By: John Webster
I guess I should start off by saying that I’m not a huge fan of tragedy.
The genre as a whole just seems depressing and pointless and inherently unenjoyable. And that’s not because I believe that good literature has to have a happy ending. I love A Farewell to Arms. But it just seems strange to me to read a play knowing full well that it’s going to have an awful ending, that the characters are doomed from the outset, that any good in the world is going to be obliterated by the end of the story.
All that to say that I knew I wasn’t going to love The Duchess of Malfi from the get-go.
Some plays were written to be read. Shakespearean plays, for instance, are so complex that you can entirely miss subplots and undertones if you see it versus reading it.
This is not one of those plays. In fact, I’d say that this is the opposite. The Duchess of Malfi is all about the visual, the drama onstage, the intensity of the acting. There’s not much going on outside of the primary plotline.
It’s just not that entertaining as a piece of written literature.
Honestly, the coolest thing about this play for me is that it’s based on a true story about the real duchess of Amalfi, Giovanna d’Aragona. You can’t make this stuff up. The Renaissance was such a bizarre era.
So I guess to sum up, it’s a good story, perhaps even riveting as a performance, but on paper, it just doesn’t do it for me. It doesn’t have the beauty of language that a Shakespeare play would have, or the metaphysics of a Marlowe play.
I recommend going to see this one instead of reading it. It would be especially entertaining around Halloween. It’s got a great cemetery scene, a disembodied hand, and a tragic number of deaths.
If you’re into tragedy, then maybe this one will be a good read. But it’s not my first choice.
If you enjoyed this play, check out these suggestions:
(for contemporaneous tragedy)
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
(for other works by Webster)
The White Devil by John Webster
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Meridian by Alice Walker