By close consideration of two extracts of your choice, assess the importance of the Christian perspective in Websters presentation of the Duchess
Practise essay question – The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
By REBECCA HEYS
“ ‘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
This is a preview of the whole essay
[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 do not judge either Antonio or the Duchess harshly – rather they sympathise with them (ll.32-43), so perhaps we are meant to too. Having said that, however, they have not seen what we have seen previously – the wise though portentous warning from Cariola, ignored by the Duchess, that “if you will believe me, | I do not like this jesting with religion, | this feigned pilgrimage” (III.iii.315-18).
The Duchess is, by any means, not faultless – to suggest that she ‘defies the evil in her court and her brothers’ hearts’ is too generous – indeed, despite good intentions, good receptions from onlookers, and indeed, sympathy from the audience, especially the modern one, she is not able to over come the evil in her court and in her brothers’ heart in this instance – she falls at their mercenary, Bosola, and, of course unknowingly, gives in to the ‘evil’ – she allows herself, in her own words, to be ‘led by the hand’ at ‘his direction’ (ll.311-2). The Duchess is after all a tragic heroine – her personality is therefore susceptible to the genre which dictated that she should be realistic, like any other human being.
The root of ‘the tragedy’ can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Poetics, which sees it as a form of drama “in which a calamity is brought about through a flaw in the character of the hero or heroine, who through a flaw in the character of hero or heroine who, through suffering, achieves a dignity and self-knowledge previously lacking.” The audience feels they can identify closely with this character, which has human faults, and the audience is thus sympathetic – even empathetic - to their case – and should experience heights of emotion such as pity, even horror, at the Duchess’ death. They should emerge from the theatre in some way ‘purged’ by the experience. According to this theory, Tragedy is the great dramatic form which shows human nature as unchanging… only increasing the tragedy of the Duchess’ life and story further, especially because we, as a modern audience, know it is based on a true-life story (recorded in Painter’s Palace of Pleasure).
The Duchess is motivated by ‘seeking wisely to prevent future sorrows’, ‘lamenting those in the past’ (ll.319-320) – in other words, she has good intentions, but by themselves they are not enough to dispel the power of the corruption which surrounds and suffuses her.
While it may have been established that the Duchess doesn’t really defy the evil in her court and her brothers’ hearts, it is more possibly that ‘she makes a good end’. These are separate things – it is possible to fulfil one, but not the other – and evidence for the truth of the latter statement can be found in the second passage, IV.ii.210-239.
IV.ii.210-239 is the Duchess’s death scene. It begins with Bosola presenting the Duchess with her executioners and ends with the Duchess being strangled (though it appears from ll.350-4, not quite dying yet). Here, the Duchess, already resigned to death, accepts it in a noble and respectable way. Though this may seem like a contradiction in terms, despair (her resignation) being the ultimate Christian sin, the Duchess does not wish to commit suicide in this scene – she just wishes to accept the inevitable death which is being dealt her by others. The critic John Burnside says:
“It is tempting to despair; not surprisingly, for despair and hope are inseparable companions, like beauty and ugliness, good and bad, cold and hot.”
So the Duchess’ despair is not really despair at all – though it may seem it. Besides, “Hope is not hope until all ground for hope has vanished” (Marianne Moore).
And her motives, again, are noble – she wishes to “meet such excellent company | In th’other world” (ll.215-6); she wishes her brothers be told that her death is the best gift she can give them, to prevent them been ashamed and scandalised, their good name (itself an irony) ruined (ll.225-8) (though this could be interpreted as sarcastic, especially since it is them who commissioned her death, and Ferdinand who will later bitterly regret it); she wishes that her body be shown respect, the temple of the Holy Spirit according to the Roman Catholic religion (ll.231-2, and echoing The White Devil – “Your body | … is the goodly palace of the soul”); and she asserts that only the humble can enter Heaven, and therefore takes death on her knees (ll.236-7). Perhaps most importantly though, the thing which indicates most surely the Christian aspect of her death is her contention that “I forgive them” (l.211), thus echoing Jesus’ “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” on the Cross and thus by association suggesting that the Duchess is a martyr. The Duchess meets her death nobly and acceptingly. If we compare her death to Cariola’s – who is killed literally kicking and screaming (“Executioner She bites: and scratches” Iv.ii.254) – or to the Cardinal’s, who cried that he should not be remembered after death (“… And now, I pray [irony], let me | Be laid by, and never thought of” V.v.88-9) – then we might indeed agree with the critic Elizabeth Brennan that “in Christian term, she makes a good death”. Indeed, “the last act be the best I’th’play (The devil’s Law Case), metaphorically defining death as the final scene in the drama of life.
In order to consider how important the Christian perspective was in Webster’s presentation of the Duchess fully, it is also necessary to consider Webster’s presentation of Christianity as a whole in the Duchess of Malfi, and elsewhere, and to see where his sympathies lie.
Webster would have wished to have some element of corrupt religion in his play, since strict Puritan control of City of London meant that plays could not be shown within the city walls, thus, originally, drama was performed on the South Bank, outside the then city limits. For obvious reasons, this was not popular with Webster, or any of the other playwrights for that matter. In addition,
“To a Jacobean audience the Cardinal would have been quickly recognised as ‘a machiavel’, a character type which the English derived, somewhat inaccurately, from the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli from his notorious handbook, The Prince.”
These reasons combined may explain the portrayal of religion as bad through the Cardinal. The Cardinal is the absolute symbol of corrupt religion in Webster’s play, which makes the Duchess more likely to be a more balanced character, since the purpose of showing religious corruption is demonstrated elsewhere, in his cold, calculating, and lusty self – “How tedious is a guilty conscience!” (V.v.4).
So, and not only in London, the running of the state was intertwined with a corrupt religion – the Elizabethan world picture was that leaders such as princes were considered ordained by God to do their task on earth, just as everyone was born into their station - unfortunately, the problem was that even the religious/state leaders were human, and thus susceptible to corruption – and absolute power corrupts absolutely, or so the Duchess of Malfi would seem to show us. Webster, like other playwrights, held up a mirror to British society, and the stab at religion would have been understood and appreciated by a people of whom the vast majority would have otherwise been God-fearing. Oscar Wilde, centuries later, said the dislike of realism in art (in this case by the authorities) was the hatred of Caliban seeing his face in a glass.
In conclusion, while it is important to remember a range of (often contrasting criticism), and that
“Committed Christians have found [Webster] a committed Christian; humanists have found that the plays affirms humanist values; and absurdity have found the seeds of the theatre of the absurd”,
it does seems that the Duchess of Malfi does not ‘in heroic terms, defy the evil in her court and her brothers’ hearts’; but perhaps she does ‘in Christian terms, make a good end.’ (Elizabeth M. Brennan) The importance of the Christian perspective is undoubtedly important for Webster – though he takes issue with the Church authorities, such as the Cardinal, and their hold over the state, he never the less sympathises with everyday, ordinary Christians, such as the Duchess, and Antonio, who are very much victims of the abuses of those ‘Christians’ above them. By close consideration of two contrasting extracts, this is shown in the way in which Webster presents the Duchess character – as well-meaning, but not infallible; as trying, perhaps failing, but as Christian never the less – possibly even interpreted as dying a martyr’s death, killed because she was not strong enough to understand the traps and snares of Bosola and all he stood for.
1 978 words
Introduction, page ix, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, published 1999 by Vintage.
Introduction, page xvi, The Duchess Malfi edited by John and Claire Saunders, published by Longman Study Texts (1987)
as above except page xxvii.