Webster was a genius gone astray in The Duchess of Malfi

Really Webster was a genius gone astray. In this connection E. Albert was rightly remarked that he was of wide experience. He created Bosola. He is a wonderful character. He can do any wrong work for money, power and pelf. He is the spy of the Duke. He murders The Duchess and his children. He is sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. He hears the voice of his heart but works with mind. He never follows his heart. He is a villain.

In the case of Bosola it is certainly a kind of wild justice, resulting from his desire to avenge himself on the two brothers for their ingratitude. It is a satisfaction of personal grudge. The supernatural in the form of ghost, etc., does not appear in the play, as is the case with the conventional revenge tragedy. The supernatural is limited to the echo-scene or to the use of omens.

No doubt, Webster has made free use of crude physical horrors, but these horrors are made an integral part of the tragedy. The sensational and the melodramatic is seen acting on the soul of the Duchess, and in this way her inner suffering, the grandeur, majesty and nobility of her soul, are fully revealed. In this way the melodramatic is raised to the level of pure tragedy. In this way the horrible is subordinated to the total artistic effect, the artist wants to create. The horror in the play does not remain something extraneous as is the case with other writers of the revenge play.

Intensity of moral vision is another contribution of Webster to the revenge tragedy. In his tragedy, revenge is made to look ugly and repulsive. In the end our sympathies are not with the avenger or avengers as in the conventional tragedy, but with the victims of revenge. We sympathize with the Duchess, are made conscious of her nobility and dignity and innocence, and our sense of justice is satisfied when the revengers perish. Our moral sense is gratified with the death of the Cardinal and Ferdinand and revenge is felt to be something obnoxious and unethical. “The death of the Duchess moves us more deeply. than anything else in English Drama” says Charles Lamb and he further adds, “to move a horror skillfully, to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon it fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to make its last forfeit, this only a Webster can do. Writers of an inferior genius ‘may upon horror’s head horrors accumulate’ but they cannot do this. They mistake quantity for quality, they ‘terrify babes with painted devils’ but they do not know how a soul is capable of being moved; their terrors want dignity, their affreightments are without decorum.”

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Webster further transformed the revenge play, by adding poetry to it. He was gifted with a poet’s imagination and the poetry of his play has been admired by one critic after another. Schelling says, “The power of Webster, at his best, is the revealing power of the highest order of poetry.” In The Duchess of Malfi we have, “the poetry of love, the poetry of sadness, the poetry of pathos, the poetry of ruin, and those poetic touches take off the edge of the various gruesome murders.” In the Act IV, Webster’s poetry is all the more impressive because of its wistful, tender charm, wrung out of the very heart of tragedy. Webster’s splendidly, imaginative vision and his poetic insight relieve the gloom and tedium of the play.

Summarizing Webster’s contribution to the Elizabethan revenge play, E. Albert writes, “The most striking follower of the Senecan Revenge tradition, Webster turns from the mere horror of event to the deep and subtle analysis of character. His plots are not well constructed and there is still some crudeness of incident, but his horrors are usually controlled, and are subordinate to the total artistic purpose of the play in which they occur. He deals with gloomy, supernatural themes, great crimes, turbulent emotions, and in largeness of tragic conception he resembles Marlowe. He is a great dramatist-poet, whose verse, though sometimes faulty, often reaches the highest levels and has great power. Tender and pitiful scenes add a touch of fine pathos to his greatest work.”



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