Discuss the ways in which The Duchess of Malfi tries to invoke pity and fear in its audience.
The Duchess of Malfi is a Jacobean, Renaissance play written by the English Dramatist John Webster. Throughout this play, Webster invokes pity and fear into his audience through violent scenes and themes of death, secrecy and corruption. These themes are conveyed through the main characters and their moral perspectives; the evil moral actions that are taken by the brothers, Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal, which over power the innocent moral actions that are taken by the Duchess and Antonio. The tragically romantic play focusses on the tragic Duchess, a young widow, who secretly marries her household steward Antonio, who is of low social rank. After the Duchess has a child, her brothers become infuriated and send an infiltrator, Bosola, to the Duchess as a method of cruelty towards her which takes the play to its bloody climax. The Duchess of Malfi, like other Jacobean tragedies, delves into the deterioration of the Christian faith and how religion is adapting to the Renaissance. In the past John Webster was trained to be a lawyer and so The Duchess of Malfi becomes a morally ambiguous play as neither moral, immoral or morally unclear characters make it out alive showing that no matter how the characters acted death was inevitable.
In most Jacobean plays, alongside the theme of revenge came tragedy. The Duchess of Malfi was then categorised as a ‘revenge tragedy’ and this was critiqued by many as there was “little attempt to expand or challenge the definition or examine other pressing claims to a dominance of theme.” The name of ‘revenge tragedy’ came from the Senecan tradition of making leads to the tragedy. Traditionally, a revenge tragedy would centre around a character of a noble birth and focus on a complex plot which focussed on this character. Revenge dramas were often extremely violent, showcasing physical horrors on stage such as painful torture and bloody murders that were fuelled by a desire for revenge. As these plays would conclude on stage, order would be restored within the world of the play. Before the Renaissance, revenge was a very common method to bring justice to a wrong-doing. As the Renaissance began, the legal system began to grow and develop into a more sophisticated system where acts of revenge were no longer legal. After these laws were passed revenge dramas grew in popularity as the audience began to enjoy viewing acts of revenge on stage and could redress wrongs that were being ignored by the court through the power of theatre. Due to John Webster’s experience within the law it was only fitting that he produced revenge dramas about high-class citizens.
It was through revenge drama that the audience could see both sides of a revenge story while not being an immediate part of the revenge. This made the audience question themselves as pity was felt for the wronged individual and moral, undecided emotions were f...