The Duchess of Malfi written by John Webster was first performed around 1613. A dramatic tragedy, the play is about a forbidden marriage between the Duchess and Antonio her steward, and the wrath of her brothers which leads to many of their deaths. Webster focuses on the role of rank to detail the emotions between relationships in an aristocratic family in a time when class was all important. He uses many distinctive features to convey the substance of the play and its characters, and give the actors playing the roles cues for stage performance.
This extract is part of the proposal and marriage scene, one of the biggest emotional dramatic scenes of the play. The duchess is marrying in secret against her brothers wishes; their fear is that she will demean the family’s honour by remarrying. It also forms the most positive aspect of the play, using one of the traditional stage conventions of love, defiance and disapproval (Pacheco and Johnson (2012) pg. 93). This serves to provide a ‘lift’ to an otherwise dark play, and compares the lighter side of the Duchess’ sexual desire to her brother Ferdinand’s.
The extract is set at the second half of Act 1 scene 1, the first half being to set the backdrop for the audience and give them a good idea of each character and a good indication of things to come. Specifically, the extract is between the Duchess finding out how Antonio feels about marriage and their union itself; here, the Duchess is convincing Antonio that he is worthy of her, that she is woman enough despite her brothers, her rank and her status as a widow. This is achieved by the features of Webster’s distinctive language and the stage directions (both written and performed through reading).
The Duchess uses double meaning in her dialogue, ‘So now the grounds broke/ you may discover what a wealthy mine/ I make you lord of.’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.432-33). She is referring to her own wealth and the value of his rank when they marry. This wordplay is also in the line ‘we are forced to woo because none dare woo us:’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.446) she is again referring to her rank and playing on the word ‘woo’ to mean ‘woe’ (and the irony being that she is wooing him). These are very persuasive lines for Antonio, who feels unworthy of the Duchess despite the traditional gender roles being swapped, and the dominance of the Duchess being prevalent.
He realises this with the line ‘These words should be mine,’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.476). There is also wordplay in ‘All discord, without this circumference, / Is only to be pitied and not feared.’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.473). The Duchess is referring to the situation they are in (secret wedding and/or the room), the wedding ring she has given him and to the confinement her brothers wish for her. There could also be reference to how Antonio will be should they marry – a higher rank, but it will be a secret for some time. The duchess is trying to assuage the fear of it all by saying without it there is only pity (for her).
The metre and rhythm of the speech in this extract is another distinctive feature. It is un-rhyming blank verse and follows the rules of iambic pentameter except where Webster wants a character to pause, for example, ‘You were ill to sell yourself’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.435) is only three feet of the full five feet line, leaving two for pause before the next line. This puts impact on that line but also on the ones following it. This technique is also echoed in the ‘woo’ line (Webster, (2010) 1.1.446); the metre of the line is slightly too long, which shows the Duchess’ unwillingness to follow orders. Likewise, the line ‘You have left me heartless, mine is in your bosom’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.453) is too long, giving emphasis on the line and a cue for the actress playing the Duchess to use it for stage direction. The Duchess and Antonio’s dialogue overlaps through most of this extract; it makes them sound as if they are thinking together – giving the audience a feel for the emotional charge between the two characters.
We have already seen from earlier in scene 1 that the Duchess is clearly defiant of her brothers, so it is little surprise to see that in response to Antonio’s fear of them she shrugs them off with the line ‘Do not think of them.’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.472). this confirms the audiences view of her as being strong and resilient but also somewhat naive, and also gives them a clue of what is to come, especially when she follows with the lines ‘Yet, should they know it, time will easily/ scatter the tempest.’ (Webster, (2010 ) 1.1.476). This dramatic irony confirms what the audience knows but Antonio does not: that her brothers are unaware of their impending marriage. Indeed, with these lines Webster is inviting the audience to fear the brother’s reaction too after hearing their earlier death threat to the Duchess. (Webster, (2010) 1.1.298-344)
The depth of each character and difference of rank is shown in this extract by Webster’s use of figurative language. The Duchess continuously shows her determination and sprit, something which continues throughout the play – even to her death. And poor Antonio, who despite being honest and loyal, is overwhelmed at the turn of events and the metaphoric swapping of gender roles to the point where he is seeking solace in the Duchess’s words and is happy to be deluded ‘Would not have savoured flattery’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.478). He is painfully aware that he is not equal in rank but will be in marriage, and his fears exaggerate her strength ‘These words should be mine,/ And all of the parts you have spoke, if some part of it/ Would not have savoured flattery.’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.476-8)
As for performance, the extract only provides one written key stage direction ‘(she kisses him)’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.468). However, there is plenty in the reading of the extract to relate to performance. This also leaves room for interpretation in relation to performance possibilities. The pace of the dialogue changes depending on which character is speaking, for example, lines 445-462 are full of short syllables which quicken the rhythm of the metre to make it energetic and erratic, ‘And fearfully equivocates,’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.448). It could serve to make the Duchess sound tense yet determined, and she could be sort of ranting in her attempts to convince Antonio.
These lines also provide many words that can be used as stage direction, for example while she is speaking between lines 445 and 451 she could be pacing the stage and using her hands to emphasise her point ‘The misery of… Thing it is not’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.445-52). Also in ‘Go, go brag,’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.452), she could point off stage as if inviting him to leave, either in an angry or defeated way. After, in ‘You have left me heartless’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.453), her hands could go to her heart, and then onto his with ‘mine is in your bosom’ and leave them there for ‘you do tremble (Webster, (2010) 1.1.453-54). She could shake him at ‘awake, awake, man,’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.459).
The pace slows down again after Antonio has promised to protect her reputation; the syllables become longer and more even and written commas slow the dialogue to make it measured. This follows to the end of the extract so we can see that the Duchess is calmer and happy now that Antonio has accepted her proposal. This should reflect in the way that the person playing the Duchess should perform, especially when she is shrugging off the fear of her brothers, as it is almost nonchalant.
The stage set up should have enough room for there to be complete focus on the characters and no superfluous scenery – perhaps only what is required to make it obvious what the room is, plus the table and chair for Antonio and the curtains for Cariola to hide behind. If the Duchess is pacing the stage while she rants there should be adequate room for this, and Antonio could follow behind her. Indeed, if he is seeking solace in her words, the actor may wish to appear meek (and therefore filling the gender and rank role) by following her blindly but also allowing her to turn to place her hands on him where necessary.
In all, we can see how the distinctive features of Webster’s language have brought the play into being. The use of dramatic irony, metre and rhythm, imagery and figurative language to convey emotion, bring scenes to life and help the audiences perception. Webster also especially does this in his use of figurative language to create stage directions for the cast, which in turn helps them to set and convey the scene. With the play only having little written stage directions, Webster leaves the play open for the actor’s interpretation, and its possibilities onstage.