Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 November 2010
‘Die then, quickly’
John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, although generally considered one of the greatest plays of the Renaissance outside of Shakespeare, is a very strange tragedy indeed. It is notoriously episodic and loosely structured, and what would ordinarily be the climactic ending of a tragedy - the death of its titular character - takes place in a drawn-out fashion in its fourth act. The deaths that do occur near the close of the play seem equally peculiar. Antonio, whose wax simulacrum had earlier been presented to the Duchess as evidence of his death, is finally killed in an accident by the man attempting to save him: when Bosola is asked, 'How came Antonio by his death?' he replies, 'In a mist: I know not how; / Such a mistake as I have often seen / In a play' (5.5.93-5). The Cardinal is also mortally wounded by Bosola (his cries for help go unheeded because his minions believe he is 'feign[ing him]self in danger' [5.4.16]), and he is finished off by his brother Ferdinand, who hallucinates that he is fighting heroically on a battlefield, and who manages 'in the scuffle' to give Bosola 'his death wound' as well (5.5.50, s.d.).
As these examples suggest, the distinction between play and reality is repeatedly blurred here: Ferdinand, who would like to be at the heroic centre of a conventional tragedy, asks at the beginning, 'When shall we leave this sportive action and fall to action indeed?' (1.2.9-10), and the answer, from one perspective, seems to be never.