The Duchess of Malfi

Well, this is going to be the start of an experiment which I think is not going to work for all kinds of reason.

Nonetheless, I’m starting a minor series on Jacobean drama between new reviews.

Raw Feed (1989): The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster, 1623.Duchess of Malfi

Reading this play the second time around, I was struck by the plausibility of attributing Duke Ferdinand’s berserk, irrational anger at his sister the Duchess’ secret marriage to incestuous longings. This interpretation is partly weakened though by Webster’s failure to specifically say this is Ferdinand’s motive. Incest wasn’t a forbidden topic for Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and subtlety isn’t exactly Webster’s forte. If he meant it, why didn’t he come out and say it?

Part of Ferdinand’s mixed motives may simply be bad writing.

Bosola is a realistic character and justly the origin of the play’s fame. But he’s not really a “complex” character. He seems to simply be a man, out of ambition, who does what he knows he shouldn’t though he despises his co-conspirators and admires Antonio and the Duchess, his victims. He is the manifestation of an all too human trait. 

He does get some neat poetry rife with images of death, hypocrisy, and decay.

He is delightfully surly and malcontent.

Unfortunately, the play’s plot is even more contrived than the usual Jacobean and Elizabethan drama. You just know when the Cardinal gives those orders to not be disturbed he’s going to get disturbed in a fatal way.

The character of Julia is, as the introduction says, “imperfectly integrated” into the drama. She seems to exist to get the Cardinal to reveal his complicity in the Duchess’ murder. She also exists to serve as one of very many (even for a play of the time) barbs against women.

We also have a vigorous anti-noble, anti-hypocrisy streak here which was interesting. Most dramas of the period have the standard anti-hypocrisy line, but few rail against the concept of a hereditary nobility and none with such vigor. [Rather extravagant claims since I haven’t read them all.]

Webster’s waxed figures are a unconvincing contrivance. Still, a villain as an avenger is interesting.

5 thoughts on “The Duchess of Malfi

  1. Emily April 21, 2018 / 5:34 am

    Great post! I love this play.

    • marzaat April 21, 2018 / 11:43 am

      I like that one too, but my favorite Jacobean play is The Revenger’s Tragedy.

      • Emily April 21, 2018 / 11:59 am

        I haven’t read that one – who’s it by?

      • marzaat April 21, 2018 / 2:28 pm

        Thomas Middleton seems to be accepted as the author these days. Older editions will list Cyril Tourner. They even made a movie of it a few years ago.

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