Monday, 30 July 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (1980/81)

By John Webster (c1613)

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1980
The Round House, London, 1981

Jacobean tragedy has risen enormously in public esteem since the era when George Bernard Shaw railed against “the opacity that prevented Webster, the Tussaud laureate, from appreciating his own stupidity”. Even TS Eliot’s famous lines – “Webster was much possessed by death | And saw the skull beneath the skin” – may seem too limiting. Now we want every Jacobean to be one of us. In The Duchess of Malfi, the widowed Duchess, having assured her brothers that she will never remarry, promptly does so, choosing a man who is her social inferior, the steward Antonio. This defiance of male authority leads inexorably to her grisly end, orchestrated by the sinister hit-man Bosola, an ex-galley slave. For Helen Mirren in 1981, it was a “play for today”: 

It is essentially a feminist play about a woman who is fighting for her autonomy. I see the Duchess as a radical who adheres to her beliefs so totally that she is prepared to be murdered for them. There’s still moral outrage against people who step out of line. Look at the fuss Princess Margaret caused by getting divorced. Many people no longer look on her as part of the Royal Family. (Quoted in Colvin.)

Adrian Noble’s production, which opened in Manchester, was widely praised. The Guardian relished Mirren’s “passionate playing of the Duchess, all graceful lechery and looks of such intensity that they could not only kill but, in all probability, raise the dead as well… Marrying beneath yourself is not the sort of thing, these days, that would get you murdered by your brothers, even if they had got their eyes on your property.” But it happens “in this twitching world of Webster’s where everything is enhanced and heightened to a morbid degree. And the staging is so intense and the playing so powerful… that it actually seems not only credible but also natural, inevitable that people should carry on in this bizarre way.”

The Observer noted that the production “seems to owe little to currently approved trends, since it is neither puritanically simple nor outrageously ornate… (Its) final achievement is that it duplicates the precarious balancing of Webster’s forces, admitting a fascination in cruelty, but never wallowing in it.”

The Times told us to

banish all expectations of decadence elegance and baroque chambers of horrors. So far as characterisation is concerned, this is a tough, extrovert reading of the play, with characters in the early scenes as unbent as it is possible for them to be in Jacobean tragedy… No liberties are taken with the text, but the sensation is of seeing the play afresh.

This critic was impressed by a “ragged Bob Hoskins, whose Bosola does look as if he is straight off the galleys”. As for Mirren’s Duchess,

she rises by visible degrees to the grand scale, presenting every phase of her courtship an clandestine married life in vivid emotional detail before the horrors descend. When they do, she exhibits all the physical collapse of total despair before regaining human dignity. Again, nothing heroic is imposed on the character; everything has been thoroughly imagined.

When the production transferred to London, doubts set in about the later scenes, but The Times critic remained enthusiastic:

There are passages in the torment scenes when Helen Mirren lapses into a dull intensity that taxes the attention, but the whole shape of the performance, from the joyous games to the willing embrace of death, constructs an image of nobility with authentic human materials... The Duchess is more than usually isolated as the only figure combining virtue and power.  

Michael Billington found potency in these later scenes:

The virtue of playing up the horror is that it makes the inherent moral goodness of the Duchess an even more powerful moral antidote. Helen Mirren also plays her excellently as a woman of strong sexual instincts who yet has a reassuring nobility of character.

For Robert Cushman, likewise, the performance grew stronger as the events unfolded:

Helen Mirren starts out a trifle cool, especially when choosing a husband; she is better at giving orders than at giving herself. But she rises to the prison sequences. Her actual execution – with the strangling of her maid as its electric coda – is superbly done.

Words like “strength” and “virtue” occur again and again in these reviews, but where we locate strength or virtue is not necessarily where the original audience would have found it. What once were vices are now widely seen as virtues. In fact, for a secular society, the Seven Deadly Sins can be recalibrated. Pride becomes “self-respect”. Wrath is “being honest about your emotions”. Envy gets a makeover as “drive” or “competitive spirit”; Gluttony is now “treating yourself”, Avarice “taking care of business” and Sloth “chilling out”. As for Lust – that familiar topic of Cosmopolitan features – the Duchess’s brother voices a prevalent Renaissance prejudice about widows, a suspicion that, having known one man, they will be over-eager to take another to the marital bed: “… they are most luxurious | Will wed twice.”  

The scholar Lisa Jardine observes that the “sensual strain” in Middleton’s Beatrice-Joanna or Webster’s Duchess is designedly a marker of their “guilt”:

In the eyes of the Jacobean audience they are above all culpable, and their strength – the ways in which they direct the action, scheme and orchestrate, evade the consequences of their impulsive decisions, and ultimately face resolutely the final outcome – need to be seen in this context.   

Where we, and the actresses who take on the role, applaud the Duchess’s assertiveness in yielding to that “sensual strain” in Act One, selecting a new partner and “fighting for her autonomy”, the boy actor who first played her may have elicited very different reactions in a seventeenth-century audience. The Duchess is constantly judged by the play’s other characters and any of those judgements was a plausible contemporary response. Antonio, the lovestruck steward, paints an idealised Petrarchan portrait of her: her look “speaketh so divine a continence, | As cuts off all lascivious, and vain hope.” To her ambitious brothers she is “loose, i’th’hilts: | Grown a notorious strumpet.” Her maidservant Cariola is at a loss to explain her behaviour:  

Whether the spirit of greatness, or of woman
Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows
A fearful madness: I owe her much of pity.

All the characters are agreed that her “strength” manifests itself only later, in patient endurance of her allotted fate:

FERDINAND How doth our sister Duchess bear herself
In her imprisonment?
BOSOLA                              Nobly: I’ll describe her:
She’s sad, as one long us’d to it: and she seems
Rather to welcome the end of misery
Than shun it: a behaviour so noble,
As gives a majesty to adversity:
You may discern the shape of loveliness
More perfect in her tears, than in her smiles.

This raises an interesting question. When a text floats free of its historical context, is it our duty to put it back into that context, or to place it in our own context, regardless of what the original “meaning” may have been? Here, emphases may differ between theatre practitioners and academic critics, the latter more concerned with reconstructing historical “meaning”. And what of the dramatist himself? Do we see his attitudes as historically determined, or do we say, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, that “he was not of an age, but for all time”, gifted with a breadth of vision that transcended his circumstances? Sure it is that Webster makes the Duchess a sympathetic figure, aided by his skills in fashioning dramatic architecture and muscular, speakable verse. Quality writing is a stuff that endures, even over centuries and across languages. But do we credit Webster, as we do Shakespeare, with a capacity, if not to challenge, at least to call into question, the status quo? Should we regard these dramatists as ethical futurologists, the counterparts of those Victorian and Edwardian pioneers of science fiction who anticipated aeroplanes and televisions, inventions unrealisable in their day but thinkable to those with minds capacious enough?

We laugh at the way the eighteenth century “improved” Shakespeare, rewriting plays to conform to the classical unities or giving King Lear a happy ending. But there was a mad consistency in such modernisation that may be lacking in our pick-and-mix approaches. Viewing The Duchess of Malfi today, we suspend our historical sense in the early part of the play, flattering ourselves that the Duchess is a Cosmo girl in a “feminist” play and reassuring ourselves of the continued “relevance” of a 400-year-old text. Then we reimpose the sense of history later, as we must if we are to accept the plot development and the climax. We accept that behaviour such as the Duchess’s can only end badly for an aristocrat in early modern Europe; but not as badly as the play depicts, since widows enjoyed privileges of action not available to wives or unmarried women. The grand guignol conclusion, the stage piled high with corpses – these things we accept (if we accept them at all and the last Act is not to be played for laughs) as literary conventions, a Jacobean ratcheting-up of the mechanisms of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.   


Michael Billington, “Duchess of Malfi”, Guardian, 2 April 1981
Clare Colvin, “Mirren in Malfi”, Observer, 29 March 1981
Robert Cushman, “Malfi and Merchant”, Observer, 5 April 1981
Lisa Jardine, “The Duchess of Malfi: a case study in the literary representation of women”, in Teaching the Text, ed. Susanne Kappeler and Norman Bryson (1983)
Robin Thornber, “Duchess of Malfi”, Guardian, 17 September 1980
Irving Wardle, “Clearing the vital hurdle boldly: Webster in Manchester,” Times, 17 September 1980
Irving Wardle, “Duchess of Malfi: Round House”, Times, 2 April 1981

[Photo credit: Photostage]


  1. I would have liked to have seen Helen Mirren do this play having studied it and having seen the recent BBC clip:

    1. Thanks for the link. I look forward to seeing Gemma Arterton in the role on BBC Four on 25 May.

    2. Me again. Yeah, the 2014 version was a bit disappointing wasn't it? I don't know, maybe the clip of Helen Mirren playing the Duchess spoiled me. I love how Helen says 'and like a widow I use but half a blush in't.' Courageous, passionate, defiant.