The Two Central Facts: John Webster's brilliant tragedy The Duchess of Malfi is a most disturbing play. Its main figure, the Duchess of Malfi, recently widowed, (1) marries again, and this time(2) marries a man who is far below her in status, her stewart. The plot of the tragedy hinges on those two facts. According to her brothers, those two facts comprise her double "crime."
The Critical Controversy:Some readers of Webster's play pity the Duchess, arguing that here we have a woman who wants nothing more than what we find commendable in general: like many a good middle-class woman, she wants to be allowed to marry the man she loves and live a fulfilled domestic life with her Antonio and their children. Who could possibly fault her for seeking to live that bourgeois ideal? Others disagree vigorously, pointing out that (1) the Duchess is not a middle-class widow whose only concern should be the issue of marrying a second time, but is a reigning Duchess of royal blood bound to meet the expectations of her position and obligations in life, and, (2) knowing her brothers' minds and capacity for violence, deliberately deceives them concerning her intentions, claiming foolishly that in time they'll come around and forget about her promise to them. Acknowledging her brothers' evil and violent natures--about which even we cannot be in the dark for long, once we have listened to Delio and Antonio in the opening scene and heard a couple of the "Arragonian brothers'" speeches--, it must be called sheer folly on her part, when she makes so light of breaking her oath and all danger from that quarter.
The Challenge: In a critical essay of ca. four pages, try to sort out the conflicting claims I sketched in the previous paragraph, using as your evidence the text of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Obviously, you can't end up having it both ways: you must offer the case, supported with sufficient specific evidence from the text of the tragedy, for your preferred reading of Webster's shocking drama. Now, "the case," may not be either the one extreme position or the other, but a thesis that finds its own focus. To succeed, you'll have to prove to me, your reader, that you can make the argument you advance, given the evidence you can adduce in support of your thesis. Your task is not to offer what I might have advocated. My favorite reading of the play is irrelevant in this case: you must convince me that, given the evidence you discovered in the play, your conclusion(s) make(s) "sense." And if you are aware of some evidence that runs counter to your position, explain why it should not be allowed to win out in your eyes.
If you have questions or simply want to check out your ideas before you commit them to 'paper,' feel invited to see me. It usually helps a lot to start such a critical essay early.----Good Luck,cpb