Webster’s central characters are women. What makes his tragic heroines distinctive? How does he generate a sense of tragedy around them? How central are women to his idea of dramatic tragedy? We shall examine in detail two speeches, or participation in key dialogue, by Vittoria and the Duchess of Malfi. This chapter does not intend to summarise the central characters’ place within the play, but uses a couple of speeches as starting points from which you can build a broader analysis. We have already noticed how the play establishes a sense of gender conflict through structural, character and linguistic contrasts. To what extent does this conflict inform the female heroines? We have also noted the conflict between corrupt political institutions and behaviour, and the needs, or rights, of the individual. What place does a tragic heroine have within that conflict? In addition, we have commented on the moral ambiguity of the central characters: to what extent is their downfall created by their own folly, and to what extent is it caused by the circumstances into which they are forced by others? These are the kinds of questions we should keep in mind over the next few chapters.
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