Still the Duchess: John Webster's use of rhetoric
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Rhetoric is a matter of control. It is, in fact, the process of ordering the components of speech and action to produce a desired end. Drama is an ideal manifestation of rhetoric in that it shows the word becoming action in the flesh of the actors on stage. The rhetorical process (drama) is as much a focus of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1614) as its apparent thematic material: self-possession, which is expressed in the play as family relations, marriage customs, and noblesse oblige. John Webster knew rhetoric and was himself an excellent rhetorician. And he creates a female protagonist who "stains the time past, lights the time to come": the Duchess of Malfi. Webster's creation serves as the playwright's spokesperson, and her conspicuously amoral behavior reflects the power of the age and its dissolution. The Duchess confronts the sinister, idiosyncratic, patriarchal worlds of the court and of the Church and snubs both, preferring, rather, to make her own path, to make her own meaning, to make her own morality. She is totally self-possessed; she resists the irrational demands of her male siblings; she defies the social codes of matrimony; she negates the authority of the Church's representative, the Cardinal. Ultimately, she defies the rhetoric of her environment: its content, its structure, its rhythm, its style. In doing so, she becomes her own rhetor, creating and ordering a noble world apart from an uncaring universe. As a rhetor she is successful, maintaining her own argument, causing others to change. Yet she cannot change the entire corrupt environment. She dies, but an audience is better for its exposure to her and realizes its loss at her death in Act V. Critics, however, object to Webster's dependence on the grotesque and melodramatic elements in Act IV and Act V of the play. Webster's dramatic vision is not flawed at all: the grotesque elements in Act IV and the resulting anticlimatic nature of Act V are pivotal to the irony operating in the play. The play reflects the age and its dissolution; therefore, the precise verbal irony must dissolve into gross action. Without the Duchess physically present to maintain justice in the world, only physical horrors remain. Webster wanted to demonstrate what happens in a world that destroys its rhetor, its morally organizing force. The result is defensive laughter. The irony is cosmic.
- Masters Theses