Following the Senecan tradition, Webster exploits madness and aberrations in a number of plays. In The Duchess of Malfi, the theme of insanity is multilayered. Right from the beginning Bosola and Antonio provide us with sufficient information about the mad and corrupt Italian. However, the word 'madness' literally takes place for the first time in the concluding line of Act I. The young widowed Duchess shuns her brothers' injunction of remarriage and woos her steward, Antonio. According to the Jacobean values, she marries out of her lust. Also, it led her to lying and duplicity, and thus against all the religious tenets of the age. Upper-class marriages were often political arrangements not subject to personal whim, and the duchess fails as a ruler for prioritizing personal desire above public responsibility. In light of Renaissance norms, she flouts patriarchal authority by marrying without the approval of the male members of her family, violated decorum by remarrying and by choosing a mate below her in station, and revealed an overt female sexuality, all of which threatened the social order. From this point of view, this marriage is nothing but "a fearful madness" as Cariola expresses it.
The next indication of madness occurs in Ferdinand's irrational, bestial rage against his sister for violating the family chastity. We do not know whether Webster had in mind the Machiavellian theory of human-animal combination in princes, but this is later vividly dramatized through Ferdinand's lycanthropy. Nevertheless, this fury leads him to torture the Duchess. He shuts her up with lunatics in Act IV Scene ii, probably the culminating point of the theme of madness and aberration in the play.
We have a madhouse scene in Northward Ho!, where a group of merrymakers, including a poet called Bellamont, visit a madhouse for entertainment. Bellamont's companions play a trick on him by persuading the keeper Fullmoon that he is mad and must be kept as an inmate. He resists forcefully, and the jest is voted a good one. Perhaps this was the germ of the madhouse scene in The Duchess of Malfi, as the trial of Lady Jane Grey in Sir Thomas Wyatt may have given Webster the cue for the arraignment of Vittoria. Like Bellamont, the Duchess is shut up with mad people, but for her the ordeal stretches beyond the limits of comedy. The madmen represent a universe in which order does not exist: they are the extreme term in a series to which the other characters in the play belong.
Ferdinand offers the Duchess the masque of madmen as an emblem of her state, but she does not succumb to insanity. According to Catherine Belsey, the masque of madmen itself creates an antithesis between the silent Duchess and the chattering madmen. Ironically, they foreshadow the transformation of the Duke, and not of the Duchess. Like Ferdinand who would perish the Duchess, the First Madman would draw doomsday nearer. He would "set all the world on fire" just as Ferdinand would have his enemies "burnt in a coal-pit." He also dispatches Bosola
"To feed a fire, as great as my revenge,
Which never will slack, till it have spent his fuel."
The Second Madman sees hell as a glass-house "where the devils are continually blowing up women's souls." His vision is a demonic caricature of Ferdinand's readiness to imagine the Duchess "in the shameful act of sin." His statement that "the law will eat to the bone" recalls the image of Ferdinand using the law "to entangle those shall feed him".
The Third Madman's insistence that "He that drinks but to satisfy nature is damned" functions as a parody of Ferdinand's attitude to the Duchess's natural impulse to remarriage. The Fourth Madman is companion to the devil, whereas Ferdinand is devil's own child. Like Ferdinand, the madmen are condemned to a perpetual hell of the mind, a sleepless world of perverted sexuality and death. It is Ferdinand, and not the Duchess, who finally escapes into madness.
In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, madness is commonly used in three ways – as a material for comedy, as in The Changeling or Northward Ho!; as a supreme trial for mankind as in King Lear; and finally as an image of unrelieved and terrible chaos, as with Cornelia in The White Devil and with the mad folk in this scene in The Duchess of Malfi. A playwright who uses the theme in this third way can have no easy faith in divine goodness. There are certain humiliations which not even the promise of Heaven can atone for. And a consideration of madness raises awkward questions about human responsibility. The introduction of the madmen into this play is thus not a mere example of Jacobean sensationalism – they represent the final dissolution of an apparently ordered world, and they are fittingly followed by the entry of Bosola as an old man, a tomb-maker, a herald of death.
Webster could have drawn madness powerfully, as he did with Cornelia, he could show the Duchess crossing for a moment into the borderland of mind's darkness. The lycanthropy of Ferdinand too is mere rage and bluster. He has none of the quality of vision that preserves the stature of the mad Lear, or of Hieronimo in the interpolated painter's scene in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd.
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