Friday, August 7, 2015

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

I have to apologise for the dearth of book reviews here on Vintage Novels lately--life has been busy, I've been working through some longer books, and rural internet services here in Australia are unreliable, to say the least!

Today, though, I'd like to review a play I've often heard of but never, till a few days ago, read.

John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, loosely based on a true story, was written somewhere around 1612-13 in England. Like most plays written around this time, it's set in Renaissance Italy, where the young widowed Duchess of Malfi must navigate the treacherous and decadent waters of her own court. Her brothers, the unhinged and aggressive Ferdinand Duke of Calabria and the more hypocritical, self-controlled, and deadly Cardinal threaten her not to remarry, as they intend to inherit her lands after her death. But the Duchess not only intends to remarry, she's already in love with a man below her station: Antonio Bologna, the honest and upright steward of her palace. The Duchess and Antonio marry in secret, but surrounded as they are by spies and sycophants, will their secret last for long?

It's hard to review a play like this after reading it only once; I should like to see it performed, and I'm sure the lines come off better when they're heard. But let me do my best.

First of all, the reader who's already familiar with Shakespeare's tragedies--Hamlet for preference, but also perhaps Othello--will find The Duchess of Malfi strangely familiar. The claustrophobic court setting, seething ominously with corruption. The doomed lovers. The mad scene. The poisonings. The conflicted killer. The people hiding behind tapestries. The characters helpfully informing their attackers, "You have hurt me." The macabre scene in the graveyard. The half-strangled-to-death heroine reviving briefly to deliver some pithy last words before keeling over for good. The Duchess of Malfi has it all and then some.

Which is not surprising. Welcome to an odd little genre which you may (or may not) have heard about: the Jacobean revenge tragedy, arguably inagurated in 1580 with Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, and which enjoyed its heyday during James I's reign. These plays, influenced by the works of the Roman philosopher Seneca, share a few things in common: revenge sought, often for the death of a loved one, against a powerful figure representing the corruption, villainy, and decadence of Renaissance court life, which ultimately spirals into bizarre violence which leaves the stage strewn with bodies, including that of the protagonist. Far and away the best-known example of this genre is Shakespeare's Hamlet; but Hamlet is a bit hipster for a revenge tragedy: it subverts half the tropes of the genre. A later, less subtle example is the Revenger's Tragedy often attributed to Tourneur, a gaudy melodrama seemingly obsessed with sex and violence, which, despite its moral outrage, demonstrates pretty clearly to the thoughtful reader what it might have been that the Puritans objected to when they shut up the playhouses.

The Duchess of Malfi is more representative of the genre's tone than Hamlet, I think, without degenerating quite so far into decadence as The Revenger's Tragedy does. And yet in all the revenge tragedies I've read, with the possible exception of Hamlet, there is an uncomfortable tension between outrage at the courtly corruption befouling justice on the one hand, and the audience's vicarious thrill at watching the melodramatic events play out while the anti-heroic protagonist gets payback on the other. Shakespeare delivers in Hamlet such a subtle and equivocal story about such complex and confusing characters that the revenge plot is almost forgotten before the sheer mental task of trying to understand the characters. In The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster defies the tropes of the genre in another way: neither the Duchess nor Antonio, injured as they are by the Duchess's wicked brothers, seek revenge for their wrongs; in fact Antonio is at the climax seeking reconciliation. They end with their integrity uncompromised, having escaped both corruption and the temptation to revenge themselves. The revenge itself seems to be taken on by the play's most complex character, Daniel de Bosola, an antiheroic figure who initially acts as the villains' spy and henchman. And yet this approach presents its own moral problem: when the hitman turns to revenge, we are relieved that the hapless Duchess has found a champion at last--never mind how ruthlessly he prosecutes his feud. Webster solves this by not flinching away from the destructiveness of Bosola's chosen path: by the final scene, bodies litter the stage, some of them deprived of life quite pointlessly--which is indeed the point.

I don't know that I'd call The Duchess of Malfi a great play. It has some wonderful lines, and does interesting things with the revenge tragedy genre. It's also charmingly batty in a melodramatic late-Elizabethan manner, what with the poisoned Bible the Cardinal keeps around just for killing off unwanted friends, Bosola's mildly frustrated "Oh, she's gone again!" at the death of another character, and the guy who thinks he's a dog. I tend to think of revenge tragedy as Shakespeare with all the challenging and thought-provoking bits taken out, and at first, The Duchess of Malfi certainly appeared to conform to that image. But on mature thought, The Duchess of Malfi has more substance than that.

I just have one question for all you bookworms:

Can anyone recommend a filmed version?

Find The Duchess of Malfi on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

4 comments:

Jamie W. said...

I think somehow I had gotten it into my head that this was Restoration (and you know what that means in a play) and had been steering clear of it. This post left me properly informed *and* changed my mind -- I might check out The Duchess of Malfi!

Suzannah said...

Let me know what you think of it! I'm wishing I'd gone and listened to the Librivox recording--they tend to do pretty good plays--instead of reading the thing, though.

Anonymous said...

There is a 1972 BBC filmed version which I enjoyed. There is also a BBC Radio 3 audio version which I have not tried yet. They are 'out there' one way of another...

I think it's always good both to read an Elizabethan or Jacobean play and to see (or hear) a performance - and probably better to form an impression oneself first (taking it easy, rereading bits, and the footnotes where available) before seeing what someone makes of it (though, of course, in the day, almost only the actors would have done that, in the first instance - and maybe not even that: not every one of them getting to read the whole thing, first...!)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

David, agreed--maybe I need to hear/see a performance and then revisit this review :). Thanks for the recommendations!

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