Webster's 'Sense of an Elite Woman's Place in the World' in the Duchess of Malfi and the White Devil
Reflecting on the subject of Webster's 'sense of an elite woman's place in the world', the first point of pertinence is that no discussion on specific issues in The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil can meaningfully take place without first settling the issue of the moral and social relevance, if any, of these two plays. This is especially significant in the light of the enormous controversy that exists with critics being pretty much sharply divided over "... there is no deeper purpose than to make our flesh creep"(Ian Jack, 1949) and " Webster has created an integrated, important world through his tragic action which makes his plays a profound comment on life" (Travis Bogard, 1955). This paper will, therefore, first focus on presenting the view that Webster fully intended for his audience to reflect on the effect of emotions such as ambition, greed, love, lust, jealousy, honor and pride on the moral fabric of human nature and the need to persevere in the face of all odds before going on to discuss Webster's 'sense of an elite woman's place in the world'.
Perhaps the most powerful argument in favor of the presence of a social and moral comment in The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil is to disprove the view that Webster was nothing more than a tawdry showman who resorted to grisly horror to entertain and amuse his audience. One cannot deny that both The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil cause a great deal of emotional discomfort in their unabashed use of bloody murders, including the killing of innocent children in The Duchess of Malfi. But a counterpoint to this argument could well be that the very effectiveness of Webster's plays lies in his use of baser human instincts to illustrate on the one hand, human resilience and fortitude even in the face of the greatest of horrors, and on the other the dire consequences of giving into negative emotions such as greed, lust and the desire for revenge and power. After all, the very fact that the perpetrators of the gruesome crimes also come to a murderous end, is testimony in itself that Webster did not intend to show a mirror of life where there is 'no justice, no law, either of God or man' (Travis Bogard)
This is exemplified in Act 4.1 where 'a dead-man's hand' is handed to the Duchess as proof of Antonio's death with the deceitful intent of making her give up hope that she will be reunited with her loved one. Grisly, without a doubt but the shock value is highly effective in driving home, the extent to which Ferdinand and Bosola will go, to persuade the Duchess to do what they want. It is only later that the audience is told, "...These presentations are but fram'd in wax" (4.1.135). More important, the grisliness of the scene serves to highlight human courage and resolve in the face of horror for after all, the severed hand only succeeds in strengthening the Duchess' determination "... And revive the rare, and almost dead example/Of a loving wife." (4.1.85-86)
The other example that furthers the hypothesis that Webster used baser human or animal instincts to illustrate the depths to which human nature can sink is his choice of imagery. In The White Devil an extraordinary number of animal images (on one count, over a hundred) is used so that the audience's attention is constantly drawn to an activity or habit, which is animal.
It is also interesting to note that almost all of Webster's critics agree on one point and that is the use of Webster's characters as vehicles of ideas, rather than clear-cut individual statements of personality types. Webster's characters are often not 'all black or all white but...grey' (Bowers), and in The White Devil this has the effect of 'setting our moral natures at variance with our instinctive sympathies' (Roma Gill).
The best illustration of Webster involving the audience into re-evaluating their views is by the way The White Devil brings into conflict clear-cut morals and the contradictions present in human nature. The characters in The White Devil are good and evil, innocent and guilty, honorable and shameful. Similarly, universal concepts revealing the themes of the play exist with their exact opposites such as love and hatred, loyalty and treachery, order and disorder. Thus, by bringing into focus the co-existence of such contradictions within individual characters and themes, Webster makes his audiences reflect on the 'grey' in basic human nature.
The above technique manifests itself to maximum effect in the central female character of Vittoria Corombona who at first is startling in her beauty and wickedness (for after all, it is at her behest that Bracciano sets out to kill his wife and her husband), arousing a great deal of negative feeling in the audience. Yet, the audience is moved to sympathy and even admiration for her courage at the end "I will not in my death shed one base tear/Or if look pale, for want of blood, not fear." (5.6.225-6)
The technique used in The Duchess of Malfi is different in that the very innocence and goodness of the central female character of the Duchess is used to contrast the baser emotions of the Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola. Perhaps it is this one point of differentiation between the two plays that has led some critics such as Ribner and Murray to conclude that Webster used The Duchess of Malfi to present a positive statement of his moral vision while The White Devil was used as a vehicle to communicate a negative one.
In The White Devil, the world is represented as one where evil wears always the mask of good and good disguises itself as evil so that the two are almost indistinguishable. Yet, in Vittoria's death, one sees a preservation of 'a sense of self' even in evil thereby signifying that the author's intent was to reflect on the human need to persevere in the face of all odds. The same concern is evident in The Duchess of Malfi with the difference that a note of optimism gets introduced -"Integrity of life is fame's best friend / Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end." (5.5.120-1)
Webster's use of strong, central female characters in both The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, as the primary vehicles to carry the idea of perseverance against all odds, is a statement in itself of his views on women. Both the Duchess and Vittoria are presented as strong, courageous women who are not afraid of pursuing their desires with the only difference being that the Duchess is essentially 'good and pure' whereas Vittoria indulges in evil acts such as murder to attain her fulfillment. On many other counts, the similarities between the two women are too striking implying that Webster has some definite purpose in so developing their characters.
The most significant commonality shared by the characters of the Duchess and Vittoria are the sense of dignity and pride that they maintain even in the face of adversity and death, giving rise to admiration for their strength in both their adversaries and the audience. In The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola answers Ferdinand's question of " How doth our sister Dutchesse beare her selfe / In her imprisonment" (4.1.1-2) with "... A behaviour so noble / As gives a majestie to adversitie..." (4.1.6-7). Vittoria' display of strength comes through loud and clear in the trial scene in The White Devil with her defiant speech addressed to the judges:
You are deceived;
For know that all your strict-combined heads,
Which strike against this mine of diamonds,
Shall prove but glassen hammers, they shall break,
These are but feigned shadows of my evils,
Terrify babes, my lord, with painted devils,
I am past such needless palsy, - for your names
Of whore and murd'ress, they proceed from you,
As if a man should spit against the wind,
The filth returns in's face." (3.2.142-51)
Webster, in displaying the strength in his two principal characters, displays an admiration for women who are not afraid to face the consequences of breaking social boundaries for in effect both their punishments are a direct fall-out of their doing so. The Duchess brings about her tragedy by inviting the wrath of her brothers for marrying beneath her station as voiced by "Shall our blood / The royal blood of castile and Aragon / Be thus attainted?" (2.5.30-32). While Vittoria earns the label of 'whore' for violating her marriage vows.
The courage of both women is also manifest in the fact that the Duchess goes against all established social ceremony by her initiating the wooing of Antonio and of course, Vittoria's does the unthinkable as in conspiring to do murder in order to marry Bracciano. Though a conventional view point would have it that it was the very thumbing…