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Books Year : 2019

John Webster’s “Dismal Tragedy”: The Duchess of Malfi Reconsidered

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Secrets and lies, incest and madness, mental torture and brutal murders, apparitions and lycanthropy: there is little that The Duchess of Malfi, first performed in 1613-1614, shies away from, inflicting on its spectators a whirlwind of conflicting passions and emotions. John Webster’s drama has been labelled as baroque, grotesque, mannerist, gothic or feminist. Against Bosola, the figure of the malcontent who also embodies the typical early modern overreacher, the Duchess stands as a symbol of female transgression before she is eventually crushed by evil and male power. Bloody sensationalism should however not eclipse what some critics have seen as a drama of knowledge. In Delio’s concluding speech, Webster’s irony is at its peak when he encourages his audience to “make noble use / Of this great ruin” and seems to present the play as a vehicle for moral instruction, defining in a final twist an ethics based on the “integrity of life”. A masterpiece of Jacobean theatre, The Duchess of Malfi reinvents the genre of the revenge tragedy and, beyond its multiple borrowings from other writers, it explores the construction of gender, the class structure of a changing society and the complex interlacing of desire, violence and cruel laughter. Following the recent inclusion of The Duchess of Malfi in the Agrégation syllabus in France (2019-2020), this volume is meant to provide new perspectives on the play, examining questions relating to politics, gender, aesthetics, textuality, materiality and performance. Its various chapters highlight the richness and incisiveness of the tragedy, reflecting recent critical trends in early modern drama studies.
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hal-02157262 , version 1 (15-06-2019)


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Sophie Chiari, Sophie Lemercier-Goddard (Dir.). John Webster’s “Dismal Tragedy”: The Duchess of Malfi Reconsidered. Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal. , 2019, Sophie Chiari. ⟨hal-02157262⟩
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