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Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

5. Critical History

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About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the critical history of the play, focusing in particular on: (i) the appearance of John Webster in the film Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden); (ii) Victorian views of Webster as someone interested in "drenching the stage with blood", and whose plays "delight the pit", i.e. the audience in the cheap seats; (iii) the contemporary view of Webster as a playwright whose plays were full of pathos ("For who e'er saw this duchess live and die, that could get off under a bleeding eye?"); (iv) the view of the Romantics that Webster had moments of greatness, but was otherwise somewhat patchy; (v) William Hazlitt's view that Webster's White Devil and Duchess of Malfi were the best plays produced in the English Renaissance apart from Shakespeare; (vi) R. W. Dent's work on the play's intertextuality; (vii) Gunnar Boklund's work on Webster's adaptation of his source material; (viii) the insights provided by New Historicists such as Catherine Belsey; (ix) Christina Luckyj's work on the play; (x) feminist critiques of the play, including the work of Lisa Jardine, Ina Haberman and Reina Green (xi) the critical interest in the waxworks scene, including the work of Susan Zimmerman and Thomas P. Anderson; (xii) the critical interest on how the play engages with religion, including the work of John C. Kerrigan and Thomas Rist; and (xiii) Wendy Wall's work on the Duchess's domesticity, especially he abilities with sugars, cordials and curative medicines.


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores John Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi'. In the first module, we think about stereotypes about women in early modern England and their presentation on stage. After that, we introduce the Duchess of Malfi itself – when it was written and first performed, its key preoccupations, etc; – before turning in the third module to the theme of bodies and spaces in the play. In the fourth module, we think about the theme of secrets and secretaries (the words are etymologically related), before turning in the fifth module the play's critical history, from contemporary reactions of the play to the most recent scholarship.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Smith, H. (2021, March 24). Webster: The Duchess of Malfi - Critical History [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Webster: The Duchess of Malfi – Critical History." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Mar 2021,