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. Continue reading