The earliest writer of the tragedy in English language, Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, fastened on a story of revenge for their Gorboduc, which first produce in 1561. Since than for next sixty years revenge continued to be one of the popular theme for the dramatic representation and it is pointed out that Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge play. We shall analyze this line of argument with the help of Senecan Model--a model for the revenge tragedy.
In a tragedy, as Senecan model defines, “a shocking murder takes place and it cries out for their revenge”. In The Duchess of Malfi, the Aragonian Brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, takes their revenge on the Duchess for remarrying to her steward against their wishes, but the Duchess’ marriage is not a crime. The wicked brothers have no motive except the wounded family name. The sympathy of the audience remains throughout the Duchess who is the target of her brother’s revenge. The brothers’ resentiment at their sister’s second marriage infuriatates them so such an extent that they become inhuman and hired an instrument, Bosola, to kill her. After her murder Ferdinand confesses: “What was meanness of her match to me? I can confess, I had a hope Had she continued window, to have gain’d An infinite mass of treasure, by her death”.
But the Machiavellian of the brothers, the Cardinal does not makes such any confession but the motive was same as Ferdinand’s. As the “motive” appears to be avarice not revenge.
In revenge tragedy “the objects of the murder are often better are so called avengers”. When Ferdinand refuses to pay Bosola, the latter realizes his guilt, he becomes avenger and he decides to works as an avenger for the murder of the Duchess. The revenge is again twisted, when Bosola, the instrument takes his revenge upon the Cardinal for being ungrateful to him. In this sense The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge play.
According to Senecan model, “in a revenge tragedy, the murder of the ghost stalks about and asks for his revenge ……… alternatively there are omens presentiments”. In The Duchess of Malfi, like Shakespeare, Webster tries to make the spirit of his dead protagonist. All the villains--Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Bosola and even the hero, Antonio--are haunted by the spirit of the dead Duchess. Bosola confesses that he sees an image of the Duchess. Then there is omen of the “echo” scene which warns Antonio of the imminent death if he goes to the Cardinal’s palace. Finally, everyone who meets his death in Act V is dies in the remembering of the Duchess.
In a tragedy “some character becomes mad”. Here it is Ferdinand who becomes mad. He confesses that he is haunted by the spirit of the Duchess. In his madness he tries to throttle his own shadow and cries “strangling is a cruel death”. He taunted the Duchess with the words “The howling of a wolf Is music to thy”. In his Lycanthropia--wolf madness--he goes howling along with the streets till he makes all the villains restless.
In The Duchess of Malfi Webster makes use of “pathos” known for tragedy writers. According to Aristotle “Pity and Fear” are the two tragic emotions and the play arouses both of them quite abundantly. The most memorable lines of the drama is one steeped in stark of pathos which Ferdinand utters in a fit of remorse after looking at the face of his sister: “Cover’t her face my eyes dazzle she died young”. These lines confirm Ferdinand as a jealous lover of his sister that is why he pays to Bosola so that he can closely spy on the Duchess and on her activities. F.L. Lucas has pointed out that these “lines shows Ferdinand’s lust for his own sister”. M. Burman remarks that “The play is a drama about the relationship between brother and sister”. Thus, The Duchess of Malfi has all the features of Senecan model of tragedy.
A further point, in which Webster scores overall, from all the tragedy writers of the day, is his moral vision. Webster’s good characters always win our administration and sympathy. Act V which is always criticizes for providing a kind of anti-climax is founded necessary by Webster to project his moral vision. We cannot leave theatre or play frustrated. We have a sense of reconciliation--as we do, when we get the end of a Shakespeare tragedy--when Delio observes at the end “Let us make a noble use of this great ruin and join our hands to establishes this young hopeful gentleman in his mother’s pride, we feel like saying “Amen”.
In sum, no doubt, in The Duchess of Malfi revenge plays a part of its own but Webster’s tone of moral makes it degrade from the original supremacy. In this play revenge is a nominal thing--it is all slight as compared to The White Devil. Webster makes revenge not on an objectionate love affair but presents it with a moral. One may put forward the point; by introducing the tone of moral justice at the end Webster raises the crude theme of revenge to a higher plane. It shows that Webster not absolutely lost in blood and revenge like the other tragedy writers of the day--he raises above them and shakes hands with Shakespeare in attaining the higher heights of a tragedy.