A detailed study of John Webster(1578-1632)and his Tragedies namely The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil

John Webster was an English playwright who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. He is best known for his dark, intense, and violent tragedies that explore themes of power, revenge, and corruption. Among his most famous works are the Duchess of Malfi and the White Devil, which are considered masterpieces of the Jacobean drama.

John Webster was born in London around 1580, and little is known about his early life. He is believed to have been educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School and to have studied law at the Middle Temple. Webster’s first known work is a poem titled “The Displaying of a Supposed Witch,” which was published in 1603.It was his prolific plays that brought him fame and success. Influences and Literary Style.

Webster was influenced by the works of his contemporaries, including William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. His plays are also influenced by the works of the ancient Roman playwrights, particularly Seneca. Webster’s plays are characterized by their use of language, which is often poetic and metaphoric.His plays are known for their intense violence, complex characters, and dark themes. His plays also feature complex and morally ambiguous characters, who are driven by their desires and passions.

Webster’s plays often explore themes of corruption, revenge, and the abuse of power. His characters are often trapped in situations that they cannot escape, and the plays often end in tragedy. Webster’s plays also reflect the social and political issues of his time, including the conflicts between the Catholic and Protestant religions and the political instability of the Jacobean era.

The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is a tragedy that was first performed in 1613. It tells the story of a noblewoman, the Duchess of Malfi, who falls in love with her steward, Antonio, and secretly marries him. Her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who are both corrupt and power-hungry, are outraged by her marriage and plot to destroy her. They hire the villainous Bosola to spy on the Duchess and ultimately cause her downfall. The play explores themes of love, power, corruption, and revenge.


One of the key themes of the Duchess of Malfi is the abuse of power. Ferdinand and the Cardinal are both motivated by their desire for power and are willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain it. They use their influence to control and manipulate the people around them, including their sister. The Duchess, on the other hand, represents a threat to their power because she is an independent woman who refuses to be controlled. Her marriage to Antonio is seen as a challenge to the patriarchal order and leads to her ultimate demise.

Another important theme of the play is the corrupting influence of revenge. Bosola, who is hired by Ferdinand and the Cardinal to spy on the Duchess, becomes consumed by his desire for revenge and ultimately becomes complicit in her murder. His quest for revenge leads to his own downfall, as he is unable to escape the guilt and remorse that he feels.

The characters in the Duchess of Malfi are complex and multi-dimensional. The Duchess herself is a strong and independent woman who defies the expectations of her society. Antonio is a loyal and honorable man who loves the Duchess deeply. Ferdinand and the Cardinal are both corrupt and power-hungry, but they are also vulnerable and insecure. Bosola, the villain of the play, is a complex character who is motivated by both revenge and a sense of loyalty to his employers.

The White Devil

The White Devil, written by John Webster in 1612, is a play that is often considered one of the greatest tragedies of the Jacobean era. The play is a complex study of revenge, betrayal, and morality, set against the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance. Its enduring popularity lies in its exploration of the darker side of human nature, and the devastating consequences of unchecked ambition and desire.

The play tells the story of Vittoria Corombona, a beautiful and ambitious young woman, and her lover, Duke Bracciano. Their illicit relationship leads them to conspire to murder their respective spouses, Isabella and Camillo. Vittoria and Bracciano are aided in their plans by Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, who is a cunning and manipulative courtier. However, their plots are soon discovered, and they are plunged into a spiral of violence and revenge that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Themes and Motifs

One of the central themes of The White Devil is the corrupting influence of power and ambition. Both Vittoria and Bracciano are driven by a desire for status and wealth, and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. Their pursuit of these goals leads them to commit terrible acts of violence and betrayal, which in turn trigger a cycle of revenge that ultimately destroys them.

Another key theme is the role of gender in society. Vittoria is a strong and independent woman, who refuses to be constrained by the expectations of the patriarchal society in which she lives. She is punished for her defiance, and ultimately meets a tragic end. The play also explores the idea of the femme fatale, a woman who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and achieve her goals.

The motif of the devil is also central to the play. The character of Lodovico, known as the “White Devil,” is a sinister and malevolent figure who represents the corrupting influence of evil. His presence in the play serves to highlight the darker aspects of human nature, and to underscore the themes of corruption and revenge.

Style and Language

Webster’s writing style is characterized by its vivid imagery, its use of irony and wit, and its complex, multi-layered characters. The play is notable for its use of soliloquies and asides, which allow the characters to reveal their inner thoughts and motivations to the audience. The language is rich and poetic, with many memorable lines and passages that have become famous in their own right.


John Webster’s plays, particularly The Duchess of Malfi, are considered some of the greatest works of English drama. Webster’s use of language and his exploration of complex themes and characters influenced later playwrights, and his contribution to English literature is significant.

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