By close consideration of two extracts of your choice, assess the importance of the Christian perspective in Webster’s presentation of the Duchess

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Practise essay question – The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster


‘In heroic terms, the Duchess defies the evil in her court and her brothers’ hearts; in Christian terms, she makes a good end.’ 

(Elizabeth M. Brennan)  

By close consideration of two extracts of your choice, assess the importance of the Christian perspective in Webster’s presentation of the Duchess.”

There has been much debate over whether the Duchess of Malfi is a character who is essentially a victim of her brothers’ tyranny and the corruption of her court, and whose downfall is caused by such, or is responsible for her own negligent and selfish actions by marrying a man she loved but in doing so abandoning her princely duties.  Certainly, Webster’s borrowings saw the Duchess as little more than a whore or a strumpet (much like Julia in Webster’s version), but modern audiences, with modern sympathies, have preferred to see the Duchess as a heroine who is sacrificed for love.

        The two passages I have chosen to consider neatly contrast each other in showing how the Duchess is susceptible to religious corruption (III.ii.305-320), but equally, how she dies a Christian, almost a martyr (IV.ii.210-239).

In I.i, Antonio, the Duchess’ future husband, recounts a description of the French court, the King of which has ‘quitted’ “his royal palace | Of flatt’ring sycophants, of dissolute, | And infamous persons” (ll.7-9).  This depiction acts as a yardstick by which we compare the court of Malfi.  In fact, the entire presentation could be taken as an abstract concept presented visually, rather than any actual occurrence – however, the effect is the same either way.  Unfortunately, we soon learn what becomes of the King – in III.iii, the corrupt Cardinal tells us that ‘the famous Lannoy’ had “had the honour | Of taking the French King prisoner”.  This shows us just how powerful corrupt courts are.  It strikes an ominous note, not filling us with the most hope for the Duchess ‘stars’ or fate.  Against this backdrop of sleaze and rottenness, the Duchess hardly stands a chance – and so we come to our first passage (III.ii.305-320).

        In III.ii.305-320, we witness the Duchess, having confided in Bosola not only that she is married to Antonio, her household steward, but that she has several children by him, is persuaded by Bosola to “feign a pilgrimage | To our Lady of Loretto” (ll.306-7), under the (clearly ironic) pretence that she

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“may… depart

[her] country with more honour, and [her] flight

Will seem a princely progress, retaining

[Her] usual train about [her]”                                         (ll.308-311).

In fact, we know that, on arriving in Loretto, where the Cardinal, by design, awaits her, she is shamefully stripped of her princedom, as is Antonio of his lands (III.iv.5ff esp. Stage Directions), and her train, bar a faithfully minority (a sign of hope for us all, displaying the moral rectitude of the few), desert her in her disgrace (III.v.2-3), for reasons of politics, fear, and uncertainty.  Clearly, the pilgrims who witness the banishment ...

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