John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

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John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi


Webster is interested in exploring the connection between love and violent sexual jealousy by locating the homicidal jealousy in a brother’s yearning for his sister he compounds our awareness of the dark side of sexual desire, the potential for certain species of love to explode into violence. In Ferdinand, Webster presents us with another form of forbidden love and allows us to explore the relationship between love and death from the perspective of the villain.

Brecht’s particular interest in Ferdinand’s illicit sexual desires points to one of the reasons for our continued fascination with this play. The establishment of Freudian psychoanalysis in the course of the twentieth century brought with it a model of the human psyche which sees unruly repressed desires and impulses as exerting a powerful influence on human behaviour. Webster’s characterisation of the Duke of Calabria as a man in the grip of unconscious and taboo erotic longings meshes with a modern conception of the instability and irreducible complexity of the human personality. Having said that, there is every indication that Webster’s contemporaries found Ferdinand equally compelling; the role was originally played by Richard Burbage, the great tragic actor of the King’s Men who had created the roles of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes Hamlet, King Lear and Othello. That Burbage played Ferdinand as well suggests that the character was seen as the principal male role in the first productions of the play.

We have looked in this course at how Webster situates his forbidden cross-class marriage within a very particular dramatic context, thereby stimulating a sympathetic response towards the lovers who flout the dictates of the arbitrary aristocratic power embodied by the Cardinal and Ferdinand.


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