The Duchess of Malfi is melodrama raised to the level of tragedy

The Duchess of Malfi has been highly praised by one critic after another, and Edmund Gosse goes to the extent of saying that it is, the “finest tragedy in the English language outside the works of Shakespeare”. We may not agree with such exaggerated claims, for the play has certain well-marked faults and weaknesses and it has not the passionate intensity of Macbeth, Othello or King Lear, but there can be no denying the fact that it is a great tragedy “one in which melodrama has been raised to the level of great tragedy”.

In the Jacobean age tragedy had degenerated into melodrama. A melodrama lacks in subtly and depth of characterization, and the dramatist depends for his effects on the exploitation of crude physical horrors. There is much in The Duchess of Malfi that is merely melodramatic and sensational, lurid and gruesome. All kinds of fearful things-waxen-images counterfeiting death, the wild masque of madmen, the tomb-maker, the bell-man, the strangling of the Duchess, of the children and of Cariole-things that make the flesh creep and the blood run cold, are presented before the audience to make horror tenfold more horrible. There are conventional murderers in the dark to affect their evil purpose, and by the end the stage is littered with dead bodies. There are deaths by poisoning, by strangulation and by the dagger of the assassin. All these are crude devices freely exploited by the contemporary writers of blood and thunder tragedies.

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Webster’s handling of these scenes of torment is superb. When the play is staged, our attention is drawn not to the horrors but to the Duchess’s reaction to them: she beholds horror, and we behold her. This is Webster’s greatest achieved as a dramatist. His Duchess is no mere allegorical figure, a fleshless counterpart to Job. If she were, she would be on a par with the allegorical horrors themselves, simply another convention from which we turn our attention to fix it elsewhere: Our attention is fixed on the Duchess because she is so deeply and pitiably human in her anguish. Webster’s treatment of her does not rise out of the meaning he intends to convey; rather, the meaning arises beautifully and naturally out of the real human experience he creates. The Duchess is not statuesque or made of steel in her lonely struggle, but frail flesh, now despairing, now hoping, now proud and defiant, now asking only to be left in peace. Native integrity of spirit leads her to make the true responses in her final crisis. With a supreme courage that has passed through the agony of despair into the hope that lies beyond, she dies with her thoughts on the lives of her children, forgetting that they are supposed to be dead. Filled with Job’s faith that the redeemer lives, the reaches out to the hope of a life after death. Before she is murdered, she knees in Christian humility.

In other words, Webster succeeds in raising the melodramatic to the realm of high tragedy by showing its effect on the soul of the Duchess. We get a peep into her soul; the nobility, dignity, heroism and majesty of her soul are fully revealed. Despite all the suffering that is inflicted upon her, she “remains the Duchess still”. She does not yield or succumb, or pray for mercy to the evil- doer, but dies bravely and heroically with calm of mind all passion spent She Maintains her integrity against heavy odds. Says Vaughan, “The tragedy reveals the resistance of inborn heroism to all assaults from without in the triumph of the inner self, when outward happiness is dashed to pieces.” It is this heroism which is revealed in the present play, and hence its greatness as a tragedy. In the character of the Duchess, the dramatist has placed before us, “the sublime spectacle of a human soul, delicately organized, full of power and splendor, ruthlessly followed by silent, dogged, remorseless fate to the inevitable close. In her we have a soul of exquisite virtue, caught in the meshes of adverse influences and by them over-powered but never vanquished, and remaining true to herself up to the very end.” The pathos of her death touches the heart, excites sympathy and so performs the function which a true tragedy should perform.



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