The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy

Webster’s genius was essentially tragic. The morbid taint in his temperament was further intensified by the pessimism of the age, an age in which the Renaissance spirit was declining; the times seemed to be out of joint, and old ideals and beliefs were breaking down. Though he tried his hand at a comedy The Devil’s Law Case, his genius could find its full and perfect expression in the White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi which are the greatest tragedies in the English language outside Shakespeare.

A tragic artist, Webster was greatly influenced by the Senecan tragedy, by the Elizabethan revenge play, specially such revenge plays as Busy D’Amboise of Chapman and by Machiavelli, the author of The Prince. His tragic art is the resultant of a number of influences both national and foreign. Thus, in the Duchess of Malfi there is much that is melodramatic and sensational. There is a piling up of horror in the tradition of Elizabethan horror tragedy. However, Webster’s genius is seen in the fact that the melodramatic and the sensational is closely related to the central theme. It also serves to intensify the tragic, somber atmosphere, which Webster sought to create, Webster took much from Shakespeare.

In most of his tragedies, Shakespeare allows to ‘chance’ or ‘accident’ an appreciable influence at some point in the action. Now this operation of chance or accident is a fact, and a prominent fact, of human life. To exclude it wholly from tragedy. therefore, would be, to fail in truth. And, besides, it is a tragic fact, that a man may start a course of events but he can neither calculate nor control it. The dramatist may use accident so as to make us feel this; and there are also other dramatic uses to which it may be put. Shakespeare accordingly admits it. On the other hand, any large admission of chance into the tragic sequence would certainly weaken the sense of the causal connection of character, deed, and catastrophe. And Shakespeare really uses it very sparingly. It is by bringing in such chance happenings that Shakespeare creates the impression of dark unaccountable, fatal forces hovering round man and driving him to his doom. The tragic action thus acquires cosmic dimension and significance.

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A Shakespearean tragedy is never depressing, we do not leave it with the impression that man is a funny mean creature. The final impression which we carry is that of man’s inherent greatness, and secondly, there is also the impression of tragic waste. Man has greatness but everywhere we see men perishing and destroying each other. Everywhere we are conscious of a mystery, inscrutable and beyond our comprehension. But tragedy would not be tragedy without this sense of mystery. There is much tragic waste, for along with the evil much that is good is also destroyed. The ruling power in the Shakespearean tragic world is moral and along with the good it produces much that is evil. In the final configuration evil is destroyed, but along with it much that is good is also destroyed. And this destruction of good is the real tragedy. This is so in the tragedy of Webster also; he was considerably influenced by the elder dramatist.

There is no poetic justice in a Shakespearean tragedy. Poetic justice means that prosperity and adversity are distributed in proportion to the merits of the agents. Such poetic justice is in flagrant contradiction with the facts of life and it is absent from Shakespeare’s tragic picture of life. The wicked suffer and are destroyed, but along with the wicked the good also suffer, and their suffering is out of all proportions to their faults and short-comings. This is also the case with Webster. In other words, though there is no poetic justice, there is partial justice.

Such was the tradition of tragedy which Webster inherited. He worked upon it, and made it entirely his own. In this way he created a tragedy which is the pride and glory of post-Shakespearean tragedy in England and which is unique in many ways. As a matter of fact it is the tragic art of Webster which stands out prominently in an age in which pure tragedy had ceased to exist, in which tragedy had degenerated into crude melodrama.

Manner of Shakespeare. Indeed, his Duchess remains the greatest tragic figure in Elizabethan drama, excluding of course, Shakespeare. Further, though Webster was considerably influenced by Seneca and the Revenge play. The Duchess of Malfi differs from the conventional Revenge Tragedy in as much as the revenge is taken not as a duty but as a passion, and instead of feeling sympathy for the revenger, we feel sympathy for the victim of that revenge. i.e., the Duchess. The avengers are made to look loathsome, wicked and vindictive, monsters of ferocity in human shape; while the grandeur, purity and nobility of their victim is brought out in full. While making full use of the Elizabethan tradition, Webster considerably modifies and enriches it.



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