The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

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BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2008

Throughout its dramatic history, especially in the twentieth century The Duchess of Malfi has presented leading actresses with specific challenges. Webster endows the Duchess with so many roles – duchess, passionate lover and wife, doting mother, disobedient sister, devout Catholic, tormented prisoner – that many performers have confessed that they could never do sufficient justice to the part. Adrian Noble, who directed Helen Mirren in the role as long ago as 1980, anyone playing the duchess has to accomplish three things – a) to fulfill a terrifically ripe sexuality on stage, b) convince as a real mum, because without that quality the middle domestic section of the play falls apart completely, and c) can then cope with the big tragic scenes. In Roy McMillan’s radio version, Sophie Okonedo was notable for her self-control; despite continual attacks from Bosola (Bertie Carvel), Ferdinand (Jonathan Slinger) and the Cardinal (Oliver Senton), she remained true to her beliefs and desires. Her love for Antonio (Rory Kinnear) never wavered; likewise her determination to resist and say nothing. This was truly someone to be admired.


However McMillan’s production also underlined Webster’s basic misogyny. While the Duchess is certainly an admirable person, she has to live in a world whose male characters are given carte blanche to insult her in any way they wish. No one has the power to restrain Ferdinand, as his remarks become more and more personal, and his cruelty ever more grotesque, as he forces her to shake a dead man’s hand. We might be repulsed by such behaviour, but at the same time we feel that Webster takes a positive pleasure in it. Are there any depths to which Ferdinand would not descend to humiliate his sister? Obviously not. McMillan also showed how the linguistic discourse of The Duchess is dominated by patriarchal concerns; just like Iago in Othello, Bosola uses verbal manipulation and/or equivocation to force the Duchess to admit to her adultery. The Duchess responded in the only way she can – through silence – and thereby proved herself more than a match both for her three male opponents in the play, as well as the author himself.


In many ways, this revival resembled an inquisition, where the Duchess was continually interrogated by hostile forces who had already made up their minds about her. Anyone who dared to consort with Antonio, a mere servant, was already guilty. However the Duchess refused to crack under pressure, opting for death rather than confession. The death-scene was particularly harrowing; through ingenious use of very soft sound-effects McMillan suggested that Bosola strangled her with the minimum of fuss. In many ways he admired the Duchess’s stoicism, but he had to carry out the Cardinal’s orders to kill her.


Once she had passed the way, the world of the play was transformed into one where “Humanity must perforce prey on itself/ Like monsters of the deep” (to quote King Lear). Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal were quite literally at one another’s throats, as they vied with one another for overall control. While Ferdinand was diagnosed with lycanthropy (in which a person physically becomes like a wolf), it was clear that the other two characters were equally bestial in their emotions. As the revival moved towards its close, it was clear that they had all harboured some form of sexual desire for the Duchess; once she was dead, they were consumed with frustration. The ending came as a relief; in this dog-eat-dog world, no one deserved to live any more. Perhaps the Duchess was right in her choosing death rather than life – at least she was spared further humiliation.


As with many classic revivals I have heard this year, this Duchess proved a revelation. Only while listening to Webster’s dialogue could I understand how contradictory the play actually is, with its fundamentally misogynist content offset by a magnificent female central character. Perhaps it is this quality that renders it so enduringly popular for modern directors.