Tuesday, 15 September 1998

John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi (1623)

Edition: Everyman
Review number: 113

Webster's story of the Duchess of Malfi may be a Jacobean tragedy, but it is also a psychological horror story as well told as any modern novel in the genre.

The Duchess inherits her realm as a widow, and is urged by her broothers Ferdinand Duke of Calabria and the Cardinal to marry again. Although at first she vows never to remarry, she eventually falls for her steward, Antonio Bologna. Because he is her servant and not noble, they hide their marriage until she becomes obviously pregnant and is delivered of a son. When her brothers discover this, they assume that the child has been born out of wedlock. Ferdinand eventually discovers the truth, and the duchess realises that he and the cardinal will not be willing for her land to descend to her children by Antonio. They attack her lands and take her prisoner, then torture her by showing her signs as though Antonio and the children are dead.

It is the captivity of the duchess which is the greatest part of the play. The attempts by her brothers to drive her insane are treated in a way guaranteed to move even the most heartless; the proceeeings themselves move her jailor, steeped in crime though he is. This justly ranks as one of the best known non-Shakespearean plays of the period.

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