Superstition, a sort of a feeling that takes umpteen number of forms and at times frightens life out of people, takes a special pedestal in the life of a person which might make a person float on cloud nine or perish in dungeons. Superstitions are universal and they do exist even now in the 21st century and the plays before three centuries are no exceptions. The plays during the 16th and 17th centuries were abounding with superstitious beliefs which might seem ridiculous in the present scenario. In this paper we shall see the role of superstitious beliefs and dreams in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster and All for Love by John Dryden.
The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy and unlike other revenge tragedies here the villain himself avenges the death of the Duchess. The Duchess is a young widow who is in love with Antonio, the manager of her house hold and is steadfast on marrying him. In spite of the threatening of her brothers she marries Antonio with the aid of Cariola. Ferdinand, one of her brothers employs Bosolo to spy her. Ferdinand apart from eyeing the fortune of the Duchess he also eyes her beauty. But Cardinal, the other brother of the Duchess is worried only about her wealth.
Bosola passes the news that the Duchess has given birth to a child and Ferdinand in unquenchable fury banishes the Duchess. Ferdinand with the help of Bosola gains a fake key to the chamber of the Duchess and enters the chamber without the notice of the Duchess and the Duchess oblivious to the fact that Ferdinand is hiding in her chamber reveals her secret and Ferdinand advises her to cut her tongue lest she be betrays her husband. To save Antonio the Duchess calls him a thief and sends him to Ancona. Bosola chides her for doubting a loyal servant i. e.
Antonio, at this point she confides her marriage with Antonio to Bosola. Bosola in turn reveals the secret to Ferdinand. The Duchess is captured again and brought to the palace and is laced in the company of mad men whereas Antonio escapes with his first son. The Duchess is then strangulated and Antonio comes to the Cardinal for peace talks but is killed accidentally by Bosola and Bosola kills the Cardinal as he plots against him. Ferdinand in a fit of madness stabs Bosola and he in turn stabs Ferdinand. At last the sole survivor is the first child of the Duchess who is adopted by Delio.
Among these Cardinal has an illicit relationship with Julia, wife of Castrucio and kills her. The whole story is interspersed with superstitious beliefs. Delio in the second act gives a list of bad omens to Antonio. His list consists of salt being spilt, crossing of a hare, a bleeding nose, a horse stumbling and the singing of a cricket. Back then these were considered to be ill omen. Delio says, “How supersticiously we mind our evils! The throwing down of salt, or crossing of a hare; Bleeding at nose, the stumbling of a horse:
Or singing of a cricket, are of power To daunt the whole man in us” Now the situation pertaining to superstitious beliefs has rather become worse. In spite of the technological developments we still adhere to these. Back then sans technology it is no wonder they were superstitious. Antonio is the sole character in the play who remains superstitious. He beliefs in horoscopes and other such things. When he is informed that the Duchess has given birth to a boy he doesn’t meet the Duchess at once rather he runs to an astrologer to predict the prospects for his son.
This superstitious belief of Antonio derails the plans of the Duchess. After seeing Bosola he drops the paper where the astrology was predicted and to his ill luck it is picked by Bosola an d it testifies Bosola’s doubts on the Duchess being pregnant. Bosola after seeing the paper says, “ Antonio here about did drop a paper, Some of your help, false friend: oh, here it is. What’s here? A child’s nativity calculated? ” This incident changes the path of the play. If Antonio had seen the Duchess instead of getting the astrology predicted Bosola wouldn’t have put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Even before Antonio drops the paper his nose starts bleeding and according to the horoscope his son would be short lived, he comes to a conclusion that something ill is about to happen but ironically in the end it is the first son who remains alive in the whole family. Antonio in the fifth act is haunted by the voice of the Duchess which emanates from her tomb. Antonio is particularly haunted by it, as it does indeed seem to repeat snippets of his speech that have agency and meaning. He thinks that the Duchess is trying to help him and decides to meet the cardinal for peace talks which in the end prove fatal for him.
It is because of the superstitious beliefs of Antonio that the Duchess loses her life and Antonio in turn loses his. Ferdinand also has one attribute which can be called a superstitious belief. Widow Remarriage now is a trivial thing but back then it was considered to be wrong and widows how young they were were not allowed to remarry and Ferdinand was a strong believer of this. This can also be called as a superstitious belief. Dreams are not very apparent in The Duchess of Malfi but throughout the play Antonio’s instincts or illusions warn him of an impending danger. He keeps envisioning ill things.