Comment on the moral code of Webster as seen in the play,The Duchess of Malfi.

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

"The Duchess of Malfi" is John Webstar's finer plays. here, Webstar not only shows a much firmer stagecraft than his earlier efforts,but has also revealed powers of gaiety and playfulness and an understanding of the heart,that hardly to be looked far from one who voluntarily elected the tragedy of blood as his medium.
at least two of the characters, the Duchess of Malfi and her husband Antonio are robust and healthy figures who even under the stress of torture,keep their humanity." (Dr.S.Sen)


“We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and banded

Which may please them.”

The Machiavellian qualities seen in the villain’s, along with the pragmatic of even existentialist attitude to life displayed by the good as well as bad characters may give a first impression that the world Webster presents in The Duchess of Malfi, is a chaotic world, but for a closer and deeper look at the play will show that the world is influenced by a moral order though this order cannot be universally enforced. Though the moral presence exists, this world remains mysterious, incomprehensible and the future of worldly creatures is unpredictable.

The growing immortality and sensuousness, which the court displayed, made the citizens sympathise with the Puritans. People began to criticize the court and religion more vocally. This critical temper had its effect in literature of the time too. Times were running out and pessimism and satire arose out of the dissatisfaction among the people. The melancholy mood found in the literature of the late 16th and early 17th century was not affection, but a natural expression of the gloom and frustration that people of the time felt. The preoccupation of Webster with decay, disease sickness and death can be explained in the light of the social history.

Webster excels in the sudden flash, in the intuitive but often unsustained perception. At times he startles us by what may be called the ‘Shakespearean’ use of the common word. In the dark night of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ at the high point of tension when the Duchess is about to die her last words are:

“Go tell my brother, when I am laid out

They then may feed in quiet”-

The bareness of ‘Feed’ increases the force of the line, for it suggests animal’s engrossment. It has too, that kind of authority peculiar to the common word unexpectedly introduced. Its impact is that of ‘bread’ in Hamlet’s skill.

[“He took my father grossly, full of bread,

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May:”]

 They too often remain isolated and detached from the main stream of thought. In his manner of writing such sentences come too often though they may not have a direct relation with the texture of the play. Such lines as:

“O, this gloomy world:

In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness,

Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!

Let worthy minds never stagger and distrust

To suffer death or shame for what is just;

Mine is another voyage”,

stand out as detached expression of Webster’s sententious wisdom. Many of Webster’s lines in The Duchess of Malfi have become almost proverbial and can be quoted like proverbs without consideration of the text in which they occur.

Tragedy according to Aristotle should ‘arouse pity and fear leading to the catharsis of such emotions’. Webster, an Elizabethan and a Jacobean, possibly could not have written plays according to Aristotle’s cannons. However, there is plenty in the play that arouses pity. And surely there is fear too in abundance arising out of all pervading horror in the play. As it is generally understood, a tragedy deals with sufferings and misfortunes of the protagonists of the play.

“That I might toss her palace ‘bout her ears

Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,

And lay her general territory as waste

As the hath done her honours.”

The Duchess of Malfi, like any good tragedy teaches us to know the world and its ways better. There are plenty in the play that are sensational and horrifying making it melodramatic to some extent, and they appeal to the morbid instincts of the playgoer. However, the principal victim of this play is not merely the sufferer, the Duchess, but the unconquerable and unsubdued human spirit of hers. In this the Duchess comes close to Shakespearian heroes and heroines. She keeps up her dignified spirit of defiance towards the evildoers, but is remarkably humble before heaven. She displays her sensuality not only in her marriage but also in devouring the apricots with evident greed. She becomes blind in her passion for Antonio and is credulous in taking Bosola’s words at face value. Her shirking of her responsibility, as a ruler of Malfi is a glaring flaw. Still the resigned dignity with which she faces the spectacle showing her dear ones as dead and her own impending strangling make us respect her unbreakable spirit. That enduring spirit ennobles us and uplifts us. Our faith in the essential nobility of human beings is reinforced, despite the damaging effect on that faith caused by the evil and villainy of others.

In the case of Bosola, it is an intellectual failure. He fails to understand his personal identity and his responsibility for his actions. The play suggestively tells that sin is inherent in man and that the corruption of the body will find its way into corrupt action. The drift towards an error is natural and it eventually arrives at the natural consequence: retribution. This appears to be the meaning of the play.

“Right the fashion of the world:

From decay’d fortunes every flatterer shrinks:

Men cease to build where the foundation sinks:”

The Duchess, Antonio and Bosola share the focus of tragic issues in the play. The tragic flaw (hamartia) in the Duchess is the ‘madness’ which Cariola identifies at the end of the first act. That of Antonio, mainly is ambition-

“Ambition,madam,is a great man’s madness,

That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms,

But in fair lightsome lodgings, and is girt

With the wild noise of prattling visitants

Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.”

Along with the realism may be mentioned the meditative energy and the capacity to realize the irony, the mysterious nature and the pathos of life. The meditative energy Webster displays is an essential part of his dramatic genius. Sometime he introduces fables or parables even when by doing so inconsistencies in character portrayal creep in. Duke Ferdinand’s parable or Reputation, Love and Death and the Duchess’s fable of the salmon and the dog-fish belong to this area.

“Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,

And though continually we bear about us

A rotten and dead body, we delight

To hide it in tissue:”

Webster presents a moral world that is some mysterious ways that ultimately bring punishments for the crimes one commit. The devilish Arragonian brothers and their equally devilish instrument, Bosola, feel the pangs of conscience and meet ignoble death. Remorse touches Ferdinand the most, and makes him lycanthropic. His presenting a dead man’s hand to the Duchess is another indication. The sight of the dead Duchess indeed acts as a trigger in turning him fully mad. Finally he is killed by Bosola. Bosola is struck with remorse, when he finds that his much expected ‘preferment’ does not come to him. He declares that if he was to live once again he would not commit his crimes,

“For all the wealth of Europe’

Further looking at the dead Duchess he says,

“Here is a sight

As direful to my soul as is the sword

Unto a wretch hath slain his father.”

Later he mortally stabs the Cardinal and the Duke and himself, is killed by the Lycanthropic Duke. Even the Cardinal, who is a cold and calculating Machiavellian, feels the pricking of conscience. He goes to the religious books for consolation but finding it futile, lay it aside.  He expresses his mental agony clearly when he soliloquizes:

“How tedious is a quality conscience:

When I look into the fish –ponds in my garden,

Methinks I see a thing arm’d with a rake,

That seems to strike at me.”

True, the Duchess and Antonio do have their flaws but the sufferings they face appear to be out of proportion to their sins. Really their mistakes are minor and the punishment too great. Webster illustrates that the moral order he visualizes does not mete out reward and punishment equitably. The intense suffering that is heaped upon Duchess and to a lesser extent on Antonio , is determined  by the forces of evil that exist in her devilish brothers and their villainous tool Bosola. The three appear to be mentally diseased people, sadists who enjoy inflicting of pain on others. Bosola, despite his occasional moral meditations and occasional show of sympathy for the plight of the Duchess, inflicts subtle mental torture on the Duchess.

“Who would be afraid on’t.

Knowing to meet such excellent company

In the other world?”

The dramatist’s fondness for bloodshed, violence and horror can be seen from his preoccupation with the morbid and the macabre. The world he presents is one of corruption, immortality, cruelty, dishonesty, greed and Machiavellianism.

“This is flesh and blood, sir;

‘T is not the figure cut in alabaster.”

Altogether ten murders take place, on the stage, in The Duchess of Malfi. Tortures of the most repulsive and shocking kind are released on the Duchess. The presentation and the dead man’s hand, the spectacle of the waxen figures of Antonio and children, shown as dead, theletting loose of the lunatics on to coffin, the strangling of the Duchess, Cariola and the children, the lycanthropia of the Duke, the killing of Antonio and the servant and the final Carnage, all show the preoccupation of the author with the murky and the morbid.

Further, he seems to show disappointment when he finds the Duchess unbroken in spirit, despite her effort to break it. In Webster, like in Shakespeare, the good people with minor flaws seem to suffer deeply.

Revenge is not a sacred duty in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. Thus the play defers from the traditional ones. Revenge in its most grotesque form is presented here. Both the brothers, who seek revenge, are beastly villainous beings. In their rage they lose their sense of judgment and behave as depraved human beings, which they really are. Their resentment at the Duchess’s marriage below rank is natural, but it makes them commit inexplicably monstrous atrocities. Their revenge is not even a wild justice but very unnatural and bestial cruelty born out of perversion. In presenting this changed kind of revenge Webster has moved away from the beaten path.

“Would I could be one,

That I might toss her palace ‘bout her ears,

Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads

And lay her general territory as waste

As she hath done her honours.”

Webster does not believe that human suffering is caused by a supernatural agency- God or Fate. The events in the play show that human suffering is caused partly by the flaw in the sufferers and partly by the devilish qualities that exist in other villainous people.  The Duchess, who suffers most in the play, is not a blemishes person. She has her flaw, her hamartia which is her sensuousness that makes her marry beneath her. She does not care for the damage of reputation her marriage could bring to her illustrations brothers, a Cardinal and a Duke.

“He and his brothers are like plum-trees that grow crooked over

Standing-pools: they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flattering ponders, I would hang on their ears like a horseleech, till I were full, and

then drop off.”

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the John Webstar’s finer plays. Several images are in the play which brings in tempests, thunder and earthquakes. Perhaps the best that belongs to this group is found in the Duke’s answer to the Cardinal’s question why the former behaves like a tempest. Very pungently he satirises the courtiers and courtly life of the time. The corruption of the court and the rewards the princes extended for devilish services is one of the major themes of the play. In the very first scene of the play we find Bosola making fun of the courtiers, and the evil patrons. Webster’s skill in stagecraft is displayed in several episodes of the play. The whole of Act IV is a theatrical tour de force. The Duchess wooing of Antonio leading to the secret marriage in Act I also shows equally great dramatic skill. The sudden appearance of Cariola from behind the arras gives a shock to Antonio. The meeting of Antonio and Bosola in the courtyard of Malfi palace, with its ‘sense of the theatre’ resembles the courtyard scene in Macbeth (Act II, Sc.I). Also dramatic is the Duke’s stormy appearance at the residence of the Cardinal with a letter in hand, fuming with rage. The Duke’s secret entry into the Duchess’s bed chamber gives a dramatically arresting episode.  The Duchess s surprised at the continued silence of her husband, hears footsteps behind and turns expecting him coming back, but sees her brother the Duke advancing to her with his hand on his poniard. Another, theatrically very effective scene is where the Duke suffering from lycanthropic appears on the stage muttering ‘strangling is a very quiet death.’ The Duke, stealing across the stage in the dark, whispering to himself, with the devastating appearance of mad man is a figure one may not forget.

Despite the existence of definite flaws in the nature of the Duchess and Antonio the sufferings and misfortunes they faced would not have arisen but for the evil present in the Cardinal, the Duke and Bosola. Webster appears to believe in the predominant existence of evil in this world. The various references to the devil and Machiavellianism stand testimony to it. Such references help to emphasize the evil nature of the Cardinal, the Duke and their tool-villain, Bosola. They are responsible for most of the sufferings and the ten deaths shown in the play. The tyrannous brothers become indignant at the news of their sister giving birth to a child, which they think to be illegitimate. The Duke is affected more and loses all self-control: He shouts in anger that he would become a storm:

“That I might toss her palace ‘bout her ears

Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,

And lay her general territory as waste

As the hath done her honours.”

In Elizabethan drama scenes of madness used to be shown on the stage, but they were episodic and did not contribute to the play at a psychological level. Webster too presents the chorus of madmen according to the revenge tradition. It creates, mostly a grotesque atmosphere with the antics and lunatic dance of the mad men. However there is some psychological interest too present in it. The Duke devises the scheme to torture the Duchess with the intention of turning her mad, but ironically he, not the Duchess, becomes mad. The lycanthropic madness of the Duke has still greater psychological significance. his madness is shown not only as an instrument to create horror, but to show that his crime has knocked him out of his sanity.

Human beings inflict untold sufferings on his fellow beings prompted by ambition, envy, hatred, greed and lust for power. In Webster’s world it is the natural lot of man that he endures decay, disease and death. The Duchess and Antonio, the good characters of the play meet their death; one after a long suffering, the other by simple accident. Even the blameless Cariola, and the innocent children meet death by strangulation. Virtue, innocence and other good qualities appear to offer no assured safety against suffering and premature death.

“If all my royal kindred

Lay in my way unto this marriage,

I’d make them my low footsteps.”

Webster’s world is one where suffering embraces all, the good and the wicked. Suffering and death are inevitable. They result sometimes from deliberate contrivance as in the case of the Duchess, Cariola etc; sometimes from compulsive action as in the case of Antonio; and they can take place quite arbitrarily as in the case of the servant whom Bosola kills. Though he is a villainous person perpetrating some of the most heinous crimes, but he is also portrayed as a meditating malcontent who occasionally appears to act as a mouth-piece of the author’s view of life. Seeking happiness in the world, Webster seems to say is a futile effort for pleasure and is only momentary, but suffering is inevitable and profound. The dying Antonio makes it clear,

“Pleasure of life, what is ‘t?only the good hours

Of an ague: merely a preparative to rest,

To endure vexation.”

Webster could have been influenced by a few contemporary incidents to make the play what it is. One of them is the story of the fate of Torquato Tasso at the hands of Alfonso d’Este, an Italian Duke, because of his love for the Duke’s sister. Another was the imprisonment of Lady Arabella Stuart, as a punishment for het marrying Lord William Seymour against the wishes of King James I, her cousin. Lady Arabella became mentally deranged while in person.

Though Webster followed Painter’s line, he made many noticeable additions. This can be found not only in the plot construction but also in characterization. In the play we find the Cardinal and the Duke warning the Duchess against a remarriage. There is nothing of the sort present in Painter. So also are the part played by Bosola, the secret entry of the Duke into the bed chamber of the Duchess and the sub plot of Julia’s adulterous relationship with the Cardinal. Further most of the incidents of Act IV especially the tormenting of the Duchess, by presenting the spectacle of the waxen images, the Duke’s presenting a dead man’s hand to the Duchess, the antics of the lunatics, Bosola’s entry as a tomb maker and a bellman etc., are all Webster’s inventions. Antonio’s visit to the Cardinal, the Echo-scène, the lycanthropia of the Duke, Bosola’s decision to turn against his master and the final death of all the three, too are Webster’s additions.

“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.”

The Duchess of Malfi has an admirable exposition in the first act. All the major characters are introduced sufficiently well. Antonio, knowledgeable in the fashion  and manners of French Court, the Duke and the Cardinal who are  like plum trees that grow crooked and right noble Duchess’ whose ‘discourse it is so full of rapture’ are painted with a few thick strokes . Later the Duchess shows her independence, vivacity and passionate nature by declaring her defiant attitude to the advice of the brothers and wooing Antonio abruptly and marrying him secretly. This may apply not only to the virtuous Duchess, but also to the wicked Bosola, who with determination kills the two characters. Bosola’s statement,

“Let worth minds ne’er stagger in distrust

To differ death or shame- for what is just:”

makes this point amply clear. Whether virtuous or wicked, all should boldly decide not to compromise or surrender, but persist in being what they have it in themselves.

Bosola by declaring:

“I’ll be mine own example-“

And the Duchess by asserting,

“I am Duchess of Malfi still”

He realizes that he has to ‘die like a leveret’. He does so and we feel as if he has faced the ultimate punishment for his crimes. Nemesis reaches all the three villains giving the impression that there is some moral -order that in some unknown way mete out punishments to the evil doers.

 The Duchess ridicules Cariola for her respect for religion and calls her ‘a superstitious fool’. However she displays her belief in God by kneeling before her death.  We have to conclude that, Webster does not openly negate the existence of God in the play. However, the turn of events in the play makes one think that Webster’s moral world is an extentialist one.

“Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman

Reign most in her, I know not; but it shows

A fearful madness: I owe her much of pity.”

Bosola’s telling that “I will be mine own example” is a typical extentialist statement. The Duchess taking firm personal decision about her marriage, Duchess’s disregarding the opinion of her brothers and her accepting the consequences of that action with a resigned courage too is an existentialist attitude; so also is the detachment with Antonio faces his fate. One of the basic requirements of that philosophy, negation of God, however is not emphasized in the play.  Antonio is an extentialist as far as his attitude to religion, but nothing is said to show that he does not believe in God.

The fables, the Duchess and the Duke relate, too are significant for their moral worth. Bosola, though a dark and villainous tool in the hands of the equally dark brothers, during his meditative bouts brings out worthy moral; truths. About gold coins he says,

“These cur’d gifts would make

You a corrupter, me an impudent traitor:”

He has other philosophic comments too.

“Since place and riches oft are bribes opf shame:

Sometimes the devil doth preach.”

Musing over the ruins of the Abbey near the Cardinal’s palace he says:

“But all things have their end:

Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,

Must have like death that we have”

To show the transcience of happiness he says,

“Pleasure of life, what is ‘t? only the good hours

Of an ague:”

The moral message of the play comes out frequently through pithy statements. It is interesting that almost all characters utter some universal truth, some statement significant to human life, displaying the moral undertone of the play. Antonio moralizes from the beginning till his last moments. Even minor characters are often found to express moral ideas. Cariola comments on the Duchess’ marriage thus:

“Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman

Reign most in her, I know not; but it shows

A fearful madness:”

The first pilgrim has this to say about the fall of the great.

“Fortune makes this conclusion general.

All things do help the unhappy man to fall.”

Julia, the trumpet too utters a pithy statement

“ ‘T is weakness,

Too much to think what should have been done.”

Delio has something moral to state very often

“Though in our miseries Fortune have a part,

Yet in our noble sufferings she hasth none:”

He winds up the play with a statement pregnant with philosophic truth:

“Integrity of life is fame’s best friend,

Which nobly, beyond death shall crown he end.”

All these moral statements may appear out of place in a tragedy to a modern reader, but an Elizabethan play goer would have taken it as a sign of the Author’s moral consciousness.

“I am Duchess of Malfi still”, brings out Webster’s view of life.  There is an amount of self-centered thinking in her. Further she is a credulous person and susceptible to flattery. We see her gloating over the praise Bosola showers on Antonio and reveals her secret of identity of her husband to Bosola. Then, pleased with his flattering comments on her marriage she takes him as a confidant decides to accept his advice and to go to Loretto on a feigned pilgrimage. Both the actions lead to disastrous consequences. Antonio too, faces his fate partly because of his flaws. Though he despises ambition as ‘a great man’s madness’, it is his ambition that makes him succumb to the desires of the Duchess and marry her. His passivity too led to his downfall. He does not show any inclination it out with the Arragonian brothers though he knows that justice is on his part.

Many of the opinions expressed by the various characters of the play betray Webster’s extentialist leanings though, the word ‘extentialism’ as a philosophy evolved only in the nineteenth century after Kierkgoard. Extentialism rejects metaphysics and concentrates on the individual’s existence in the world. It is a pragmaticand psychologically realistic philosophy that negates the existence of a God. There is some inherent absurdity in man’s existence. For ‘all human activities are equivalent, all are destined by principles to defeat”, but a man is responsible for his effect on others, though only his existence is real to him, and he is ultimately his own judge. Among all these apparently chaotic happenings in this world one wonders what a man should aim at. Are there some values he should cherish? Webster answers, surely, through his unmistakable esteem for the virtuous characters in the play. He apparently advocates two qualities to be cultivated among humans: they should persist in being what they are and they should face calamities with fortitude. The closing speech of Delio may be Webster’s message to humans.

“The weakest arm is strong enough that strikes

With the sword of justice”

Webster presents in his plays, a view of the world where the destructive forces unleash their power on the individual. The inner reality one sees in Shakespearean characters is absent in Webster. He portrays only their outer nature, and even that is often absorbed into the general forces. This results in their losing even the exterior marks of individuality. After sketching their traits through narration, Webster shows them behaving in conformity with that narration. They become types, their characteristics being shared by many others in this world. The soliloquy of Webster does not give any deep insight into the character, which Shakespeare very well provides. Webster’s soliloquies only throw light into a plot and action. Further Webster removes the inner dimension of man from his tragic picture he presents. As a result development of character, as is seen in Shakespeare, is not possible in Webster.

“I am puzzled in a question about hell;

He says, in hell there’s one material fire.”…






Submitted: September 20, 2013

© Copyright 2021 Rituparna Ray Chaudhuri. All rights reserved.

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