Truth and Effect in 'The Duchess of Malfi'

F.H. Langman


The first part of this essay is an exercise in scepticism. Webster's reputation has struggled through a great deal of detraction, to arrive at the point where a critic can confidently proclaim The Duchess of Malfi a dramatic work of art that is a brilliant piece of artistic craftsmanship. Most of the old charges have been swept away as uninformed, or irrelevant, or mistaken. Webster has been placed in the context of artistic conventions and historical pre-occupations needed for a proper appreciation of his work. We know now that the play is informed by complex patterns of thought and imagery; that features of the action once supposed merely bizarre or morbid, like the tableau of wax figures and the dance of madmen in Act IV, are to be understood in a tradition of masque, ceremony and ritual from which they draw meaning. We can relate Webster's themes to the serious intellectual concerns of his age. We know better than to require realism of action or character analysis. We recognize that the poetry is no superadded adornment but the very life of the play. And we are perhaps less ready to take a high moral tone, or to demand that the playwright take one. In all of these ways, recent criticism has been better able to do Webster justice, and estimates of him have gone up accordingly. On the whole, I think the new views are right; I find the play more impressive, more coherent and intelligent, than its hostile critics would lead us to expect or than I myself once thought; and its faults seem to me now less pervasive, less far-reaching or significant than would justify the wholesale conclusions to which they have sometimes given rise. Nevertheless, I continue to think that it does have faults, that they are serious, that praise of Webster's craftsmanship needs to be tempered by apposite discrimination, and that arguments from history or elaborations of pattern should be rigorously tested. Some of the old criticisms still have force, I think, though I would offer different reasons for them.

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