Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

January 14, 2020

The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster
(Bloomsbury Methuen, 2014) [c.1613]
192 p.

This is auspicious. Almost my first steps off the beaten trail in seventeenth century drama have turned up a play that seems an outright masterpiece.

**

The Duchess is a young widow. She falls in love with a man below her social class, and marries him in secret. Meanwhile her brothers, anxious to avoid just such a demeaning connection, forbid her to remarry. When the marriage is eventually discovered, violence erupts, and, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the play ends with the stage littered with bodies.

The play has wonderful characters. The Duchess herself is a strong and noble character, winsome and beautiful, and the arc she follows from admirably strong woman to tragic heroine over the course of the play is wonderfully handled. Her elder brother, a Cardinal, is a fine model of the worldly and corrupt Renaissance churchman (and not only of the Renaissance!). Her younger brother, Ferdinand, is a piece of work: prone to fits of violent emotion, there is something unsettlingly carnal and possessive about his guarding the Duchess against remarriage. The Duchess’ secret husband, Antonio, is open-mannered and honest, a man whose entry into the Duchess’ orbit puts one in mind of a lamb going to slaughter.

But perhaps the play’s greatest character is Bosola, a servant of the Cardinal who begins by spying on the Duchess and ends drenched in blood. His deeds are evil, but he has doubts and misgivings about them that flower into tragic regret. He is one of those rare birds: a sympathetic villain. Here, for example, is his speech at the death of the Duchess:

BOSOLA.  O, she’s gone again! there the cords of life broke.
O sacred innocence, that sweetly sleeps
On turtles’ feathers, whilst a guilty conscience
Is a black register wherein is writ
All our good deeds and bad, a perspective
That shows us hell!  That we cannot be suffer’d
To do good when we have a mind to it!
This is manly sorrow;
These tears, I am very certain, never grew
In my mother’s milk.  My estate is sunk
Below the degree of fear:  where were
These penitent fountains while she was living?
O, they were frozen up!  Here is a sight
As direful to my soul as is the sword
Unto a wretch hath slain his father.
(IV, 2)

It is a great moment: the villain weeps at the state of his own soul. And it is a great speech too, seeming to burst from him in a moment of passion and moral clarity.

I remarked when I read a few of Ben Jonson’s plays that the poetry seemed world’s away from Shakespearean verse. Not so in this play; on the contrary, I was again and again reminded of the Bard. Here, for example, is an exchange between the Duchess and her brothers in the first Act, in which the Duchess says she’ll not remarry, and the brothers, for their own reasons, doubt her:

DUCHESS.                          Will you hear me?  I’ll never marry.
CARDINAL.           So most widows say;  But commonly that motion lasts no longer
Than the turning of an hour-glass:  the funeral sermon
And it end both together.
FERDINAND.                 Now hear me:
You live in a rank pasture, here, i’ the court;
There is a kind of honey-dew that’s deadly;
‘T will poison your fame; look to ‘t.  Be not cunning;
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.
DUCHESS.  This is terrible good counsel.
FERDINAND.  Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread,
Subtler than Vulcan’s engine: yet, believe ‘t,
Your darkest actions, nay, your privat’st thoughts,
Will come to light.
CARDINAL.            You may flatter yourself,
And take your own choice; privately be married
Under the eaves of night——
FERDINAND.                  Think ‘t the best voyage
That e’er you made; like the irregular crab,
Which, though ‘t goes backward, thinks that it goes right
Because it goes its own way:  but observe,
Such weddings may more properly be said
To be executed than celebrated.
(I, 3)

Even just from this short segment, we have three well-delineated characters with definite points of view. We have neat concision (“The funeral sermon / And it end both together.”), a memorable simile (the crab), an aphorism (“For they whose faces…”), and some delightful wordplay (the last two lines). It is very good poetry and very good drama, and to me, at least, it feels quite close to the verse Shakespeare wrote.

One difference, though, between the two is that Webster’s characters (in this play) generally have short speeches; as a rule, no one character holds the stage for very long. The few exceptions to this tendency are interesting though. In this one, for example, the Duchess tells a moralistic fable to illustrate the fickleness of worldly judgments of rank and worth:

DUCHESS.  I prithee, who is greatest?  Can you tell?
Sad tales befit my woe:  I’ll tell you one.
A salmon, as she swam unto the sea.
Met with a dog-fish, who encounters her
With this rough language; ‘Why art thou so bold
To mix thyself with our high state of floods,
Being no eminent courtier, but one
That for the calmest and fresh time o’ th’ year
Dost live in shallow rivers, rank’st thyself
With silly smelts and shrimps?  And darest thou
Pass by our dog-ship without reverence?’
‘O,’ quoth the salmon, ‘sister, be at peace:
Thank Jupiter we both have pass’d the net!
Our value never can be truly known,
Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown:
I’ th’ market then my price may be the higher,
Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.’
So to great men the moral may be stretched;
Men oft are valu’d high, when they’re most wretched.—
But come, whither you please.  I am arm’d ‘gainst misery;
Bent to all sways of the oppressor’s will:
There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.
(III, 5)

**

It would be an interesting exercise (which I’m sure has been done) to go through the play cataloguing references to death. My guess is that it is saturated. Death lurks from behind curtains and casts its shadow from the footlights before eventually assaulting and conquering the stage. Here’s one example, spoken by the play’s truest and gentlest man as he stands in the ruins of a church:

ANTONIO.       I do love these ancient ruins.
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ‘t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day.  But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.
(V, 3)

But though death snatches away most of the principal characters by the end of the final Act, the very last speech, by Bosola, rescues the play from mere despair and destruction by pointing up a larger moral:

These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.  I have ever thought
Nature doth nothing so great for great men
As when she’s pleas’d to make them lords of truth:
Integrity of life is fame’s best friend,
Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.
(V, 5)

Alas, but few of these characters can claim that crown!

*

The play premiered at Blackfriars in London, and played also at the Globe Theatre. Apparently it was one of the first English plays to be performed indoors, with lighting effects. (One scene takes place in complete darkness.) So, at least, was the claim made by the producers of a filmed stage performance that I had the benefit of seeing, and which I highly recommend.

It might be that The Duchess of Malfi is not quite up to Shakespearean tragic standards, but I’d need to spend more time with it before I’d be confident about that. In the meantime, it has been an altogether marvellous discovery for me.

4 Responses to “Webster: The Duchess of Malfi”

  1. Rob G Says:

    Funny, but I first heard of Webster back in the early 80’s when he was mentioned in the Echo & The Bunnymen song “My White Devil.” I remember looking him up back then, but I never did read him. My understanding at the time was that he was considered second only to Shakespeare as a tragedian.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Echo and the Bunnymen, eh? He wrote another play called “The White Devil”; I’ve not read it.

    If you’ve a taste for tragedy, I would recommend “The Duchess” to you. The DVD performance is excellent; I was able to get it from the library.

  3. Rob G Says:

    “Echo and the Bunnymen, eh?”

    Yep.The song “My White Devil” opens with lyrics that seemed silly to me even as a college kid in 1983:

    “John Webster was one of the best who was.
    He was the author of two major tragedies:
    The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.
    The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.”

    However silly the lyrics, the reference did send me to the encyclopedia to look Webster up!


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