Webster's The Duchess of Malfi: A Revenge Tragedy of Senecan Tradition


Study Material of MA Course of Bengal's University. The present essay reviews ' The Duchess of Malfi by Webster ' as a revenge tragedy of the Senecan school.

MA English Literature Study Material of Calcutta University, Jadavpur University and Other Universities in Bengal
The Duchess of Malfi by Webster is one of the most known English revenge tragedies and is also widely taught in most universities of west bengal in their undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

The Duchess of Malfi is often regarded as a reconstruction of the classical tragedy, especially that of Seneca. In Webster's time all the nine Senecan plays were translated into English, and given considerable importance in the school syllabi. The horror and tension of these plays provided diversions from the Morality and Mystery trait, and were welcomed alike by the audience and the playwright. A literary influence first led contemporary writers to mould their plays in the Senecan motif, and soon they found it a handy tool to draw throngs of people to the theatre. Thus followed a series of tragedies marked by violent horror, and were categorized as 'Senecan'.

Kate Aughterson has generalized these plays as "focusing on the protagonist's revenge for an act of dishonour against himself or his family, and usually ending in everyone's death." They abound in terror and massacre. Nevertheless, Seneca had relegated them to long reports of offstage actions by messengers. The Elizabethan and Jacobeans, on the other hand, brought them before the audience to cater to the taste of the time. The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd flagged off the English revenge tradition, and was a gala success. Even Shakespeare had imitated it in Titus Andronicus, till Hamlet articulated his own presentation.

According to Fredson Bowers, The Duchess of Malfi has the typical Kydian elements such as "the wanton bloodshed, torture, use of the tool villain, omens, and the like." It portrays the suffering of the Duchess surrounded by cynical men, imposing as ever the patriarchal orthodoxy on the questioning and defiant woman. Her defiance destabilizes the male domination, and is ultimately silenced by violence.

Right in the opening scene, the introduction of Bosola the criminal apprehends the forthcoming horror. A number of such ironical prophesies abound in the play, and images of blood and murder recur time and again. All the twelve metaphors Bosola uses in forty lines present the natural as inverted. The image of a crowded hospital, with the patients' heads and feet lying intertwined, graphically conveys suffering, putrefaction and death. We hold our breaths when Ferdinand takes terrific vows to revenge his dishonour in Act II Scene V, but our horror culminates with the psychological torture on the Duchess in the penultimate act.

The opening scene of Act IV is macabre with the corpse's hand and wax figures. Webster wisely presents them in a darkened room, and the half-seen is enhanced by the half-felt horror. Then cavorting mad men come, followed by Bosola in the guise of a tomb-maker. He keeps talking of sepulchres and putrefying human flesh, thus creating a chilly atmosphere. The executioner with coffin and rope indicates that the end is close. Nevertheless, the Duchess submits to strangulation with the calmness of a martyr that outgrows the ghastly death.

The offstage murder of the children most intensifies the horror, preceded by the death of Cariola. Shortly, the macabre gives way to the tragic. The tableau of destruction maddens Ferdinand, and Bosola is left with an isolated despair.
In Act V Scene ii, the lycanthropic Duke's wild talks of churchyards, dead bodies and hacked limbs create a horrid atmosphere. The procession of death soon resumes, as Julia is sworn to secrecy on a poisoned Bible and dies consequently. In the following scenes, threats of death begin to assume a terrible physical reality. Now, most of the murders occur through error or wildness, rather than the planned assassinations the audience have perhaps got long used to. Antonio dies in agony, knowing of his wife's death.

The Cardinal's careful calculations for killing Bosola and disposing Julia's corpse ironically rebound on him. Bosola stabs the priest, while Ferdinand in madness joins the fray. Wildly he attacks both of them, and Bosola puts him to death. However, his triumph does not stay long, and a fatal wound shortly marks his end. This ugly, beastlike struggle among the three – one madly stabbing at his brother, the other asking for aid in vain and the third on a mission of revenge – provides a horrific climax to the play.

While William Archer questions the relevance of this horror (1893), a contemporary critic William Poel replies that they provide "vital embodiment to the manners and morals of the Italian Renaissance, as they appeared to the imagination of Englishmen." According to Vernon Lee, the very strangeness of horror in Italian life, as compared to the dull decorum of English households, attracted the Elizabethan playgoers to the Senecan tradition.

To conclude, Webster's debt to Seneca does not explain the whole of his art. He is equally influenced by the Aristotelian model, the Morality and Mystery tradition of medieval England, and also the works of his contemporaries. The Duchess of Malfi no doubt celebrates bloodshed, but also has the emotional qualities absent in The White Devil. The explosive cynicism and violence is still present, but counterpointed by romantic intimacies. The underlying tone of elegy brings the play much closer to the commonly perceived norms of tragedy, whether Shakespearean or Aristotelian. Terror is now conjoined with pity, a word used much more frequently in the text than in The White Devil.


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