An introduction to The Duchess of Malfi

Michael Billington explores the source material for The Duchess of Malfi and the play's reception over the last 200 years, and argues that Webster uses the tragedy to offer a vision of human existence as chaotic and unstable.

John Webster is a dramatist who excites controversy. His reputation rests on two famous Jacobean tragedies: The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614). Yet for the last two centuries people have been arguing about Webster's worth. William Hazlitt in 1820 described Webster's tragedies as ‘the nearest to Shakespeare of any thing we have upon record’. On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw, a pungent critic as well as a great dramatist, dismissed Webster as the ‘Tussaud laureate’, implying that his characters were no more than chamber of horrors waxworks. The poet Rupert Brooke lovingly described Webster's universe as one in which ‘human beings are writhing grubs in an immense night’. For the critic Ian Jack, writing in 1979, Webster was a decadent in whom ‘there is no deeper purpose than to make our flesh creep’. So where does the truth lie?

First Edition of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, 1623

First Edition of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, 1623

The play – a blood-soaked tragedy – was initially performed before December of 1614, and was published nine years later in 1623.

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Looking at The Duchess of Malfi, what strikes me is how much attitudes to the play have changed in the past 70 years. There are still arguments about its ultimate status. When it was chosen to open the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe in 2014, one paper called it a ‘grisly tragedy’, another a ‘gory melodrama’. But in modern times the play has acquired new resonances. It was first performed by the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre in 1614 but, although revived regularly, it survived in the following centuries only in adaptations. It finally came into its own in 1945 in a famous revival starring Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket: since it opened at a time when the first reports of the survivors of Nazi concentration camps were being published in the papers, critics discovered a new seriousness in Webster's blood-soaked tragedy. By the time the play was revived at the National Theatre in 2003, it seemed closer to The Godfather trilogy or Tarantino's movies, leading Michael Caines in The Times Literary Supplement to dub it ‘gangster Gothic’. Yet, seeing it again in 2014, I was struck by its portrait of a world in chaos, where life, in the words of one character, is ‘a general mist of error’ (4.2.179): something easy to relate to in our own uncertain times.

Photograph of the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

Photograph of the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a candlelit indoor theatre with a thrust stage which is designed to replicate the indoor playhouses of the 17th century.

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One sign of a great play, which I believe The Duchess of Malfi is, lies in the ability to mean different things at different periods. Yet plays also spring out of a particular culture. Little is known about the life of John Webster other than that he was born around 1580 into a prosperous middle-class family, that he studied law in the Middle Temple and that he collaborated on a number of plays with Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton and John Marston. But what is undoubtedly true of Jacobean dramatists is that Italy, as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the centre of Catholic authority, provoked in them a horrified fascination. Italy also became a potent theatrical metaphor. It allowed dramatists to obliquely criticise the favouritism and vice of the court of James I, and to comment on religious hypocrisy under the guise of attacking scarlet-cloaked cardinals.

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, c. 1614-1615

Painting of King James I in full regalia riding on horseback with three noblemen, from the friendship album of Michael van Meer

A painting of King James I riding to parliament with three noblemen.

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The Book of the Courtier, 1588

The Book of the Courtier, 1588

This work provides a fascinating insight into Renaissance court life.

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Webster could also claim to be basing his play on actual events. There was a real-life Duchess of Amalfi who was widowed at the age of 19 in 1498. She then married her household's major-domo, secretly had a child by him, fled from her brothers when they discovered the truth and met an unknown end. Webster took the story from a book called Palace of Pleasure (1567) by William Painter and embroidered it with great skill. Webster's Duchess does indeed marry her steward, Antonio. She has, however, not one but three children by him in the course of the play's first two acts. Her secret is then revealed to her two brothers who are violently opposed to any remarriage: the Cardinal for reasons of political power and Ferdinand because of his incestuous passion for his sister. The informant on the Duchess is Bosola, one of those intellectual malcontents who stalk the dark world of Jacobean drama. It is Bosola, the hired assassin, who is eventually required to supervise the murder, by strangulation, of the Duchess and two of her children. But although Bosola feels the first pangs of remorse at the end of Act 4 and undergoes a change of heart in the final act, it is too late to avert catastrophe. The play ends with a pile-up of corpses including Bosola himself, Antonio, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, who has lapsed into madness believing himself to be a wolf.

The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, a Werewolf 1590

The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, a Werewolf 1590

This sensationalist story of the life, trial and death of Peeter Stubbe became the foremost English language source for early modern ideas about werewolf behaviour.

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Is this mere sensationalism or is there a serious dramatic purpose? It is possible for a play to combine both. But the first thing to say about The Duchess of Malfi is that it is eminently stageable and contains great roles for actors. The Duchess herself is a superbly complex creation. As the academic Alexander Leggatt has written: ‘She is by turns natural, unorthodox, courageous and in need of ordinary reassurance. Her appeal lies not in any one controlling virtue like courage or patience but in the variety and vitality of her nature as a whole’. She is overtly sexual in her wooing of Antonio whom she mischievously calls ‘an upright treasure’ (1.1.363). She is fierce and downright in her opposition to her brothers: when one of them suggests she might marry the Count Malatesti, she replies ‘he's a mere stick of sugar-candy' (3.1.43). She also greets death with defiance and a moving concern for her children: ‘I pray thee, look thou giv'st my little boy some syrup for his cold’, (4.2.195–96) she tells her maid just before she is murdered. It is no surprise that the role has attracted a long list of fine actresses: Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter, Janet McTeer, Juliet Stevenson and, most recently, Gemma Arterton.

But the play abounds in great roles. Bosola is not just a hired killer; he is a wry philosopher (‘What's this flesh? A little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste’ (4.2.120–21)), and a man whose admiration for the Duchess grows the more he is required to test her courage. Ferdinand, too, is an astonishing character: a man who tortures and persecutes his twin sister but who, while imprisoning her, is himself imprisoned by incest. Connoisseurs of horror will also not soon forget the scene in which Ferdinand gives the Duchess a dead man's hand which she believes to be Antonio's: a moment that, in the darkness of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, acquired a chilling force.

Desiderius Erasmus' Institutio Principis Christiani, or The Education of A Christian Prince, 1516

Desiderius Erasmus' Institutio Principis Christiani, or The Education of A Christian Prince 1516

A humanistic education, as advocated by Erasmus, and the rapid growth of literacy throughout Europe created a generation of self-conscious scholars, who, in turn, inspired the ‘wry philosopher[s]’ and antic heroes that populate Renaissance drama.

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The big question is whether Webster's play is more than simply a series of random, theatrically effective scenes and great characters, something that is actually held together by a point of view. I would suggest that the play consistently argues that life is unstable, accidental, perhaps ultimately meaningless: ‘a general mist of error’ (4.2.179). But the paradox, as Leggatt points out, is that while depicting a world of chaos, the play ‘resists that chaos by the conscious, deliberate shaping of its own art’. It is clearly, in its portrait of the Duchess's brothers, about the destructive lusts of sexuality and power. Although the action wanders over place and time, the characters are also bound together by a complex set of verbal motifs. The Duchess, at one point, says she is as much acquainted with sad misery ‘As the tann'd galley-slave is with his oar’ (4.2.28). Bosola too, we remember, was once doomed to the galleys for a murder executed at the Cardinal's bidding, and his last words, at the point of death are ‘mine is another voyage’ (5.5.104). The true glory of Webster, in fact, lies in his language which the critic Kenneth Tynan once summed up as ‘a new poetry, tangy and bitter, full of warning and irrepressibly sombre’. It is there when the Duchess, on her final parting from Antonio, says:

your kiss is colder
Than that I have seen an holy anchorite
Give to a dead man's skull. (3.5.88–90)

You hear that distinctive Websterian voice again when Bosola claims:

We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them. (5.4.53–54)

And few images in Jacobean drama are more powerful than that which issues from the mouth of the Cardinal when, having killed his mistress by forcing her to kiss a poisoned book, he enters meditating on a theological volume:

How tedious is a guilty conscience!
When I look into the fish-ponds in my garden,
Methinks I see a thing armed with a rake,
That seems to strike at me. (5.5.4–7)

There is something about the calculated vagueness of ‘a thing’ and the absolute precision of ‘a rake’ that chills the blood.

In an oft-quoted line, T S Eliot said that Webster was ‘much possessed by death’. That is undeniably true. But The Duchess of Malfi, like The White Devil, is much more than a procession of morbid horrors. To me, it is a haunting tragedy about the uncertainty of human existence, written in language of scorching force that demands to be heard on a public stage, to be fully relished and appreciated.

  • Michael Billington
  • Michael Billington is one of Britain's foremost arts critics; he has been the drama critic for The Guardian since 1971. He is the author of several books on theatre including the authorised biography of Harold Pinter (1996); a survey of modern drama, State of the Nation (2007) and The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present (2015). He is also a Visiting Professor at King's College, London. an Honorary Fellow of St Catherine's College, Oxford and and Honorary D.Litt at the University of Warwick.