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The Purpose of Act One (Duchess of Malfi)

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Submitted By SophieBryan
Words 744
Pages 3
Sophie Bryan
It has been argued both that Act One is chaotic and pointless, and that it is a clever introduction to the play. How far do you agree?

The role of Act One of the Duchess of Malfi is argued to have many different functions, as the introduction to the play. It introduces the audience to the characters, and gives them the opportunity for formulate their own opinions. It has also been argued that the opening act creates tensions and a sense of foreboding, through the use of foreshadowing.
The opening act gives the audience the opportunity to create their own opinions of the main characters, aided by Antonio who acts as a honest narrator to the audience. Webster uses Antonio as a device to deliver messages to the audience about his other characters. For example, when describing Ferdinand, Antonio narrates '...the law to him/ Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider,/ He makes it his dwelling and a prison/ To entangle those shall feed him' (170-173). A semantic field of corruption is created through 'foul black' and 'prison', which implies that Ferdinand is a devious and corrupt man. This also suggests that neither the characters or the audience should trust his words or his actions. The simile 'the law to him is like a foul black cobweb to a spider' hints that Ferdinand cheats his people by adjusting the law to suit him, and other people of a high status. This could also foreshadow that later in the narrative, Ferdinand will do something similar to what Antonio is suggesting, that may jeopardise the status of another character, supported by the verb 'entangle'.

Act One and Antonio are also both used to show the many differences between the main characters, in particular the Duchess and her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. To Delio, Antonio reveals 'He ne'er pays debts... Last: for his brother there, the Cardinal... most oracles/ Hang at his lips... For the Devil speaks in them;/ But for their sister, the right noble Duchess...' (174-180). The difference in tone used when describing the Duchess, compared to her brothers, suggests that Antonio thinks highly of her, and as a good person. 'Noble' has connotations of honor and charity, implying that the Duchess is a welcoming and gracious character. On the contrary, religious imagery is used to describe the Cardinal as the 'devil'. This infers that the Cardinal is a wicked and deceitful man, strikingly different to his 'noble' sister. Antonio goes on to inform the audience that 'You never fixed your eye on three fair medals/ Cast in one figure, of so different temper' (181-182). This solidifies the concept that the Duchess and her brothers are extremely different, suggesting that this is an idea that Webster wants to highlight to the audience very early in the play.

However, it has also been argued that the function of Act One is to create a sense of foreboding for the audience, through the use of foreshadowing. Once again, Antonio is used to relay information to the audience, concerning one of the main characters of the play, in this case, Bosola. Antonio narrates ' 'Tis great pity/ He should be thus neglected. I have heard/ He's very valiant. This foul melancholy/ Will poison all his goodness' (71-74). This quote is suggesting that maltreatment from other characters is causing a great change in Bosola, which will negatively impact him and the rest of the court. The juxtaposition of 'valiant' and 'foul melancholy' may infer that Bosola's character is mercurial and certain situations cause this change in him. In addition, the ambiguous phrase 'will poison all his goodness' generates a sense of foreboding, that Bosola is going to turn corrupt later on in the narrative, and will cause turmoil within the court. It also conjures the theme of revenge, as the audience have already learnt that Bosola ended up in the galleys while working for the Cardinal. It may hint to further events, in which Bosola may cause trouble for the Cardinal, and threaten his position within the court.
To conclude, there are many arguments as to what the purpose of Act One of the Duchess of Malfi should be. Through close investigation, it is clear that Webster intended to use Act One as a device to relay information to the audience. In addition to this, Webster also uses Antonio for this purpose, as he is a character to be trusted.

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