The imagery combined with Webster’s poetic flair is what, in my opinion, makes his tragedies even more powerful than those of Shakespeare as the audience are given so much more than what they see on the stage. The themes of death and disease in Webster’s plays can also be seen as a structural device. The imagery of blood and hell is contrasted with beautiful descriptions of jewels and nature. This balance of imagery and its relative timing within the play makes the work flow smoothly and allows the audience to enjoy a glimmer of light amongst the dark images and actions.
This is perhaps a device which mirrors the tragicomedy within Webster’s plays. The love that is felt is real, passionate love. The hate and envy is also very real. This is reflected in Webster’s metaphors for both good and evil which are not always explicit. Reversed and indirect imagery is often employed to emphasise the contrasts in the play and in the individual characters themselves. An example of this is ‘the devil in crystal’ (IV. ii. 84), a line spoken by Brachiano of Vittoria in The White Devil. The duality seen in the character of Vittoria makes her seem more alive.
The paradox of her beauty (both physically and socially) and her evil is expressed here. The idea of balance in the plays makes Webster seem less obsessed with death than obsessed with death as the most powerful image known to man. Webster’s death scenes and last words are probably the main feature which distinguishes him entirely from his contemporaries. The death scenes linger and are drawn out with eloquent speeches and characters who have fallen silent after they are struck down only to return for a few, valuable words before they finally die.
Again the use of caesuras within sentences becomes more frequent to make the words more poignant and to emphasise the horror and finality of death. In The Duchess of Malfi among the final utterances of the Duchess are the lines: ‘I know death hath ten thousand several doors For men to take their Exits: and tis found They go on such strange geometrical hinges, You may open them both ways:’ (IV. ii. 215-8). The overruns and caesuras make the sentence unfold like a plot. The rhythm is lost and the sentence takes the form of free verse, reflecting the freedom of death after a life of subservience.
The views of death portrayed by Webster in his plays are diverse. They are beautiful and haunting, desolate and awful. He makes his characters portray the pain of death and also the overwhelming release and often shows the state of hopelessness which results in an almost complete lack of any emotion. In The White Devil Flamineo and Vittoria ‘remain defiant in death’3. Flamineo declares that ‘I do not look Who went before, nor who shall follow me; No, at myself I will begin and end. ‘ (V. v. 223-5)
Webster uses last words to such effect that he gives characters two or three death speeches or makes them continue in dialogue with another character until their demise. Unlike many other plays the death is not reserved for the last scene or even the last act. Webster surprises us by bringing death about at unlikely times and often too quickly after the plans have been made for a character’s murder, for example in the dumbshows in The White Devil which occur in Act II. This gives the audience a sense of the uncertainty and spontaneity of death.
Another view may be that Webster is in fact not obsessed with death as much of his work focuses on the corruption of the state and the lives of the murderers rather than engaging the audience completely with those who are about to die. He is concerned with all the issues surrounding death rather than death itself. The imagery of death is very powerful and may be the most effective way of getting a desired reaction from the audience. In comparison with his contemporaries Webster, in my opinion, does not seem obsessed with death and disease. Poets such as Donne write about death and also death into poems on other matters entirely as metaphor:
The Dampe ‘When I am dead, and Doctors know not why, And my friends curiositie Will have me cut up to survay each part,’ (1-3) This obsession may be a reflection of the times in which they were living, namely of the plague. Shakespeare and numerous contemporary playwrights and poets use the theme and imagery of death and disease, especially in tragedies, to emphasise the awful facts of life ending. It seems that Webster’s contemporaries appear less obsessed with death as they have written comedies and other works to balance their opinions.
Death is an important feature of Webster’s work as a tragedian but not the only important feature. His poetry and imagery fit well together and the balance in his work is impressive. Death and disease featured heavily in the world in which he was writing and those he was writing for. This is apparant not only in his own work but in most other work of the time.
1 From Simon Trussler’s commentary of The White Devil, Methuen, p. xxvi. 2 The italics here are my own to show the amount of imagery in just one short speech. 3 Dollimore, p244.