It has been suggested that in the work of the pioneer tragic dramatists of the Elizabethan theatre, Marlowe and Kyd, the major themes and preoccupations of Jacobean tragedy are already present. This is broadly true, though the atmosphere of brooding evil and melancholy which pervades the later tragedy is quite distinctive.
The terms ‘Elizabethan’ and ‘Jacobean’ are slightly misleading in this connection, as in some others, since changes in theatrical style and temper do not always obligingly coincide with the accession of monarchs. As we have seen, what we usually call ‘Elizabethan drama’ is the drama produced some twenty-five years after Elizabeth came to the throne. Similarly, her reign still had two years to run when that most brooding, melancholy and ‘Jacobean’ of tragic heroes, Hamlet, first walked the battlements of Elsinore. Plays such as Troilus and Cressida and Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, where the note of cynical disillusionment commonly associated with the epithet ‘Jacobean’ is clearly heard, had already been performed before the century closed. The darker mood of the drama belongs, therefore, to the later 1590s.
It remains true that there was a marked development of tragedy in the reign of James I. Chapman turned from writing ponderous comedies to powerful tragedies in the first years of the new reign, and the great tragedies of Webster, Tourneur and Middleton, as well as most of Shakespeare’s, were written in the first two decades of the seventeenth century. Thus, while Elizabethan drama is dominated by comedy, with the gigantic exception of Marlowe and of Kyd’s single play, tragedy comes into its own in the Jacobean period; so much so that, as already noted, comedy itself is tinged with it. Indeed the fusion of the two kinds, rather than the mere presence of comic scenes in tragic plots, as in Dr Faustus, is one of the hallmarks of Jacobean drama.
The great tragedies of the period are distinctive and very different in their scope and effects, as we shall see shortly when we take a closer look at some of them. Nevertheless it is possible to speak of a Jacobean tragic temper in general, if perhaps occasionally superficial terms. It is clear, for instance, that the destructive and self-destructive potentialities of the amoral Machiavellian character preoccupy the Jacobean dramatist rather more than they did Marlowe or Kyd. The tragedies of the period also have a much greater sense of corruption in high places and of the morally poisonous effects of wealth and power. Both these features are doubtless connected with the disappearance of the ‘Elizabethan consensus’ and the growing alienation of the court from the nation as a whole. James’s penchant for creating instant noblemen (he elevated forty on one memorable day) also played its part in thrusting into the consciousness of playwrights and playgoers questions about the connection between honour and nobility. The laxity of sexual morals at James’s court as compared to that of Elizabeth may account in part for the increased emphasis on the traditional theme of lust’s corrosive power. The growing influence of the more sophisticated private-theatre audiences led to an increasing emphasis on satirical and sometimes cynical wit which undercut tragic grandeur in the very act of presenting it. Finally, the note of doubt and despair first sounded by Kyd and Marlowe becomes increasingly louder and more insistent during the Jacobean decades. It takes its particular colouring from the ‘melancholy’ which is so marked a feature of literature in the early seventeenth century.
In 1621, towards the end of James I’s reign, Robert Burton published his vast and vastly eccentric treatise, the Anatomy of Melancholy. In it he undertook to classify and describe the varieties of melancholy, their causes, symptoms and remedies. Burton’s work is not merely a medical treatise, though it has been called the finest medical work written by a layman. It is also a compendium of psychology, social observation, anecdotage and much else. It is the best known of many works of the period which bear witness to contemporaneous interest in this peculiarly ‘Jacobean’ malady. Many things came within the scope of melancholy as the age understood it, from an obsessive preoccupation with death and the futility of human endeavour to mere fashionable pessimism or cynicism. As the latter it could take many different forms according to social position or profession, as Jaques tells us in As You Like It (c. 1599)
.the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation [professional rivalry], …the musician’s, which is fantastical [artistic]…the courtier’s, which is ambitious,…the lawyer’s, which is politic [calculating]…the lady’s which is nice [affectedly refined]…the lover’s which is all these.
Many factors contributed to the prevalence of this temper. Though it is possible that to some small extent it was a specifically literary phenomenon, it was not merely that. The new interest in individual psychology naturally led to an interest in abnormal states, of which the various forms of melancholy were easily identifiable instances. The increased possibilities of material life which resulted from the opening up of new trade routes bringing in new commodities made the fact of death, especially in the devastating and unpredictable form of endemic plague, more appalling to contemplate. There was a growing tendency to justify and evaluate life in purely secular terms, or at any rate to take such evaluation very seriously. Death became not so much the threshold of the only Reality, as it was in the medieval view, but the termination of reality. What was involved here was not necessarily a change of belief as a change of emphasis in the way men felt about life and death. The rapid spread of venereal disease at about this time may also have contributed to the preoccupation with mortality and corruption.
Social and educational developments also fostered the growth of Jacobean melancholy. The expansion of education in the later sixteenth century had created an educated class only a very few of whom could obtain lucrative employment such as a rich church living, a sinecure at court or a profitable legal practice. The rest, and they were the swarming majority, had to claw what livelihood they could out of school-mastering or private-tutoring, or become professional writers or live by their wits. The distinction between the last two categories was by no means clear. Rich patrons of literary men were rapidly declining in numbers as the landed aristocracy from which such patrons came were themselves encountering the economic effects of galloping inflation. Indeed, inflation itself must have had its share in creating a sense of goals forever out of reach, of a world where appearance never seemed to materialize into the desired reality. It is not surprising therefore that the sense of unrecognized or unrewarded ability should deepen into a melancholy temper informing the work of many writers or sometimes express itself through a single ‘melancholy’ figure to whom the dramatist seems much closer than he is to his other characters; such a character, we often feel, could have written most of the drama in which he appears.
The two tragedies of Webster, each named after the heroine, contain two of the most memorable figures in the whole range of Jacobean drama. Vittoria Corombona, ‘the white devil’, is the heroine of her play in a much more problematic sense than that in which the Duchess of Malfi is of hers. But she is conceived on a grander scale than any of the other characters, even her brother the Machiavellian Flamineo, and it is the flaming energy of her outburst against her corrupt judges that electrifies the stage and glows in the mind. As a dramatist Webster does not have much stamina, being better at single scenes than a whole play and often better at single speeches than scenes. He frequently gives the impression of being a literary rather than a strictly dramatic talent pushed into the drama by force of circumstances.
The Duchess of Malfi has a stronger sense of a transcendental moral order than the earlier play, but its existence is by no means unequivocally affirmed. The world of both plays is recognizably the same, with naked power, brazen corruption in church and state and rampant cruelty everywhere. But the Duchess stands less ambiguously in contrast to her surroundings than Vittoria and Webster shows a greater interest in her both as agent and victim. There is some danger, in concentrating exclusively on the Duchess, of making the fifth act seem a tacked-on epilogue, since the heroine is killed in Act IV. In fact however, the play has a firmer and more coherent structure than The White Devil (in spite of the fact that a whole year passes between Acts I and II, and there is enough time for the Duchess to have several children between Acts II and III), and the spirit of the dead woman irradiates the last act, as the ghost of Caesar haunts the latter part of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The exploration of worldly greatness and its relation to moral stature which is Chapman’s great theme becomes obsessive in Webster. But moral stature has a distinctly felt religious connotation in The Duchess of Malfi. Cariola, the Duchess’s maid, says of her mistress:
Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman
Reign most in her I know not.
The examplars of masculine ‘greatness’ in the play are her brothers, the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand. They typify the corruption of the religious and secular order which is set up as an ideal in Antonio’s speech at the very beginning of the play:
a Prince’s court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver-drops in general. But if’t chance
Some curs’d example poison’t near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.
It is the ‘curs’d example’ of the Cardinal and the Duke which produces a society in which merit goes unrewarded and, as the Machiavellian Bosola finds out, where even the hatchet men of the establishment cannot be certain of obtaining their hoped-for gains. Bosola and the Duchess herself are the two most fascinating figures in the play, which is almost as much his tragedy as hers, though in a different way. He is presented as a malcontent like Flamineo, a ready tool for Duke Ferdinand’s dark designs. His contempt of the court, as Antonio is quick to note, is not due to principled opposition, like Bussy’s, but to envy at not himself having access to the sources of wealth and power:
I observe his railing
Is not for simple love of piety:
Indeed he rails at those things which he wants,
Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man,
If he had means to be so.
That this is at least partly true is shown by the readiness with which Bosola responds to Ferdinand’s bribe with the grimly abrupt query: ‘Whose throat must I cut?’ The first two acts of the play are dominated by the presence of this enigmatic and sinister figure whose tendency to encapsulate character in grotesque vignettes affects other characters and shapes much of the dialogue. We may recall here that Webster was the author of several ‘characters’ in the Overbury collection, and also that he made a habit of noting down memorable lines for future use. In the earlier part of the play we feel, especially in reading, that we are being shown round a surrealist or expressionist portrait gallery. There is a ‘set-piece’ quality about the speeches and the comparative rigidity of the rhythms puts something like a frame round each picture. Bosola’s characterization of the Cardinal and Duke is typical in tone, method and movement:
Could I be one of their flattering panders, I would hang on their ears like a horse-leech, till I were full, and then drop off.
Bosola tends to use prose for his ‘railing’ and verse for his weightier meditations, but the change from one to the other does not affect the quality of his epitomizing. Paradoxically though, a sense of furtive and febrile activity comes through the somewhat static portraits. The major and minor themes, if we may so call them, and the lines of the main action are clear. The minor theme is the depiction of a society where action and its rewards have no relation to each other at all, since the latter depends on the unpredictable whims of the powerful. The major theme is that of the limits of individual action and responsibility in a corrupt society, particularized in the freedom of a woman to choose her own destiny. The Duchess’s brothers insist that as a widow she should not marry, expressing the traditional view that the only motive for a woman’s remarriage must be lust:
Marry? They are most luxurious
Will wed twice.
The Duchess gives them her promise that she would not, though she has already secretly chosen her steward Antonio as her prospective husband. To the extent that she utters a deliberate lie she may be considered to have compromised her integrity and thus to be a representative of her society, not a rebel against it. There are moments, especially towards the end of the play, when we are strongly aware of the connection between the heroine and her milieu, but in comparison with Vittoria it is the contrast between heroine and milieu which strikes us most forcibly. However, in deciding to try and outwit her brothers at their own game of secrecy and deception, the Duchess has not only marginally compromised her integrity, but also made certain that she remains indissolubly tied to that corrupt world. In her poignant words to Cariola
wish me good speed
For I am going into a wilderness,
Where I shall find nor path, nor friendly clue
To be my guide.
The first two acts are taken up by the first large movement of the play which has two phases. In the earlier one we have the main figures presented and Bosola and Antonio contrasted as types of the loyal and treacherous servant. Antonio is the more steadfast but in depth of moral imagination Bosola is his superior. In the later phase of the first movement Bosola, who has been set up by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess, guesses correctly that she is pregnant. Its culmination is Ferdinand’s revelation to the Cardinal of their sister’s secret.
Against the cloudy and ill-defined cluster of motives and machinations which make up this part of the play, the betrothal scene between the Duchess and Antonio stands out with a luminous clarity. It has sometimes been urged that, for a Jacobean audience, the Duchess’s action in proposing to a man would have been reprehensible on all counts — psychologically, as a woman should not take the initiative in such matters, socially because her action threatened the stability of the social order and morally because her motive was bound to be unbridled sexuality. Similar arguments have been adduced in relation to Desdemona’s behaviour in Othello. In both cases the argument radically misconstrues the possible relations between drama and ‘received ideas’ (assuming, generously, that there was more uniformity about the latter in the seventeenth century than in our own time). As noted above, the whole question of what women ought or ought not to do, and what her ‘essential’ nature was, was a matter of continuing controversy at the time and the drama was the ideal form for controversy. Webster, like Middleton, seems to have been particularly interested in the issues involved. But the final answer to the objection is that the scene as written simply does not support the view of the Duchess as behaving foolishly and irresponsibly, any more than the play as a whole does. (Great tragedy does not usually work by confirming the superiority of our judgments to those of its protagonists.) In reading and especially in performance the betrothal scene stands out with intense clarity as one of the great positive moments in the drama. The mixture of resolution and what 1 can only call serious coquettishness with which the Duchess leads the astonished but not unwilling Antonio into marriage has an effect quite other than that of irresponsible egotism or wilful self-indulgence. The symbolic resonance of the Duchess’s actions and words to her kneeling steward represent a coming together of many of the creative values of the play — tenderness, genuine feeling, mutuality, even perhaps (as Bosola remarks, when the Duchess finally tells him her secret), reward for faithful service:
This goodly roof of yours, is too low-built,
I cannot stand upright in’t, nor discourse,
Without I raised it higher: raise yourself,
Of if you please, my hand to help you: so. (Raises him.)
Assuaging Antonio’s fears about the destructive effects of being or appearing to be socially ambitious, she makes a clear and simple statement of how she ‘values’ him:
If you will know where breathes a complete man,
(I speak it without flattery), turn your eyes,
And progress through your self.
She shows herself well aware of the subterfuges to which her choice has compelled her in a society where outward honour and ‘greatness’ are all:
The misery of us, that are born great,
We are forced to woo because none dare woo us:
And as a tyrant doubles with his words,
And fearfully equivocates: so we
Are forced to express our violent passions
In riddles and in dreams, and leave the path
Of simple virtue, which was never made
To seem the thing it is not.
The catastrophic consequences of her ‘honest deception’ are here fore-shadowed and we can appreciate, without fully endorsing, the maid Cariola’s verdict on her mistress, to challenge male hegemony in this most intimate sphere of action as ‘a fearful madness’. That the consequences are catastrophic is, in terms of the play’s total impact, far more a condemnation of the society which destroys the heroine than of the heroine herself.
The Duchess’s reaction to the discovery of her secret and the series of savagely vindictive ordeals inflicted on her by her brother Ferdinand form the second major movement of the play, and for many its real climax. Ferdinand’s motives have been shadowy but darkly menacing from the very beginning. Even when the brothers first warn their sisters against remarriage, the Cardinal seems to feel that Ferdinand’s vehemence is excessive. And it is Ferdinand who installs Bosola as a spy in the Duchess’s household, not only without giving him any reason, but specifically drawing attention to the fact that he will not do so:
Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied,
I say I would not.
This uncertainty is not merely an arbitrary stroke on Webster’s part, for it continues right up to Ferdinand’s own bafflement over his motives for ordering the killing ofthe Duchess. When Bosola tells him that the deed is done, Ferdinand cries out:
I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits
Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t.
For let me but examine well the cause;
What was the meanness of her match to me?
Only I must confess I had a hope,
Had she continu’d widow, to have gain’d
An infinite mass of treasure by her death:
This is the first we hear of this mercenary motive on Ferdinand’s part. Its palpable inadequacy is highlighted by the obsessive persistence with which he haunts his sister and the diabolical virtuosity of the series of torments which he inflicts on her. These begin with a threatening visit during which he leaves a poniard in her chamber, and continue with a dead man’s hand allegedly Antonio’s, thrust into the Duchess’s in the dark, a tableau of Antonio and her children presented to her and a fantastic parade of madmen before her. These and similar effects doubtless account for Bernard Shaw’s harsh words about ‘the opacity that prevented Webster, the Tussaud laureate, from appreciating his own stupidity’. But the excessiveness of the display is Ferdinand’s, not Webster’s. It is of a piece with the language in which he rails against his sister after he has discovered her secret. His fevered imaginings of her copulation with ‘some strong-thighed bargeman’ and his insane ravings as a lycanthrope after her death (including the most chilling line in all Jacobean drama — ‘strangling is a very quiet death’), all suggest the presence in Ferdinand of a powerful but unacknowledged incestuous desire; incest is a theme touched on in many Jacobean plays, and forms the central action of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. But it is not Ferdinand’s emotions and their murky origins on which the stress falls in this part of the play, but on the Duchess’s indomitable spirit, which remains unbroken under all her tortures, though she staggers on the edge of insanity. The climax comes when Bosola, posing first as a tomb maker and then as a bellman arrives with his henchman to strangle the Duchess and her children. The Duchess meets her end with a magnificent and magnificently theatrical (the phrase is not intended to be pejorative) combination of stoic pride — ‘I am Duchess ofMalfi still’ — and Christian humility. When Cariola asks her to cry for help she answers with a clear-eyed recognition of her immediate surroundings and the world she is in — ‘To whom? To our next neighbours? They are mad folks’ —and turns to the executioners unafraid:
Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength
Must pull down heaven upon me:
Yet stay, heaven’s gates are not so highly arch’d
As princes’ palaces: they that enter there
Must go upon their knees.
The evident theatricality of this is very different from the theatricality of Flamineo rehearsing a mock-death or Vittoria struggling in vain before drawing themselves up to their full stature to face extinction. An effect of panic and exigency casts a faint shadow on their final moments. Here there is only a kind of emblematic dignity in the stage pictures as the heroine whose first life-enhancing gesture was to raise her steward from his knees, thereby rejecting a false hierarchy of values, acknowledges in her last the ultimate authority of the true one by going down on her own knees before it.
The impact of this scene is so powerful that the final act of the play is often considered anti-climactic. But it is a necessary reassertion of the dark world of murder and injustice, not transfigured by the Duchess’s heroic example — that would be to risk sentimentality — but somehow touched by it. Our understanding of ‘greatness’ has been modified so that we find it natural to accept Delio’s reference to ‘these wretched eminent things’ and a strange kind of pity even for the arch-villains fills the final scene. Bosola, who has learnt the hard way that villainy no less than virtue can go unrewarded in this world, dies affirming not the value of his life and death but that of the heroine, even though that value seems not to be sustained by anything outside the world of human choice:
Fare you well,
It may be pain: but no harm in me to die
In so good a quarrel. 0 this gloomy world,
In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness
Doth, womanish and fearful, mankind live?
Let worthy minds ne’er stagger in distrust
To suffer death or shame for what is just:
Mine is another voyage.
The sudden dizzying drop from the penultimate line to the last opens up the whole enormous gulf between the morally sensitive nihilist and his vision of a heaven he cannot believe in. But it does not diminish the strength of the earlier affirmation, whose sententiousness is made bearable by the head-on collision in a single line between ‘womanish’ and ‘mankind’. This collocation of ‘womanish’ and ‘mankind’, coming after the stage events we have witnessed, cannot but compel us to reconsider the meanings which the society of the play has given to manhood, womanliness and ‘mankind’ itself. The deaths of the Cardinal and Ferdinand modulate into something beyond mere nihilism, though it is difficult to give a more positive name to it than, say, a grave quiescence (the pun is not seriously damaging). The note that is struck in the Cardinal’s line ‘I am puzzled In a question about hell’ is felt even in the assertiveness of Ferdinand’s final couplet:
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds we are cur with our own dust.
And the Cardinal’s dying words move beyond the reach of Bosola’s vindictive relish over his destruction, though that relish too is soon overlaid by other moral concerns:
Look to my brother:
He gave us these large wounds, as we were struggling
Here i’th’rushes. And now, I pray, let me
Be laid by, and never thought of. (Dies)
In their last moments Webster’s villains seem to catch a faint and flickering perception of a moral order they have strenously denied — the Cardinal’s words ‘How tedious is a guilty conscience’ catches the ambivalence perfectly — and an insight into the tragic predicament whereby their vaunted freedom of action has turned out to be the blind momentum of unrecognized instincts and impulses. The life and death of the Duchess certainly does not dispel the darkness of Webster’s world, but it shines very clearly in the moral confusion and the Grand Guignol extravagance of that world, a small, unwavering, inexplicable light.
From Jacobean and Caroline Tragedy in English Drama: A Critical Introduction (author / editor unidentified)
page last edited February 17, 2005