Blood-filled vengeance, murder and madness

This September we’re presenting a brand-new version of The Duchess [of Malfi] written and directed by multi-award winning Zinnie Harris. In this blog, we explore the 17th century original, its author John Webster and why, 400 years since it was first published, his theatrical tale remains as powerful as ever. 

The dramatist was a contemporary of Shakespeare (though 16 years younger) and appears in the 1998 film Shakespeare In Love. He is depicted as a macabre young boy who relishes feeding live mice to cats. When asked about Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Webster replies:

I like it when they cut their heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives… Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing.

This fictional portrayal of the budding playwright nods to Webster’s real reputation for dark and violent plays, and his habit of writing particularly gory endings for his characters.

Webster is best known for his two ghoulish dramas based on real-life events in Italy: The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Both are classic Jacobean revenge tragedies – characterised by blood-filled vengeance, murder and madness. This gruesome genre was a favourite of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre goers. Their love for guts and gore meant theatre companies would develop close relationships with local butchers so that they could use the off-cuts in bloody scenes to make them more realistic! Other popular plays during the era include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Changeling by Thomas Middletton and William Rowley, and Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston.

Title page of The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster [Public domain]

While Webster’s work is notable for its inventive and disturbing depictions of violence, he is also celebrated for his ability to write complex, sympathetic characters. His stories often expose uncomfortable truths and the darker side of humanity as they explore issues of class, the nature of love and lust, political corruption and the role of religion in society.

The Duchess (Kirsty Stuart) and Ferdinand (Angus Miller) in rehearsals
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

The Duchess of Malfi is widely considered a masterpiece of the 17th century and continues to be staged regularly by modern theatre companies around the world. The tale follows the recently widowed Duchess as she gains financial independence, prioritises her passions and refuses the authority of her brothers with horrifying consequences.

Our forthcoming production is a contemporary adaptation by Zinnie Harris (Oresteia: This Restless House). Her bold interpretation sets the tale in the 1960s against a Cold War backdrop of espionage and cutting-edge psychological experimentation. It promises to be just as bloody as the original. Zinnie explains why this classic story is so ripe for adaptation:

"now feels like the perfect time to revisit this incredible, brutal story of female determination in the face of patriarchal power... The Duchess is an unapologetic, fearless character, who happens to fall in love, and I'm excited to be bringing her to life for audiences."

This blood-soaked story of family, forbidden love and fierce gender politics runs at Tramway from the 4th – 21st September as part of our Citizens Women season. 

The Duchess [of Malfi] is a co-production with The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.


John Webster: A Darker Playwright for Renaissance England at by Kate O'Connor, licensed as Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (2.0 UK).