Tamburlaine's Malady: And Other Essays on Astrology in Elizabethan Drama

By Johnstone Parr | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
PROGNOSTICATING VIOLENT DEATH

IN ALMOST all the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists one finds an abundance of astrological jargon used metaphorically and as sheer literary garnish, showing no particular knowledge of the complex technicalities of astrology. Occasionally, however, a Jacobean dramatist's delineation of a horoscope involves such astrological technicalities that he and his audience must have fully appreciated the various manifestations of horoscopy. Such is the case in John Webster The Duchess of Malfi. My purpose in this chapter is to present an adequate explanation of the horoscope employed at one of the critical moments in this play.

At the beginning of the second act the widowed Duchess has already clandestinely married Antonio (the major-domos of her palace), is big with Antonio's child, and (by wearing loose-fitting gowns) has succeeded in keeping the household of her palace from knowing of her pregnancy. On the night of the child's birth, Antonio plans a ruse to further keeping the secret: he announces that the Duchess' jewels have been stolen, and thereupon orders that the gates be shut and all members of the household confine themselves to their chambers for the night. This has no sooner been done than Antonio is informed that he is "the happy father of a sonne." He hurries off at once to cast the child's horoscope, or, as he says, to "set a figure for's Nativitie."1 But

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1

II.ii.92. All citations from the play are from The Complete Works of John Webster, ed. F. L. Lucas ( London, 1927.), II. Professor Lucas (p. 151) is amused that Antonio, immediately after a lecture from Delio on superstition, should hurry away to cast a horoscope. But Webster apparently knew what recent research is beginning to clearly show: that in the early sixteenth century the children of a Duchess always had their horoscopes cast, and that this manifestation received virtually as much serious consideration as did the child's christening. Cf. Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science ( New York,

-94-

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