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Webster began writing for the stage in 1601. Between 1601 and 1607 he worked upon Marston’s play The Malcontent. He is also said to have collaborated with Dekker in The History of Sir Thomas Wyatt and also in Northward Ho! He published elegies upon the death of Prince Henry in 1613. Besides the two great tragedies, he also wrote another tragedy Appius and Virginia. He also wrote a tragic-comedy The Devil’s Law-Case and a comedy A Cure for a Cuckold. In The Devil’s Law-Case, Webster depends more on the material supplied to him than on his powers. It starts with an involved plot of Italian deceit and deliberate crime which Webster develops carefully but not clearly. We feel that we are working towards a sinister end. But towards the close of a play, by a twist, a happy ending is given to the play. This violates all probability – the artistic tone and the ethical integrity of the chief character. Though much evidence is lacking towards Webster’s contribution to the other comedies, one must note the Websterian note in The Love’s Graduate – a play within A Cure for a Cuckold.

Appius and Virginia: (Dyce): This drama is so remarkable for its simplicity, its deep pathos, its unobtrusive beauties, its singleness of plot, and the easy, unimpeded march of the story, that perhaps there are readers who will prefer it to any other of his productions.

(All this is applicable to the Duchess.)

Webster, a Latin scholar, had probably studied this Appius and Virginia in Livy. The outlines of the story were known to the Englishmen through painter’s Palace of Pleasure. From this he has drawn the mutinous camp life, the discontented city ruled by a licentious noble and also the innocent girlhood of Virginia. He has learnt from Latin that the method of violent contrast can be used for a peculiar effect of romance. While treating a classical subject, Webster always aimed at classical severity in form. The chief interest centers round Appius who is very much for the purposes of the play.

The Duchess of Malfi is the story of a soul of exquisite virtue caught in the meshes of circumstances. It depicts the vengeance of two brothers taken on the Duchess for marrying without their knowledge below her status. The greatness of Webster is seen in the refinement of their cruelty which is carried out with inexorable precision to the last bitter end. The villain of the play, Bosola, is drawn on the lines of Shakespeare though without Shakespeare’s subtlety. The method of contrast that the playwright fully exploits brings out the wickedness of the brothers which has a world of tragic suggestions. The diction of the play and also the poetry qualify him to be next to Shakespeare. But some critics find fault with Act V as they accuse it of producing the effect of an anti-climax. They think that the tragic effect might be a little intenser and more harmonious if the play had ended with Act IV. They also admit that this act deepens the gloom of the atmosphere, for, Nemesis, works too far and falls even upon the avengers. Thus the dramatic interest suffers in the last Act. Against this it may be maintained that Act V is only a complement to the main action. Had it been more condensed and swifter in movement, it would have been more effective. But the generalizations of the dramatist on sundry subjects hamper the interest. It (Act V) serves the purpose of completing the action and it also deepens the tragedy of the Duchess’s life. Moreover, it must be noticed that Webster’s tragedies are tragedies of unrestrained passion and they result in the working of utter wreck. Thus the play is a truly Websterian tragedy.

It is said that Webster has little sense of character. “Most of his personages have, properly speaking, no character. They are creatures of the moment. It must be admitted that the range of characterization in The Duchess is narrow. But within this narrow range, he is capable of depicting intense human feelings and also the loftiest emotions. The narrowness is unavoidable because he took for his province extremes of wrong and violence.

Ferdinand, who is passionate and frenzied, is depicted as too weak to withstand the burdens of unrestrained passion. But he is clearly contrasted with the Cardinal, who has mastery over every evil, though he passes for a pious man. It is this contrast that is worked throughout the play. The Duchess illustrates the power, the beauty and the nobility of womanly love as a sister, wife and mother, which adds to the skill of the dramatist who had mastered the descriptions of womanhood. Her sweet countenance is further gifted by the look of divine continence. She has the insight to look into the diabolical schemes of her brothers. She is represented as always on the defensive, never intending to retaliate. Yet she lacks the wit and brilliance of Shakespeare’s heroines and barring that she possesses other qualities of them.

Bosola is not an ordinary villain. He is a scholar and a man of clearest possible vision. True to the spirit of the play, he is a victim of circumstances, which make him an intruder, an informer, a torturer and a murderer. He is described to have an analytical curiosity in the process of his villainy. He takes a psychological interest in the conduct and sufferings of his victim. In him we see much of Shakespeare’s Iago, though he is less resourceful.

The satirical vein and power of Webster: The dry humour of Bosola especially in the commentaries on life has quite an original savour. He rails at every aspect of life and this is a proof of the wisdom of the playwright as expressed through his characters. Webster is licentious in the use of blank verse. The liberties that he took with blank verse and metre I unexcelled by any dramatist except Shakespeare.

Defects: the crudeness of the incident, Webster had inherited from his forerunners. There are some uncouth mannerisms which “halt between archaism and a kind of childish awkwardness.” His trick of interspersing asides in dialogues is unrealistic. Likewise, generalizations on life retard action and kill dramatic effectiveness. Webster is a pessimist and, as such, sees the sinister side of life and this answers the lack of wit and brilliance in his characters.

(Frederick Allen): The peculiar atmosphere of “pitchy blackness relieved by intermittent flashes of illumination” – that sense of impending doom and inevitable retribution for sin and crime” – the “bitter flavour of caustic satire, biting scorn and ugly cynicism.”…

The revengeful brothers are both villains who ‘are the victims of an insensate fury that blinds the eyes, maddens the brain, and poisons the spring of pity, a fury that, in the more violent choleric temper of Ferdinand leads to maddening remorse, and, I n the more studiedly treacherous soul of the Cardinal, to a callousness and inhumanity that strikes one cold. The piteous sufferings of their victim evoked a passionate sympathy even from the heart of Bosola.

“You may discern the shape of loveliness
More perfect in her tears than in her smiles.”

(C.B. Wheeler): If the aim of tragedy is indeed to purge man’s soul by fear and pity, Webster may be said to have reached the pinnacle of art in some of the scenes of the play. For sheer horror, it is unsurpassed in the English language, and deserves to be ranked with Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. As Lamb says, with reference to one scene, “To move a horror so skillfully, to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit; this only a Webster can do.” The faults of the play will be manifest to the least critical reader, but they will not dwell in his mind when he has followed the Duchess through her long-worn agony and watched swift-winged Nemesis swooping on her murderers. Heinous guilt would not have justified such torture. Webster’s treatment of the supernatural, especially in the case of The Duchess of Malfi is not less characteristic of its imaginative freedom than his handling of the traditional motive of revenge. In this play, there are none of the ghosts and objective portents so conventional in the ‘revenge’ plays. Artistic atmosphere is with Webster a matter of deep concern. He may be careless about certain things, but he is scrupulous and careful about that. In this play, the full atmospheric significance is extracted both from the supernatural and the abnormal. The masque of madmen is contrived in the spirit of the earlier practice; its effect is largely that of grotesque and ridiculous antics and dialogue, but it contains, besides, an element of ghastly horror, for it must be considered not only in its own intrinsic nature, but also in the reaction upon the tortured heroine whose sanity is so perilously dependent upon its wild distractions as an escape from the maddening frenzy of silent thought. More characteristic of Webster, however, is the subtle study of Ferdinand’s lycanthropia. This is conceived, not as a mere episode of terror and horror, but as a lapse from mental balance that becomes rapidly more and more perceptible. In this, as in other finer studies of insanity, Webster kept before his mind’s eye Shakespeare’s delineation of madness – especially, that of King Lear.