Webster was much possessed by death,
And saw the skull beneath the skin,
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.
Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.
– from “Whispers of Immortality” by T. S. Eliot
The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, the twin pillars on which Webster’s reputation primarily stands, make for a fascinating comparison. They are both clearly products of a dramatist in full control of the craft of playwrighting; they are also, equally clearly, the products of an author who did not see much in humanity to inspire confidence in its essential goodness or nobility – who, indeed, could not even see the possibility of redemption. But while The White Devil is a flamboyant work of bold, vigorous and colourful strokes, sweeping the audience along in its seemingly irresistible torrents, The Duchess of Malfi looks inwards, finding as often as not a stillness, and room for contemplation. It finds also a curious lyricism, dark and death-possessed; and also a rather strange beauty. Those daffodil bulbs that appear for eyes are given, in Webster’s hands, a peculiar fascination.
We are, once again, in an Italian court, but the cast of characters is smaller than it had been in The White Devil, and the plot simpler and more concentrated. The action here belongs, effectively, to the world of what we now regard as Gothic horror – demonic villains, sadism, terror, madness, death. In such stories, there are, in general, two types of villain – the unstable psychopath on the one hand, and the cool, calculating type on the other: here, Webster gives us both, and they both happen to be brothers of the Duchess of Malfi. There’s the Duke, Ferdinand, whose lust for his own sister is barely concealed, and who, after having had his sister and her children murdered, goes quite spectacularly mad:
PESCARA. Pray thee, what ‘s his disease?
DOCTOR. A very pestilent disease, my lord,
They call lycanthropia.
PESCARA. What ‘s that?
I need a dictionary to’t.
DOCTOR. I’ll tell you.
In those that are possess’d with’t there o’erflows
Such melancholy humour they imagine
Themselves to be transformed into wolves;
Steal forth to church-yards in the dead of night,
And dig dead bodies up: as two nights since
One met the duke ’bout midnight in a lane
Behind Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully…
The other villain, the other brother, is the Cardinal. Not for him lusting after his sister, and walking the streets with limbs of dead men on his shoulders; however –
The spring in his face is nothing but the engendering of toads.
In The White Devil, Isabella was murdered by coating with poison a picture she was known regularly to kiss; and here, Webster gives this already bizarre plot device an extra twist: the Cardinal murders his mistress by making her kiss a poisoned Bible. That’s right: a poisoned Bible. In such a world, in which God’s own word is poisoned and becomes an instrument of death, there seems little room for anything but the most crudely and ingeniously horrific and sensational; but Webster surprises us. In the first place, he is not particularly interested in plot, and thins out its elements: compared to The White Devil, the plotline presented here is very straight-forward, and is easily summarised in a few sentences. As a consequence of this reduced emphasis on the action, not much time need be spent explaining to the audience the mere mechanics of the plot; and this leaves room for other, more important matters. Even towards the end, as the action is approaching its denouement, Webster is happy to hold up the action to give us a scene which advances the plot not a whit, but which adds significantly to the darkly poetic atmosphere: Antonio, not yet knowing that his wife, the Duchess, and their children, have been murdered, is in the ruins of an abbey, and an echo in the voice of his dead wife eerily tells him of the doom that envelops him:
ANTONIO. Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.
ECHO. Thou art a dead thing.
ANTONIO. My duchess is asleep now,
And her little ones, I hope sweetly. O heaven,
Shall I never see her more?
ECHO. Never see her more.
Such a scene would have been very much out of place amidst the more frenetic action of The White Devil, but it is perfectly in place in this play with its more measured pacing, and its atmosphere of intense private grief.
The plot, such as it is, is simple enough: the still young and recently widowed Duchess of Malfi, against the express instructions of her two villainous brothers, secretly marries a social inferior, Antonio; and, when her two brothers find out, they visit upon herterrible punishment. Such a plotline doesn’t really leave much room for the revenge – for, after all, who is to be the revenger? The obvious candidate is the Duchess’ husband, Antonio, but he is relatively weak, and is more easily cast as victim rather than avenger. The avenger turns out, in what may be, I think, a twist to the usual formula, an instrument of the original crime – Bosola, who, in service of the villainous brothers, murders both the Duchess and her children. His reasons for his turning against his employers after the murders are not obvious: it is true that despite the appalling nature of the crimes he has committed, he is not entirely without scruples: he even comforts the Duchess in her last moments; but one suspects that the key factor here is the lack of gratitude on the part of his employers.
Such ambiguity of character could easily be either a dramatic weakness, leading merely to lack of clarity; or it could be quite the opposite – a dramatic strength, leading the author to examine the ambiguous nature of human motivation itself. But here, it is neither, for it is not the revenge that is at the centre of the drama: rather, we have at the centre human evil and human suffering, and the vexed question of whether, in the midst of such unmitigated horrors that make up so much of life, where even the divine word of God is coated with poison, there can be any such thing as a higher order.
DUCHESS. What are you?
SERVANT. One that wishes you long life.
DUCHESS. I would thou wert hang’d for the horrible curse
Thou hast given me: I shall shortly grow one
Of the miracles of pity. I ‘ll go pray; [Exit Servant.]
No, I’ll go curse.
BOSOLA. O, fie!
DUCHESS. I could curse the stars.
BOSOLA. O, fearful!
DUCHESS. And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter; nay, the world
To its first chaos.
BOSOLA. Look you, the stars shine still.
Bosola’s response to the Duchess – “look you, the stars shine still” – denotes, at one level, the insignificance of human agency: the Duchess can curse the stars – those manifestations of a higher order – as much as she wishes, but they shine still. But equally, Bosola’s response may betoken the existence of a higher order that the Duchess in her suffering denies. His words are as ambiguous and as double-edged as is his role in the drama.
But it is on the suffering that most of the dramatic focus falls, and on human life lived in the close proximity of death. There is, throughout, as Eliot put it, an awareness of “the skull beneath the skin”. And from this awareness there emerges a strange and eerie poetry. The long scene in the fourth act in which the Duchess and her children are murdered is, at the same time, the most horrific and yet the most poetic of scenes. To see horror presented in so poetic a manner is rather unnerving: I do not think I have encountered elsewhere such an unlikely fusion. And the poetry is, of course, the poetry of death.
It is a long and carefully paced scene, and seems to contain in it the very kernel of Webster’s strange vision. First, Bosola brings in, seemingly for the Duchess’ entertainment, a troupe of madmen, whose lunatic singing and dancing and meaningless gibberish create a quite extraordinary atmosphere: one gets the impression that reality is somehow suspended, and that we have entered a world that occupies some vague borderland between sanity and insanity, between life and death – a world that is not quite our own. Bosola, still the loyal servant, is soon to kill the Duchess, but he tries before doing so to comfort her, to bring her to terms with the inevitability of death:
Thou art a box of worm-seed, at best but a salvatory of green mummy. What’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste. Our bodies are weaker than those paper-prisons boys use to keep flies in; more contemptible, since ours is to preserve earth-worms. Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body: this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heaven o’er our heads like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison.
By the time the Duchess is strangled onstage, she is reconciled to her fate, but that does not make the fate any less horrific. Her waiting-woman Cariola is also strangled onstage, and then the bodies of the strangled children are brought in. Ferdinand then enters to see the corpse of the sister he had sexually desired:
FERDINAND. Is she dead?
BOSOLA. She is what
You ‘d have her. But here begin your pity: [Shows the Children strangled.]
Alas, how have these offended?
FERDINAND. The death
Of young wolves is never to be pitied.
BOSOLA. Fix your eye here.
BOSOLA. Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens.
FERDINAND. Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.
Anyone can depict a succession of gruesome savageries, but it requires a poet, I think, to pen that line of Ferdinand’s – so apparently simple, and yet so haunting and resonant. A poet, yes, but a damn strange one.
I am not quite sure, to be honest, quite what to make of Webster’s poetic sensibility. It had seemed relatively straight-forward in The White Devil: there, life is but a teeming pit of human evil, a mere succession of horrors, and the humans occupying this pit utterly irredeemable. But here, Webster seems to add a quite different dimension: even in his contemplation of the skull beneath the skin he seems to find an eldritch yet hauntingly beautiful music. It is a sensibility unlike any other I think I have encountered, and occupies regions of the mind that I don’t think I have ever till now been led into. I ended The White Devil repelled by the horror, and yet invigorated by the sheer dramatic energy of it all; but The Duchess of Malfi took me on a quite different journey, and led me into regions of human experience that, though astonishingly vivid, seems impervious to any rational analysis.