In this post we’ll be looking at John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and the White Devil.
This is just the second post on our blog and already I’m breaking the rules somewhat. To remind you, the idea of this blog was to look at works of speculative fiction that have fallen from the general reader’s view. These are books that may well be beloved of the scholar and classicist, but for the general reader of speculative fiction they may as well be from Mars (OK, that’s a terrible analogy, it would’ve been better to say that they may as well be from earth).
So, why the John Webster then? Well, the answer I’ve come to is that there is a strong element of myth and horror in both The Duchess [of Malfi] and The White Devil, with their dark subject matters. I admit though, this is not enough to warrant inclusion. So how about the fact that they’re not actively promoted in modern culture. Again, a massive lie, both are currently being performed in London, the White Devil by the RSC no less.
So, I ask myself again, why did I pick the book? Well, the honest answer…all my speculative books were packed ready for WorldCon, and this was the only one that look remotely speculative left on the shelf [and I’ll admit, I know very little about either play]. However, I’ll justify myself by treating this as an examination of something I read recently noting that there was an element of lycanthropy in The Duchess. Coupling this with the disturbing undertones of his works we have a sort of proto-horror without the supernatural element. For the sake of brevity we’ll focus primarily on The Duchess, though The White Devil does have a couple of ghosts in it, which I’m pretty sure plant it firmly in the speculative camp.
John Webster, as many no doubt know, was a 17th century playlist remembered for his dark and macabre Jacobean dramas. The plays he’s best remembered for are the two aforementioned, with The Duchess being first performed privately around 1612-1613. He is credited as having provided some of the groundwork for the Gothic movement in literature of late 18th / early 19th century. Though it would be a stretch to describe his work as Gothic, it certainly slithers along with the same unsettling backdrop. Webster is one of only a handful of playwrights who have had their works under almost constant performance since first publication
The Duchess was first performed publicly by The King’s Men, the company of actors to which Shakespeare belonged and who first performed his plays. The date of performance seems tricky to tie down but the consensus seems to be between 1614 and 1621. The first edition of the book was published in 1623.
So let’s have a look at the particular edition of the book that we have in stock [Bodley Head, 1930]. Like I said before, the book looked somewhat speculative sat on the shelf. To be more precise it looks like a work of the developing genre of supernatural horror from the turn of the century, adorned with a typically decadent design more familiar to book buyers of the 1900-1910 era. The book is illustrated by Henry Keen, whom I assume provided the device on the upper board and spine which are repeated on the jacket and the illustrated endpapers. Little is known about Henry Weston Keen. He died in 1935 in Switzerland and was born in 1871. Christie’s sold a set of five signed lithographs in 1995 for £225. Now if we were to very liberally compare him to the bastard child of Goya and Dore, that £225 would be a supreme bargain. Alas, his work isn’t Goya or Dore, nor is it Clarke or Beardsley, though he does appear to borrow elements from all the aforementioned. That said, his work does have a slightly sinister resonance, particularly the vignettes. If one were to savagely remove the plates from the book and present them to a bookish type, one wouldn’t be surprised if they thought they were from a book of Gothic horror. The Cardinal’s Window plate is particularly Gothic with the looming tower to the left of the frame.
The book carries facsimiles of recommendations by fellow dramatists William Rowley and Thomas Middleton, and a John Lane. This last name is proving difficult to research primarily because a much later John Lane was a publisher, ironically, a partner (with Elkin Mathews) in Bodley Head. The best guess we have is a poet of that name who the Dictionary of National Biography has as being active around 1620, apparently a friend of Milton’s father who published only two pieces - I assume that reputation far outweighed publication prowess in those days.
The facsimile title page notes that The Duchess was performed at Blackfriars privately and then publicly at The Globe. The White Divel was first published in 1612 [spelling is correct as per title page - I’d be interested to find out why it was spelt as Divel, it doesn’t appear to by etymologically linked]. The title of The Duchess per the title page is The Tragedy of the Dvtchesse Of Malfy, auction records show two copies, both from the 1930s, one listing reports that this was the first play to record the names of the characters with the actors - an interesting note. This copy sold for £12 with some leaves provided from a later copy. The second copy was seemingly complete and sold for £55 (£3,500 with inflation). Major British institutions hold copies including the BL, V&A, NLS and Leeds University (I may pop and see it). Anyway, that’s not the book I have.
So, finally, to the lycanthropy claim. Well, whether we’re talking about a physical transformation from man to wolf to man, a reported transformation, or a metaphorical transformation is not really the point. It seems that it’s likely a literary device with lycanthropy not only accentuating the beastliness of Ferdinand but also taking a swipe at Catholic prelacy, power in general and emotionally decay. But there’s certainly something deeper wherein Webster is suggesting that emotion can to some extent dictate the physcial. Either way, this is certainly a narrative element of speculative fiction, and so I feel justified in including it here!
Let’s have a look at a few lines, and you can judge for yourself:
"PESCARA: Pray thee, what’s his disease?
DOCTOR: A very pestilent disease, my lord, They call lycanthropia.
PESCARA: What’s that? I need a dictionary to’t.
DOCTOR: I’ll tell you. In those that are possess’d with’t there o’erflows Such melancholy humour, they imagine Themselves to be transformed into wolves; Steal forth to churchyards in the dead of night, And dig dead bodies up: as two nights since One met the Duke ‘bout midnight in a lane Behind St. Mark’s Church, with the leg of a man Upon his shoulder, and he howl’d fearfully; Said he was a wolf, only the difference Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside, His on the inside; bade them take their swords, Rip up his flesh, and try: straight, I was sent for, And having minister’d unto him, found his grace Very well recover’d.”
To summarise, while Webster’s plays might not be for the regular reader of speculative fiction, they certainly gel nicely with those readers of speculative fiction with a penchant for the weird and macabre, particularly those who enjoy the works of Hope Hodson, Machen, Blackwood etc.
Our copy is available here: Link