John Webster is a highly qualified genius in the post — Shakespearean period when the Elizabethan zest for life has gone and the Elizabethan exuberance and optimism has been succeeded by a mood of apprehension, disillusionment and defeat. John Webster has been successful in depicting the vitiated and fetid society of that time. It was a decadent society where all kinds of evils were rampant with their corroding effect upon the society. Webster, being the refined product of the renaissance, satirises very bitterly all the evil aspects of the society.
Webster with his skilled hand very clearly has portrayed the court and courtly life which was replete with flatterers and conspirators. Webster satirises the corrupted environment of the court of that time. On returning from France, Antonio describes the picture of the French court where a healthy environment is prevailing. Antonio says in the opening lines of Act I that the French court has been duly reformed. The wise French king has cleared his court of all notorious persons. Antonio says that a good government is possible only when the ministers will be honest and when they will provide good counsels to the king for the sake of good governance. Through the statement of Antonio, it becomes clear to us that the court of Webster’s time was peopled with evil persons. Webster satirises the princes also of his time —–
Princes pay flatters
In their own money; flatterers dissemble their vices
And they dissemble their lies; that’s justice.
Webster has also mentioned the hypocrisy and affectation of the courtiers. It is evident in the conversation between Bosola and Castruccio in the opening lines of Act II, scene I. Bosola sarcastically says that if anybody wants to be eminent, he must practice some artificial manner and set speeches like the courtiers. Even he mentions the corruption in the judicial system of that time. Bosola says to Castruccio that some judges show sheer hypocrisy when they give verdict against the criminals at their own sweet will.
Politicians are severely satirized for they have no conscience. They are unscrupulous and have no hesitation in bartering their souls for unworthy objects. A politician is the devil’s anvil on which Satan hammers his blows:
A politician is the devil’s quilted anvil
He fashions all sins on him, and the blows
Are never heard.
We see the inconstancy, the frivolity and the adulterated love affairs of men and women of the society. Women of that time had extreme fondness for cosmetics. Even the old ladies were excessively in the habit of using cosmetics. Even the villain, Bosola, feels disgusted when he comes across an old lady with excessive painting of cosmetics.
The degeneration and corruption of women is clearly through the contrast between Duchess’s love for Antonio and Julia’s courting of Bosola. Duchess’s love for Antonio is based on pure love which was a rarity at that time but Julia’s courting of Bosola is the manifestation of sexual corruption. Julia, the wife of Castruccio, becomes the mistress of cardinal and gratifies her lust with Bosola. Julia symbolizes the sexual perversion of the decadent society of Webster’s time.
Webster has successfully shown the moral degradation of human beings of his time. Both the brothers, Ferdinand and Cardi re the embodiment of beasts. Both the brothers have shown their animal instincts. They were excessively greedy. They did everything to possess the wealth of the Duchess. The two brothers have lost their finer qualities, their reasonability and their humanity. Out of their sexual jealousy, they imposed an embargo on the marriage of the Duchess who became widow at her flowering age. They let loose the mad men to mentally torture the Duchess after hearing about her re-marriage. They even get her strangled. No brother on earth can do such heinous crimes against a sister as done by these two brothers.
Thus, we see the widespread moral and social corruption and degradation where brothers become hostile and diabolic to gratify their beastly instincts by torturing and killing their own sisters. It was such a vitiating and fetid society where cold-blooded murderers like Bosola are out with the paraphernalia of death. They can do and undo everything for gratifying their narrow self-interests. Thus, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi becomes the true document that depicts all the foul pictures of that decadent society. Through this play John Webster satirises all the degradation of his society only to make men conscious in order that they can correct themselves in the true sense of the term.