The Duchess of Malfi Has Been Described as a ‘Profound Study of Human Depravity’ How Far Do You Agree?

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  • Topic: Morality, Revenge play, The Duchess of Malfi
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  • Published : March 5, 2013
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The Duchess of Malfi has been described as a ‘profound study of human depravity’ how far do you agree?

Lord David Cecil argues that John Webster views the world from a Calvinist perspective; ‘The world as seen by [Webster] is of its nature incurably corrupt and to be involved in it is to be inescapably involved in evil.’ The characters in the play seem to support this logic; no character has escaped the evil that pervades Webster’s play. Some characters do possess redeeming features, but on the whole they are morally perverted; yet Webster manages to create characters that are not abhorred but remembered by Jacobean and present audiences alike

Immediately the play opens, the audience is thrust into a discussion into the differences between the French and Italian courts; he believes the French court is superior and almost completely free of corruption. The scene is written in blank verse, with unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. However, although Line 14 is metrically quite even, line 15 is a bit different: it would be hard to read it without placing a fairly strong stress on the first word, ‘death’. After that, the metre returns to iambic, but the brief deviation serves to draw the spectator’s attention to the word ‘death’. In this way, Webster underlines the dire consequences of a degenerate court. The point is highlighted further by the sudden appearance of a rhyme between ‘head’ and ‘spread’ in lines 14 and 15, which makes the lines stand out even more. This show that even from the beginning of the play, Webster tries to show the moral corruption and depravity that was rampant in the late 16th and early 17th century; even in the courts which were theoretically supposed to contain only nobles with the best breeding and an excess of morality.

Similarly, in Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ Angelo aims to eliminate moral corruption in Vienna and he is believed to be the best man for the job; according to Escalus “if any in Vienna be of worth to...
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