“Plagued in Art”: The fashioning of an aesthetics ofsacrifice in The Duchess of Malfi

  • J De Reuck


This article offers a reading of John Webster‟s masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi (1614), as an exemplification of an „aesthetics of sacrifice‟ in which human agency is first presented – in the character of the widowed Duchess – and then radically undermined. The reader/receiver of the text, it is argued, rather than encountering the ultimately positive, secular humanism that many critics have discerned in the play, is left with an impression of the dramatic world as devoid of purpose, its central character denied subjectivity as the playwright traces the tight arc of the Duchess‟s trajectory from the laughing decider of her own destiny in Act 1, to her abjection and death at the instigation of her murderous, controlling brothers in Act 4. In support of this reading of Webster‟s vision, the paper draws on the work of the phenomenologist Roman Ingarden‟s insights into the construction of the literary work of art, adapting his constructionist view of such works to the drama. Close textual analysis – augmented by the experience of two exceptional recent productions of the play – offers a rationale for a reading of The Duchess of Malfi as the depiction of a world ultimately devoid of meaning. While this chimes with early modern theorists‟ notions of „the‟ Jacobean world-view as nihilist, what is offered here is an explication of the underlying (dramatological) mechanisms that infuse and construct the reader/receiver‟s response to a work in which the central character retains a fascination for audiences, arguably equal to that usually reserved for the best of Webster‟s more famous contemporary, Shakespeare.

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eISSN: 1011-582X