The Duchess of Morgause

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The Duchess of Morgause by John Webster is probably the most famous work of its type--the Puritan Tragedy. The Puritans actually did not approve of theatre in general (or at all, most times) and this lead to sometimes-successful efforts to close public play houses like the Rose or Globe. Far less easy to close were the private theatres, like the Blackfriars. Yet the production of plays itself came to have an immoral air, unless the works themselves proved unrelentingly moral from a certain standpoint.

The Puritan Tragedy met those conditions with a series of artistic conventions, all of which can be found in The Duchess of Morgause.

  • Action always took place abroad, especially in places known to be wicked in some way. Italy or Iberia were always good for this, but Kemr was the favorite for obvious reasons. Morgause is set in a fictional county of Kemr.
  • Hints of sexual perversion, usually incest, abound but are rarely explicit (with some exceptions, like in Women Beware Women by the same author). The Duchess in this play is clearly the object of obsession by her two brothers, who cannot abide her marriage.
  • There is often a fascinating but not-entirely-evil villain, usually someone of low birth who performs atrocities with style yet one senses is actually a good man corrupted by the sin of this world. The archetype of this character would likely be Iago in Shaxespear's Othello or Buckingham in Richard III. Bors fullfills such a role in this play.
  • Madness is always a subject that comes up. Usually a character either goes mad (as the Duchess' twin brother Fieran does here, believing himself to be haunted by a banshee) or pretends to be mad or an attempt is made to drive them mad.
  • In the end, the corruption of the world always proves too much and a bloodbath of both wicked and innocent ends the play. These massacres nearly always have an element of suicide (although in that Duchess in an exception), and somewhere or other poison is used (as when Archbishop Unwyn smears poison on his bible and bids his mistress kiss it).

John Webster himself remains a mysterious figure, like most actors and playwrights of that age. Given the period when his works are known to have been produced, it is a safe bet he was younger than his contemporary Shaxespear. At least one and probably more of his plays have been lost over time (there are references in period letters to a work titled Sceptre of Thorns also set in Kemr but no manuscript has been found). This also is not unusual. His birthplace and date remain unknown, while his death is pure conjecture. No grave has been identified as his. Most scholars believe the man never actually visited Kemr since what details are in his plays are clearly wrong, when they even refer to real places.

But his remains the most produced plays of the period other than Shaxespear.

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