The Duchess of Malfi – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on The Duchess of Malfi include John Webster and the business of funerals, visions of the afterlife in the play, and our favourite metaphors in Webster’s metaphysical verse.
John Webster Coach Maker
The playwright’s father, also John Webster, was by trade a coach maker based near Smithfield market in London. He built a large and prosperous business which his son Edward carried on. The company also hired out their coaches as hearses and the transport of criminals. One can imagine that this occupation may have informed in some small way the young playwright’s understanding of villainy and death.
In a play soaked in sin and death the characters are persistently haunted by their prospects in the afterlife. For these people heaven and especially hell are very real places, although of course they cannot know what is to come and fear the unknown. The Duchess asks her waiting lady, Cariola, if she thinks ” we shall know one another in th’other world?” And laments that we cannot see into this after world to know: “O that it were possible we might/But hold some two days’ conference with the dead,/From them I should learn somewhat, I am sure/I never shall know here.
She and Antonio also believe that “heaven hath a hand” in whatever their destiny is to be in this life or the next, were they hope that in the “eternal Church” they will not be parted. The Duchess remains hopeful of this prospect when Bosola asks her if she is not frightened by death: “Who would be afraid on’t?/Knowing to meet such excellent company /In th’other world.”
When Bosola further questions her lack of concern about the specific manner of her death, she conjures a wonderfully vivid image of the ways of passing into the next world: “I know death hath ten thousand several doors/For men to take their exits: and ’tis found/They go on strange geometrical hinges,/You may open both ways.” Does the swinging door suggest that one may either be called to death or choose to push through to it oneself, or perhaps that ghosts may pass between the worlds?
The Duchess is certain that one must approach heaven with humility; that arrogant princes will not be admitted: “Heaven gates are so highly arch’d/As prince’s palaces: they that enter there/Must go on their knees.” It seems clear that the princes in the play, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, do not believe they are heading for heaven. “There’s a sin in us Heaven doth revenge” admits Ferdinand, and the Cardinal is unable to pray, much like Claudius fails to do so in Hamlet: “O, my conscience!/ I would pray now: but the devil takes away my heart/For having any confidence in prayer.” The Cardinal certainly has intimations of hell – he consults the Bible, but his conscience is not consoled: “I am puzzl’d in a question about hell:/He says, in hell there’s one material fire,/ And yet it shall not burn all men alike. Lay him by. How tedious is a guilty conscience!/ When I look into the fishponds in my garden,/ Methinks I see a thing, arm’d with a rake/ That seems to strike at me.” Finally as he dies he recognises that he gets what he deserves : “Sorrow is held the eldest child of sin”.
In our discussion about the language of The Duchess of Malfi, Emma described Webster’s verse as being characteristic of the style of the ‘metaphysical’ poets of the seventeenth century, such as John Donne (1572-1631). The term metaphysical was coined by Samuel Johnson, and refers to the use of extended metaphors and word play, as well as an interest in the interplay between the physical and spiritual worlds. There are countless examples of vivid, extended metaphor in Webster’s play, that make reading the text such a rich pleasure. Here are just a few favourites:
In Act 1 scene 1 Bosola describes the sycophancy and corruption of the Amalfi court of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, likening the two brothers to:
“two plum trees, that grow crooked over standing pools, they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flatt’ring panders, I would hang on their ears like a horse-leech, till I were full, and then drop off.”
He conjures another telling image of the unhealthy hierarchy of the court:
” places in the court are but like beds in the hospital, where this man’s head lies at that man’s foot, and so lower and lower”.
Delio suggests a striking simile for Ferdinand’s malevolent intent:
“the law to him/ Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider,/ He makes it his dwelling, and a prison/ To entangle those shall feed him.
Ferdinand in his madness conjures an imaginative conceit which is memorable for its sharpness and strangeness:
” I am studying the art of patience…To drive six snails from this town to Moscow; neither use goad nor whip to them, but let them take their own time: (the patient’st man i’th’ world match me for an experiment!) and I’ll crawl after like a sheep-biter.”
Finally, the most extended conceit of all must be the Duchess’s famous tale of the Salmon and the Dog-fish at the close of Act III, in which she expounds a fable to illustrate the ultimate fates of men of both high and mean birth, concluding: “So, to great men, the moral may be stretched./ Men oft are valued high, when th’are most wretch’d.”
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