Answer: The two tragedies of Webster, each named after the heroine, contain two of the most memorable figures in the whole range of Jacobean drama. Vittoria Corombona, ‘the white devil’, is the heroine of her play in a much more problematic sense than that in which the Duchess of Malfi is of hers.
The Duchess of Malfi has a stronger sense of a transcendental moral order than the earlier play, but its existence is by no means unequivocally affirmed. The world of both plays is recognizably the same, with naked power, brazen corruption in church and state and rampant cruelty everywhere. But the Duchess stands less ambiguously in contrast to her surroundings than Vittoria and Webster shows a greater interest in her both as agent and victim. There is some danger, in concentrating exclusively on the Duchess, of making the fifth act seem a tacked-on epilogue, since the heroine is killed in Act IV. In fact however, the play has a firmer and more coherent structure than The White Devil (in spite of the fact that a whole year passes between Acts I and II, and there is enough time for the Duchess to have several children between Acts II and III), and the spirit of the dead woman irradiates the last act, as the ghost of Caesar haunts the latter part of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The exploration of worldly greatness and its relation to moral stature which is Chapman’s great theme becomes obsessive in Webster. But moral stature has a distinctly felt religious connotation in The Duchess of Malfi. Cariola, the Duchess’s maid, says of her mistress:
Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman
Reign most in her I know not.
The exemplars of masculine ‘greatness’ in the play are her brothers, the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand. They typify the corruption of the religious and secular order which is set up as an ideal in Antonio’s speech at the very beginning of the play:
a Prince’s court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver-drops in general. But if’t chance
Some curs’d example poison’t near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.
It is the ‘curs’d example’ of the Cardinal and the Duke which produces a society in which merit goes unrewarded and, as the Machiavellian Bosola finds out, where even the hatchet men of the establishment cannot be certain of obtaining their hoped-for gains. Bosola and the Duchess herself are the two most fascinating figures in the play, which is almost as much his tragedy as hers, though in a different way. He is presented as a malcontent like Flamineo, a ready tool for Duke Ferdinand’s dark designs. His contempt of the court, as Antonio is quick to note, is not due to principled opposition, like Bussy’s, but to envy at not himself having access to the sources of wealth and power:
I observe his railing
Is not for simple love of piety:
Indeed he rails at those things which he wants,
Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man,
If he had means to be so.
Bosola tends to use prose for his ‘railing’ and verse for his weightier meditations, but the change from one to the other does not affect the quality of his epitomizing. Paradoxically though, a sense of furtive and febrile activity comes through the somewhat static portraits. The major and minor themes, if we may so call them, and the lines of the main action are clear. The minor theme is the depiction of a society where action and its rewards have no relation to each other at all, since the latter depends on the unpredictable whims of the powerful. The major theme is that of the limits of individual action and responsibility in a corrupt society, particularized in the freedom of a woman to choose her own destiny. The Duchess’s brothers insist that as a widow she should not marry, expressing the traditional view that the only motive for a woman’s remarriage must be lust:
Marry? They are most luxurious
Will wed twice.
The Duchess gives them her promise that she would not, though she has already secretly chosen her steward Antonio as her prospective husband. To the extent that she utters a deliberate lie she may be considered to have compromised her integrity and thus to be a representative of her society, not a rebel against it. There are moments, especially towards the end of the play, when we are strongly aware of the connection between the heroine and her milieu, but in comparison with Vittoria it is the contrast between heroine and milieu which strikes us most forcibly. However, in deciding to try and outwit her brothers at their own game of secrecy and deception, the Duchess has not only marginally compromised her integrity, but also made certain that she remains indissolubly tied to that corrupt world.
Against the cloudy and ill-defined cluster of motives and machinations which make up this part of the play, the betrothal scene between the Duchess and Antonio stands out with a luminous clarity. It has sometimes been urged that, for a Jacobean audience, the Duchess’s action in proposing to a man would have been reprehensible on all counts — psychologically, as a woman should not take the initiative in such matters, socially because her action threatened the stability of the social order and morally because her motive was bound to be unbridled sexuality.
In the play she shows herself well aware of the subterfuges to which her choice has compelled her in a society where outward honor and ‘greatness’ are all.
The climax comes when Bosola, posing first as a tomb maker and then as a bellman arrives with his henchman to strangle the Duchess and her children. The Duchess meets her end with a magnificent and magnificently theatrical (the phrase is not intended to be pejorative) combination of stoic pride — ‘I am Duchess ofMalfi still’ — and Christian humility. When Cariola asks her to cry for help she answers with a clear-eyed recognition of her immediate surroundings and the world she is in — ‘To whom? To our next neighbours? They are mad folks’
Whatever, Cardinal’s dying words move beyond the reach of Bosola’s vindictive relish over his destruction, though that relish too is soon overlaid by other moral concerns:
Look to my brother:
He gave us these large wounds, as we were struggling
Here i’th’rushes. And now, I pray, let me
Be laid by, and never thought of. (Dies)
In their last moments Webster’s villains seem to catch a faint and flickering perception of a moral order they have strenuously denied — the Cardinal’s words ‘How tedious is a guilty conscience’ catches the ambivalence perfectly — and an insight into the tragic predicament whereby their vaunted freedom of action has turned out to be the blind momentum of unrecognized instincts and impulses. The life and death of the Duchess certainly does not dispel the darkness of Webster’s world, but it shines very clearly in the moral confusion and the Grand Guignol extravagance of that world, a small, unwavering, inexplicable light.