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The Duchess of Malfi is a work of genius that has placed John Webster firmly among the best playwrights in literature. It is a tragedy in the tradition of the Elizabethan revenge play but it considerably modifies and enriches that tradition. The central motif is revenge, but the revenge is not taken as a sacred duty but out of selfishness and vindictiveness. The motif for revenge is dishonorable and our sympathies tend to be towards the victim of the revenge rather than with the avengers. Webster was successful in making the revengers, the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand, look repugnant and detestable, while the traditional revenger was always capable to rouse the admiration and sympathy of the audience. Here we admire the innocence and fortitude of the Duchess, and in proportion hate the two brothers as monsters of inequity. This gives the uniqueness and originality to the play.
Like most of the other playwrights of his age, Webster too did not invent a story but found the same from a real sequel that was later historied by William Painter in his Palace of Pleasure (1567). The facts of the historical Duchess are as follows: in 1490 she married when she was twelve, and was widowed at the age of twenty. After Antonio Bolonga became her major-domo in 1504, she fell in love with him and secretly married him for which only her maid was a witness. This wedlock was revealed only after the birth of the first child and the arrival of the second caused rumors. When her brothers watched, Antonio took the children leaving her behind pregnant with a third. She was deserted by her household when she confessed about her marriage and after banishment, the Duchess, her children and her maid was taken to Malfi by her brothers and was never heard of again.
In characterization, The Duchess of Malfi is an immense advance over other contemporary plays. The Duchess, the central figure, is a stoical figure who bears misfortune with calm resignation and fortitude. Opposed to her and devout to destroy her are the three Machiavellian figures – Duke Ferdinand, the Cardinal and Bosola. But the characters cannot be divided so easily into good or bad. They are beyond the implications of such a division as they are very intricate and puzzlingly complex. The wicked characters have some good in them. That is why Ferdinand goes mad seeing the face of his dead sister; even Bosola is moved and decides to avenge her death. The Duchess is one of the finest creations in Elizabethan drama; no other female character outside Shakespeare surpasses her in vividness and subtlety. Her persecution transforms and her despair renders her personality a lofty and stoic touch.
The scene of the play is laid in Italy. The setting to the play is provided by contemporary Italian court life. It is the Italianate Hell. The courts are those of the small independent states into which Italy was divided at the time. They are dominated by dukes and cardinals who are surrounded by their dependents, mistresses and spies. This world when combined with ambition, revenge and lust, motivate deeds of sensational violence. These are usually elaborately planned by those who perpetrate them. Disguise may give the murderer access to his prey; poison may be administered so unobtrusively that none suspects a crime within; the murderer may commence operations by subjecting his victim to an ordeal designed to break the spirit; or he may even try to engineer the victim’s eternal damnation. There is absolutely no element of surprise in the characters being occasionally haunted, or believed to be haunted, by the ghosts of the perished ones, and that some characters collapse into utter madness. Webster, in this play, shows forth a world that is replete with luxuriousness, deceit, ruthlessness, passion, viciousness and subtleness.
Functional imagery adds to the gloomy atmosphere of the play. The most important image that dominates the play can be identified as prison or trap that indicates confinement. In hiring Bosola to spy on their sister, the Cardinal and Ferdinand are setting a trap; and as men trap wild creatures in order to kill them, so the Duchess, if trapped will be killed. The Duchess’ secret marriage is literally confined within the walls of her chamber, and in this sense as
“The marriage night
Is the entrance to some prison.”
The marriage symbolizes a prison in another sense too, for the Duchess’, movements and emotions are restricted as those of a prisoner. Physical corruption is suggested by diseases such as leprosy and consumption. There are frequent references to poison and some to magic and witchcraft. Animal imagery is frequent in the play, and is an expression of the degeneration and corruption of man. It suggests the element of bestiality in man.
The element of a true story will be enhanced by catchy dialogues. Webster’s dialogue is undoubtedly dramatic and appropriate. It is light and discontinuous, rapid or deliberate, as the situation demands. The light and the discontinuous line and the occasional, momentary regularity create a style wholly appropriate to a drama of interplay between passion and conscious thought, contrasts of appearance and truth, and inter-relationships of characters who often try to live only for themselves. Webster wished to show a fragmentary and disordered world and at the same time to suggest that there is a fixed order at the back of things. The dramatic dialogue both orders and disorders continuity and disruption.
The story of the Duchess of Malfi, the main plot, and the story of Julia, the sub-plot, is skillfully interlinked to form a single whole. First, the same characters figure in the two stories and, second, there are strong parallelisms and contrasts between the sexual behaviors of the two women mentioned. Besides the indomitable skill in plot construction, the dramatist has succeeded in contriving a number of scenes and situations whose effectiveness on the stage can never be questioned. Undoubtedly the play represents the age in which it was born which characterized the public’s disillusionment with the human condition, the loss of confidence in man’s aspirations and the haunting dread of death.
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