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Fortune and Virtue in The Duchess ofMalfi Leslie Thomson Duchess: I now am blind. Antonio:What's your conceit in this? Duchess: I would have you lead your fortune by the hand, Unto your marriage bed:—' With these words, John Webster has the Duchess of Malfi evoke emblematic images which doubtless would have resonated in the minds of many in the seventeenth-century audience for which he wrote his play. Today, a spectator might hear the still common metaphor of "blind Fortune," but is quite unlikely either to grasp the immediate implications or to realize the significance of the imagery of fortune which echoes through the play. Since, however, this imagery centers on the woman who first uses it, and has—or should have—the effect of complicating and qualifying any positive responses to her, the iconography that Webster evokes in these words from the Duchess is a necessary context for understanding what happens to her, and why. Furthermore , because, as the play's title indicates, the focus of the action—its cause and consequence—is the Duchess, her death precipitates the falls of virtually all the figures who have mattered in her world. Her fortune is their fortune, as the emblemquoting dialogue repeatedly emphasizes.2 John Webster's predilection for incorporating the work of others into his plays has been well documented.3 The Duchess of Malfi is based on a story from the second volume of William Painter's popular The Palace ofPleasure;4, as well, studies have shown that in this play Webster repeatedly draws from several plays by William Alexander, especially The Alexandrean Tragedy and, mostly in the last two acts, Philip Sidney's Arcadia. In each of these three, prominence is given to the goddess of fortune and the complex of ideas about the human experience of chance and change that she and her wheel then represented more literally and vividly than they have since. Of course, a spectator 474 Leslie Thomson475 did not need to know these particular works to recognize a concept which permeates the literature of the period, a time of perhaps unusually acute uncertainty about the future. As commonplace as the idea of Fortune then was, however, in none of Webster 's plays except The Duchess of Malfi does it constitute a main theme, conveyed at the most basic level by numerous repetitions ofthe word in its various senses.5 The Duchess's reference to Fortune comes early in the play, and virtually all the subsequent uses of the word and its associated imagery are linked directly to her and to the consequences of her decision to marry Antonio, a man who is her social and political inferior. The subtitle of Webster's source, Painter's translation of Belleforest's novella, is "The Infortunate Marriage of a Gentleman, called Antonio Bologna, with the Duchesse of Malfi, and the pitifull death of them bothe," and the story begins with a moralizing discussion of the relationship between social position and adverse fortune. The narrator comments that more difficult it is for that man to tolerate and sustaine Fortune, which all the dayes of his life hathe liued at his ease, if by chaunce hee fall into any great necessitie, than for hym which neuer felt but woe, mishappe, and aduersitie.6 He gives a number of examples from history, but he is establishing a context for the story of Antonio. Similarly, he prepares his reader for the role ofthe Duchess by observing that it behoueth the Noble, and such as haue charge of Common wealth, to liue an honest lyfe, and beare their port vpryght, that none haue cause to take ill example vpon dyscourse oftheir deedes and naughtie life. And aboue all, that modestie ought to be kept by women, whome as their race, Noble birth, authoritie and name, maketh them more famous, euen so their vertue, honestie, chastitie, and continencie more praiseworthy. And behouefull it is, that like as they wishe to be honoured aboue all other, so their life do make them worthy of that honour, without disgracing their name by deede or woorde, or blemishing that brightnesse which may commende the same. (176) This would seem to be preparing...


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