John Webster – “The Duchess of Malfi” Act V scene 5

Cardinal enters, reading what seems to be a theological treatise. He wonders aloud, undoubtedly thinking about his own predicament, why the author of this book claims that the fire in hell is the same but it burns the sinners with different force, depending on the nature of their sin. He says that even when he looks into his fish-pond, he sees a fellow seeming to try to strike him with a rake. Bosola and the servant enter with Antonio’s body.  Cardinal observes Bosola looks ghastly and Bosola explains that’s because he came to kill him. Cardinal tries to plead with Bosola, promising to share his income with him, screams for help, yells, but all to no avail. Now, I would like very much to see this scene on stage, because the stage directions and what the characters say do not explain clearly the stage movement here. Anyway, Bosola says he has cut off Cardinal’s way of escape, so he can’t go any further but into Julia’s chamber. In the meantime, Pescara, Malateste and co. appear in the balcony (a feature of the early modern thrust stage), meaning that they are on a different floor or in a different wing of the palace. They hear Cardinal’s cries and they comment among themselves “Ha ha, how very realistic, of course we are not going there, we won’t be fooled”. Finally Pescara says “these sound a tad too realistic, I’ll go down and break the door open”. Others say “let’s follow him and see how Cardinal laughs at him.” In the meantime, Bosola kills the servant in another pointless act of cruelty. He says he does it so that the servant can’t open the door and call help, but couldn’t he send him away before he barricaded himself with Cardinal? Cardinal asks Bosola why he wants to kill him and Bosola explains it’s because of Antonio (whom he killed not so much because of Cardinal’s orders but because of poor judgement, so he has mainly himself to thank for that) and Duchess. He stabs Cardinal. Ferdinand enters (how? Did he have a room next to Julia’s or did he just wander there by chance?). In his deranged mind, he interprets the noises as the battle noise. He thinks Cardinal fights for the opposite side, in the melee wounds him and stabs Bosola as well. He makes some philosophical observations about how Caesar’s death was harder than Pompey’s, because Caesar died at the height of his success, and Pompey died disgraced. Pain is nothing, he says, in comparison with the apprehension of pain, just like we fear more the barber who has come to extract the aching tooth, than the actual toothache. Bosola stabs him and Ferdinand, now more lucid, remembers his sister and then observes that we are brought down by our own errors, like diamonds which are cut by their own dust. He dies.

Pescara & Co enter the room and see with horror the dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies strewing the floor. Bosola and Cardinal helpfully explain to them who killed whom and die. It’s interesting that Bosola seems to fear no hell, as opposed to Cardinal. He is happy to die in “so good a quarrel”, but does he really think that revenging Duchess makes up for everything he has done? In fact, he seems to indicate that he believes in no afterlife, when he compares people to “dead walls or vaulted graves, /That, ruined, yield no echo”. Thus, the ghostly conversation Antonio had with the echo in a previous scene would mean that Duchess is indeed in a better world. Anyway, he expires. Delio brings on stage Antonio’s eldest son, saying that he is going to “establish this young hopeful gentleman/In’s mother right”, which would seem like a spark of hope, except that a) what about Duchess’ son by first marriage, never seen, but mentioned in Act III? and b) Antonio asked before his death expressly to tell his son to “fly the courts of princes”. Of course he said it to Bosola, who dies before Delio appears on stage, so there’s likely some dramatic irony in there.

And that’s the end. My impression of the play could be best summed up as a string of scenes, some of them quite beautiful, which don’t quite add up. I wonder if it’s the result of somebody else having a hand in the play. I have a feeling that Webster is quite good in creating these individual scenes, more for their dramatic effect than for advancing the plotline. I can admire the individual moments like Antonio’s dialogue with the echo, but I have to pay for it by going through so many mind-boggling illogicalities and plotholes. The best scene in my opinion is Act 3 scene 2, where we have first rather sweet marital banter of Antonio and Duchess, and then after they are discovered by Ferdinand, Duchess thinking quick on her feet to save the situation. The first part made me wish Webster tried his hand in comedy, although comedy requires even more airtight writing and ability to control complicated plots, so perhaps Webster realized it was not quite his forte. The second part is so well-written it makes me think it was the only scene written by one playwright from the beginning until the end.


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