"The first necessity of baroque is that the audience should be gripped, excited, moved" i - so says Ralph Berry. The fourth act of The Duchess of Malfi certainly succeeds under all these criteria, being the dramatic crux of the play. The events that occur in the first scene are undoubtedly crucial, but it is the characters' vastly varied reactions to them that are vitally important. Rich imagery is deeply interwoven with the fabric of play - indeed, it is an essential part of its function - and the scene's proceedings are completely overshadowed by the telling relationship between Ferdinand, Bosola and the Duchess that is explored throughout act IV, scene i.
Often, it is in the most trying times that the true nature of people is allowed to shine through their veiled everyday existence. In this scene, the Duchess is subjected to imprisonment and cruel tortures by her malevolent twin brother who is still unable to come to terms with his sister's independence and intimate relationship with Antonio. Bosola is beginning to experience emotions he had previously repressed or never had the capacity to experience in court life. He is forced to astatically struggle with inner turmoil and design for himself a new system of morality. Because of these simultaneous occurrences, the three major characters' rôles are brought out to the front of the stage for punctilious analysis. "The whole of Act IV is a protracted dying as, step by step, 'by degrees', the Duchess is made to face the utmost pain, misery and evil" ii . As this happens, the very best and most deplorable characteristics are teased out and, as their relationship develops, the tensions between these three persons cause them to bounce off each other and candidly display their true ideals and priorities. Scene four is both a climax and a trigger point in the play - a pivot that defines the main individuals and determines the outcome of the tragedy.
At the beginning, Bosola sums up the Duchess' conduct in response to her brother's callous deeds in one word; "nobly" (l. 2). This is his first sincerely genial and positive description of someone else in the entire play. By adding to his sentiments with generous wordage such as "majesty" (l. 6), "loveliness" (l. 7) and "perfect" (l. 8), Bosola demonstrates how much he has changed. No longer is his sole purpose the furthering of his own position by any means, with a complete disregard of the consequences toward others, but now, an awakening of conscience and ethics has happened, and Bosola is capable of telling the truth and not using every opportunity for manipulation. This is a seemingly effortless personality shift, yet one is left to wonder as to the extent of the unseen torment and wrestling as Bosola's compassion starts to shine through. Still ambivalence and ambiguity remain and, when the false corpses of the Duchess' family are revealed, it is possible to speculate as to whether there is any degree of divided loyalty. Bosola may be torn between his commitment to himself in his contract to Ferdinand and the altruistic approach of telling the Duchess, who has helped him learn to feel empathy, the truth. This time, he defies his emotions to do what he has been ordered, and allows his common sense to lead to familiar self-preservation. However, it is all in vain and "the play constantly reminds us by its poetry that, apart form what men do to one another, it is man's natural lot to endure disease, decay and death" iii
In turn, Bosola's change has a measurable effect upon the Duchess. Although she perceptively understands exactly why he is present, the Duchess, eloquent as ever, begins to adopt his typically malcontent trait of erudite melancholy and even mirrors his words from act I, scene ii, line 200 with the cynical interruption, "why dost thou wrap thy poison'd pills / In gold and sugar?" (l. 19-20) Similarly, Ferdinand being driven toward madness allows the Duchess true qualities to shine through both through contrast and by her response to his action. Ferdinand's twisted perception depicts him in numerous rôles, as he endeavours to absolve his twin sister through murder, assisted by an undoubtedly twisted perspective: "For I account it the honorabl'st revenge / Where I may kill, to pardon" (l. 32-3). He is overcome by violently pugnacious and deplorably mad desires for aggression to exact the revenge he seeks yet, all the while, the Duchess is sharp witted as ever; perfectly calm and unaffected by his belligerent and crazed ramblings. As Ferdinand tumbles down a spiralling descent, he tries to reduce the Duchess by tormenting her with mental tortures and lower her to his level before her death. Constantly hinting with disturbing ambiguity, he leaves the Duchess holding what she believes to be her dead husband's hand while Ferdinand revels in her distress saying, "Let her have lights enough," (l.52) before cowardly leaving.
Crises bring out the worst in people, and Ferdinand's mind believes that, should he make the Duchess suffer, he will be able to bring her to salvation and, by punishing her, force her to experience the hurt he feels he has endured. He plans to "bring her, by degrees to mortification" (IV, ii, 180) with his skewed view of himself as a benevolent, magnanimous altruist. Despite thinking of himself, judge jury and executioner, and having a "compassionate nature" (l. 37), Ferdinand cannot see humanity in others, and this is reinforced by his repeated usage of animal imagery. However, this opinion is telling in that his mindset is completely unable to consider than the Duchess cannot be broken down by his physical abuse or mind games, as she is so determined. Still, this is a very effective part of the play, and the darkness would have had great dramatic effect when performed in Webster's time, as an indoor theatre was used and thus, it would have been completely black when these events took place. In the play, Ferdinand often represents darkness but, unusually, the servants' lights bring yet more horror to this typically Jacobean scene. For the Duchess, the light is doubly cruel as it brings sudden realisation and makes apparent an event more characteristic of the "Theatre of Blood" - the remorseless murder of the Duchess' family. For most dramas, this would be the focus, but this section is used as a springboard to gauge characters' reactions and relationships. At first, the Duchess exhibits the natural human instincts of repulsion and fear, but these subside and she becomes yet more noble, embracing death and rising above Ferdinand with the line, "it wastes me more, / Than were't my picture" (l. 62-3). Contrary to Ferdinand's increasingly erroneous expectations, the harrowed Duchess is not crumpled or destroyed - it merely served the purpose to strengthen her resolve, allowed her to prioritise and brought out the strength of her defiant character.
Unrepentant, the Duchess exclaims, "That's the greatest torture souls feel in hell...that they must live" (l. 70-1) and with such a lack of self-pity as her apparent qualities gain in stature, they highlight Ferdinand's steady decline. She is brought to a degree of realistic pessimism akin to Bosola before he began to offer patronising and ineffective reassurance. After the ordeal of viewing the tableau of bodies, the Duchess expresses suicidal sentiments whilst elevating the whole scene with her nobility and historical references making Bosola seem awkward and trite in comparison. The Duchess directs her anger at life, fortune and existence itself for being so unjust and chaining her body to such a mad world. In the opening scene of Webster's predecessor to this play, The White Devil, it is stated that "Fortune's a right whore" iv - mirroring the Duchess' thoughts. The way she reacts is much more striking than anything else and, as Peter Murray writes, "When the play is staged, our attention is drawn not to the horrors but to the Duchess' reaction to them." v
To her, longing for a dignified death is logical and, as any physical pain can be nothing compared to the emotional agony she has endured, the Duchess makes a perceptive wish for death reminiscent of Macbeth's famous soliloquy in act V, scene v of Shakespeare's famous tragedy - "I account this world a tedious theatre / For I do play a part in't against my will" (l. 83-4). A Promethean reference to continued torture "upon the wheel" (l. 80-2) emphasises these thoughts. The Duchess, by turns, is made to experience the utmost pain and misery yet, despite vehemently denouncing the stars, her unyielding spirit endures. "Now, by my life, I pity you" (l. 87) Bosola finally comes out with a line exemplifying the heartfelt sorrow he is now able to feel, and continues to try and placate the Duchess' anger by saying, "Look you, the stars shine still" (l. 95). It is clear that Jump is correct in ascertaining, in reference to Bosola, that, "Whatever his aim, the effect of his speeches is to strengthen the Duchess' resistance to despair and madness" vi , and Ribner points out this important line is also "an assertion of the permanence and indestructibility of nature" vii . Ferdinand is obsessed with having power and, in addition to punishing her betrayal, through sadistic trickery he strives to break her independent spirit. The Duchess is made more resolute and states that she yearns to bleed before adding to her sententiae with "It is some mercy when men kill with speed" (l. 109). Bosola continues to try and reassure her through the cynicism as he still needs her forgiveness, and meanwhile, Ferdinand becomes more demented finding glee in his observations. Even the hardened detached murderer Bosola is forced to question Ferdinand's motives, as well as make his own ethical decisions - "Must I see her again?" ... "Never in my own shape" (l. 130-1). Bosola still maintains old morals and can be faulted for half-hearted conscious-appeasing semblance or pretence of goodness by cowardly hiding away from his deeds rather than noble defiance for like the Duchess. Ferdinand evokes strong emotions with his fiery imagery, and it is clear he is losing touch after saying "she'll needs be mad" (l. 124) whilst precariously slips toward lycanthropia himself.
The Duchess of Malfi is a play replete with hugely powerful imagery about mortality - indeed, if the imagery were removed, not much would remain - and its concentration upon decay is quintessentially Jacobean as Una Ellis-Fermor affirms: Webster is "more intimately preoccupied with death than any other predecessor except Shakespeare" viii . Dramatic language is skilfully utilised to emphasise the enormity of scale involved and highlight how morally unsound the brothers' despotic influence is. The fencing between characters brings about unforeseen and vital events as they counter each other's ripostes in completely different ways. This is the scene in which the audience can watch Bosola, the malcontent misfit, turn from a sneeringly cynic murderous fiend into an intelligent man, who has found, through the Duchess' horrific experiences his morality. Ferdinand is driven increasingly furious and dangerous in mind by the Duchess' unfaltering nobility. Down to earth, a strong-willed but tragic female, she is able to easily overcome anything that befalls her, and readily arouses all compassions with her ever-ascending stature and defiant rejection of subservience. As Ferdinand's blackened mind can only conceive of conspiring to "bring her to despair" (l. 116), his darkness raises our opinion of the Duchess as she is able to "stain the time past" and "lights the time to come" (I, ii, l. 134). Throughout this scene, the language used and imagery invoked combines with horrors typical of the period and the complex relationship between the Duchess, Ferdinand and Bosola elicits responses that have a far greater effect on the outcome of the play than any other aspect of the drama or events that have occurred.
All quotations of the text are courtesy of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (Longman, 1996). This work has been confirmed to be in the public domain free from copyright, and is availible on Project Gutenberg at http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext00/malfi10.txt
- Ralph Berry, The Art of John Webster (Clarendon Press, 1972)
- Jan Kott, A personal essay (1986)
- Professor John Jump, "The White Devil" and "The Duchess of Malfi"
- John Webster, The White Devil, (Mermaid, 1996)
- Peter Murray, A Study of John Webster (Mouton, 1969)
- Professor John Jump, "The White Devil" and "The Duchess of Malfi"
- Irving Ribner, Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest For Moral Order (Methuen, 1962)
- U. M. Ellis Fermor, The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation (Methuen, 1936)