The Duchess of Malfi Revisited: J.R. Dunn's Science Fiction Revenge Tragedy

By Levy, Michael M. | Extrapolation, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Duchess of Malfi Revisited: J.R. Dunn's Science Fiction Revenge Tragedy


Levy, Michael M., Extrapolation


* John Webster's revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi was first produced in 1616. J. R. Dunn's novel Full Tide of Night, which was "inspired" by Webster's play, appeared in 1998. Since this fact is proclaimed by the book's cover copy, the purpose of my essay is not to prove this intertexuality, but simply to examine it. A number of questions present themselves. Is Dunn merely borrowing Webster's bloody plotline for purposes of spectacle or has he actually incorporated the playwright's themes into his work? To what extent does the nature of the novel as both science fiction and commercial fiction influence Dunn's own choice of plot, character and theme? Finally, how true is Dunn to the tradition of the seventeenth-century revenge tragedy in general, as it is typified by Webster, John Ford, Cyril Tourneur, and, of course, Shakespeare?

Unlike Roger Zelazny, who did graduate work on the Jacobeans, Dunn's background is in military history and he has in fact been an editor of The International Military Encyclopedia since the early 1990s (Dunn, e-mail). He was inspired to write Full Tide of Night, he says, because of a revival of [The Duchess of Malfi] in New York City.... I read a review of the production, which included the plot, and thought "Gee, this would make a great novel... everybody gets killed, except for the last character who comes on stage at the end, stands over the bodies, and gives a speech about how sad it all is.... It's Quentin Tarantino in the seventeenth century." (www.eventhorizon)

It should also be noted that, although centered on Webster's play, the novel includes a wide range of richly varied literary and popular culture allusions as well, including, among others, references to Kipling, Jane Eyre, Henry IV, and Hal 9000. Allusions to Greek and Roman myth are also common and will be discussed in some depth in the body of this essay.

For those who may not have read The Duchess of Malfi recently, the play concerns three siblings, Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, his brother, the Cardinal, and Ferdinand's twin sister, the recently widowed Duchess. As the play opens, the brothers conspire to keep their sister from remarrying, hoping to gain control of her income, and they insert the malcontent Bosola into her household to watch over her. The Cardinal is a traditional Machiavellian character and his primary motive is avarice, but Ferdinand is motivated by darker passions. Although his desires are never consummated, his feelings towards his sister are clearly incestuous. Isolated by her brothers from the outside world, the Duchess, a woman of strong will, takes her steward, Antonio, to her bed. Although valiant and faithful, Antonio is, from the point of view of class, an inappropriate match and the lovers must conduct their own secret marriage ceremony. Years pass and the couple have several children, which (along with her pregnancies) the Du chess somehow manages to hide from her brothers. Eventually, however, the truth is discovered, Antonio is forced to flee, and the Duchess is imprisoned and tortured by Bosola at the behest of an increasingly unstable Ferdinand. After her murder, Ferdinand, who denies having authorized this action, goes mad and Antonio returns seeking revenge. The play ends with every major character spectacularly dead.

J.R. Dunn's debt to The Duchess of Malfi begins with the novel's title, Full Tide of Night, which comes from Act IV of the play. The Duchess, in prison, has been tortured and is about to be murdered. Bringing on her executioners, Bosola apprises her of her impending death:

 
Don clean linen, bathe your feet, 
And (the foul fiend more to check) 
A crucifix let bless your neck: 
'Tis now full tide 'tween night and day; 
End your groan and come away. (IV.ii.206-10) 

Bosola may in fact be about to perpetrate a murder, but he seems to have some concern for the lady's soul. …

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