Consider the significance of death and disease in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘The White Devil’. T. S. Eliot claimed that ‘Webster was much possessed by death’. This statement seems to be correct, but unsurprisingly so as Webster had already lived through several years of plague and had, one assumes, seen much of death and disease. It does seem, however, that Webster expresses ideas within his plays using the images of disease more often and more effectively than many of his contemporaries.
It is perhaps this imagery and the poetry driving through to the final death scenes of his characters that gives Webster’s tragedy an extra pain and paradoxically a special appeal. Webster uses very graphic imagery both as description and as metaphor. It was noted by Ralph Berry of The White Devil that ’66 images out of a total of about 500 in the play (some 13 per cent) are concerned with disease or corruption’1.
The use of this imagery affects our feelings about the action of the play as it influences our reading or viewing by putting suggestions and pictures in our minds that the plot development and action alone would not necessarily evoke. It seems that the imagery in The White Devil is more important and more involved than in The Duchess of Malfi. Although in the latter play there are many obvious examples of the images of death and disease they seem to be used less frequently and are slightly more likely to be descriptive than metaphorical.
It is interesting that the imagery begins before the plot has begun or any real information regarding the events of the plays have been imparted. In The White Devil Gasparo says: ‘Your followers Have swallowed you like mummia, and being sick With such unnatural and horrid physic Vomit you up i’th kennel’2 This is said in the first twenty lines of the first act. The use of the word ‘mummia’ is particularly strong as mummia is a medicine prepared from embalmed flesh.
We have these images in our minds before we know anything of the central characters of the play, let alone what is going to happen throughout. In a similar way in The Duchess of Malfi, Webster uses strong imagery at the beginning of the play; Antonio: ‘But if’t chance Some curs’d example poison’t near the head, Death and diseases through the whole land spread. ‘ (I. i. 13-15). This is an indication of the action which is to follow, again within the first twenty lines of the play. The diseases mentioned here are a common metaphor for the corruption in the play, the death will be real.
Another point to mention here is the use of the rhyming couplet. Webster tends to use these to end a speech rather than as an ordered structural device, yet here the couplet is in the middle of the speech. This seems to be in order to stress an important point and to make the line memorable later in the play when the prediction comes true. If we compare Webster to Shakespearean tragedy it is clear that the imagery of death often starts right at the beginning of the play in order to prepare the audience for the horrific events of the play.
Webster tends, however, to use the images metaphorically early on whereas Shakespeare is usually recalling past events, for example in Macbeth the first image of death comes in the second act when the Captain says of Macbeth: ‘Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,/ Which smoked with bloody execution,/ Like Valour’s minion carved out his passage. ‘ (l. 17-19). This is about a previous battle which has been fought and although it uses these images it tells of the past rather than giving a glimpse of the future. The imagery is rarely as strong as that used by Webster.
When, in The White Devil, Vittoria is at her wit’s end she proclaims: ‘I had a limb corrupted to an ulcer, But I have cut it off: and now I’ll go Weeping to heaven on crutches. ‘ (IV. ii. 121-3). The idea of corruption as an ulcerated limb is painful enough and added to that is the thought of death. To make this even more powerful Webster uses two caesuras in consecutive lines to make the point hit the audience even more clearly. This speech was written to make the audience sit up and pay attention to the horror of what is happening on stage.