Last year when Titus Andronicus closed, I knew I wanted to direct
another revenge tragedy. Duchess of Malfi was a famous play in its time and is titled a “revenge tragedy,” and I remembered Ferdinand’s powerful “Upon a time” speech from grad school, so I thought of it immediately. We strive to produce plays audiences will be experiencing for the first time alongside Shakespeare’s beloved classics, so it seemed like a great choice.
In re-reading, however, I found it was not a revenge tragedy at all,
but rather a beautiful romance, a heroic tragedy. Compared to
Titus, in which the first death takes place in the first four lines, no
one in Duchess dies until after intermission. And when they do, the
first five deaths are bloodless. (OK, a lot of people die, true, but no
more than in Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet) Duchess is not a story
of revenge, but a story of redemption. It’s not a blood bath, but
a parable about the danger of choosing money above love and
power above empathy.
Perhaps most fascinatingly, it’s a play about a real woman. Duchess Giovanna d’Aragona came into more power, through accident and not desire, then her brothers could climb to with all their conniving and violence. She maintained peace for her people in a time of war, and she loved a man for his character in a culture where titles meant more than virtues. Then, she and her love and their children were all brutally murdered; not for “revenge,” but out of greed and false pride.
In Webster’s version, there is a character who is no more than a
footnote in history: Bosola. But in Webster’s Bosola, we are invited
to understand the pressures of poverty on a man’s moral fortitude and to allow for the possibility of redemption even after the darkest of deeds.
Welcome to Malfi. I hope you enjoy its romance, intrigue… and
touch of madness.
Director, Duchess of Malfi