John Webster

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Plays by John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi (ed. Gibbons)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

One of the most haunting tragedies written in the Jacobean period, The Duchess of Malfi is a violent and macabre story of lust, madness, cruelty and revenge. First performed c. 1613-4 by the King’s Men, probably at the indoor Blackfriars theatre and later at the outdoor Globe playhouse, this text is based on the only authoritative extant edition, the first quarto of 1623.

Webster adapts the true story of a noble Italian widow, the eponymous Duchess, who secretly marries her steward, Antonio, and bears his children. Her two corrupt brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, enraged by this act of female self-determination across class boundaries, begin to spy on the family in a conspiracy against her happiness that ends in psychological torture, mutilation and murder.

While following many of the conventions of revenge tragedy (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it employs a courtly setting, surveillance, a malcontent), The Duchess of Malfi affords its protagonists a psychological depth that has prompted discussions, amongst others, of incest and lycanthropy. Nevertheless, it also contains some of the most memorable props of the early modern stage, including the waxwork ‘bodies’ of the Duchess’ family, and a poisoned Bible.

Unlike his sources, Webster does not condemn the Duchess for lasciviousness – she remains one of the most fascinating and complex female characters of the early modern stage. She exercises power politically and domestically, and is sexually autonomous: she takes the active role in her wooing of Antonio, refusing to bow down to her brothers’ prescriptive demands of her heart and body. She has been regarded as an archetypal Protestant martyr against the tyranny of Catholic Europe, such as was celebrated in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the major tragedies of the period and continues to prompt both new adaptations and critical interpretations. It has had a long and successful stage history, and was played by candlelight as the inaugural production at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London (2014), an indoor playing space designed to replicate the early seventeenth-century Blackfriars theatre, a little way across the river from where the Globe now stands.

video The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen)

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

The Duchess of Malfi is a popular choice as a set text, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence and horror of its later scenes. Generally considered to be the masterpiece of Jacobean playwright John Webster, it was first produced in around 1613. It’s a macabre tragedy, based on actual events, and tends to be either loved or hated by critics – while consistently captivating audiences across the centuries.
Set in Italy in the early fifteenth century, it starts out as a love story, with the Duchess marrying beneath her class. However, her two brothers, one cool and corrupt, the other secretly violent and warped, have other ideas. With incredible plot twists along the way, the play ends as an utter tragedy, as the brothers take revenge on her, destroying themselves in the process.
Dark, complex…and feminist?
The main themes of The Duchess of Malfi include revenge and corruption. It also looks at the status of women in society - Webster’s use of a strong, virtuous woman as the central character was rare for the time.
The play was originally written for and performed by The King’s Men, the same company which Shakespeare belonged to. Indeed, this Jacobean classic makes an interesting text to study in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s works.
The language is poetic, and subtle at times, but infinitely rewarding. Its complex characters are also rewarding to watch, as the play develops towards the highly dramatic climax.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Peter Bankolé, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Mark Hadfield, Tim Steed, Richard Bremmer, Conrad Westmaas, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Harvey Virdi, Brigid Zengeni, Maxwell Hutcheon.

Little is known of John Webster's life. He was born in c. 1580 to a London coachmaker, and appears to have studied law at the Middle Temple. Although he is recorded as the author of several other works, including a history play, Lady Jane, his only surviving works are Westward Ho! and Northward Ho! (1604-05), written in collaboration with Thomas Dekker, the comedy The Devil's Law Case (1620), and two tragic masterpieces, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614).

With their eloquent poetry and superbly crafted plots, the latter two plays are amongst the most compelling of Jacobean revenge tragedies. Nevertheless, Webster has often been criticized for the violence and morbidity of his work: George Bernard Shaw called him the 'Tussaud Laureate' of English literature, while Rupert Brooke described his plays as 'full of the feverish and ghastly turmoil of a nest of maggots'. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi have enjoyed frequent modern revivals.