Webster’s Dramatic World
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
The many Duchesses of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is “the archetypal ‘Jacobean’ play – dark, sensuous, violent and fascinated with corruption” (Andy Kesson). Quite so. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Webster and Shakespeare
The play was written around 1614 (midway through the reign of King James from 1603 to 1625). But in many ways it seems more Elizabethan (1558 to 1603). Webster lived from 1580-1634, born 16 years after Shakespeare. So, not quite a contemporary; a boy in Shakespeare’s pomp, and more of a runner than a rival. When picking up the quill, Webster paid the Bard some homage, but went way beyond and developed his very own form of revenge tragedy. Webster brought us rip-roaring, gut-wrenching, horrendous tragedy, set in a world of madness and machismo.
The Duchess of Malfi first appeared just after Shakespeare wrote his last play, Two Noble Kinsmen, with John Fletcher. 13 years after Hamlet. The Bard set the bar incredibly high, of course. Webster came close, and is regarded by the RSC as “the last of the great Elizabethan playwrights”.
An early playbill. Not a playWill
A true story?
The play is based on the real-life tragedy of Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi,
who lived between 1478 and 1510. It’s sad to think that anyone had the life of the heroine we see presented on stage. Surely not all the horrors purveyed could have happened in her court? I trust we see some buckets full of dramatic licence.
Previous prominent Duchesses include:
1960 Peggy Ashcroft, RSC
1971 Judi Dench, RSC
1981 Helen Mirren, The Roundhouse
2006 Imogen Stubbs, West Yorkshire Playhouse
2014 Gemma Arterton, The Globe, London
Helen Mirren as The Duchess (R) with Bob Hoskins (L) as Bosola (1981)
Gemma Arterton (The Duchess in 2014)
(photo: (c) Ben Stevens)
So definitely a role to die for. Played by some of the finest actresses in the history of British theatre. Including my all-time stage crush (no clues). And three dames. There’s nothing like them.
Connected Cultures – Africa and Yorkshire
In 2016, the West Yorkshire Playhouse staged a Yoruba adaptation of the play, entitled Iyalode of Eti. By all accounts this was quite a reimagining. Sadly, I missed this version, just as I missed the 2006 production set in 1950s ‘Dolce Vita’ Italy. Yorkshire somehow seemed just too far to travel both times. What a fool I was. And thank heavens for the RSC and Stratford.
Kehinde Bankole in a scene from Iyalode of Eti (2016)
There are many links to plays with horrific outcomes. Shakespeare, of course. The Duchess of Malfi is more Titus Andronicus than Hamlet. With the severed hand and mass goriness. But there are hints of the great Danish play. Antonio is mistakenly been slain by Bosola, just as Polonius is by Hamlet. Just about all the main characters die in Malfi in the end, with only Delio, a minor player, living to tell the tale, but he pales in comparison to Horatio.
Bosola is a treacherous, unreliable confident. Shades of Iago in Othello, but not so nasty at heart. Moving into the realm of love, there is plenty in common with Romeo and Juliet. Forbidden love. Family meddling. Strike that. Family control freakery with a vengeance.
There are also similarities to Dido, Queen of Carthage. Strong women perishing. Violent deaths but refusing to be broken in spirit.
Chipo Chung as Dido (2016) RSC photo
As in so many grand plays, we have a juvenile presence on stage. In Malfi we see three youngsters, born in surprisingly quick succession. The Duchess and Antonio wasted no time at all.
Themes abound, and class difference is one of the most prominent. Antonio is regarded as an unsuitable match for a Duchess. Even the Duchess recognises the difference, when she bewails:
“The misery of us that are born great”
Ferdinand and the Cardinal ensure that the misery continues even when she has wooed and captured the heart of her chosen commoner.
The brothers shamelessly try to control their sister with words and violence.
Speaking to Bosola, a hired assassin, Ferdinand says:
“She’s a young widow, I would not have her marry again”
Any marriage made by the Duchess will be said to be "executed rather than celebrated".
The Duchess (Joan Iyiola), brought low by her brother Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb), 2018
In contrast, there is female strength and magnificence
The Duchess stand up to her brothers, replying:
“This is terrible good counsel” , and she's simply not taking it.
Much later on, in a beleaguered state, close to her execution, the heroine announces to Bosola and the world:
“I am Duchess of Malfi Still”
Soon after, when Ferdinand discovers her dead, he begins to realise his terrible mistake, exclaiming:
“Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young”
She was too fine a woman for this court. Too resplendent. Too beautiful. Too female, even, for this maelstrom of chaos and male treachery.
Sexuality and the right to make one’s own decisions
Andy Kesson (RSC notes) refers to the “Elizabethan articulations of power, gender and sexuality” exhibited in Webster’s world. He continues:
“Webster’s purpose in retelling this story is to challenge the misogyny at its heart by celebrating rather than condemning a woman’s desire.”
Antonio barely seems up to the challenge of partnering a powerful woman with such desires and dreams. He calls the Duchess a “saucy and ambitious devil” when looking at the ring she offers him. Later on, he notes that the common rabble refer to his wife as a Strumpet. Something tells me that Antonio does not respect her very much. But he is quick to do what she tells him.
Imogen Stubbs as The Duchess in 2006. Too alluring by far.
Antonio claims that the Cardinal should have been Pope. This is daring, on Webster’s part as well as Antonio’s. The Cardinal is evil. He beats his mistress. Even having a mistress is immoral for a man in his position. Worse still, he joins Ferdinand in destroying their sister. Ferdinand refer to the Duchess’s children as bastards. There is no trace of Christian love here.
Violence and Madness
There is so much hatred and madness in this world. And yet it comes across as simply the way rich, powerful family members behaved towards each other in those times. There are so many lost minds, individual and collective. This is exemplified by the patients of the mental institution. Ferdinand’s blames his death command on a moment of madness, but he failed to rescind that command in the following three years’ worth of moments. This is Ferdinand to the Cardinal on their sister and new brother-in-law:
“I would have their bodies
Burnt in a cola pit, with the ventage stopped,
That their cursed smoke might not ascend to heaven”
Mad and macho in the extreme.
Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) realising his madness, 2018. RSC photo
A word on Revenge. This is, after all, one of the great revenge tragedies ever. Surprisingly, the one who seems happiest getting his vengeance is Bosola, when, in the final act, he says:
“Now my revenge is perfect”
Perfectly evil. Completely ruinous. His own death is part of the revenge he achieves.
A quick word also on Destiny and human insignificance
When the Duchess tells Bosola:
“I could curse the stars”
The murderous villain comes back quickly with:
“Look you, the stars shine still”
And he is right. As well as so badly wrong of course.
The Duchess cursing; Bosola gazing (Joan Iyiola & Nicolas Tennant), 2018
There is trace of optimism in the final scene
On stumbling across the only surviving child of the hapless pair, Delio, the only surving courtier of any note, states his intention to bring something good out of all the ruin. His plan is:
"To establish this young, hopeful gentleman
In’s mother’s right”
There is hope, then. But the chances are slim. The boy seems less likely to make a go of things than young Fortinbras in Hamlet. But hey. This is not Shakepeare after all.
There is one major inconsistency for me. Would Ferdinand and the Cardinal really have taken three years to discover the identity of their sister’s second husband? Bosola was surely cunning enough to have found out much sooner. The three years of wedded, child generating bliss seem a bit unrealistic.
Hope for the future? There's a lot on this boy's shoulders.
RSC production of The Duchess of Malfi in 1960 (photo: Angus McBean)
Dramatically speaking, I have a sense of hell being realised in court, in Webster’s world. With no escape and no redemption for anyone. No point to the madness and the hatred. Secrecy and lies and power struggles resolved by violence. And so, tragically, everything is unresolved. Yet somehow we are still encouraged, briefly, at the end, for something better to take its place. This seems highly unlikely, even in a staged setting. We are left with a horrid tale, but a brilliant one. Engaging for all the wrong reasons. Most of them anyway.
Thanks to a dazzling performance at the Swan theatre, my appetite for these Jacobean japes and wheezes has come back in bucketfuls. I suspect there are plenty more in The White Devil, Webster’s other major work. Performed by the RSC in 2014. It’s a bit much to hope for a revival of this one any time soon, but I’m scouring my sources all the time.
Joan Iyiola looking holy inappropriate, with Laura Elphinstone in The White Devil, 2014
(photo: Keith Pattison)
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
Connected Cultures review of The Duchess of Malfi
RSC - About the Duchess of Malfi www.rsc.org.uk/the-duchess-of-malfi