Duchess of Mulfi: Tragedy vs. Melodrama
In the Jacobean age tragedy mostly degenerated into melodrama. A melodrama lacks in subtlety and depth of characterization, and the dramatist depends for his effects on the exploitation of crude physical horrors. There is much in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi that is merely melodramatic and sensational, lurid and gruesome. All kinds of fearful things- waxen- images counterfeiting death, the wild masque of madmen, the tomb-maker, the bell-men, the strangling of the Duchess, of the children and of Cariola - things that make the flesh creep and the blood run cold, are presented before the audience to make horror tenfold more horrible. There are conventional murders in the dark to effect their evil purpose, and by the end the stage is littered with dead bodies. There are deaths by poisoning, by strangulation and by the dagger of the assassin. All these are crude devices freely exploited by the contemporary writers of blood and thunder tragedies.
However, although Webster's plays include adultery, murder, treachery, and political machinations, he doesn't write that way just for the shock value. His plays reveal real, albeit unpleasant, truths about people: he brings out issues of class divide, the nature of justice, love and lust, the role of religion, political obligation, sibling relations, and immorality in the courts. Webster creates characters that both are and are not sympathetic, complex in a manner not unlike real human beings. All the while he masterfully crafts the play's structure to prolong suspense.
No doubt, Webster has made free use of crude physical horrors in Duchess of Mulfi, but these horrors are made an integral part of the tragedy. The sensational and the melodramatic is seen acting on the soul of the Duchess, and in this way her inner suffering, the grandeur, majesty and nobility of her soul, are fully revealed. In this way the melodramatic is raised to the level of pure tragedy. In this way the horrible is subordinated to the total artistic effect the artist wants to create. The horror in the play does not remain something extraneous as is the case with other writers of the revenge play.
The long scene in the fourth act in which the Duchess and her children are murdered is, at the same time, the most horrific and yet the most poetic of scenes. To see horror presented in so poetic a manner is rather unnerving and the poetry is, of course, the poetry of death. It is a long and carefully paced scene, and seems to contain in it the very kernel of Webster’s strange vision. First, Bosola brings in, seemingly for the Duchess’ entertainment, a troupe of madmen, whose lunatic singing and dancing and meaningless gibberish create a quite extraordinary atmosphere. By the time the Duchess is strangled onstage, she is reconciled to her fate, but that does not make the fate any less horrific. Her waiting-woman Cariola is also strangled onstage, and then the bodies of the strangled children are brought in. Ferdinand then enters to see the corpse of the sister he had sexually desired. However, this horrid villain ends up saying, “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: she died young.” It is apparently so simple, and yet so haunting and resonant.
To conclude, we can say that John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is not a melodramatic revenge play in the traditional sense of the term. By introducing the tone of moral justice at the end, Webster raises the original theme of revenge to a higher plane. With the exception of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which marks the highest degree of development that the delineation of the revenge motif ever attained, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi ranks very high in the evolution of this class of tragedy. What raises Webster’s play above melodrama is the fact that whereas no dramatist of the Revenge School succeeds in heightening the terrific effects of laying bare the inner mysteries of crime, remorse and pain, Webster succeeds eminently and he comprehends and reproduces abnormal elements of spiritual anguish in more refined manner than one of them could do. The Duchess of Mulfi may not the passionate intensity of Macbeth, Othello or King Lear, but there can be no denying the fact that it is a great tragedy, “one in which melodrama has been raised to the level of great tragedy”.