John Webster

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Plays by John Webster

video The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen)

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

The Duchess of Malfi is a popular choice as a set text, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence and horror of its later scenes. Generally considered to be the masterpiece of Jacobean playwright John Webster, it was first produced in around 1613. It’s a macabre tragedy, based on actual events, and tends to be either loved or hated by critics – while consistently captivating audiences across the centuries.
Set in Italy in the early fifteenth century, it starts out as a love story, with the Duchess marrying beneath her class. However, her two brothers, one cool and corrupt, the other secretly violent and warped, have other ideas. With incredible plot twists along the way, the play ends as an utter tragedy, as the brothers take revenge on her, destroying themselves in the process.
Dark, complex…and feminist?
The main themes of The Duchess of Malfi include revenge and corruption. It also looks at the status of women in society - Webster’s use of a strong, virtuous woman as the central character was rare for the time.
The play was originally written for and performed by The King’s Men, the same company which Shakespeare belonged to. Indeed, this Jacobean classic makes an interesting text to study in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s works.
The language is poetic, and subtle at times, but infinitely rewarding. Its complex characters are also rewarding to watch, as the play develops towards the highly dramatic climax.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Peter Bankolé, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Mark Hadfield, Tim Steed, Richard Bremmer, Conrad Westmaas, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Harvey Virdi, Brigid Zengeni, Maxwell Hutcheon.

Little is known of John Webster's life. He was born in c. 1580 to a London coachmaker, and appears to have studied law at the Middle Temple. Although he is recorded as the author of several other works, including a history play, Lady Jane, his only surviving works are Westward Ho! and Northward Ho! (1604-05), written in collaboration with Thomas Dekker, the comedy The Devil's Law Case (1620), and two tragic masterpieces, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1614).

With their eloquent poetry and superbly crafted plots, the latter two plays are amongst the most compelling of Jacobean revenge tragedies. Nevertheless, Webster has often been criticized for the violence and morbidity of his work: George Bernard Shaw called him the 'Tussaud Laureate' of English literature, while Rupert Brooke described his plays as 'full of the feverish and ghastly turmoil of a nest of maggots'. Both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi have enjoyed frequent modern revivals.