Critics have long been puzzled by the inner contradictions of major characters in John Webster’s tragedies. In his The Duchess of Malfi, for instance, the Duchess is “good” in demonstrating the obvious tenderness and sincerity of her love for Antonio, but “bad” in ignoring the wishes and welfare of her family and in making religion a “cloak” hiding worldly self-indulgence.
Bosola is “bad” in serving Ferdinand, “good” in turning the Duchess’ thoughts toward heaven and in planning to avenge her murder. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle implied that such contradictions are virtually essential to the tragic personality, and yet critics keep coming back to this element of inconsistency as though it were an eccentric feature of Webster’s own tragic vision.
The problem is that, as an Elizabethan playwright, Webster has become a prisoner of our critical presuppositions. We have, in recent years, been dazzled by the way the earlier Renaissance and medieval theater, particularly the morality play, illuminates Elizabethan drama. We now understand how the habit of mind that saw the world as a battleground between good and evil produced the morality play.
Morality plays allegorized that conflict by presenting characters whose actions were defined as the embodiment of good or evil. This model of reality lived on, overlaid by different conventions, in the most sophisticated Elizabethan works of the following age. Yet Webster seems not to have been as heavily influenced by the morality play’s model of reality as were his Elizabethan contemporaries; he was apparently more sensitive to the more morally complicated Italian drama than to these English sources. Consequently, his characters cannot be evaluated according to reductive formulas of good and evil, which is precisely what modern critics have tried to do.
They choose what seem to be the most promising of the contradictor values that are dramatized in the play, and treat those values as if they were the only basis for analyzing the moral development of the play’s major characters, attributing the inconsistencies in a character’s behavior to artistic incompetence on Webster’s part. The lack of consistency in Webster’s characters can be better understood if we recognize that the ambiguity at the heart of his tragic vision lies not in the external world but in the duality of human nature.
Webster establishes tension in his plays by setting up conflicting systems of value that appear immoral only when one value system is viewed exclusively from the perspective of the other. He presents us not only with characters that we condemn intellectually or ethically and at the same time impulsively approve of, but also with judgments we must accept as logically sound and yet find emotionally repulsive. The dilemma is not only dramatic: it is tragic, because the conflict is irreconcilable, and because it is ours as much as that of the characters.