Webster's Great Tragedies

First published in University of Toronto Quarterly 61.1 (Fall 1991): 129-30.


Review of Christina Luckyj, A Winter's Snake: Dramatic Form in the Tragedies of John Webster (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989)


“Crabbed Websterio,” as one of his contemporaries called him, seems not to have been a rapid writer: “Lord! who would know him? / Was ever man so mangled with a poem? / See how he draws his mouth awry of late, / How he scrubs, wrings his wrists, scratches his pate. / A midwife, help!” Webster himself confessed, in the preface to The White Devil, that he did not “write with a goose-quill, winged with two feathers”—though at the same time he anticipated that this play would be valued in ages which had long since forgotten the verses of his detractors.

With respect to his major tragedies, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, this boast has been amply fulfilled: they are not merely read and studied, but also performed—more often and more happily, I would guess, than any other play by a contemporary of Shakespeare. (Appius and Virginia, a later tragedy, and The Devil's Law Case, a tragicomedy, have fared less well.)

There is, then, good reason to expect rewards from a study of the formal properties of Webster's two masterworks. In her choice of an epigraph from The White Devil, Christina Luckyj shows her awareness that Webster's dark and laboured genius moved, not crabwise (as his contemporary's epithet might perhaps suggest), but in a manner resembling the plottings of his own Flamineo: “to aspire some mountain's top, / The way ascends not straight, but imitates / The subtle foldings of a winter's snake” (I. ii. 350-2). Luckyj writes, as well, with an eye to the dramatic impact of the playwright's repetitions and indirections, his interweavings of verbal and stage images, of parallel and contrasting characters, episodes, and scenes. In this regard she has taken care to draw not merely upon her own experience of productions of these plays, but also upon the evidence provided by a joint study of the promptbooks of eight different productions staged between 1892 and 1984, as well as upon reviewers' evaluations of the directorial decisions preserved in these promptbooks.

This combination of formalist analysis with reflections upon an interesting range of different productions of Webster's two great tragedies results in some fine insights. For example, in discussing the tempestuous encounter of Brachiano, Flamineo, and Vittoria in the house of convertites in Act Four of The White Devil, Luckyj comments perceptively on the multiple resonances of this scene, which manages at once to echo Vittoria's trial scene, Brachiano's rejection of Isabella, the jealousy of the cuckolded Camillo, and the lovers' first meeting (pp. 9-10). Her remarks on the staging of Act One, scene two of The Duchess of Malfi, in which she suggests the minor character Sylvio should figure prominently, are likewise intriguing (p. 45).

Nonetheless, this book as a whole is disappointing. It should not be impossible for a study of this kind to establish connections between the formal structures which are its primary object and the historical contexts, both past and present, which contributed to the original shaping of those structures and now shape our current receptions of them.

However, Luckyj makes no gestures in this direction. Indeed, the three studies which in my opinion have most usefully contextualized Webster's plays—J. W. Lever's The Tragedy of State (1971, rpt. 1987), Franco Moretti's essay “The Great Eclipse: Tragic Form as the Deconsecration of Sovereignty” (in his Signs Taken for Wonders [1983]), and Jonathan Dollimore's Radical Tragedy (1984)—are all ignored in this book.

It seems to me that only a recognition of the complex historical referentiality of these plays can make intelligible what Luckyj terms their “multiple and diffuse” tragic construction (p. 101); her own very dated methodology, with its New Critical criterion of “organic unity” (p. xiii, see also pp. xv, xxiii), puts an adequate explanation of such formal characteristics as these out of reach. The contexts of our own receptions of these plays are also neglected here: I find it very odd, at this end of the present century, to be told that the Duchess of Malfi's death “takes place in a bizarre universe of evil that seems quite distant from our own—one that evokes pity, not terror” (p. 102).

To this I would add that the details of Luckyj's analyses are often wholly unconvincing. Does it make sense to speak of Flamineo as “a staunch defender of individual moral freedom,” a character who sees himself “as fundamentally incorruptible” (pp. 64, 66)? Does the word “integrity” not undergo a certain devaluation when it is applied to Julia, the Cardinal's mistress in The Duchess of Malfi (p. 83)? And can Clifford Leech's distinction between Julia and the Duchess be rejected on the grounds that if the former is perhaps a woman of easy virtue, the latter is also called a “strumpet”—by Duke Ferdinand, no less (p. 77-8)? Such opinions as these may be novel, but in my opinion there are other forms of novelty more worth striving for.