Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction

By Jerome H. Delamater; Ruth Prigozy | Go to book overview

12
“I am Duchess of Malfi still”:
The Identity-Death Nexus in
The Duchess of Malfi and
The Skull beneath the Skin

Carolyn F. Scott

The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, not only provides essential elements in the plot of The Skull beneath the Skin, by P. D. James, but it also contributes to the framework for the narrative and itself finally achieves a new resolution in the conclusion of the modern mystery. By discovering and exposing the murder of Clarissa Lisle, Cordelia Gray redeems both the Duchess of Malfi and Bosola. The murders of the Duchess and Clarissa Lisle result from a failure of their servitors, Bosola and Cordelia Gray. While Bosola cannot resolve the crime and loses his own life in the process of trying to atone for his actions, Cordelia Gray, caught in the crux of the identity-death nexus, not only learns the identity of the murderer but also arrives at a new understanding of her own position as both the Duchess and Bosola, as both victim and victimizer. Charles R. Forker analyzes the love-death nexus or the “dramatization of the ironic interplay between love and death” (237) in his study of Webster. Just as love and death are inextricably bound in Webster's plays, identity and death also operate in tandem. Only at the moment of death can characters truly recognize their identities; the moment of authentic self-recognition leads to death. The characters in The Duchess of Malfi must confront their identities and their deaths simultaneously. The characters in The Skull beneath the Skin face the same conjunction.

The Duchess of Malfi provides a fertile ground for writers of detective fiction. Agatha Christie reconsiders the play in Sleeping Murder, using it to furnish both a clue to the mystery and a motive for the murder. A production of The Duchess of Malfi and the line “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle: She thed young” (IV. ii. 255) awaken in Gwenda Reed the memory of a murder she witnessed as a child. As she and her husband delve further into the question of whether there was a murder and, if so, who the murderer is, Gwenda wonders if her “childish

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