John Webster, like Ben Jonson, wrote both comedies and tragedies, but his reputation rests emphatically on just two tragedies The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. They are both macabre works, full of brooding villains and vicious plots, and are perhaps the first example in English literature of what came to be known as the Gothic style. But none of the famous Gothic novels of the late 18th century rival Webster in his exposition of characters bent on revenge, and allowing the claims of neither kinship nor common humanity to divert them.
The main characters, who give their names to the two plays, are however very different from each other. The Duchess of Malfi is a pathetic figure, and perhaps the best known lines in the play are her epitaph
Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.
This comes after she is strangled, after a display of both pathos and determination that put her executioners to shame
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and ’tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways: any way, for heaven-sake,
So I were out of your whispering. Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
The Duchess died because she dared to love her steward Antonio, which brought down on her the wrath of her proud brothers. She managed to marry Antonio and bear him three children, but when this is found out, and she tries to escape, the couple are separated. She is betrayed by Bosola, whom she had trusted but who turned out to be her brother’s spy. But he is stricken with remorse when she is killed, and turns against the two brothers, and in the end kills them both – though not before he has killed Antonio by mistake, thinking he is the Cardinal. The latter, the more insidious of the two brothers (Ferdinand is just plain bonkers), had added to the mayhem by poisoning his mistress after he had confessed to her his part in the murder of his sister.
Despite the preposterous nature of the plot, the obsessed characters are convincing in their extremities, not least Ferdinand who seems to be incestuously attracted to his sister. And in the midst of all this madness, there are lines of beauty and of telling intensity –
Our bodies are weaker than those Paper prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible, Since our is to preserve earth-worms. Didst thou ever see A lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body: this world Is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o’er our heads Like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge Of the small compass of our prison.”
Resonant too is the sharp observation of our own responsibility for our fates
Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust
And the recognition of how their own deeds will indelibly mark those who engage in wickedness
Do you not weep? Other sins only speak, murder shrieks out: The element of water moistens the earth, But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens
Very different from the Duchess of Malfi is the heroine, if one can call her that, of The White Devil, who ends up married to the man who killed her husband. But in a sense she was driven to that because she was condemned for the murder, which was rather his doing rather than hers, when she had not really encouraged him. Her defence at her trial makes clear the injustice of her fate
Grant I was tempted,
Temptation to lust proves not the act…
You read his hot love to me, but you want
My frosty answer…
Condemn you me for that the Duke did love me
So may you blame some fair and crystal river
For that some melancholic distracted man
Hath drowned himself in’t.
And her determination not to give in, when she is condemned, suggests a character no less powerful in its very different way than the vulnerable Duchess of Malfi
For since you cannot take my life for deeds,
Take it for words. O woman’s poor revenge
Which dwells but in the tongue; I will not weep,
No I do scorn to call up one poor tear
To fawn on your injustice
The plot was based on what was supposed to be the true life story of Vittoria Accoramboni, and deals with the love for her of the Duke of Brachiano, despite them both being married. His infatuation is encouraged by Vittoria’s brother Flamineo, and the two men arrange to have the two inconvenient spouses killed.
Vittoria alone however was condemned for the murder and sent to a convent, but Brachiano’s love is energized again when he receives a letter from someone else professing love for Vittoria. This was in fact written by the brother of his wife Isabella, and it succeeds in bringing things out into the open. Overwhelmed by jealousy, which seems to have been more powerful than his earlier passion, Brachiano elopes with Vittoria, and the two marry and have a brief period of happiness in Padua before a host of characters committed to avenging Isabell arrive on the scene. In what might be termed Gothic excess, two are disguised as Capuchin monks and Isabella’s brother as a moor.
The moor seduces Vittoria’s maid, and Vittoria’s brother tries to persuade the maid and Vittoria to shoot each other, after Brachiano had been poisoned. Vittoria and the maid instead shoot him, but the pistols are not loaded. He surprises them by rising from the dead and is trying to avenge himelf when the Capuchin monks turn up and dispatch both brother and sister.
It is no wonder, with all these macabre motives and actions, that T S Eliot, who found Webster compelling, described him as always seeing ‘the skull beneath the skin’. But in addition there are also lines of startling perspicacity
Fortune’s a right whore:
If she give ought, she deals it in small parcels,
That she may take away all at one swoop
Or the general statement of a conjuror who appears in just one scene
Both flowers and weeds spring when the sun is warm,
And great men do great good, or else great harm
The most philosophical lines ironically are given to Flamineo, Vittoria’s perverse brother
Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright
But looked to near, have neither heat nor light.
And, most tellingly,
Oft gay and honored robes those torture try:
We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry
Similarly the perverse Ferdinand in The Duchess also has sharp shafts of wisdom –
Eagles commonly fly alone: they are crows, daws, and starlings that flock together.
though perhaps the best short aphorism is expressed by the unfortunate Antonio –
Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness.
Webster did write one other play, The Devil’s Law Case, which has had some acclaim, but its plot is almost incomprehensible. It features yet another nasty brother who also gets some vivid lines
Vain the ambition of kings Who seek by trophies and dead things, To leave a living name behind, And weave but nets to catch the wind.
The ruthlessness of this one, Romelio, in trying to stop his sister marrying Contarini, the man she loves, is alleviated by their mother falling for the same young man. But even just before the young Contarini, feared dead, is revealed as living to both mother and daughter, Romelio has some splendid lines in which to scorn death –
I pray, what is death? The safest trench i’th’ world to keep man free From fortune’s gunshot; to be afraid of that Would prove me weaker than a teeming woman, That does endure a thousand times more pain In bearing of a child.
After all this, Webster ends his play with a disregard for all romantic convention that suggests he truly did deserve his dark reputation. The judge who weighs out punishment makes Romelio and Contarini fight together against the Turks as penance, while mother and daughter and the ‘beautiful nun’ Romelio has seduced have to build a monastery. There can be no question of Contarini and his young lady getting married, for as the judge puts it, they should all be jolly glad that they have suffered nothing worse
so we leave you, Wishing your future life may make good use Of these events, since that these passages, Which threat’ned ruin, built on rotten ground, Are with Success beyond our wishes crown’d.
Given the fate of the Duchess and the White Devil, we cannot but agree.