Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 October 2011

The Duchess

In my play analysis class this semester, I decided to switch out a play that I've been teaching since I started teaching this course in 2008: Hamlet. The last time I taught the play the students just seemed bored by it, as though they knew everything about it and that no amount of effort I put toward new ways of approaching the text would convince them otherwise.

So, I said, I spent a year reading other plays from this time period. I will swap one of them in in place of Hamlet. I chose to replace Hamlet with John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. At first I was a little worried: the kids seemed very frustrated by the play and its language. Nothing happens, they protested.

But as we got to the end of the play, the play's outlook on life convinced me (again) of Webster's brilliance. I just want to share some of the play's final thoughts because I think they are fascinating, and have a completely different perspective on the world than I think we normally credit the Early Modern English with having had.

For me, Malfi demonstrates an almost total confusion about why human beings exist, a near utter hopelessness in the possibilities of good government, and only bewilderment and absence in the face of death.

Julia, for example, as she is dying, declares "I go I know not whither." Those are her last words!

And when Bosola commits murder accidentally he bemoans the fact that "We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and banded / Which way please them." And later:

Oh, this gloomy world --
In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness
Doth, womanish and fearful, mankind live!
Let worthy minds ne'er stagger in distrust
To suffer death or shame for what is just.
Mine is another voyage.

As for Antonio, he says that
In all our quest of greatness
Like wanton boys whose pastime is their care,
We follow after bubbles blown in th'air.
Pleasure of life -- what is't? Only the good hours
Of an ague, merely a preparative
To rest, to endure vexation.
I don't think I've ever read anything this bleak from the ostensible hero of a play.

This is a play that ends without the romance and sentimentality of, say, Othello or even of Hamlet, which at least ends with a son regaining his dead father's lands. On the contrary, The Duchess of Malfi has no such faith in the order of things. Instead it insists upon life as painful and confusing. Even the Duchess herself, probably the play's brightest character, questions why people are so fond of life:

Of what is't fools make such vain keeping?
Sin their conception, their birth weeping,
Their life a general mist of error,
Their death a hideous storm of terror.

I mean, damn, girl.