The play tells the story of the Duchess, a young widow, who marries her steward Antonio for love. The couple know that because they are socially unequal their relationship will not be accepted; therefore they try to keep it a secret. However, the Duchess’s two evil brothers find out and become hell-bent on breaking up the union, so much so that they destroy themselves in the process. They employ Bosola, a disillusioned, melancholic scholar/criminal to execute their diabolical schemes. Bosola is a pivotal character, and serves as a quasi-narrator, providing a warped moral commentary on events as they unfold.
The Duchess of Malfi has become one of the most highly regarded and frequently staged plays of the English Renaissance. This is in part due to the strength of Webster’s poetic writing, and his unflinching depiction of violent tragedy.
This title page declares that The Duchess of Malfi was performed first at Blackfriars (to a private audience) and second at the Globe (by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company, to a public audience). The fact that the play went through two separate productions before it was released for printing suggests that it was a popular and therefore profitable piece.
Also included on the title page is the statement that it is the ‘perfect and exact coppy’, and that in its printed form the play ‘would not beare in the Presentment’. This is a light-hearted advertising tactic, implying that because there is so much never-before-seen material included in this edition it would be too long to stage.
Modern scholars believe that this edition contains lines and scenes that were cut from the original performances. This text is the longest printed play that has survived from the Jacobean period, spanning 104 pages.
Not only did Webster write The Duchess of Malfi for the stage, he also oversaw, edited and proofread the text throughout the printing process. Webster’s involvement in the publishing of his plays was unusual. Printers did not require a writer’s permission to publish their work (copyright didn’t exist), and even if a writer was aware of a printer’s intentions it was common practice to simply buy the text for a small one-off sum, thereby denying the author any future rights to the book and the profits made from it. There was also an element of social stigma attached to printing, and other writers from the period, such as John Donne, were wary of appearing in print.
Due to Webster’s role in the publishing of this quarto edition it is considered as the authoritative text for modern publications and productions of The Duchess of Malfi.
Webster’s career was not solely focussed on drama; he was also well-known for his work editing and compiling books which included passages, poems and stories from other prominent writers of the era. He is recognised as the editor of an expanded edition of Sir Thomas Overbury’s ‘The Wife’ – a popular poem at the time because of Overbury’s murder and the notorious court case surrounding it.