Consider the significance of death and disease in 'The Duchess of Malfi' and 'The White Devil'.
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Consider the significance of death and disease in 'The Duchess of Malfi' and 'The White Devil'. T.S. Eliot claimed that 'Webster was much possessed by death'. This statement seems to be correct, but unsurprisingly so as Webster had already lived through several years of plague and had, one assumes, seen much of death and disease. It does seem, however, that Webster expresses ideas within his plays using the images of disease more often and more effectively than many of his contemporaries. It is perhaps this imagery and the poetry driving through to the final death scenes of his characters that gives Webster's tragedy an extra pain and paradoxically a special appeal. Webster uses very graphic imagery both as description and as metaphor. It was noted by Ralph Berry of The White Devil that '66 images out of a total of about 500 in the play (some 13 per cent) are concerned with disease or corruption'1. The use of this imagery affects our feelings about the action of the play as it influences our reading or viewing by putting suggestions and pictures in our minds that the plot development and action alone would not necessarily evoke. It seems that the imagery in The White Devil is more important and more involved than in The Duchess of Malfi.
To make this even more powerful Webster uses two caesuras in consecutive lines to make the point hit the audience even more clearly. This speech was written to make the audience sit up and pay attention to the horror of what is happening on stage. The imagery combined with Webster's poetic flair is what, in my opinion, makes his tragedies even more powerful than those of Shakespeare as the audience are given so much more than what they see on the stage. The themes of death and disease in Webster's plays can also be seen as a structural device. The imagery of blood and hell is contrasted with beautiful descriptions of jewels and nature. This balance of imagery and its relative timing within the play makes the work flow smoothly and allows the audience to enjoy a glimmer of light amongst the dark images and actions. This is perhaps a device which mirrors the tragicomedy within Webster's plays. The love that is felt is real, passionate love. The hate and envy is also very real. This is reflected in Webster's metaphors for both good and evil which are not always explicit. Reversed and indirect imagery is often employed to emphasise the contrasts in the play and in the individual characters themselves.
In comparison with his contemporaries Webster, in my opinion, does not seem obsessed with death and disease. Poets such as Donne write about death and also death into poems on other matters entirely as metaphor: The Dampe 'When I am dead, and Doctors know not why, And my friends curiositie Will have me cut up to survay each part,' (1-3) This obsession may be a reflection of the times in which they were living, namely of the plague. Shakespeare and numerous contemporary playwrights and poets use the theme and imagery of death and disease, especially in tragedies, to emphasise the awful facts of life ending. It seems that Webster's contemporaries appear less obsessed with death as they have written comedies and other works to balance their opinions. Death is an important feature of Webster's work as a tragedian but not the only important feature. His poetry and imagery fit well together and the balance in his work is impressive. Death and disease featured heavily in the world in which he was writing and those he was writing for. This is apparant not only in his own work but in most other work of the time. 1 From Simon Trussler's commentary of The White Devil, Methuen, p. xxvi. 2 The italics here are my own to show the amount of imagery in just one short speech. 3 Dollimore, p244. 6 1
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