Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England

By Huston Diehl | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Rhetoric of Witnessing: The Duchess of Malfi

Martyrdom (bearing witness) is so essentially rhetorical, it even gets its name from the law courts.

-- Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives


Plagued in Art

Perhaps more than any other play written for the Elizabethan and Jacobean commercial theaters, The Duchess of Malfi ( 1612) is deeply informed by English Calvinism.1 It explores Calvinist notions of predestination through the character of Bosola, an alienated malcontent who is unable "to do good when" he has "a mind to it."2 It raises the issue, prominent in Calvin, of the conflict between a corrupt ruler and the individual conscience. It draws on early Protestant satires of the Roman clergy, depicting the Cardinal as a hypocritical, sexually promiscuous, and morally corrupt man who spies on loved ones, betrays servants, and kills mistresses without compunction.3 And in its final act, the ruins of an ancient abbey elicit an elegiac

____________________
1
A number of other scholars have pointed out the Calvinist elements of Webster's play. See Dennis Klinck, "Calvinism and Jacobean Tragedy" ( 1978); Dena Goldberg, Between Worlds ( 1987), pp. 106-7; John S. Wilks, The Idea of Conscience in Renaissance Tragedy ( 1990), pp. 194-220; and Bryan Crockett, The Play of Paradox ( 1996).
2
Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, ed. John Russell Brown ( 1964), 4.2.360; all subsequent citations of this play are given within the text.
3
Orazio Busino, Venetian envoy in England, calls attention to how Roman Catholics were being satirized on the English stage in Anglopatrida (1618). He complains that "the English scoff at our religion as disgusting and merely superstitious; they never put on any public show whatever, be it tragedy or satire or comedy, into which they do not insert some Catholic churchmen's vices and wickednesses, making mock and scorn of him, according to their taste," and he goes on to describe what appears to be Webster's portrayal of the Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi. Qtd. in G. K. Hunter and S. K Hunter, eds. John Webster ( 1969), p. 31.

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