Lecture 10: The Seventeenth Century
John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi
Almost nothing is known about the private life of John Webster. Even the dates of his birth and death are a mystery; scholars speculate that he was born between 1570 and 1580, since he was writing plays in 1602, and he seems to have died before 1634, since in that year, he was referred to in the past tense by Thomas Heywood in Hierarchy of Angels. A John Webster was admitted to study law at the Middle Temple on August 1, 1598, but there is no evidence linking him to John Webster, the playwright. In addition, from a couple of obscure references, scholars speculate that Webster's brother (and Webster himself) may have been a cartwright (i.e., a cart or coach builder), but this, too, is supported by no real evidence.
All we really know of Webster relates to his work. The first reference to him is in the diary of Philip Henslowe, manager of the Rose Theatre in London. In May 1602, Webster is listed with Thomas Dekker, Anthony Munday, Thomas Middleton, and Michael Drayton as the authors of a play called Caesar's Fall; this play has been lost. In October 1602, Webster was paid, along with several collaborators, for a play called Lady Jane, which was probably revised and printed in 1607 as Sir Thomas Wyatt, by Webster and Dekker. In November of 1602, Henslowe paid Webster in advance for Christmas Comes But Once a Year, another play which has been lost. In 1604, with Thomas Dekker, Webster wrote Westward Ho, a comedy, and in 1605, they wrote Northward Ho; both were printed in 1607. He wrote small pieces and collaborations for the next few years.
Webster's reputation as a major playwright rests mainly, however, on the four works he wrote alone between 1609 and 1619. The first of these was The White Devil; it was published in 1612, but was probably written around 1610. The Duchess of Malfi was not published until 1623, but we know that it was written before December 16, 1614, because William Ostler, one of the actors in the play, died on that day; scholars speculate that it was written in 1612 or 1613. Sometime before 1617, Webster probably wrote a play called Guise, which is lost. The Devil's Law Case was published in 1623, and was probably written between 1617 and 1621, but the dating of this play is debatable.
Webster collaborated on a number of plays with various authors after this, but the last record of his work is in 1625.
The Duchess of Malfi was performed sometime between 1612 and 1614 at both the Blackfriars and the Globe theatres, and Richard Burbage played a chief part. It probably took Webster a long time to write it; scholars believe that Webster wrote slowly and painstakingly; in fact, he himself admits as much, in the preface to The White Devil:
To those who report I was a long time in finishing this Tragedy, I confesse I do not write with a goose-quill, winged with two feathers, and if they will needes make it my fault, I must answere them with that of Euripides to Alcestides, a Tragicke Writer: Alcestides objecting that Euripides had onely in three daies composed three verses, whereas himself had written three hundreth: Thou telst truth (quoth he) but here's the difference, thine shall onely be read for three daies, whereas mine shall continue three ages.
The story in the play was based loosely on historical figures. King Federico of Naples had a half-brother, Enrico d'Aragona. Enrico had three children. The oldest, Lodovico, became a cardinal. The younger son, Carlo, inherited the father's title of Marquis of Gerace. Their sister, Giovanna, was married in 1490, at the age of 12 or less, to Alfonso Piccolomini, who became Duke of Amalfi in 1493 and died in 1498. Their son Alfonso was born in 1499, and she ruled Amalfi during his childhood. In 1510 she left Amalfi, ostensibly on a pilgrimage to Loretto, but really to meet Antonio Bologna, the former master of her household, whom she had secretly married. Antonio was killed in Milan in 1513, and it appears that the Duchess had been murdered along with her two younger children at Amalfi several months before. The historical record does not show whether Giovanna's brothers were responsible for her death.
A number of writers recorded the story, most in fictional form, and Webster almost certainly used at least two of these sources for his play. In addition, he culled speeches, themes, and lines from many other sources for his own use. If a writer did this now, he would be accused of plagiarism, but in Webster's time it was common practice to borrow from other writers, and was in fact a way for the writer to draw together various associations in a reader's or audience's mind.
Many critics have commented on the density of this play and its complexity of style and structure. The language is highly figurative, and there are numerous patterns of symbolism: fountains and springs, sight and blindness, knives and swords, among others. There is more than a hint of symbolic association between the Duchess and her children and the Holy Family: for example, her son is born just after December 18, in what is known as the "month of holy infancy." Later, when the Duchess, Antonio, and their children flee to escape their persecutors, their flight is reminiscent of that of the Holy Family from the persecution of the Innocents by Herod; and there are other connections and parallels, too numerous to be accidental, which lend a significance to the actions of the Duchess and the other characters beyond the events themselves.
Webster is exploring a number of themes in The Duchess of Malfi. Among them are
- the possibility of goodness and integrity in the face of evil;
- corruption in the church and in the state;
- the falseness and inconstancy of security;
- the ease with which appearances deceive;
- the idea that suffering tests and defines a person's character.
Critics disagree about the significance of the Duchess's death. Because of the strength of her spirit, her integrity, and her faith, some see in her death an affirmation of life. Others believe that the fact that the Duchess dies is Webster's way of saying that her integrity was meaningless and without value, and likewise, life is random and meaningless. Whatever his ultimate intent, Webster certainly meant to contrast good and evil: he pits Ferdinand and the Cardinal against Antonio and the Duchess; he contrasts the relationship of Antonio and the Duchess with that of Julia and the Cardinal; he juxtaposes the Duchess's nobility and bravery in the face of death with the desperation and pleading of Cariola; he compares the Duchess's suffering with Ferdinand's; and in Bosola, he has a character who is the epitome of cynicism, an opportunist who discovers his conscience too late.
If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. A Study of John Webster, by Peter B. Murray.
2. The Duchess of Malfi, by Clifford Leech.
3. A Literary History of England, ed. Albert C. Baugh