John Webster

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John Webster’s two greatest plays are The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. They have many points in common. Both are tragedies based on events that occurred in Italy in the sixteenth century. Both carry the audience into a dark and grim world in which evil characters are capable of virtually any atrocity and in which good characters are all too frequently destroyed by murderous plotters, many of whom are of their own family. Bonds of kinship and marriage are not enough to protect the innocent from the greed, jealousy, and ruthlessness of husbands, wives, and brothers. The bases of order seem in question. Church and state are both corrupt; evil seems rampant everywhere.

Webster’s characters are memorable, particularly the women. Webster creates tragic heroines, Vittoria and the Duchess, women whose lives and deaths make them capable of drawing the admiration and sympathies of author and audience. The three major villains—Brachiano, the Cardinal, and Duke Ferdinand, men of rank in church and state—are creatures of immense selfishness whose will is law. What they desire they must have, even if innocents have to die. Both plays contain melancholics, Flamineo in The White Devil and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, and much of Webster’s sarcasm appears in their speeches. Both of them are poor, having been scholars who could find no preferment except by joining the service of cruel noblemen. Their low birth and poverty doom them to serve as tools to be used in the iniquity of others. Flamineo takes some pleasure in the villainies he commits, but Bosola is pained by the tortures he is forced to inflict.

The White Devil

The opening word in The White Devil catches attention immediately: “Banish’d!” The speaker is Count Lodovico, who is being banished for his many crimes, including several murders. He indicates the lack of moral value in his diseased world by calling his killings flea bites. He reveals more about his world by naming the gods that rule it: reward and punishment at court.

The evil master whom Flamineo serves is the Duke of Brachiano, who has been smitten by the great beauty of Vittoria, Flamineo’s sister. Flamineo has no qualms about pandering to his own sister; her allure can help him to advance in Brachiano’s service. Early in The White Devil, Brachiano meets secretly with Vittoria, whom he desires as a mistress. Vittoria indicates her willingness to become his lover, but unfortunately she sees two problems: his wife and her husband. Without ever saying so directly, she indicates that Brachiano should kill both of them. She tells him of a dream in which she was attacked by both of their spouses. Her situation was desperate until a limb from a yew tree fell and crushed both of her attackers. She has let Brachiano know that he is the “you” who must kill to get her. Flamineo, eavesdropping, appreciates the cunning of her invitation to murder.

In staging his plays, Webster greatly favored the device of the dumb show. The deaths of both unwanted spouses are depicted in this way. The murder of Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, who loves her husband devotedly, is silently acted out onstage as Brachiano, with the aid of a conjurer who has supplied him with a magic cap, happily watches from a distance. Isabella prepares for bed, saying her prayers and then kissing, as she always does, her husband’s picture, which has been anointed with a powerful poison. She dies immediately. Brachiano continues to watch as Vittoria is freed from her unwanted husband, Camillo, in a second show provided by...

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the conjurer. The ambitious and unscrupulous Flamineo commits the murder himself, breaking the neck of his brother-in-law but making the injury appear to be the tragic result of a fall from a vaulting horse. Webster characterizes Brachiano deftly as he praises his henchmen; they provided a good show, and he enjoyed it. Vittoria is his.

Although the death of Isabella is not immediately known, the murderers have made dangerous enemies of two potent figures in church and state. Camillo was a nephew of Cardinal Monticelso, who will become the pope before the play ends. Isabella was a Medici, sister to Francisco, the great duke of Florence, who resents Vittoria’s adultery with his sister’s husband. These powerful men prosecute their revenge. Vittoria is brought to trial, and Webster’s training in the law creates an impressive scene. Vittoria defends herself against all charges; she is neither a whore nor a murderess. Her spirited defense and her magnificent beauty win over many of the judges but show her to be the white devil of the title, for one meaning of the term is “hypocrite” and the other, something of external beauty that is ugly within. In either case, Vittoria seems a “white devil.” She is sentenced to confinement in a religious house.

After the trial, Francisco learns of his sister’s murder and plans his revenge. A book exists that contains the names of criminals who would be available for a price. Francisco borrows it from its owner, Cardinal Monticelso, soon to be pope. The next step in Francisco’s revenge is to make Brachiano think that he has a rival for Vittoria’s love. Brachiano rages at Vittoria, who turns away from him. Afraid of losing her, he takes her away from her house of confinement and marries her. Francisco chortles: He has tricked Brachiano into the disgrace of marrying his whore. Now he will kill him. As Brachiano prepares for a tournament, his assassins put poison inside his helmet. Heat and perspiration activate the poison, which surges through him. His agony is terrible, and his murderers delight in his suffering.

The duke’s death is hard for Flamineo to bear. He has risked everything for Brachiano, but the new duke, Brachiano’s son, banishes Flamineo from his court. Unless Vittoria, his sister, can rescue him, Flamineo has lost everything. Vittoria will not help him because one of his victims was their own brother, Marcello. The angry dispute between the two is interrupted by the assassins. Flamineo, furious with his sister, volunteers to kill her for them, but the killers strike both together. Vittoria dies bravely, regaining the admiration of her brother. Vittoria’s last words voice Webster’s view of nobles and their corrupt courts: Those who have never seen a court and have never known a nobleman are truly fortunate.

The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is favored above the earlier play by many. The second play does have flaws, but its language is superb, its characterization rich, its themes immensely significant, and its story, from Italian history, well chosen to give Webster frequent opportunity to display his talent for creating horror.

At the court of the Duchess Giovanna of Malfi, five truly interesting characters appear, three of them villains. The coldest of them is the older brother of the Duchess, the Cardinal. The younger brother, Duke Ferdinand, is fiery. Again, Webster shows evil and corruption in the great positions that control power in the state and the church. The third figure is Bosola, the tool villain, used by the other two to carry out their crimes.

The victims of these men are the Duchess herself and Antonio Bologna. At the beginning of the play, Antonio, steward to the Duchess, wins a prize for his equestrian skill. Webster has thus indicated Antonio’s worth. In an age that values good horsemanship exceedingly, Antonio, though not of noble birth, has excelled. From such a man, serving as Webster’s choric commentator, come the statements that begin the characterization of the other major figures. The Cardinal employs spies and panders to do his bidding; he has even tried to bribe his way into the papal chair. The Duke is like a spider, using the law like a cobweb to entrap his victims. The Duchess, however, is far different from her brothers; she is a gracious lady. As for Bosola, he is too melancholic, but Antonio has sympathy for him, believing that he has been used badly by the brothers and that he will be used by them again.

The situations that create the later crises begin with the brothers instructing their recently widowed sister not to remarry. Although the Duchess promises to obey their wishes, she immediately calls Antonio to her, and in a very affecting scene she tells him that she recognizes his great worth and wishes him to be her new husband. For the Duchess—as for Webster the iconoclast—there are measures of a person’s worth other than birth or titles. They wed immediately in a ceremony that is binding because it occurs in the presence of a witness, her maid Cariola. The Duchess obviously demands to live her own life; for that, many readers admire her. She is acting in a very willful way, however, creating a situation of great danger for all present in the chamber and for any children born from this union; for that, many readers believe that she is at fault.

Her dangers are real and immediate because her brothers hire Bosola to stay at Malfi and spy on her. The Cardinal chooses Bosola, but he persuades Duke Ferdinand to do the actual hiring because the Cardinal does not want his involvement to be known by anyone else. The Cardinal is the Machiavellian villain in the play, preferring to let others do his evil work for him. The scene between Duke Ferdinand and Bosola is remarkably rich. When Duke Ferdinand suddenly offers gold coins to Bosola, he refuses them. Bosola knows that a nobleman would not come to him and offer riches without expecting much in return, and there are some things Bosola is not willing to do for money. Bosola is a villain with a conscience and a soul. Therefore, Duke Ferdinand announces nonchalantly that he has also secured a position for Bosola. Perhaps Bosola has not heard the news yet—Bosola is to be the master of the horse at the castle of Malfi. Again, the value placed by the age on the horseman is emphasized; the honor just paid to Bosola is, as Bosola fully knows, an incredibly great one. For a nobleman to single out a poor man such as Bosola and gain for him a prestigious court position shocks Bosola. He cannot turn down such a benefactor, but he does not hesitate to give vent to his anguish:I would have you curse yourself now, that your bounty (Which makes men truly noble) e’er should make me A villain.

The next few scenes cover several years. The Duchess has had children. Bosola thinks her foolish and lustful, but he never considers the possibility that Antonio, a man far below the Duchess in rank, could be her husband; the only possibility that occurs to him is that Antonio is the bawd to the Duchess. When he learns that Antonio and the Duchess are actually married, he is amazed to realize that a man may succeed by virtue alone. His virtue will not save either of them now.

The Duchess’s death scene, one of the superbly crafted scenes of English drama, constantly shows Webster’s theatricality. By this time, the Duchess believes that Antonio and the children, who had stayed with him, are dead. Life is almost more than she can bear. As the scene opens, hideous noises come from outside her chamber; her brother tries to increase her torments by bringing madmen to scream and howl within her hearing. Ironically, this helps her retain her sanity. It is silence that she cannot stand because it gives her time to think and remember the depth of her loss.

The madmen are described as Webster mixes satire into even the most tragic of his scenes: One of the madmen is an English tailor who lost his mind by trying to keep up with changing fashions; another is an astrologer who predicted that the world would end on a certain day, and when it did not, he went mad from disappointment. Eight madmen enter and sing, the stage directions calling for “a dismal kind of music.” The macabre stage business continues with their dance, “with music answerable thereunto,” performed right in front of the suffering woman.

Bosola enters. His shame prevents him from coming to her without disguise; he appears as an old man, telling her, “Thou art a box of wormseed, at best but a salvatory of green mummy.” The Duchess speaks of her rank; Bosola says that he knows she is a woman of high authority because her hair has turned gray many years before it should have. She proudly insists: “I am Duchess of Malfi still!” The response comes quickly: “Glories, like glowworms, afar off shine bright, But, looked to near, have neither heat nor light.” Bosola knows the Duchess is shortly to die; Ferdinand will have it so. The unexpected element in the scene is that Bosola is concerned that she face death without pride in her position, for her title will not go with her in her passing. Her soul is Bosola’s concern. The Duchess learns the lesson. As her assassins approach, she asks only for time to kneel:

Yet stay. Heaven-gates are not so highly archedAs princes’ palaces; they that enter thereMust go upon their knees.

Earlier in the play, when the Duchess was tricked into believing her loved ones to have been murdered, she wished to die. Bosola would not let her die in despair. Now he relieves her soul of its burden of pride. She faces death not as a great Italian lady but as a simple mortal being. Never has she shown more nobleness than in her final moments.

The scene is not yet ended. Duke Ferdinand enters to see his murderers’ handiwork. The Duchess’s children have been killed also, but their deaths are of no interest to him: “The death/ Of young wolves is never to be pitied.” It is his sister’s body that holds his gaze: “Cover her face! Mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” Then, to Bosola’s consternation, Duke Ferdinand turns against him; the duke will give him no reward for his service. Bosola protests, but Duke Ferdinand cannot be brought to reason. He speaks of wolves digging up the grave; his sanity is going. Bosola has participated in Duke Ferdinand’s atrocities for nothing; he has served a madman.

Commentary on this scene is important. Only here do readers learn that Duke Ferdinand and the Duchess are twins. Realization of their physical closeness reminds readers of earlier lines in which he spoke of her body and of the fury that erupted from him on Bosola’s first report that she had a lover. Duke Ferdinand’s incestuous desires for his sister explain many of his earlier actions.

The frequent references to wolves and howling in this and earlier scenes build to a grotesque consequence in act 5. Duke Ferdinand becomes a lycanthrope. He is found coming from a graveyard with a dead man’s leg. The man whose cruelties seemed beastly has become a beast.

Many scholars object that the fifth act is anticlimactic because the Duchess plays no part in it. Bosola, however, has been as important a character as Giovanna, and his role continues to develop. He discovers that the Cardinal has been involved in the death of his sister, and he witnesses the Cardinal murder his mistress, having her swear her loyalty to him by kissing a Bible, which he has poisoned. As is true for Isabella in The White Devil, the woman literally kisses death. Bosola resolves that this churchman must die. He wounds him but is kept from killing him by the entrance of the mad Duke Ferdinand, who kills the Cardinal himself, just before Bosola kills him. There is symmetry and poetic justice at the end, as Duke Ferdinand turns on and slays the one who has manipulated him and then is slain in turn by Bosola, the one he has used, abused, and then fatally wounded. Bosola lives long enough to see the brothers die.

The ways in which his characters face death reveal much about Webster’s moral views. The evil characters are not certain what will happen to their souls. Vittoria compares her soul to a ship on a stormy sea, driven she knows not where. Flamineo’s end comes wrapped in mist. The Cardinal wishes to be buried and then forgotten. Duke Ferdinand’s madness continues also to the very end; then he recognizes that what he has done to his sister is the cause of his own destruction. Bosola, like Vittoria, is about to make a voyage; like Flamineo, he finds a mist before his eyes. Bosola, however, has tried to atone; he can accept death. The dignity of the Duchess when facing death contrasts vividly with all the others. Webster still views life in terms of good and evil, sin and redemption, damnation and salvation. For the Duchess, thanks to Bosola, death merely brings her to her home.

A human touch appears in the Duchess’s concern for her children. She knows she must die shortly, but she asks her maid Cariola to be sure to give her “little boy/ Some syrup for his cold” and have the little girl say her prayers before she sleeps. A small flaw in the play involves one of her children. Webster has mentioned a son by her previous marriage, but then he is forgotten. The existence of this heir makes Duke Ferdinand’s statement that he hoped to gain a great fortune by his sister’s death implausible.

The echo scene in The Duchess of Malfi is famous. Shortly before his death, Antonio walks near an old fortification. He wonders about his wife: “Shall I never see her more?” The echo catches his words and mournfully returns: “Never see her more.” Within moments Antonio will be dead, killed in the darkness by accident.

Webster’s language is often magnificent. His prose in the satiric passages of his melancholics is caustic and brutal. The slow cadences of his poetry create passages of great beauty, even though sometimes touched with morbidity, as in the scenes of the Duchess’s torture and death. In those scenes, the relationship between Bosola and the Duchess is most memorable. He admires his victim, her greatness shows through her pain, and he must not let her despair. When she wishes to curse the heavens, Bosola responds with the famous “Look you, the stars shine still.” His message is that even though she is a great duchess, her curses will have no effect on the stars. Duchesses, in their mortality, are slight things when compared with the order of the heavens.

Webster is greatly concerned with order. In the very opening lines of The Duchess of Malfi, Antonio, again serving as a chorus, speaks for Webster in lines praising the order being brought to France by the young French king. At the end of both of Webster’s tragedies, with evil having been destroyed, young heirs to the power of Brachiano and Malfi appear to symbolize the hope for a better world. In Malfi, the Duchess’s eldest son by Antonio is brought in by Delio, one of the few righteous characters in the play, so that he may be established in his mother’s authority. In the other play, Brachiano’s son, Giovanni, succeeds his father. His first act is to banish Flamineo from his presence, his next to capture four of the assassins, including Lodovico, and send them to prison, threatening punishment for all who have participated in the murders in his court. The courts have been purged, at a heavy price to be sure, but purged nevertheless. Just as Webster saw a new order coming in France, the reader may see a new order dawning at Fortress Brachiano and at the castle of Malfi.


Webster, John