Skip to content

Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Dutchess of Malfi

John Webster’s Dutchess of Malfi, probably based on actual events during the sixteenth century, begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a grisly tragedy when her two brothers seek their revenge, destroying themselves in the process.

The play has been mocked by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. But the complexity of characterization, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster’s use of language are usually said to give it a continuing interest.

In the version directed by Philip Franks at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the action of the play is transferred to post-war Italy as the state is throwing off its fascist past and preparing for another version of the brave new world.

But it didn’t work for me. The central character leads a doomed life with her lover and their children, surrounded as they are, by greed, treachery and lies. Imogen Stubbs as the Dutchess of Malfi searches deep inside herself but still can’t make us love her, or even garner a few shreds of empathy. Although the sets work well the course of the play is confused by the director’s hazy vision, and the placing of a video sequence in the Dutchess’s dungeon does not work well in a play where the Cardinal’s mistress is killed by a poisoned bible.

And if you are going to bring a play ‘up-to-date’ by substituting guns for knives, you had better make absolutely sure that the prompts work and that the back-stage explosive reports go off at the same time as the killer pulls the trigger.

At the end of the day, though, the play itself is at fault. The course of the plot is highly improbable and difficult to believe. And melodrama is no longer to our taste and is very difficult to hide, especially in a script that is built around it.

6 Responses to “The Dutchess of Malfi”

  1. Lee says:

    One I’ve never read, and now you’ve made me curious.

    I’m not sure I agree about melodrama – there’s still an awful lot of it about. Titanic, anyone?

    jb says: Oh, yes, the Titanic was a big one to miss.

  2. Napfisk says:

    I was lucky enough to see a modern-day adaption (and translation) of this play a few years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much of the details now, except that it was well done and that I enjoyed it.

    The themes were all there, but luckily none of that “let’s set this in a specific contemporary setting” was involved. Perhaps stripping a play like this to its bare essentials works best.

    But maybe my wanting to see it so badly back then and the haze of memory are playing tricks on me.

    Pity you couldn’t enjoy it, because I believe it’s not performed that often (at least not here).

    jb says: If memory serves me well, Napfisk, you’re in Belgium. . .

    I must say that my experience was not at all like yours. I won’t be going to see the play again in a hurry. But I’m a forgiving kind of a soul, and after a while, I might be ready for some more punishment.

  3. Lee says:

    John, I’ve just begun a wonderful essay on melodrama by Charles Baxter entitled ‘Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama,’ from his Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. I think I may post about it over at Lowebrow at some point, because it’s already opened up so many new – at least for me – possibilities. Baxter links melodrama to power, for example. And here this quote: ‘Melodrama, typically, is the scene of the incomprehensible attached to the unforgivable. It is powered by the force of the demonic, particularly in its capacity and willingness to hurt.’

    What I like so much about your blog is that it enables a real conversation.

    jb says: Brilliant quote. It’s almost a description of the last act of The Dutchess of Malfi, particularly in Ferdinand’s psychopathic rage and the bloody revenge he takes on his sister and her household. I’ll look forward to your critique of Baxter’s essay.

  4. kevin says:

    you should look into the movie Hotel by Mike Figgis, it’s loosely based on the play, in the sense that there is a movie crew trying to film a version of The Dutchess of Malfi, but obviously there are parallels to the play within the actual movie itself. it’s also largely unscripted and just generally an original and interesting film.

    jb says: OK, Kevin, thanks for the tip. I didn’t know about it, but now it’s on my to do list.

  5. Steph says:

    I have been studying the dutchess of malfi and it really is an amazing play. I absolutely love it. As for the Dutchess pitied or criticised?

  6. Nic says:

    dude, you plagerised the wikipedia piece on the play for your site…

    jb says: OK, dudey dude, i may well have borrowed half a line from the history of the play (in which the Wikipedia piece in turn quotes from Ian Jack’s article on “The Case of John Webster”), but no more, and my review concerned a specific production and was more than ninety percent a review of that production. Still if you want to trawl the internet looking for hairs to split, well, please don’t stop to think. And to quote the play: “A Spanish fig for your impudence”