The Duchess and Early Modern Playhouses

The King’s Men first performed The Duchess of Malfi at the Blackfriars Theatre, their indoor theatre. The company acquired the theatre, located in the former Blackfriars priory, in 1608, and it became their winter home.

A higher admission price meant a higher class of clientele, and gentlemen would come to seventeenth-century indoor theatres to see and be seen. They might even purchase a seat upon the stage. Playwrights wrote with this new audience in mind, either catering to or liberated by more “sophisticated” tastes.

Not inclined to lose the potential revenue of one of their more popular plays, the King’s Men brought the Duchess and company to the Globe as well.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


Commendatory Verses

In early modern literary culture, poets would write “commendatory verses” for their peers, short poems of praise in honor of a new publication. The first edition of The Duchess of Malfi appeared with poems written by several of the other noteworthy playwrights of the London stage. John Ford and William Rowley contributed, but Thomas Middleton wrote the longest of the pieces:

In the just worth of the well-deserver, Mr. John Webster, and upon this masterpiece of tragedy

In this thou imitat’st one rich and wise,

That sees his good deed done before he dies;

As he by works, thou by this work of fame,

Hast well provided for thy living name.

To trust to others’ honorings is worth’s crime—

Thy monument is rais’d in thy life-time;

And ‘tis most just; for every worthy man

Is his own marble and his merit can

Cut him to any figure, and express

More art than Death’s cathedral palaces

Where royal ashes keep their court. Thy note

Be ever plainness, ‘tis the richest coat.

Thy epitaph only the title be—

Write “Duchess,” that will fetch a tear for thee,

For who’er saw this Duchess live and die,

That could get off under a bleeding eye?


– Megan Smith, dramaturg



Whispers of Immortality

I figured I’d let T.S. Eliot write a post. As a literary critic, the man was largely responsible for renewing interest in all of the Renaissance writers (other than Shakespeare) that I study.  But his most eloquent, and most quoted, study of John Webster opens the poem “Whispers of Immortality”:

Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin;

And breastless creatures under ground

Leaned backward with a lipless grin.


Daffodil bulbs instead of balls

Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

He knew that thought clings round dead limbs

Tightening its lusts and luxuries.


– Megan Smith, dramaturg



Duchess Revivals

BOSOLA. What would I do, were this to do again? (4.2.26)

The Duchess of Malfi was an instant hit with London audiences. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatre company) debuted the play at their indoor theatre, the Blackfriars. The play quickly became part of their stock, frequently revived both at Blackfriars and at the Globe. The Civil War saw the general closing of the theatres, but the play was revived with the Restoration of Charles II. The play still resonated with the theatre-loving Cavaliers that made up Charles’s court, and it proved popular in the 1660s and 70s. By the late seventeenth century, companies had started liberally to adapt the play to align better with “modern” sensibilities. The eighteenth century never saw the play professionally revived with its original script, and even its literary offspring, adaptations such as The Fatal Secret, suffered decreasing popularity.

Samuel Phelps at Sadler’s Wells brought the play back in the mid-nineteenth century, its enormous success demonstrating that the piece could still be commercially viable. The production participated in an ongoing trend for “authentic” revivals of Shakespeare and his peers, but the scripts were still heavily altered. In 1892, William Poehl and the Independent Theatre Society delivered a production that adhered much more closely to the original script, but even this was bowdlerized, many of the play’s most shocking moments taking place offstage. The Duchess was seen as simply too much for the modern stage. The full text only found its niche in the ‘Little Theatre’ movement, the early twentieth-century development of an art theatre separate from the commercial West End. These amateur and semi-professional productions opened to mixed reviews; even as critics celebrated Webster’s poetry for its continued relevance, they saw the play’s staging conventions as grotesque and rooted in an irretrievable historical moment.

The landmark production of the twentieth century came when George Rylands directed Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud at the Haymarket Theatre in 1945. As Edmund Wilson suggests in his “Notes on London at the End of the War,” much of the play’s success arose from a sense that it spoke feelingly to a community reeling from its confrontation with man’s inhumanity:

“And they somehow get the emotion of wartime into…The Duchess: the speeding up of crime and horror, the cumulative obsession with grievance and revenge…One sees… in The Duchess of Malfi, the scene where her doom is announced to the Duchess amidst the driveling of the liberated madmen, at the moment of the exposé of the German Concentration camps.”

Since 1945, the play has been a staple “classic,” continually revived in both amateur and professional productions.

Peggy Ashcroft as the Duchess (1940s)

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


John Webster (c. 1580 – c. 1634)

John Webster, the dramatist, was born to John Webster, the London coach and wagon maker, at a time when the coach industry was rapidly expanding. The industry being too new to have its own guild, John Webster Sr. joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild and became one of its most prominent members. As a member, he could (and most likely did) send his son to the Merchant Taylor’s School, the most prestigious preparatory school of the time. Our John Webster would have thus come under the influence of Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster and a noted humanist. Mulcaster is perhaps best known as the author of the quote, “Nature makes the boy toward, nurture sees him forward,” the first known instance of the distinction between “nature” and “nurture” (though we should note that Mulcaster suggests the two are distinct but allied properties rather than opposed). Mulcaster also strongly believed in the pedagogical function of drama, and school exercises may well have served as Webster’s introduction to playwriting. At some point in his adulthood, Webster, too, joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild—as odd as it is for us to think of a dramatist as a member.

Webster moved from school to school, studying at the Inns of Court, a rough contemporary equivalent of law school. Like so many law students, he abandoned the law for greener pastures. By the time he hastily married his very pregnant bride Sara Peniall in 1606, Webster had already left the Inns for the stage. (Webster’s son was born two months after his marriage. Exercising the remarkable creativity that informs his literary endeavors, this Webster also named his son “John.”)

As was common practice, Webster’s early work for the theater was collaborative. “His” first known play (Caesar’s Fall) had a total of four writers. These dramatists would generally sketch out the general structure of a piece as a team and then apportion individual scenes amongst themselves. The prevalence of collaboration in part results from the need for speed in early modern playwriting, the need to constantly change up the repertory of the various dramatic companies. No one would have been more astonished than Shakespeare or Webster to find their plays the objects of intense literary study four centuries later; theater, unlike poetry, was merely popular entertainment. (Ben Jonson, whose arrogance was matched only by his blubber, actually would be indignant at his perceived lack of prominence in comparison to pal Shakespeare.)

As described by his contemporaries, Webster was a very slow writer, one of the reasons that we don’t have much of his work today. His modern reputation entirely rests on three plays: the tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case; the tragedy, The White Devil; and his acknowledged masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


Mandrakes and Madness

FERDINAND. I have this night digged up a mandrake.

CARDINAL.                                                                       Say you?

FERDINAND. And I am grown mad with’t. (2.5.1-2)


DUCHESS.                               Come, violent death –

Serve for mandragora to make me sleep. (4.2.226-27)

Practical advice for when you find yourself by a gallows in the dead of night with a yen to dig up large roots: don’t. Renaissance superstitions about the mandrake abound and contradict one another. The mandrake was said to grow under the gallows, to feed on blood, and to utter a shriek when pulled from the ground that could kill or madden those who heard it. And yet it was also used in amulets to avert misfortune. In part, those past peddlers of ghoulish mysteries drew on a perceived resemblance between the mandrake root and the human body, one somewhat exploited by the artist of the picture below:

In my quest for knowledge about the mandrake, I perused many images, and I will admit that one was definitely creepy. I have chosen not to share that image in an effort to preserve others from the dreams of fiendish roots that I am sure will now haunt me. The exact shape of the mandrake varies. The picture below reminds me of a mini squid monster:

Should you wish to add the mandrake to your own collection of herbal remedies, you should know that it has been used variously as a hallucinogenic, anesthetic, aphrodisiac, emetic, and sleep aid—the use that the duchess invokes above. (I beg to add that I cannot vouch for any of these applications.) It belongs to the same family as belladonna, and you might also use it to poison your enemy/friend/lover/relative—but you would probably encounter difficulty convincing your victim to ingest the quantity that it would take.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


Renaissance Drama and Lusty Widows

As everybody knows, widows are dangerously licentious creatures. Having once been exposed to “the marital act,” their blood runs hot in their veins as a constant inclination towards promiscuity overwhelms them…

Okay, maybe “everybody” doesn’t know that, but a large percentage of Renaissance Europe did. The “lusty widow,” a stock character in English Renaissance drama, spoke to a greater social problem: the fact that widows occupied a dangerously liminal zone in the era’s hierarchical order. On the one hand, they had a greater amount of both social freedom and legal rights (generally concerning property law) than either wives or unmarried ladies. On the other, they were still legally subservient to men and, of course, still subject to all the natural weaknesses of the female body and brain that justify such divisions. As Juan Luis Vives puts it in his Instruction for a Christian Woman, a handbook for female education that was nearly as influential in Protestant England as it was in Vives’s native, Catholic Spain,

“Many be glad, that their husbands be gone, as who were rid out of yoke and bondage: and they rejoice that they be out of dominion and bond and have recovered their liberty: but they be of a foolish opinion. For the ship is not at liberty, that lacketh a governor, but rather destitute: neither a child that lacketh his tutor, but rather wandering without order and reason.” (Instruction for a Christian Woman, Juan Luis Vives, trans. Richard Hyrd, 1557)

Indeed, as easy as it is to say that widows remained generally “subservient to men,” the question arises: to whom exactly were they responsible? The men in the family into which they were born, those in the family into which they married, their own adult sons (if they had any)? Should they remarry in order to gain a new husband? According to Vives, the answer to this latter question is “yes” but only if their lascivious inclinations would otherwise lead them to damnation; remarriage otherwise would serve as a poor alternative to a life newly dedicated to Christ. And should a widow need a new spouse, she should never choose a young, handsome man (who would only further enflame her riotous libido) but rather “something past middle age, sober, sad, and of good wit” (Ibid.).

Webster further wrote The Duchess of Malfi at a time of changing ideas about the role of all women within their own engagement process. The increasingly prevalent Protestant ideal of companionate marriage, a marriage between spiritually compatible individuals, led to a parallel emphasis on female choice and consent. For at least one Puritan writer, speaking to his widowed sister, this appears to be particularly true of second marriage:

“As a well wishing brother [I] open my mouth and utter my mind unto you, not that I mind to persuade or dissuade marriage with you, for therein you may best be your own judge, for you know best where your show(?) wringeth you: neither need you any counselor to bid you cut where it wringeth you.” (A View of Mans Estate, Andrew Kingsmill, 1574)

So exactly what is the duchess’s crime in her remarriage? Disobedience? Lust? Socially transgressive behavior? How harshly would the play’s original audience have judged her? In this, as in so many things, Webster denies us easy answers.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg


The Duchess of Malfi: A real-life, historical soap opera

Once upon a time (1490), in a land far away (Amalfi, Italy), a young princess (only twelve years old!) married the heir apparent to the dukedom of Amalfi, Alfonso Piccolomini. Piccolomini, by then the duke, succumbed to gout in 1498, leaving behind his young widow, Giovanna d’Aragona, and an unborn son, their young daughter having died earlier that year. The young duchess assumed the duties of the regent for her infant son. In 1504, she invited Antonio Bologna, her late father’s major-domo in his exile, to come to Amalfi to serve her in the same capacity. The two quickly fell in love, and it is here that John Webster picks up their story.

Much debated portrait of Giovanna D'Aragona, attributed to the workshop of Raphael

The date of the lovers’ secret marriage has remained just that, secret, and could have taken place as late as 1506. By the birth of her second child, rumors had started to circulate, and the couple had attracted the unwelcome attention of her two brothers, the Cardinal of Aragon and the Marquis of Gerace. Antonio left his again-pregnant wife to take their two children to Ancona, and, on the pretext of a pilgrimage to Santa Maria of Loretto, the duchess followed shortly thereafter. The Cardinal of Aragon convinced first the Cardinal of Ancona and then the Signiory of Siena to expel the unhappy lovers. In 1511, the duchess and her two youngest were finally overtaken on the road to Venice and imprisoned in Amalfi, but Antonio and the older child managed to escape to Milan. The duchess, her children, and her waiting woman entered their prison in Amalfi, never to be seen again.

La Torre dello Ziro in Amalfi, where legend places the duchess at the time of her death. The locals tell of strange hauntings ever since.

Antonio was not left long a widower. In 1513, a Lombard captain named Daniele da Bozzolo and three accomplices murdered Antonio on a Milanese street. The murderers, likely hired by the Cardinal of Aragon, escaped.

– Megan Smith, dramaturg



Commonplacing The Duchess of Malfi: Sparknotes à la 1623

Long ago and far away, in a land without Kindles, wikiquotes, or even the common paperback, Renaissance readers would keep commonplace books, blank books into which they would transcribe notes, poems, recipes, sermons, quotations, and anything else that caught their fancy for later use. Theirs was a culture that prized a prettily or wittily turned phrase. Indeed, English Renaissance playgoers would speak not of “seeing” a play but of “hearing” one. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, printed books started to appear with commonplace markers, aids for the eager (but less apt) consumer. Commonplace markers look like modern quotation marks, but they mark lines that are quotable rather than lines taken from other sources; I suppose you could say that they’re quotation-marks-in-waiting.

Some of the “good bits” of The Duchess of Malfi (1623):

The great are like the base; nay, they are the same
When they seek shameful ways to avoid shame.

Though Lust do mask in ne’er so strange disguise,
She’s oft found witty but is never wise.

It is some mercy when men kill with speed.

There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.

Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But looked to near have neither heat nor light.

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like Diamonds we are cut with our own dust.


–Megan Smith, dramaturg


Christopher Plummer wants YOU…

…to help assure the survival of the appreciation of the written word…

Plummer quietly concludes his show with an ardent defense of our literary heritage: “We must implore, beseech, entice, cajole, persuade, induce the children to read everything of value, of beauty while they’re young or what’s a heaven for?”
He then quotes Emily Dickinson, a fitting thing to do for a performer whose art has been galvanized by poetry.

(from the LA Times)

…and what better way to affirm your commitment to doing so than…

Webster’s English is some of the best on offer anywhere, bar none. Become a part of this incredible adventure in logophilia.