Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

The Duchess of Malfi is generally regarded as John Webster's finest play, a masterpiece of tragic depth and emotional complexity. The conflict between private love and public political behaviour for a passionate but circumscribed woman is as theatrically pertinent now as when first performed. This timely Handbook:

• examines the play's sources and its cultural context
• offers a detailed theatrical commentary that aids visualisation of the underlying dynamics and structure of the play in performance, and explores performance possibilities
• analyses influential productions on stage and screen, from when it was first performed by the actors of Shakespeare's theatre company, the King's Men, to the present day
• presents key critical debates and assessments of The Duchess of Malfi.

Table of Contents

1. The Text and Early Performances

Abstract
I will entertain you with what hath happened this week at the bank’s side. The King’s players had a new play, called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and Garters, the guards, with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.
David Carnegie

2. Commentary: The Play in Performance

Abstract
The Duchess of Malfi is divided into five acts, but act divisions were a recent innovation at the time (see pp. 11–12). Playwrights tended to write in scenes, probably pretty much as the scene divisions appear in modern editions of the play. These are ‘English scenes’ — scenes that continue until all characters exit, leaving the stage clear for a new scene to begin. Generally speaking an English scene, long or short, contains a complete episode. Yet for purposes of analysis (and probably for Webster when writing), it is useful to consider what we now call ‘French scenes’ — scenes that continue only until any character leaves the stage, or any new character enters. Act V, scene i, for instance, is a single English scene but contains five French scenes. The difference in stage activity, mood, rhythm, and content between the first and last French scenes, with just the two close friends Antonio and Delio talking alone; the second and fourth scenes, in which Antonio observes Delio testing the Marquis of Pescara’s integrity; and the central third scene, in which Pescara gives Antonio’s confiscated lands to a courtesan as a moral lesson to Delio; these structural divisions give a clear sense of the importance of French scenes as units of playmaking and analysis. They are also usually the basic units of rehearsal of a play.
David Carnegie

3. Sources and Cultural Context

Abstract
John Webster (c. 1578–c. 1634–38), like William Shakespeare, grew up in the Elizabethan cultural climate, and experienced the political, religious, economic, and social uncertainty that accompanied the final years of Elizabeth’s reign and transition to the rule of James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England). But Webster was a generation younger, and Shakespeare was retiring as the King’s Men’s principal dramatist by the time Webster was writing this play. And Webster, unlike Shakespeare, was London born and bred. His father ran the family firm, building and hiring out coaches, and was a ‘Citizen’ of the City of London by virtue of his membership of the Guild of Merchant Taylors, an honour the dramatist assumed after his father’s death. Thus, Webster was a gentleman, and lived in the midst of the greatest metropolis of Europe in a position of some prosperity.
David Carnegie

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
When The Duchess of Malfi opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London, on 18 April 1945, with leading British classical actors, it was the first major production since the nineteenth century. From about 1850 to 1875 the play had been a starring vehicle on both sides of the Atlantic for actresses playing the Duchess in a heavily cut and melodramatic adaptation that allowed her to display an acting range from aristocratic coquetry to grand tragedy. But since then it had dropped from the repertoire, apart from a few experimental and university productions. Furthermore, Webster’s critical reputation had been undermined by William Archer’s 1893 dismissal of him as ‘not … a great dramatist, but … a great poet who wrote haphazard dramatic or melodramatic romances for [a] semi-barbarous public’; by George Bernard Shaw’s pronouncement that he was the ‘Tussaud laureate’ (referring to the grisly waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s museum); and by T. S. Eliot’s similarly morbid dictum that Webster ‘saw the skull beneath the skin’ (see p. 133). The omens were not auspicious.
David Carnegie

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
The Duchess of Malfi was first broadcast on television by the BBC as early as 1938, the same year they presented the first Shakespeare play ever broadcast. BBC produced the play again 1949, as did the CBC in Canada in 1962, and French television in 1965. However, only one full television production and one filmed stage version are generally available, and they will be discussed here. There have been no feature films, although there have been both film and television adaptations; and many short appropriations can be found on YouTube.
David Carnegie

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
The enthusiasm of Webster’s fellow playwrights for The Duchess of Malfi (see p. 3) was already being qualified by the mid seventeenth century when Abraham Wright complained, with reference to the time elapsed between Acts II and III, that ‘against all the laws of the scene, the business was two years a-doing’ (Moore, p. 35). Wright is referring to the neoclassical rule of the unity of time, just as the eighteenth-century playwright Lewis Theobald did when he adapted the play as The Fatal Secret (1733). He described Webster as having ‘a strong and impetuous genius, but withal a most wild and indigested one. … As for rules, he either knew them not, or thought them too servile a restraint. Hence it is that he skips over years. …’ (Preface).
David Carnegie
Additional information