The Duchess of Malfi as a revenge tragedy

“The Duchess of Malfi” is a well-known revenge tragedy penned by John Webster. Not only did “The Duchess of Malfi’ Webster write “The White Devil” in the convention of the revenge tragedy. After Shakespeare, if anyone has mastered the tradition of the revenge tragedy, it is John Webster.

The term “revenge tragedy” emerged from the Senecan convention of creating ‘revenge’ the motive for the action that ultimately leads to the downfall. So if we look at revenge in this way, then revenge is not a wrong thing done to get justice. Rather, revenge is a sacred duty that cannot be ignored. In Senecan Revenge Tragedy, revenge was the main characteristic of such plays, but when Thomas Kyd and William Shakespeare started writing revenge tragedies, they included several features like supernatural elements, brutality and terror, intense and violent scenes, etc. So if we look at “The Duchess of Malfi” this way, it has all the characteristics that a revenge tragedy should have.

Melodrama in revenge tragedy:

Although Webster was significantly influenced by the melodramatic convention of the Senecan revenge tragedies Webster advances in developing upon that convention. In his plays, melodrama evolves into something much finer and artful. Generally in melodrama, the focus is on episodes and actions, but in “The Duchess of Malfi” the focus is on essentially the depiction of characters and in unveiling human nature. In addition, there is delightful poetry that permeates throughout the play; sometimes ferocious and sometimes peaceful and at times kind and caring. All these raise “The Duchess of Malfi” from mere melodrama into a majestic tragedy, a tragedy that nearly gets to Shakespearean heights

Read More: Hamlet as a revenge tragedy

The horrors in “The Duchess of Malfi”

Horror elements are an important feature of the revenge tragedy and in “The Duchess of Malfi” we can see several such horror scenes that create a sense of terror in the audience. In Scene I, Act IV, Duke Ferdinand, penalized his sister, the Duchess, for covertly marrying Steward Antonio. Having caged the Duchess in blackness the Duke decides to horrify the Duchess with a sequence of psychological abuses that starts with his handing over a dead man’s hand. Then the display of silhouettes of Antonio and the children shown before the Duchess also created a sense of fear in the audience. The dance of the madmen, the figure of Bosola as a tomb maker also are planned to produce terror. After then in one scene ten murders happen one after the other which again creates a sense of fear. Because “The Duchess of Malfi” has so many horror scenes that’s why it can be called a proper revenge tragedy.

Read More: Hamlet as a tragic hero

The supernatural features in “The Duchess of Malfi”:

Another key feature of a revenge tragedy is the supernatural elements. Webster has not presented supernatural elements in the traditional way. Webster didn’t present ghosts like typical revenge tragedies and didn’t show anything that seemed unrealistic. In Act V, Scene III, the miserable replies which the echo creates to Antonio’s words are the effect of a naturalistic phenomenon. Antonio’s words:

And on the sudden a clear light

Presented me a face folded in sorrow” (Act V, Scene III, The Duchess of Malfi)

arise only from his imagination is caused by his love for the Duchess. In this way, Webster has created a supernatural atmosphere without presenting anything unrealistic.

Madness in revenge tragedies:

Webster has presented madness in his play “The Duchess of Malfi” according to the convention of revenge tragedies. It constitutes, frequently, a distorted atmosphere with the whims and maniac dance of the madmen. The Duke, Ferdinand, brought a cohort of madmen to torment the Duchess. The Duchess doesn’t react to this torment and ironically the Duke turns mad not the Duchess. The Duke’s madness is manifested not only as a means to produce terror but to demonstrate that his misdeed has cast him into insanity. 

Read More: Shakespeare as a dramatist


In the end, we can say that Webster has written “The Duchess of Malfi” not only in the convention of revenge tragedy but he has also modified the convention in his own way. It demonstrates the closest approach to Shakespearean standard. There is an amalgamation of tragedy with agony, dread, and horror and it is indeed the hallmark of a revenge tragedy. 

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