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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster


John Webster was a later contemporary of Shakespeare, and The Duchess of Malfi, Webster’s best known play, is considered among the best of the period. It appears to have been first performed in 1612–13 at the Blackfriars before moving on to the larger and more famous Globe Theatre, and was later published in 1623.

The play is loosely based on a real Duchess of Amalfi, a widow who marries beneath her station. On learning of this, her brothers become enraged and vow their revenge. Soon the intrigue, deceit, and murders begin. Marked by the period’s love of spectacular violence, each character exacts his revenge, and in turn suffers vengeance at the hands of others. Coming after Shakespeare’s equally sanguine Hamlet and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi brings to a close the era of the great Senecan tragedies of blood and revenge. As the Jacobean period progressed, the spectacle became more violent and dark, reflecting the public’s growing dissatisfaction with the corruption of King James’ court.

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