Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Duchess of Malfi as a Revenge Tragedy

“The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster is a kind of Revenge Tragedy modeled on Seneca, the Latin playwright of 1st century A.D. This play is considered as one of the best plays of Webster and as a Revenge Tragedy, it is considered as the best tragedy after Shakespeare's containing almost all the characteristics of Revenge Tragedy. This play contains the depth of extreme violence, plotting and mostly revenge on the best part which are the chief elements of revenge tragedy. However, The Duchess of Malfi contains full of such terrifying, hair-raising situations from the beginning to the end. However, if we want to consider The Duchess of Malfi as a Revenge Tragedy, we need to know what we mean by revenge tragedy and its major conventions.

Revenge Tragedy: The name Revenge Tragedy arose from the Senecan tradition of making revenge the motive force for the action that leads to the tragedy. The characteristics of Revenge Tragedy are:

01. The story should centre on characters of noble birth.
02. The narrative should involve in complex plotting.
03. There should be murders
04. There should obviously be a desire for revenge.
05. The plot should involve physical horrors such as poisoning and torture.
06. Order should be restored at the end of the play.
07. The presence of supernatural elements
08. Brutal human impulses is the essential subject matter and it turns into complex, often deeply thought provoking aesthetic experiences.

However, the Latin playwright, Seneca, is considered to be one who established the revenge play tradition. Horrors and violence predominated in the Senecan tragedies. Thomas Kyd brought in the revenge tradition to English drama with his play The Spanish Tragedy. Later the tradition was practiced by other playwrights before Webster.

The Duchess of Malfi as a Revenge Tragedy: If we want to consider The Duchess of Malfi as a Revenge Tragedy from the light of the characterizations of Revenge Tragedy pointed out previously, we will find almost all the elements of Revenge Tragedy in The Duchess of Malfi.

Horrors in The Duchess of Malfi: This drama contains so many elements of horrors or which it can be classified as a melodrama. From the beginning to the end of this drama, there are a lot of elements of horrors. The last two acts of the play have an abundance of them. However melodramatic episodes are seen earlier too. The Duke in order to horrify the Duchess gives a dead man’s hand to her and she kisses it taking it to be the Duke's hand. The spectacle of waxen images of the dead bodies of Antonio and children presented before the Duchess is another horrid scene. The unruly dance of the mad men before the Duchess, the appearance of Bosola as a tomb makes and a bell man and the appearance of the executioners with bell and core in procession, too are intended to create horror. The next horror is mentioned in the series of murders committee by Bosola. The last horror comes when Julia is poisoned in a most cold-blooded manner. Antonio is killed and Ferdinand, Cardinal and Bosola all meet their death at the end. So, there are the ten murders

Revenge and murders: Taking revenge and murdering people are the integral part of revenge tragedy. In this drama, we find people taking revenge and are murdering others. But Webster sets his play in a different manner, the revenge and murders are committed in a different manner from the traditional manner. The revengeful brothers are both villains .They are the victims of an insensate fury that blinds the eyes, maddens the drain, and poisons the springs of pity. The piteous sufferings of their victim from the hard heart of Bosola who says:

You may discern the share of loveliness,
More perfect in her tears than in the smile.


We have seen that there was a love affair between the Duchess and Antonio and at last they marry and they produce three children. On hearing the news of their secret marriage and their children, the cardinal and The Duke Fardinand react angrily. And from the beginning to the end of Act two, scene five, we seed the reaction of the two brothers for the action of their sister. They think that the Duchess has destroyed the reputation and status of their family. The Cardinal says, "Shall our blood,/ The royal blood of Arragon and Castile, Be thus attained?” So, they don't want to destroy the family reputation and wants to kill her. Here Ferdinand says, “I’ll find scorpions to string my whips,/And fix her in a general eclipse" . Hence their deeds of revenge are not a wild kind of justice but monstrous wrong. Ferdinand gives her the command. He had threatened to use in the play's first scene:

"Die, then quickly."

The Duchess of Malfi differs in a number of ways from the traditional revenge play. It doesn't become clear why revenge is taken on the Duchess. Her only fault is that she has married below her rank and status and thus the two brothers think, she has disgraced the family. She has certainly not committer any heinous crime for which she is subjected unjustified. That the weak revenge motives is clearly brought out by the fact that for more than two years her two brothers do nothing to punish the Duchess.


Supernatural elements: In presenting the supernatural too, Webster deviates from the tradition or modifies the tradition. He doesn't present and of the conventional hosts and objectives portents found in typical revenge plays. There is absolutely nothing unrealistically supernatural in the play . The sorrowful answers which the echo makes to Antonio's words are the result of a natural phenomenon. Antonio's words: “and on the sudden a clear light/presented of a face folded in sorrow”(Act V Scene III)come only from his fancy born out of his affection for the Duchess. No ghost appears on the scene. In this Webster has shown vital concern for an artistic atmosphere of supernatural.


Madness shown on the stage: It's a tradition of Elizabethan revenge tragedy to show madness on the stage. In this play we see madness of these mad people. However, hue is some psychological interest too present in it. The Duke advices the scheme to torture the Duchess with the intention of turning her mad. But ironically he, not the Duchess, becomes mad. This madness of the Duke his still greater significance.

In summing up we can say that "The Duchess of Malfi" is a revenge tragedy. Although Webster wrote this drama following the tradition of revenge tragedy, he has modified some of its aspects to make it unique. And he is perfect enough drawing the art in his own style that makes it more acceptable to the readers to accept it as a true revenge tragedy. So, in a word we can say that it is a perfect revenge tragedy.

4 comments:

Shivani said...

this material is going to help me a lot... thanx..

astha saklani said...

but if we take basola as the tragic hero then the play seems to have more elements of a revenge tragedy. iN HIS "Ambiguity of basola", C.G. Thayer does point out that Basola can be viewed as the protagonist.

Hayley said...

Overall interesting article but I do have some issues that I'd like to bring up.

While 'Malfi' is classified as a revenge tragedy, I do not think that it is wholly correct to place it firmly within the category. It deviates quite a lot from the formal structure set by Seneca. (For one, the protagonist is supposed to die in the 5th act of the play; however, the Duchess dies in the 4th act.) Within your article itself, you say that Webster has deviated from the formal structure of a revenge tragedy. If he has done so, on what basis do you conclude that it is a 'true' revenge tragedy? You've just said that it doesn't follow a revenge tragedy!

In addition to this, I have to disagree with your points on the supernatural in 'Malfi'. There are numerous incidences of strange happenings. For example, in 5.3, there is the echo in the "ancient ruins". While it is not explicitly stated that this is a ghostly voice, it is implied that the echo is in fact the voice of the Duchess as one of Antonio's echoed phrases is "I, wife's voice". In many interpretations of the play, the echo is spoken by the actress of the Duchess. Some versions have the Duchess as a ghostly presence, physically standing on the stage to say the lines.

Also, is lycanthropia not a supernatural condition? Yes, it may have been announced as a proper disease back in Jacobean times; however, it is a state of insanity. The patient thinks that they are a wolf. Werewolves, speaking in a modern day sense, are not a common occurrence. Ferdinand's wolf-transformation would still have been regarded, nevertheless, as a strange occurrence, related to the supernatural.

My points here are that you make very assertive comments when there is evidence within the play itself that contradicts your firm statements. Apart from this, your article does have some valid points. Still, just be careful when you make bold statements.

Jyotsna Sharma said...

modifications have been made time to time that is why it cannot be called a true revenge tragedy as it deviates from the norms laid by seneca, but it is also true that that it is from where Webster lays the plot of his play, senecan revenge tragedy.
relating to the the disease of "lycanthropia" its not supernatural but a distorted mental condition and that is why it is written that in the process of making duchess mad he himself turned MAD.
Bosola can be termed as the protagonist as few critics also label him so as he is the one who avenges the wrong done to the duchess and according to the norm dies in the end thus restoring the peace.
hoping this may help. :)