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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VII. Tourneur and Webster

§ 10. The Dutchesse Of Malfy: its source and date; advance in representation and motif

The same tendency appears still more clearly in The Dutchesse Of Malfy. Here, again, revenge is the nominal theme. It is not, however, revenge for murder, but for an outrage on the insensate pride of family; and it is reinforced by the yet more sordid motive of avarice—a motive which had been carefully excluded from the earlier play. The sympathies of the spectator, which, in The White Divel, are somewhat divided, are, here, solely and absolutely, with the victim. And, as if to mark the change in the most glaring manner possible, the whole of the last act is devoted to the nemesis which falls upon the avengers. The dramatic interest suffers; but the intention of the dramatist is proved beyond all possibility of mistake. The upshot of all this is that the motive of vengeance, already weakened in the earlier drama, fades almost out of recognition in the latter; and that, with The Dutchesse Of Malfy, revenge—except in survivals so obvious as the last act of Women beware Women—may be said to disappear from among the dominant themes of Elizabethan tragedy.

With all its great qualities, the first tragedy of Webster is not without traces of immaturity. The crudeness of incident which he had inherited from his forerunners, is not entirely purged away; the plot is wanting in clearness; even the portraiture of the heroine bears some marks of vacillation. Most, if not all, of these weakness are absent from The Dutchesse Of Malfy. The plot of this play is perfectly simple; the characters, if we except that of Bosola, are drawn with an unfaltering hand; in unity of tone, the play surpasses all others of the period, save those of Shakespeare. As to the sources of this tragedy, and its date, there is little room for discussion. The story is certainly taken, with many refinements, from Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, as that, in its turn, drew upon the Histoires Tragiques of Belleforest, and this upon Bandello. Crawford has proved that Sidney’s Arcadia not only exercised a deep influence upon the thought and language of the play, but that it also furnished the hint, and more than the hint, of its most highly wrought situation: that in which the duchess is persecuted with every variety of physical and mental torture. It is also more than probable that the echo song, which Webster had in mind (act V, sc. 3), and which he turns to purposes of the highest imaginative effect, is that of the Arcadia (book II) rather than any other. The play of Lope de Vega, which may have been written about the same time, has little in common with Webster’s, and can hardly have been known to him. The date of The Dutchesse Of Malfy, again, can now be determined within very narrow limits. It was not printed untill 1623. But, as the part of Antonio is known to have been created by Ostler, the first performance cannot have been later than 1614, the year of that actor’s death. It is true that the opening dialogue apparently refers to the execution of Concini, marechal d’Ancre, which took place in April, 1617, and speedily became known, through translations of official documents, in this country. There is, however, no difficulty in supposing that this passage was added by Webster some time between that event and the date of publication. Indeed, if, as is practically certain, the play described by Busino, chaplain to the Venetian embassy, in February, 1618, is The Dutchesse Of Malfy—the amours of a Cardinal, his solemn exchange of a churchman’s for a soldier’s garb and his “poisoning” of his sister are specifically mentioned and, in spite of the slight inaccuracy, can hardly refer to any incidents except those of our play—it may well be that the addition was made for a revival of the play at the beginning of that year. In any case it is now certain that The Dutchesse Of Malfy was composed within two or three years of The White Divel.

The later play is a marked advance upon the earlier. The old motives, as we have seen, are retained, but represented in a softer, a more human, form; and the effect on the imagination is entirely different. The interest is shifted from the avenger to the deed which provokes their malice. The real theme of the drama is not revenge, but the graciousness of a noble and loving woman, and the unflinching firmness with which, in the face of nameless tortures, she possesses her soul, undismayed by all until a brutal deception convinces her that the bodies of her murdered child and husband lie before her. The constancy of the victim, the remorse which it wakens even in the base nature of her tormentor, are painted with the fewest possible strokes, and each is charged to the utmost with imaginative effect. After this, it must be admitted, the interest flags; the fate of Antonio, the miserable end of the persecutors and their accomplice, are in the nature of an anti-climax. Had the play ended with the fourth act, the tragic impression would have been yet deeper and more harmonious than it is. Yet it is easy to see how Webster was drawn into this by-path. During this period—in that which followed it is strangely different—he was filled with notions of nemesis and poetic justice. Hence, the necessity for bringing the two brothers and Bosola to condign punishment. He was also possessed with a gloomy conviction, perhaps partly inherited from Marston, of the corruption of man, and particularly of such men as haunted courts. In the loves of Julia and the cardinal, he found a text for this sermon too tempting to be passed by. Finally, he was strangely attracted towards subtle intricacies of character; and, in the portrait of Bosola, he strove to probe them to their depth. The general result of all this is to deepen the gloom of the atmosphere still further, but, at the same time to blunt the edge of the tragic effect. The true tragedy is with the duchess. When she is gone, what are Bosola and Julia, what are Ferdinand and the cardinal, but hateful superfluities? Even Antonio, beautiful as is the poetry which Webster weaves around him, suffers eclipse when the sun, which gave him light and warmth, is quenched.