John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi explores extensively the importance of darkness and light throughout the play. This is not limited to the production or characterial personas, but the overall work in and of itself. I am going to explore to what extent does Webster successfully depict the idea of light and dark throughout the play, mainly focusing the Duchess and Ferdinand contrasting characters, how Ferdinand’s darkness is crucial for the Duchess to be a symbol of light and good.
When the play was first performed, at both indoor and outdoor theatres, the ability to successfully manipulate light on stage was crucial to the success of the scene and in turn, the play itself. In one moment, the stage could be glowing from every corner with candles, but in another the stage could be shrouded in complete darkness. Of course, there were more implications when this performance was at the Globe theatre, due to it being an open-air amphitheatre. This meant a lot of the scenes success relied on the actors being able to convince the audience of varying light levels through their body language. However, at Blackfriars and at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, intimate indoor theatres, which is where the production of this play I studied was performed, the use of shutters was vital as they could admit artificial daylight when necessary, but when these shutters were closed, the lighting from the candles and chandeliers acted as crucial tone devices.
It is important to note the drastic contrast between Webster’s characters, the Duchess herself and Ferdinand. Though they are twins, they couldn't be less alike. The Duchess stands as a virtuous character, a symbol of light, purity, goodness and motherhood, whereas Ferdinand’s dark desires send him into madness by the end of the play. Ferdinand wishes the Duchess to remain a widow, as then he can remain as a figure of authority and power over her. Though Ferdinand explains to the Duchess, “Your darkest actions - nay, your privatest thoughts, Will come to light” it is in fact his darkest desires and actions which are foreshadowed here. He goes on to advise his sister that “Such weddings may more properly be said To be executed than celebrated”. Though many might not think this to be true, Webster is very clearly enforcing Ferdinand’s thoughts to us here early on in the play, to the reader and audience, by Juxtaposing the idea of marriage and prison, successfully creating suspense and confusion, as he foreshadows the dark desires and intentions that are carried out by Ferdinand later on in the play.
In addition, Ferdinand’s dark desires become prominent to the audience when he presents the dagger to the Duchess within Act one Scene two. Despite being family, “You are my sister”, this does not seem to bother him as he threatens her, “This was my father’s poniard. Do you see?”. On the surface, with the understanding that Ferdinand wishes the Duchess to remain a widow and disagrees with the idea of a possible future remarriage, this is clearly Ferdinand threatening to harm his sister if she disobeys him, “I’d be loath to see’t look rusty”. He infers to his sister that the dagger would rust if left out in the air, heavily suggesting the Duchess would then become contaminated and lose her reputation if she was remarried. However, she doesn't care for her reputation if it means not following her desires. She confides in Cariola, “Let old wives report I winked and chose a husband”, showing the audience very vocally that she does not care for the gossip, rumors or the opinions of others who will look down on her for marrying Antonio, as he is of a lower class. The Duchess defies her brothers wishes, marries the man she loves while attempting to keep her family safe from Ferdinand. She is strong willed, passionate and brave and will not let her brothers stand in her way, and it with Ferdinand’s darkness that encourages her to become such a contrasting symbol of good against Ferdinand.
Their father’s ‘poniard’ is used by Ferdinand as a suggestive prop device for phallic imagery. The language used by Webster in this scene given to voice Ferdinand is extremely effective and as a result confuses the audience as to what is to come. Ferdinand uses terms such as “lamprey” and “smooth tale”, where in another spelling or pronunciation ‘tail’ would further support this inference. Webster successfully represents Ferdinand’s growing insanity on many levels here. Though Webster might not mean to suggest that Ferdinand literally wants to sleep with his sister, the use of language from the same lexical field by Webster in this scene given to Ferdinand, I believe is an attempt to scare the Duchess from remarrying, as all Ferdinand cares for is power; which can be achieved by maintaining the radical purity of his aristocratic bloodline.
In addition, in a production of the play I studied alongside the text, I thought Ferdinand’s exit from the scene was something to be noted. He exits of the side of the stage and makes his way on the same level as the audience and stands directly below the Duchess herself, gazing up. I believe these stage directions within this scene make it abundantly clear to the audience of the power the Duchess really holds over Ferdinand. He stands below her, and holds the poniard towards her, visually representing how she will always be above him, despite his attempts to control and suppress her wishes. Furthermore, as he exits, the lighting within the theatre plays an important role as to visually show off the Duchess’ goodness. The chandeliers slowly lower around her, filling the stage with light as the absence of Ferdinand’s darkness exits. It is only with darkness that we appreciate and notice the light.
The poniard echoes further in the play, where “Ferdinand (shows himself and) gives her a poniard.” Here, Ferdinand suggests to the Duchess that she should take the dagger from his grasp and commit suicide, as she has embarrassed herself by having children out of wedlock, and not remaining chaste. Though this is not the case, Ferdinand does not approve of her decision and stands by his dark inferences. It is not the fact that she did such things, but more so that she did them against his wishes and without his permission. By the Duchess committing such acts, Ferdinand does not understand why she would disobey him, and therefore believes he can warrant whatever punishment he thinks best suited.
Moreover, focusing on the inherit darkness of Ferdinand, we see another example of light being used to depict the tone further on in the play within Act Four, where he tortures the Duchess with artificial figures of Antonio and their children, “What witchcraft doth he practise that he hath left A dead man’s hand here?”. When performed, the light within the scene on stage has been dimmed just enough to confuse her, as well as the audience themselves as to what is truly going on, resulting in an extremely successful piece of dramaturgy. Webster uses this scene to show Ferdinand unleashing hell on the Duchess. This scene I believe would only be truly successful in a darkened theatre, such as Blackfriars where the levels of light were easiest to control through the modes of shutters and candlelight. This scene is immensely important as there is no clearer depiction of their polar opposite characteristics than here, where the Duchess has been separated from Antonio and their oldest child, stripped down of her power and wealth, and imprisoned. Here, the Duchess believes she has lost everything, and this is presented clearly on stage by the lighting - the limited candle light, enough to light the actors faces, is all she has left; Ferdinand’s darkness has drained her of her light. More so, Ferdinand’s actions are questionable in relation to how far he is willing to go and the dark actions he will commit to succeed in his darker ends. The Duchess is virtuous and is deliberately transgressive of her social boundaries as a woman of this time, which Ferdinand attempts to control. He is misogynous and incestuous within his actions and thoughts. His madness takes the form of “lycanthropia” later on in the play, where we see this gradually take over him as he attempts to save his own sanity but ruining the duchess’. The duality of man and beast, good and bad, dark and light, is made obvious by Webster here.
To conclude, I believe Webster was successful to a great extent in presenting the idea of light and dark through his character development of the Duchess and Ferdinand. By exploring the qualities of both of these characters, designed to be so contrasting, good and bad, light and dark, it enables the Duchess’ light to be even brighter against Ferdinand’s darkness and vise versa.
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