Daily RC Article 26

John Webster


Paragraph 1

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.

Paragraph 2

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.

Topic and Scope:

Elizabethan playwright John Webster; specifically, how critics misinterpret his work.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to describe how the criticism of the contradictions in the characters of Webster’s tragedies is misdirected. The main idea is that critics have been confused by the contradictory nature of Webster’s characters because of certain mistaken assumptions they have made about the playwright himself

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 sets up the main idea but doesn’t quite get there. First we’re told that the critics are confused by the contradictory nature of Webster’s characters. Then the author provides examples of the contradictory nature of Webster’s characters. Aristotle is cited as believing that contradiction is necessary for tragedy, and the para ends with another hint that the critics are off base.

The author delivers her main point in the first sentence of para 2. Critics have been confused by the contradictory nature of Webster’s characters because of certain mistaken assumptions they have made about the playwright himself. According to the author, critics have assumed that Webster was a typical Elizabethan playwright, and, as such, intended to create characters who were meant to be either good or evil, but not both. Thus, when

Webster’s characters exhibit both good and evil tendencies, critics have ascribed this to incompetence on the part of the playwright, rather than to deliberate design on his part.

he author takes exception to this view, saying that Webster intentionally created characters that were grey rather than black and white, characters that were both good and evil.

According to the author, Webster was not a typical Elizabethan playwright, and it is wrong to interpret his work as if he was. This is what has led to confusion and, ultimately, to mistaken judgments about his competence.

The Big Picture:  

  • A passage like this one is a good place to begin your work on the Reading Comp. section because the purpose and structure are fairly easy to grasp right away. After some brief background facts are presented in the first para, the author’s message appears at the beginning of the second para, while the rest of the passage just fleshes out that message.
  • Always take note of the author’s allegiances. Here, they are hinted at in the beginning para, and then fully expounded in the rest of the passage: The author is pro Webster, and against the critics’ judgments. Don’t be intimidated by the length of the second para. A para like this is not broken up because it essentially harps on the same point throughout—it provides support for the author’s position that the critics have misinterpreted Webster’s work. With only two paragraphs, the passage’s structure is not difficult to discern.

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