fundamental ways through the play, the only one who has changed his situation through his own actions, the only one who has learned. He is the one who obtains revenge in the end, just before dying: ‘‘Revenge, for The Duchess of Malfi, murdered,’’ for Antonio, for Julia, ‘‘and lastly, for myself, / That was an actor in the main of all.’’ Bosola is a good candidate for hero of The Duchess of Malfi.
Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on The Duchess of Malfi, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Bily teaches writing and literature at Adrian College.
The Duchess of Malfi: Overview
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
The Duchess of Malfi's emotional power and theatrical potency, first defined by Charles Lamb and A. C. Swinburne, derives from its persuasive dramatic realism and its tirelessly intelligent and complex poetry.
The plot follows an account in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567) based on true events in early 16th-century Italy. Two powerful brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, are determined that their widowed sister, the Duchess, shall not remarry. They set Bosola, a malcontent courtier, to spy on her. She secretly marries her steward, Antonio Bologna, and bears him several children. Bosola betrays her and, on instructions, imprisons her, torments her with false news of Antonio's death and with a grisly display of mad folk, and finally has her killed, together with two of her children and her maid Cariola. Ferdinand, repentant after the fact, runs mad. In a grim final sequence of confusion and revenge, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Bosola, and Antonio die, and it is left to the Duchess's young son to restore an orderly society.
At every turn in this dark action, the characters identify their fears, their rage, or their despair in language startling in its specific physical immediacy and its general moral pessimism: ‘‘We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please them.’’ The events and the language—equally painful—mark Webster's characteristic awareness of human impotence before evil and malignant fate.
Critics have observed many ambiguities and inconsistencies. There is no convincing reason for the brothers' prohibition of the Duchess's remarriage, nor do they justify her murder as an appropriate consequence of her actions. That a marriage and the birth of three children should remain secret is highly unlikely. A child of the Duchess's first marriage is mentioned, then ignored. An elaborately presented horoscope does not come true. Antonio and the Duchess flee in different directions for no clear reason.
Some theatrical problems have been noted. The crucial moment of the Duchess's banishment is relegated to part of a dumb show. Act V, subsequent to the Duchess's death, may seem anti-climactic: a hectic series of accidents and random killings.
But such inconsistencies may be validated; Webster's realism depends on his recognition that his characters' intense emotions create around them, as if by passionate magnetism, a field of irrational behaviour and fatal consequence. Ferdinand's sexually explicit ravings against his sister—‘‘Are you stark mad?’’ asks the Cardinal—his extravagant grief and his collapse into lycanthropia cannot be rationally explained, but Webster's language gives his actions a potent, frightening plausibility.
The malcontent Bosola is ambiguous; a reputedly skilled intelligencer who cannot solve the simple mystery of the Duchess's marriage and who finally stabs Antonio by mistake, he is conscience-stricken and ashamed, even while he undertakes the brutal murders. Yet his ceaseless and insightful self-analysis is convincing and even extenuating.
The events of Act V may be seen not as anti-climactic, but as the unavoidable results of Machiavellian policies which, after the Duchess's murder, must be played out in a sequence of lesser acts—ignoble, grotesque, but still inevitable. Webster finds an apt symbol of inflexible fate when an ‘‘ECHO from the Duchess' grave’’ prompts Antonio and his friend Delio by ironic repetition.
Webster is dramatising an historical event which English audiences would believe only possible in the intolerant and disorderly society of 16th-century Italy, with its dissolute churchmen, corrupt courtiers, and crazed nobility. The opening contrasts the court of Italy with that of France where the ‘‘judicious king’’ has sought to ‘‘reduce both state and people / To a fix'd order.’’ Two pilgrims, the only outsiders in the play, express their opinions with equally judicious balance:
Here's a strange turn of state! Who would have thought
So great a lady would have match'd herself
Unto so mean a person? yet the cardinal
Bears himself much too cruel.
Their comments remind the audience that a world does exist outside the malevolent environment of the action. The obvious lapse of time in the Duchess's marriage between the scenes similarly draws attention to a period of presumed tranquillity and domestic love. The moment at which chaos and horror descend on the Duchess and Antonio is precisely marked. Antonio and Cariola tiptoe from the Duchess's bedroom, leaving her alone. As she continues talking, Ferdinand enters solus, showing her a poinard when, thinking Antonio is silent behind her, she queries, ‘‘Have you lost your tongue?’’ The Duchess's instant recognition that the inevitable discovery has come to pass is brilliantly expressed:
For know, whether I am doom'd to live or die.
I can do both like a prince.
These contrasts between an attainable harmony in a time or a place outside the confines of the tragic setting and the necessary chaos within that setting, are mirrored by the contrasts in the Duchess's character. She begins the play by assuring her brothers that she will never remarry, but without a pause in the action proceeds to the dangerous wooing of Antonio: ‘‘If all my royal kindred / Lay in my way unto this marriage, / I'd make them my low footsteps.’’ Recognising her ‘‘dangerous venture,’’ she undertakes, ‘‘through frights, and threat'nings,’’ the commitment which Cariola sees as a ‘‘fearful madness.’’ Though full of ‘‘noble virtue’’ and a model of sweet and pious behaviour, her ‘‘tetchiness and most vulturous eating of the apricots’’ when pregnant are hardly evidences of nobility. After the birth of three children, she still lies to Ferdinand: ‘‘when I choose / A husband, I will marry for your honour.’’ Moments later, in conversation with Antonio and Cariola, she is ‘‘merry,’’ holding that ‘‘Love mix't with fear is sweetest.’’ She can organise Antonio's escape with good sense and dispatch, but is trapped by her thoughtless and misplaced trust in Bosola. She meets her torments and death with grandeur—‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still.’’ Some critics have suggested that these inconsistencies are flaws in characterisation. By turns deceitful and impassioned, playful and fearful, practical and naive, haughty and petulant, her character may indeed not be consistent, but her frailties and strengths are recognisably human responses to the terrible world into which she is thrust.
Source: Richard Morton, ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed., Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1557-58.