Monday, August 29, 2011

The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi

I had never read John Webster's The White Devil before reading it for my exams. I have one other play by him on my list, The Duchess of Malfi, which I read way back in an undergrad Ren. Drama course, so I'm excited to revisit that now that I have more knowledge about the drama of the period. All this is to say that I was laboring under some preconceptions about Webster and his work that I have now revised a bit. Chief among them is that Webster is all about doom and gloom--T.S. Eliot famously wrote a poem in which he characterized Webster as "see[ing] the skull beneath the skin" when he crafted characters. This is not inaccurate, but it is incomplete. As far as revenge tragedians go, Webster isn't morose just to be morose. It's clear that the violence, double-crossing, and death in his work isn't just about titillation, but about the fact that actions have consequences, and that evil grows evil just as good grows good. He also seems to me to suggest that evil is naturally occurring in people, but that may be my own Calvinism coloring my reading.

The White Devil is the story of an affair between Brachiano, a duke, and Vittoria, a woman who is initially married to one of his courtiers. In order to be with her, Brachiano conspires with some of his followers to kill his wife and Vittoria's husband. What's most interesting to me is the way these murders occur. Brachiano knows his wife kisses a portrait of him every night before she goes to sleep, so he gets someone to poison it. She kisses it and falls over dead. Likewise, he knows Vittorio's husband is a bit of a show-off, so he has his henchmen set up a test of strength that ends with a broken neck. Ultimately, both parties are killed by their adherence to traditional gender roles.

As the play progresses, Vittoria begins to see how her society constructs confining gender roles for her to which Brachiano does not have to comply. As she is being tried for adultery, she mentions that he pursued her, and that she was pressured into a relationship with him by her social climbing brothers (there's some SERIOUS homosocial commodification of women in this play; there are a handful of conversations where two or more men alone in a room discuss how they can best use Vittoria for their own gain). She tells the judge that prosecuting her would be forcing someone to submerge themselves in water and blaming them when they drowned. She knows how her world works, that as a woman, she has few choices available to her. Despite her awareness of social machinations, she and Brachiano are eventually killed by Lodovico, who Brachiano banishes at the beginning of the play. Male power is what's important; women are at best, unfortunate casualties of male agendas, and at worst, temptresses (or devils) who set those dastardly agendas in motion.

The Duchess of Malfi also considers how female power looks when male homosocial power is hegemonic, but in a slightly different way. We also get a woman with two brothers in this play. The titular Duchess is not on very good terms with the Cardinal and Ferdinand, due to the fact that they want to control her estate and she wants to liver her own life. In keeping with this desire, she secretly marries Antonio, her steward, whom she loves despite his low station. Their relationship is discovered by Bosola, her master of horse, who suspects that she may be a) involved with Antonio and b)pregnant and feeds her apricots to see if she will go into labor. She does, and the two are eventually banished with their children. Like in The White Devil, there are many conversations in which Ferdinand and The Cardinal (sometimes together and sometimes with another man) discuss ways to manipulate the Duchess to serve their own agendas. Also like in The White Devil, the slur of choice for an unruly woman is "whore," despite the fact that the Duchess marries Antonio by (an entirely legal, though private) handfasting. Because she doesn't do what the other men in her life want her to and instead exercises power that is individually hers, she's a whore. Her brothers eventually kill both her and her husband, leaving their son to become heir against the wishes of his father (who knows all too well the corruption within the Italian government). This ending seems a bit positive, but also suggests that uncontrollable cycles are continuing.

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