Language and imagery in the plays of John Webster : a study of three plays - The white devil, The Duchess of Malfi, and The devil's law-case- and the elegy, A monumental column [article]

David Charles Gunby, University Of Canterbury
TITLE 6 hand :from Dekker' e mo et of the t1ae" ' The later collaborative works are equall1 unlike the Webster or the great playa, and their parts equally difficult to assign to specific writers. The one play which in man7 respects merited inclusion is Appius and V,trginia, but doubts as to Webster's sole authorship precluded this. The method used in this study is essentially that first devised by tlisa Spurgeon. The images have been card J._nde:xed, classified and sorted into groups under
more » ... ct h~adings, and then extensively croa~_reter·enced. In all this Misa Spurgeon' a --· elaee i:f'ieat ion s;rs-cem nas -tie en retnned----almost en'Girely;-clespi~e its drawbacks. Care has been taken to guard against these by a. widening of the field of enquiry to include a study of how Webster usee direct, nr.>n-metaphorical references and key tonewo.rds as well as images. Words such ae 'black•, 'rotten' and 'darkness' are as important to the Websterian tragedies as the celebrated 'blood' in ~cbeth. which Miss Spurgeon' a mvthod led her almost wholly to disregard. Close adherence to Miss Spt\rgeon' s methods has, however, the great and oTerriuing advantage or enabling full use to be made of the information she obtained. It is thus possible to draw reasonably valid comparisons not onl7 between Webster and Shakespeare. but also between Webster and other of' his fellow dramatists for whom Mise Spurgeon gives some data -Chapman, Dekker, Jonson, Marlowe and Massinger. Unf"o:c·tunately little preciti;e int'ormation seems to be available on the imagery of Tourneur and Marston, whose 7 Spurgeon. op. cit. TUE GR\IElW. Cl1AJLJ\01'!•iR.fS'gICS QF W~HST.&RIA.,"1 LAr?GUAGH AN'D IMAGttlRY. webster's plays are .full of imagery; tulle.i-" than those ot an7 of his contemporaries. As Appendix one A indicates, both The White Devil and 1 l'he Dueheaa of' Mal:t'i are more closely packed with i1nagea than even Troilll! and Oressida, the play, with the largest number of' images in the Shakespearean canon. rt is by means of this unusual weight of 1mager7, allied with a tight, elliptical quality in the language, that Webster But much ot -------the power comes alao from the singlemindednesa of his approach to his chosen themes, from his concentration on particula~ &t>pects of 11f'e through pa.r-t icular angles or ;;iaiua. 'l'he imagery might be expectea to ciJntrib11te to this. Yet at first glance the range and subject matter of Webster's itnBgea, as set out in Appendix two, seem remurltably similar to :Jha.keapeare•a, a.a graphed in Appendix five of t.!lisa SpurFeon' s book. 'rhere is none of the obvi~Jus imbalance in Wt~bster' a range such as is i•nntediotay apparent in Marlowe's.1 The latter's preoccul>ation with 1mager1 drawn from the categories of learning and imagination proclaims him at once an intellectual. ';~ebster' s range does not do this, although the catefrory of' learning does feature more prominently 1n his work than i.n Uhakei::ueul•e' s. But for r;e bat er, ae for ~3haltespeare, daily lif'e images t1cure the moat prominently, with nat111~e iu1ager7 secon~J. in in1portance. The only differences 11 which are immediately apparent are a lower incidence or domestic images in Webster &1% f'or Webster, 15% :for Shakespeare), and a lower proportion of imaginative images (J.i.% in Webster, 7'f:, in Shakespeare). Overall, bo· .. jever, the two show a deceptive similarity. Just how deceptive a closer examination or the · image proups will reveal. A maJor difference in emphasis is apparent in the first section of, clasa11'1ed as 'growin&r things• in the 'Nature' category. Shakespeare pla~es a fairly even emphasis on images conceniing flowers, trees, plants and fruit, with less use ot weed images. ___ In._Web11__ter'_s_cae_e __ t_he__emphtu1is_on_t_r_e_e__imager-1'--1s_at__once_ayide_nt_; _ W•ll over halr tbe images in the section deal with this euhject. Of the rest, :fruit images make up the majority; plant, flower and weed images are negligible. The emphasis on tree images becomes even more marked when 1t 1s noted that the fruit images occur altno:Jt entirely in The. Devil• s, and that elsewhere tree images have almost a monopoly within the section. This is not the place ta tey to explain the metaphorical use Webster makes or tree imagery, hut certain general facts about the group are clear. 'Webster seems drawn to trees for their qualities of strength, massiveness and emturance. By contrast, he makes little uee of flower imagery, where the interest of the subject for the creator 01" an im.are lies more in the qualities or uelicacy, grace, and miniature perfect ion or form. Nor does he often. uae images concerning other small growinr, things, weeds and plants. Again, tbe fruit imagery, which forms his only other real int.erest, is often associated with the trea images, as in the following as 12
doi:10.26021/3924 fatcat:pn6bm63bjrgu5lizchvzsy7swy