Seeing and Interpreting the Ghosts in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy

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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613-1614) is another revenge tragedy that diverges in many ways from “the earlier ‘Kydian’ plays” (Griswold 55). Not only does the audience witness the transformation of Bosola, a villain figure, who we both admire and loathe at the same time, into a reformed revenger, but “the visibility of the ghost is reduced to an echo from the Duchess’ grave” (Rist 2003 ). The role of the Echo seems to be to inform Antonio about the fate of his wife who is now no more than “A [deathly] thing of sorrow” (5.3.26), and warn him of the forthcoming danger: “Be mindful of thy safety” (5.3.35). However, Antonio, faithful to the Protestant orthodoxy, is not willing to listen to the Echo because it is “a dead thing” (5.3.43), and nothing, after all, can return from the grave. Thus, he ends as a dead thing himself. We are left unsure whether “Webster conveys a parody of the dead speaking (and hence of the presence of the dead) while simultaneously making it clear that no dead person is present”, or by “[e]mphasising its apparently personal nature” (Rist 2003) suggesting that it is actually the Duchess’ voice coming from another world.

There are more instances which point to the issues dealing with Death. Although we cannot be really certain about the right interpretation of the nature of the Echo, it is without doubt that the Duchess is not afraid of dying because she believes she will meet her supposedly dead husband “In th’other world” (4.2.209). There is certainly one more thing that must have been caught by the audience. The Duchess is not afraid of death, but she wants to be sure that her remains will be taken care of, in order to be able to meet her Antonio in the other world: “Dispose my breath how please you, but my body / Bestow upon my women” (4.2.225-226). The Elizabethans would certainly understand her worries because, as it was already mentioned, “the Renaissance continued to preserve the ancient pagan superstition that happiness beyond the grave was somehow contingent upon proper disposal and preservation of one’s mortal remains” (Neill 265).

In a certain way, then, the Duchess represents a ghostly figure, since she is present and influential even after her death. Bosola undergoes a transformation from her murderer into her revenger. Her brother Ferdinand goes insane when the reality of her death reaches his mind. No one is left untouched by madness, so typical of a revenge tragedy.

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