MANNERIST MOTIFS IN JOHN WEBSTER'S "THE DUCHESS OF MALFI" AND "THE WHITE DEVIL"

Mary Lyelle Beshear, Marquette University

Abstract

John Webster, a Seventeenth Century playwright variously disparaged as "inconsistent," "decadent," or outright "incompetent," yet also praised as "controlled," "graceful" and "highly competent," is a writer whose works may be better understood when viewed in light of mannerist art trends. Like mannerist artists painting in Italy in a period just prior to Webster's, this Jacobean playwright composed works of ambiguous interpretation, inconsistent flow, and technical overabundance. Webster has also in common with mannerist artists that: (1) both followed a political period and a complemental art milieu characterized by stability and balance, (2) both composed, however, in a period marked by conflicts in religion, politics and economy, conflicts so great that contemporary man questioned all knowledge, all values, and (3) both composed arts with a consequent lack of central focus, an independence of detail, and a portrayal of busy activity ending in failure. This study delineates the style trends in Renaissance art (particularly the mannerist style), points up the specific technical parallels between mannerist and Websterian art, then moves on to study Webster's thematic - philosophical base in light of mannerist principles. Both arts reflect the skepticism and relativism of Montaigne, the sense that reality, even reality of the self is a shifting, subjective, impermanent phenomenon. Both arts are occasionally labelled as "haphazard" or "decadent," because the artists chose the image of chaos and the technique of inconsistency to depict their world view. Both arts, however, are composed with control and technical ingenuity. The thesis concludes with a brief analysis of how Webster's two major plays may be staged to emphasize his mannerist motifs and their corresponding philosophical base.

Recommended Citation

Beshear, Mary Lyelle, "MANNERIST MOTIFS IN JOHN WEBSTER'S "THE DUCHESS OF MALFI" AND "THE WHITE DEVIL"" (1983). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI8409274.
https://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI8409274

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