Let’s See If We Can Stand This Play

The Real Duchess of Amalfi | The Duchess of Malfi | Royal Shakespeare  Company

We’re going to take a break from nooze today and watch The Duchess of Malfi, first staged in either 1613 or 1614, a loosely-based historical drama by John Webster. Neither Patty nor I have ever seen it before. It was supposed to be covered in a course I took in Jacobean drama back in college, but the course was superficial and we never actually read the play. It has a great reputation, and is mentioned in works by Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, and other great English mystery writers.

This play has a reputation for wallowing in gore, treachery, and shockingly bad behavior on the part of Renaissance Italian nobility. When they went bad, they went all the way. Our reader, Phoebe, who is an expert in such things, has praised it. So it’ll be her fault if we get too grossed out to watch the whole thing. But it might be good to be reminded that the human race survived the Renaissance… somehow.

Sometimes it strikes me as miraculous that we’re still here in spite of all our sins. We can chalk that up to God’s grace. Without it, we wouldn’t last two weeks. Without it, how could we ever hope for something better?

4 comments on “Let’s See If We Can Stand This Play

  1. A lot will depend on how they’ve staged it. In terms of actual mayhem, there’s little more than you’ll get in a Shakespeare tragedy. Watch for the Duchess’ sarcastic sense of humor. She may have originally been from the Bronx. 🙂 One of my favorite of her lines is her response to her brothers when they’ve been haranguing her: “I think this speech between you both was studied, / It came so roundly off.” I’d quote a lot more of her lines, but most of them would give the plot away.

    I’d love to talk to you about the play after you’ve seen it. I have a whole chapter on it in my book _The Summons of Death on the Medieval and Renaissance English Stage_, and the chapter itself grew out of an article, “Coping with Anxiety in _The Duchess of Malfi_.” I wish I could send you a copy of the article, but during my downsizing, I kept only two of my contributor copies of the journal. I’ll scrounge around to see whether another copy of the article is still lurking in my files.

    1. Confound it! We tried 3 different sites on YouTube, and each of them butchered the play in a different way. Patty was really looking forward to it (she’s not as squeamish as I am). Mimes doing handstands–what???
      The age of Nothing Works…

    2. I was afraid of that. 🙄 Recent productions of old plays tend to be junked-up directorial monstrosities. I saw one performance of The Revenger’s Tragedy in which the characters were dressed in black garbage bags, and an extra character (not in the original play) in a body suit and a full-head skull mask opened the play by quoting a speech from Marat/Sade and then wandered around the stage taking occasional part in the action or miming commentary on it. Talk about butchery!

      You may have to read the play and stage it in your own mind. Maybe even read it out loud to each other, dividing up the roles between you.

  2. It was the Renaissance popes culture that sobered Martin Luther when he finally was able to visit Rome. From that experience grew the nailing to the church doors his theses for debate in the church.

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