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Feb 19, 2012

Duchess of Malfi: Plot

Plot is, in generally speaking, is the combination of incidents. According to Aristotle “Plot is the soul of tragedy”. Jacobean and Elizabethan dramatists should invent their plot, instead they took it from history, national story, legend or folk lore but as Aristotle points out: “A dramatist should invent or borrowed his story but he must be a man of plot”. Broadly speaking, plot consists of revelation of the story, basic information about the principal characters and the theme of the play.

Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights seldom invented the plot of a plays instead they took them from some old stories, national history, legend or folk lore. Elizabethan Webster based the story of Duchess of Malfi on a true story which was reported by several writers--- William Painter told this story in English, in his book “The Palace of Pleasure”. It was this version of story that Webster used as the principal source of “Duchess of Malfi”.

Structurally the play is quite simple and it can be easily summarized. The heroine marriages to her steward and is persecuted for it by her brothers. They employ an instrument named, Bosola, to keep eye on the Duchess. The real excellence of the play is almost confined to Act IV where the unhappy Duchess is first imprisoned and than murdered. At the end of Act V, everybody kills everybody else--- the husband, the brothers and Bosola.

Act I introduces all the main characters—the Duchess and her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal; hero Antonio and the instrument Bosola, Delio etc. it introduces all the reason for and nature of conflict between protagonist and the antagonist. John Webster not only introduces the central conflict but also suggests its tragic inevitability. In Act I, after a brief and quaint and wooing the young widow claims a “complete man” for her husband.

Act II, builds straight way on Act one’s outcome of the Duchess’ action in the birth of her son. Bosola comes to know about it but is still unaware of the father of the child. When Ferdinand and the Cardinal learn of the birth of the child, they speak of the revenge. Ferdinand reels and rants:
“I’ll go to sleep
Till I know mates my sister
I’ll no stir”.
Though somehow several years lapse time during which the Duchess give birth two more children about whom Bosola says:
“‘Tis rumour’d she hath had three bastards but
By whom, we may go and read the stars”.

In Act III, Ferdinand comes to Malfi and surprises the Duchess in her bed chamber. The Duchess plans to escape to Ancona but as she takes Bosola into her confinements is a foregone conclusion. She is arrested before the end of Act III, and taken to Malfi, where we meet her in Act IV. Act IV is entirely of the Duchess in that she suffers torture after torture both physical and mental. Both Ferdinand and Bosola, through the devices of wax figure, the dance of mad men, the offers of a dead man’s hand, inflict torture after torture on the Duchess until she is died. When Ferdinand refuses to pay to Bosola, the latter is filled with remorse. He decides to act as an avenger for the murder of the Duchess.

F.L. Lucas pointed out, “Long age the play seems to die with the Duchess in Act IV”, but Webster has given one full Act V so that he can show retribution overtaking the Arragonian brothers. It is true that the main interest of the play is over that is why this Act has been often described as anti-climax. Though the main interest of the play is over with the death of the Duchess, the thematic framework of the play remains unfulfilled. The death of the Duchess shows the crushing defeat of a great woman, but no punishment overtaking the evil-doer. Webster has somehow much against his source where no punishment visited the Arragonian brothers. Webster found this Act necessary to project his moral vision. In a sense, he believes in the ultimate victory of virtue. The good are defeated on material plane; morally they triumph. We do not leave the theatre frustrated. We have a sense of reconciliation when Delio says at the end:
“Let us make a noble use
Of this great ruin, and join our force
To establish this young and hopeful gentleman
In his mother’s pride”
——we feel like saying “Amen”.

Webster has seen some tangible and intangible links between Act V and the rest of the play. In the first place, he has shown the transformation in Bosola’s attitude towards his villainous action. Confronted by both of the horrors of his dead and refusal of Ferdinand to pay him, and Bosola becomes a changed man in Act V. and it is he who acts as the instrument of vengeance in Act V. secondly, like Shakespeare, Webster tries to make the spirit of the dead protagonist presided invisibly over the proceedings of Act V. 

All the villains--- Ferdinand, the Cardinal and Bosola--- are haunted by the spirit of the dead Duchess. Ferdinand tries to throttle his own shadow and says “strangling is a cruel death”. Bosola sees an image of the Duchess and confesses that he is haunted by her. Then there is the “Echo” which warns Antonio of the imminent death if he goes to the Cardinal’s palace. Finally, almost everyone who meets his death in Act V dies remembering of the Duchess. It is by these men’s that Webster has tried to unite the Act V with rest of the play. So it can be said that though Act V is structurally and acthelically a weak spot but it is necessary for the thematic framework of the play.

What is important about Webster’s plot construction in Duchess of Malfi is his attempt to create sympathy for his heroine. Webster’s principle shows, William Painter’s Pleasure of Palace, as well as Bandello’s and Bellforest account for the same story. They present the Duchess as a lusty woman, who brought disgrace for her brothers and dies a deserved death. Though Webster told the same story yet his focus manipulates sympathy for the Duchess. This is done in two ways: first, the Duchess’ deviations societal norms are presented as an unavoidable action in the light of her brother’s declared hostility to her remarriage. Secondly, Webster presents two brothers as perverse, violent and Machiavellian villainous. The Cardinal affair with Julia, his cunning ways and misuse of high office make him a villainous of first water. Similarly, Ferdinand’s violence and incestuous (sexual) inclinations towards Duchess destroy whatever social right might have been on his side. Thus, Webster handling of the story converts the story of an ordinary woman into a great and powerful tragedy.


If Act V is criticizes for providing an anti-climax, Act III is criticizes for not following the Aristotelian concept of time. Right at the beginng of Act III Antonio says to Delio: “Since you see her She hath had two children more A son and a daughter” clearly there is a gap of two years between Act II and Act III, but some critics believe that it was just a mistake of the dramatist.

In sum, what is important about Webster’s plot construction in The Duchess of Malfi is his attempt to create sympathy for his heroine. Webster’s principle shows William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, Bandello and Bellforest’s account for the same story--- they presents Duchess as a lusty woman who brought disgrace for her brother and dies a deserved death--- but Webster uses the same story but his focus manipulates sympathy for the Duchess. As a moral, the theme of the play is that “We are merely star’ tennis balls Struck and bandied Which way please them…..”  Evan observes “Webster sombre spirit aided by his poetic process raises his plot from a melodrama to a tragic world”.



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