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THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
Of the life of John Webster (15807-1625?), avelli, as the home of dire and subtle evil. probably the son of a London tailor, alınost In The Duchess of Malfi there is no lack of nothing is known. He began writing for the murder and sudden death. All the chief stage as early as 1602, at first as a collabo- characters die violently, four men, three rator, more especially with Dekker, who women, two children. As often in Elizabethan strongly influenced his dramatic beginnings. tragedy, the play is closed by a group of lofty Plays known to be by him alone number only personages, unimportant for the play, with four, all dating between 1607 and 1619. solemn and regretful comments on the genWriting slowly and carefully, compared with eral ruin. Strange and elaborate are the his contemporaries he apparently lacked pro- vehicles of dread and torment — the dancing ductiveness and therefore prominence, but was and singing of lunatics, the feigned corpses thought highly of by good judges.
of her husband and children which wring the
Duchess' soul, the cold dead hand grasped in Webster's reputation depends mainly on the dark, the coffin and bell, the dolorous The White Devil, or Vittoria Corombona echo, the poisoned book which slays by a kiss. (1607-12) and The Duchess of Malfi (1609– The struggling and screaming of Cariola at 14), both romantic tragedies, the kind of play her death not only serve as a foil to the which most people are apt to think of, per- Duchess' composure, but bring a new shock. haps, as most typical of the Elizabethan The moral horror is not in the mere wickeddrama, because the most intense of its plays ness, common enough in all tragedy. Bosola are of this class. In the last hundred years is not a highly impressive villain, but an inand more they have been the chief models for different counterpart to Iago, with his prewriters of poetic drama (as in Shelley's tense of frank honesty and success at disCenci). Both of Webster's plays mentioned simulation; with also, is true, some indibelong to a subdivision of the type, the vidual traits, melancholy, railing and a meditragedy of blood. The most celebrated and tative and scholarly turn. He has a coninfluential early example is Thomas Kyd's science and a heart at bottom; he serves as a Spanish Tragedy (1585-7) and the great- contrast to the more depraved brothers, and est is Shakespeare's Hamlet (1600-1604 ?), rebels against them; the gods are just, and though its original elements are so refined of their own creature make an instrument to and ennobled as to gain a new character. destroy them. Their motives are revenge and The tragedy of blood abounds in crime, vio- covetousness; both brothers resent the suplence, madness, and bloodshed; ghosts glide posed dishonor brought by the Duchess on through its scenes, much is made of physical their royal blood, and Ferdinand hoped horror, revenge is a frequent motive of its personages. Its obvious appeal was
Had she continued widow, to have gained what crude and popular; but the great
An infinite mass of treasure by her death (IV.
ii; cf. I. i). strength of the Elizabethan drama was that while its roots ran deep into popular belief, But their wickedness is so out of proportion taste and life, it was formed by the great to any advantage which
might produce that geniuses of the age. A particular develop- we feel it is the very air in which they live. ment of the tragedy of blood is seen in these We see it in the cold calculation with which two plays of Webster and some others. Here they have planned all the accompaniments the horror is both intensified and refined; of their sister's murder. Ferdinand is the mere bloodshed is not enough, other and weaker and less abnormal of the two. Violent more elaborate physical horrors are added, and impulsive as he is, when he sees and especially mental and moral horrors, in- his sister lying dead his shell of callousness human wickedness, long-drawn and ingenious is finally broken by resurgent family feeling agonies, the subleties of the sinner's inmost and remembrances of their youth, and rethought. The intensity is heightened by a morse invades his reason. As to the Car. more realistic setting; the ghosts are some- dinal, he is more discerning, abler, firmer times absent, as in The Duchess of Malfi, and than his brother, and it is he who claims re: we find ourselves in an almost contemporary sponsibility for the strangling of the Duchess age, often in Italy – which was regarded by and her children. His frigid calm can be disthe English, who had heard lurid tales of its turbed only by the fear of political discorruption and had misunderstood Machi- grace, and by the brief moment when he per
mits himself to peer into the gulf of eternity not only the unconsciously ironical Cardinal which lies before him. One of the most ab- who would say that Antonio did account horrent passages in Elizabethan tragedy is religion but a school-name (V. ii, and cf. at the beginning of the final scene, where the III. iii). Both seem satisfied, as in the Cardinal shudders over one of his theological original source of the play, with a marriage books describing the fire of hell. He is a certainly informal and barely legal. Julia devil who half-believes and trembles. He re- too in her noble dying words calls the political cardinal of two or three knows not whither." À certain skepticism centuries earlier who is reported to have said
have excited Webster's sympathy. that if he had a soul he had lost it for the In truly Elizabethan manner, the construcGhibellines.
tion and style of the play are ample and Like Shakespeare, Webster is not borne broad, not compact and minutely careful, down by the distressing, the negative, the de- like the work of such a man as Jonson. The structive; he is strong enough to battle his verse is lax and irregular, sometimes unparway above them. We do not almost forget donably so, approaching mere rhythmical them, as in Hamlet — he has taken good care prose, as in some of the latest of the dramathat we should not. But we concern tists. Slurred and tumbling syllables often selves more with the normal and benign per- give a dramatic, easy, natural effect; but sonages who are finally engulfed in the murky, Webster's lines are sometimes difficult to tempestuous ending. As usual with Webster, read in any way which leaves the metrical the most interesting person is a woman; in- norm still recognizable. In structure and deed, for Julia too, as for Vittoria Corom- incident he is at times a trifle careless. Anbona,, he shows sympathy — for a bad woman tonio draws up an unnatural and dangerous who has heroic traits, a type always popular memorandum for his son's horoscope, and on the stage. The Duchess we fancy in the drops it indifferently just when he should full ripeness of womanhood (though possibly have been most careful; and at the end of meant to be younger), between youth and the play this child who had been condemned middle age, woman rather than sovereign, but by the stars to an early death is the only one both. Nothing could be more perfect than of his family who survives! The play takes the scene where she reveals to Antonio her a sudden emotional turn toward the middle. resolve to marry him; here is all the charm The cloud in the sunny sky which beams over we feel when circumstances make it proper the first part is no bigger than a man's hand. and necessary for a woman to do the woo- The storm rolls up with speed, and nothing ing; the Duchess is mature enough to do it breaks the gloom of the last part. Webster without embarrassment, but with the beaming eyes and roguish humor she always death of the Duchess, but towards the midshows in talking with Antonio, as in the dle of the last act it revives, with new uncerwonderfully human and dramatic scene (III. tainties and with the ingenious and appalling ii) where Ferdinand surprises them to- disasters which crush the sinners. gether. Yet she is almost more mother than The source of the play is the story of the wife, the sort of woman, the hope of the Duchess of: Amalfi, perhaps partly historical, human race, who takes a husband to be the which forms the twenty-third novel in the father of her children. Almost her last second volume of Painter's Palace of Pleaswords are a domestic order (for a syrup for ure (1567), and which came through the her boy's cold), which the situation raises to French of Belle-Forest from the Novelle of the highest poetry, but which turns to pain- Bandello. Painter's interest, like that of all ful irony when we see the children strangled contemporary novelists, is in sensational instantly after her. Antonio, though less events, in rhetorical talk, and in drawing fascinating and lifelike, is more elaborately forced moral lessons; he censures the Duchess studied than she, doubtless in order to rec- for her uncontrolled desire for marriage, and oncile an aristocratic age to seeing a sov- Antonio for his ambitious folly in marrying ereign marry beneath her; a soldier, diplo- above him. The characterization is mat, statesman, penetrating and with a re- tremely simple and obvious; Bosola is inmarkable knowledge of human nature, yet conspicuous, and Julia not present at all, modest, honest, charitable, praised even by nor most of the matter of Webster's fifth act. Bosola, and with a touch of modern-seening A
kinship between Webster and cultivation in his love of ruins and history. Shakespeare has long been felt by both He lacks interest a little through being pas- readers and spectators (the play was acted sive and acted on throughout, for his status, long and successfully, even as lately as 1851, in the drama as in his life, is that of a prince with overwhelming effect, it is said). There consort. Another curious modern trait is in are signs of Shakespeare's influence on it, as both, a certain emancipation and liberalism of the death of Desdemona in that of the
to religion, partly reflection of Duchess; if a strangled person revived, as the usual English prejudice against popery. they both do, well enough to be able to speak, The Duchess rebukes her
“a there is no reason why she should not resuperstitious fool” because she objects cover, But it is doubtful whether Webster to feigning a pilgrimage, and it is doubtless should be called a pupil of Shakespeare; if so
life. They give us the utterly unexpected, which we instantly accept. Webster knows what strangely commonplace, what terse and significant things, people will say at supreme moments, as in the staccato dialogue between Ferdinand and Bosola after the Duchess' murder (IV. ii). He makes us feel the moment of tense silence which divides the chatter of affectionate intimacy from the queenly acceptance of doom :
he was not ready to admit it, for in the preface to The White Devil, after analyzing the merits of Chapman, Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, he dismisses Shakespeare, Dekker, and Heywood in one breath. He approaches Shakespeare on only one of his many dramatic sides, in his deeply human tragedy. His two best plays put us more nearly in the frame of mind produced by Hamlet, Lear, and Othello than those of any other Elizabethan dramatist. The two men are alike in giving us more than we have any right to demand in a play. Without enlarging on abstract subjects, without mere talk, they give us glimpses into deep musings over human nature, life, and destiny. Both had wide intellectual interests. Both, in their greatest plays, though not pessimists, are somber. Their people are more than carefully drawn and individual pictures; they have the contrasting sides and the suggestions of strange possibilities, of the hidden and unknown, which we feel in the rare individual in real
I'll assure you, You shall get no more children till my brothers Consent to be your gossips.— Have you lost your tongue ?
'Tis welcome: For know, whether I am doomed to live or die, I can do both like a prince.
We are aware, in both poets, of mental power and acuteness combined with warmth of heart and a living soul. In Swinburne's words, there is no poet morally nobler than Webster. Such likeness was not due to study, it was innate.
Inform him the corruption of the times ? to be advanc'd to-morrow? What creaThough some oth court hold it pre- ture ever fed worse than hoping Tansumption
talus? Nor ever died any man To instruct princes what they ought to fearfully than he that hop'd for a pardo,
don. There are rewards for hawks and It is a noble duty to inform them
dogs when they have done us service; but What they ought to foresee. 1—Here for a soldier that hazards his limbs in a comes Bosola,
battle, nothing but a kind of geometry is The only court-gall; yet I observe his bis last supportation. railing
Delio. Geometry? Is not for simple love of piety:
Bos. Aye, to hang in a fair pair of slings, Indeed, he rails at those things which he take his latter swing in the world upon wants;
an honorable pair of crutches, from hosWould be as lecherous, covetous, or pital to hospital. Fare ye well, sir: and proud,
yet do not you scorn us; for places in the Bloody, or envious, as any man,
court are but like beds in the hospital, If he had means to be so.—Here's the where this man's head lies at that man's cardinal.
foot, and so lower and lower.
Exit. Enter Cardinal and Bosola.
Del. I knew this fellow seven years in the Bos. I do haunt you still.
galleys Card. So.
For a notorious murder; and 't was Bos. I have done you better service than
thought to be slighted thus. Miserable
age, The cardinal suborn'd it: he was releas'd where only the reward of doing well is By the French general, Gaston de Foix, the doing of it!
When he recover'd Naples. Card. You enforce your merit too much. Ant.
'T is great pity Bos. I fell into the galleys in your serv- He should be thus neglected: I have ice; where, for two years together, I wbre
heard two towels instead of a shirt, with a kilot He's
very valiant. This foul melanon the shoulder, after the fashion of a
choly Roman mantle. Slighted thus! I will Will poison all his goodness; for, I'll thrive some way. Blackbirds fatten best in hard weather; why not I in these dog If too immoderate sleep be truly said days?
To be an inward rust unto the soul, Card. Would you could become honest ! It then doth follow want of action Bos. With all your divinity do but direct Breeds all black malcontents; and their me the way to it. I have known many
close rearing, travel far for it, and yet return as arrant Like moths in cloth, do hurt for want of knaves as they went forth, because they wearing. carried themselves always along with them. (Exit Cardinal.) Are you gone?
SCENE 2. The same. Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were
Antonio, Delio. Enter Silvio, Castruccio, able to possess the greatest devil, and
Julia, Roderigo, and Grisolan. make hin worse.
Delio. The presence 'gins to fill: you Ant. He hath denied thee some suit?
promis'd me Bos. He and his brother are like plum- To make me the partaker of the natures
trees that grow crooked over standing 2 Of some of your great courtiers. pools; they are rich and o'erladen with
The lord cardinal's fruit, but none but crows, pies, and And other strangers' that are now in caterpillars feed on them. Could I be
court? one of their flatt'ring panders, I would I shall.--Here comes the great Calabrian hang on their ears like a horse-leech till
duke. I were full, and then drop off. I pray, Who would rely upon these
Enter Ferdinand and Attendants. miserable dependencies, in expectation Ferd. Who took the ring oft'nest ? 4 I provide against.
4 A sport in which a horseman tried to carry off on the point of his spear 2 stagnant.
an iron ring hanging from the cross-piece of a post.
makes faces; my lady cannot abide him. Ferd. No? Cast. Nor endure to be in merry com
pany; for she says too full laughing, and too much company, fills her too full of
the wrinkle. Ferd. I would, then, have a mathematical
instrument made for her face, that she might not laugh out of compass.-I shall
shortly visit you at Milan, Lord Silvio. Sil. Your grace shall arrive most wel.
Sil. Antonio Bologna, my lord.
her household? Give him the jewel.When shall we leave this sportive action,
and fall to action indeed ? Cast. Methinks, my lord, you should not
desire to go to war in person. Ferd. Now for some gravity.-Why, my
lord? . Cast. It is fitting a soldier arise to be a
prince, but not necessary a prince de
scend to be a captain. Ferd. No? Cast. No, my lord; he were far better do
it by a deputy. Ferd. Why should he not as well sleep or
eat by a deputy? This might take idle, offensive, and base office from him,
whereas the other deprives him of honor. Cast. Believe my experience, that realm
is never long in quiet where the ruler is
a soldier. Ferd. Thou told'st me thy wife could not
endure fighting Cast. True, my lord. Ferd. And of a jest she broke of a cap
tain she met full of wounds: I have for
Ferd. You are a good horseman, Antonio:
you have excellent riders in France; what
do you think of good horsemanship? Ant. Nobly, my lord: as out of the Gre
cian horse issued many famous princes, so out of brave horsemanship arise the first sparks of growing resolution, that
raise the mind to noble action. Ferd. You have bespoke it worthily. Sil. Your brotlier, the lord cardinal, and
Enter Cardinal, Duchess, and Cariola.
Cast. She told him, my lord, he was a piti
ful fellow, to lie, like the children of
Ishmael, all in tents.? Ferd. Why, there's a wit were able to
undo all the chirurgeons 8 o' the city; for although gallants should quarrel, and had drawn their weapons, and were ready to go to it, yet her persuasions would make
them put up. Cast. That she would, my lord.—How do
you like my Spanish gennet ? Rod. He is all fire. Ferd. I am of Pliny's opinion, I think he
was begot by the wind; he runs as if he
were ballas'd 10 with quicksilver. Sil. True, my lord, he reels from the tilt
often. Rod. Gris. Ha, ha, ha! Ferd. Why do you laugh? Methinks you
that are courtiers should be my touchwood, take fire when I give fire; that is, laugh when I laugh, were the subject
never so witty. Cast. True, my lord: I myself have heard
a very good jest, and have scorn'd to seem to have so silly a wit as to under
stand it. Ferd. But I can laugh at your fool, my
Card. Are the galleys come about?
They are, my lord. Ferd. Here's the Lord Silvio is come to
take his leave. Delio. Now, sir, your promise: what's
that cardinal? I mean his temper. They say he's a
brave fellow, Will play his five thousand crowns at
tennis, dance, Court ladies, and one that hath fought
single combats. Ant. Some such flashes superficially hang
on him for form; but observe his inward character: he is a melancholy churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the engend'ring of toads; where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than ever was impos'd on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political 11 monsters. He should have been Pope; but instead of coming to it by the primitive decency of the church, he did bestow bribes so largely and so impudently as if he would have carried it away without heaven's
knowledge. Some good he hath done Delio. You have given too much of him.
What's his brother? Ant. The duke there! A most perverse
lord. Cast. He cannot speak, you know, but he 5 at the expense of. 6 lodge.
and turbulent nature.
7 rolls of lint used