The Duchess Of Malfi And The Revenger's Tragedy Analysis

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John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and the anonymous The Revenger’s Tragedy are both typically cynical Jacobean revenge tragedies. They share in common imagery of flesh and anatomy, carrying with it connotations of the human body as a fragile, corporeal shell, and the assertion that human existence is either fundamentally corrupt or corrupted. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, the human forms of the degraded ducal family are likened to hollow vessels of sin by the aptly named revenger Vindice, this imagery continuing throughout the play to expose the layers of disguise humans ply onto their fleshy shells. In The Duchess of Malfi, the human form is inexorably linked to corruption, sickness, and suffering. The play’s final assertion is one of ailing, …show more content…
Vindice, channelling the earlier Hamlet with his presumably black garb and clutching a skull, watches as the villains of the play literally parade past and verbally dissects them and their sins. Michael Neill notes that marrow, blood and semen were interpreted as the same substance in different forms. This being the case, Vindice’s analysis of “that marrowless age”, “hollow bones”, and “spendthrift veins” point to his condemnation and the effects of the Duke’s excessive lechery (RT I. i. 5-8). As we hear later, Lussorio’s “veins are swelled with lust” too (II. ii. 94). These characters crossing the stage are not entirely human; their sin has physically manifested through corruption of the corporeal body. After the villainous procession has passed, Vindice is left alone with the skull of Gloriana, but instead of a Hamlet-esque introspection, Vindice continues his dissection of corrupt flesh, turning to the skull of his deceased love. Holding her in higher esteem than the previous parade of villainy, he praises her natural beauty over “the artificial shine / Of any woman’s bought complexion”, a theme which re-emerges later in this and in The Duchess of Malfi (I. i. 21-2). His memory of her is one of life and beauty. Perhaps, with her early death, she was spared the inevitable corruption that human existence engenders on flesh, either with age or sin. …show more content…
Both plays have corrupt Dukes who drive the central revenge plot, and in this case Calabria’s Duke Ferdinand also drives the majority of the language of sickness. Kate Aughterson notes that “The continual presence of these metaphors spreads a sense of sickness and corruption over political courts and the actions of politicians” but “the Duchess rarely uses imagery at all”. The Duchess’s offer to heal Antonio’s bloodshot eye is the only real act of healing in the play (I. I 402-10) which is really the disguise for the marriage proposal which ultimately brings about the brothers’ revenge plot. Ferdinand prefers language of purgation and removal, vowing to use “The smarting cupping glass, for that’s the mean to purge infected blood”, and desiring the Duchess’ “bleeding heart” (II. v. 24-5, 14). This language also is suited to the aspect of Ferdinand’s need for control of the physical aspects of others, punning on the double meanings of wanting someone’s “head” and “heart” heart in his letter to Antonio (III. V. 27-36) or demanding his doctor’s “beard sawed off, and his eyebrows filed more civil” (V. ii. 59-60). Leah S. Marcus comments on the humoral theory of the play, asserting Ferdinand is choleric and the Duchess sanguine. This certainly fits with the numerous references to the Duchess’s blood and to

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