The Duchess of Malfi

On 23rd August we discussed Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi chosen by Mirjam Haas. Mirjam provided the following prompts and summaries to guide our reading:

So, this month, I’ve suggested that we read John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (first performed around 1613) – a somewhat strange domestic tragedy, complete with history vibes, a spy, moments of horror and a lot of black humour. If you have access to the 2014 Globe on Screen production recorded at the Sam Wanamaker theatre, I’d absolutely recommend watching it! Also, there’s this wonderful – though a little bit “cleaned up” – recent Radio 3 adaptation for the “play-hearers” among you.

My own interest in the play is triggered by all its weirdness and resistance to be placed within set categories. It’s a tragedy – but it’s not tragic. Mostly. Its villain turns into its hero. Women woo men. Etcetera. One constant among the many uncertainties – and a huge source for the humour in the play –, however, is the struggle to use language to cross and across social barriers. As might be expected, bridges are burned rather than built in the process.

If you don’t have a lot of time, I’d suggest looking at any of these scenes to get a discussion going with a bit of a what-happens-here-communication-wise focus that includes social issues and often results in humour:

The opening
Act 1, Scene 1 and the beginning of 1.2 (till the laughter episode on B3r/page 6). You’ll get the setup of the story and then the first conversations between various characters. Maybe think about who’s in charge? What are existing and possible tensions between characters? How do communication and social hierarchies interact?

Upside-down wooing
This is part of Act 1, Scene 2 (from “Is Antonio come?” C2v/page 10 to the end of the scene). The Duchess woos her steward, Antonio, in somewhat creative ways. Again, the focus would be on communication and social hierarchies as well as humour.

Too close?
Act 3, Scene 2 (F3r/page 22 to “more Earthquakes?” G1v/page 25): Antonio, the Duchess and Cariola, her maid, have a private conversation with a disruption. How is intimacy represented? Tensions/power struggles?

“Wisdom begins at the end”
Act 5, Scene 5 (N2r/page 49 to the end). This is a tragic and very comic scene. If you only have time to read one of the scenes, I’d recommend this one! It’s useful to know that the Cardinal talks to his courtiers just before this scene and asks them not to enter his chambers no matter what weird noises they might hear. It might be interesting to compare this to the beginning – how have power dynamics shifted?

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