8 Apr 2010

The Duchess of Malfi as Revenge Tragedy


The Duchess of Malfi is a deadly, tragic play written by the English dramatist John Webster. The Duchess was Giovanna d'Aragona, whose father, Arrigo d'Aragona, Marquis of Gerace, was an illegitimate son of Ferdinand I of Naples. Her husbands were Alfonso Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi, and (as in the play) Antonio Bologna.

The play begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a dreadful tragedy as her two brothers harsh their revenge, destroying themselves in the course of action.

The play is sometimes scorned by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. Nevertheless, the complexity of some of its characters, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster's poetic language, give it a continuing interest, and it is still performed in the 21st century. The Duchess of Malfi can not be reduced to a dramatic subgenre, but its kinship to revenge tragedies written during the same politically turbulent years of the early seventeenth century is immediately striking.

Revenge tragedy:

According to, The book of literary terms (Lewis Turco: 103), revenge tragedy is an Elizabethan tragedy that contained elements similar to those of the chronicle play and usually concerned itself with the protagonist’s pursuit of vengeance for the loss of loved one.

Revenge tragedy, a kind of tragedy popular in England from the 1590s to the 1630s, following the success of Thomas Kyd’s sensational plays The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1589). Its action is typically centered upon a leading character's attempt to avenge the murder of a loved one, sometimes at the prompting of the victim's ghost; it involves complex intrigues and disguises, and usually some exploration of the morality of revenge. Drawing partly on precedents in Senecan tragedy, the English revenge tragedy is far more bloodthirsty in its explicit presentation of premeditated violence, and so the more gruesome examples such as Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus are sometimes called ‘tragedies of blood’. Notable examples of plays that are fully or partly within the revenge tradition are Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. A more famous play drawing on the revenge conventions is Shakespeare's Hamlet. For a fuller account, consult John Kerrigan, Revenge Tragedy (1996).

Characteristics of revenge tragedy:

* A secret murder, usually of a benign ruler by a bad person

* A ghostly visitation of the murder victim to a younger kinsman, generally a son

* A period of disguise, intrigue, or plotting, in which the murderer and the avenger scheme against each other, with a slowly rising body count

* A descent into either real or feigned madness by the avenger or one of the auxiliary characters

* An eruption of general violence at the end, which (in the Renaissance) is often accomplished by means of a feigned masque or festivity

* A catastrophe that utterly decimates the dramatis personae, including the avenger.

Clearly, many of these elements are present in The Duchess of Malfi, but it varies from the conventions in important ways. The revenge tragedy has a hero whose honor has been wronged (often it is a son avenging his father); in this play, the brothers seek revenge on the Duchess, who has done them no harm. The Duchess is surely the hero of the play named for her, and yet she does not seek or win vengeance for the harm done to her. The fact that she is killed in act 4 (and does not die in the act of winning revenge) deflects attention away from her as the center of the action and moves the play out of the category of revenge tragedy. The motive for the actions of the two brothers is unclear, but revenge — whatever they may think themselves — is not at the heart of it.

The Duchess of Malfi as revenge tragedy:

The Duchess of Malfi is obviously amusing. Deceptions can be found interspersed throughout the whole play and if scrutiny is conducted thoroughly, one will be able to spot various multitudinous facetious comments made by different characters such as Bosola, Cardinal and Ferdinand. This brings out the theme of appearance and reality, which makes the play laughable, yet morbid at the same time. This can be illustrated at how Ferdinand tries to lure Antonio to return to his castle by offering him forgiveness through the letter sent by Bosola to the Duchess and Antonio.

John Webster’s The Tragedy of the Duchess of Malfi was first staged around 1613-14. Nowadays usually identified as “a revenge tragedy”, its plot, set in Italy, centers on the transgress action of the widowed Duchess in secretly taking a second husband, her steward Antonio. Enraged by her marriage, her two powerful brothers, one a Duke, the other a Cardinal, conspire to have her strangled. The brothers hire a mercenary malcontent named Bosola to do their dirty work. Bosola eventually turns against them and the play ends on a stage littered with their three corpses.

The play has two distinctive features compared with other tragedies of its era. Firstly, the tragic protagonist is a woman. Secondly, the tragic protagonist dies in the fourth act.

Any examination of the critical history of the play quickly establishes that the play is one which has traditionally aroused a great deal of anxiety and hostility among scholars and cultural commentators. The Duchess of Malfi was evidently popular in Jacobean England but has subsequently become grudgingly acknowledged as a classic with many troubling features.

George Saintsbury was typical of generations of critics in objecting to Webster’s characterisation, remarking (in 1887) “we cannot sympathise with the duchess, despite her misfortunes…She is neither quite a virtuous woman (for in that case she would not have resorted to so much concealment) nor a frank professor of ‘All for Love.’ ” He added, “By common consent, even of the greatest admirers of the play, the fifth act is a kind of gratuitous appendix of horrors stuck on without art or reason.”

What this basically amounts to is a whine that Webster failed adequately to represent bourgeois notions of correct behaviour and that his stage practise did not match bookish, scholarly preconceptions of good theatre and good taste. The critic’s narrow subjective assessment of the play is buttressed by the citation of hegemonic values: “we” all agree on how a woman must behave in order to elicit our sympathy, and what “art” and “reason” amount to is agreed “by common consent”.

The reality is that Webster was an accomplished professional who enjoyed a successful career as a dramatist. Records exist of his collaborative work with other dramatists - Munday, Drayton, Middleton, Dekker, Heywood, Chettle - and in 1604 he supplied additional material for John Marston’s The Malcontent. The Tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi was performed by the King’s Servants, who were one of the leading theatrical troupes of the period, and, of course, the one that Shakespeare was involved with. The part of the evil, deranged Duke was played by Richard Burbage, who is often described as the leading actor of the age. The wicked, hypocritical Cardinal was played by Henry Condell, who later co-authored the dedication and address to the reader in the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected plays. (The actor who first played the Duchess, incidentally, was my distinguished ancestor, Richard Sharp.)

“Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin”, wrote T.S. Eliot in ‘Whispers of Immortality’. No, he wasn’t. Webster was producing a commercial product in a competitive market, and grisly representations of killing and corpses proved profitable. Rather than consult Freud to understand what Webster was up to, it makes more sense to look at the history of contemporary theatre. One of the most popular of all plays staged in London (towards the end of the 1580s) was Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. It was a rip-roaring success with London audiences. Kyd’s innovation was to put conflict, violence and corpses on to the stage, rather than have actors come onstage and make long speeches about fights and deaths which had happened out of view of the audience. He set his play in Spain, which as every red-blooded Englishman knew was a hot place full of filthy, depraved, passionate, treacherous, violent foreigners. He also threw in a ghost and a bloodcurdling figure named “Revenge”.

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