Compare and Contrast John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” and Alphara Behn’s “The Rover” as a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and a Restoration Comedy Respectively.

By Ilo Emily Nnena


The similarities and differences between “The Duchess of Malfi” and “The Rovers” can never be overemphasize. Restoration comedy and Jacobean Revenge tragedy deeply applies Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavellian’s principle. Restoration comedy celebrates this principle while Jacobean revenge tragedy discourages the principle by pointing out its negative effect.
 Compare and Contrast John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” and Alphara Behn’s “The Rover” as a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy and a Restoration Comedy Respectively.
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Restoration comedy was deeply influenced by its historical context. After Cromwell’s death in 1658 and the failure of his Richard’s (son) short-lived protectorate, the army invited Charles I’s son, who was on exile, to become king. The restoration of Charles II leads to re-opening of theatre and arts. King Charles II brought with him a sense of the fun and frivolity of the French court where he had resided in exile. Comedy of manner or restoration comedy focuses on the manner, attitude, sexual behavior and convention of the artificial sophisticated 17th century English aristocratic world.  The features of restoration comedy includes: sexual desire, pretence, and disguise, onomastic study of man, satire, induction of laughter, application of Machiavellian and Hobbes principle, sometimes, it show case forbidden sexual desires.

Jacobean revenge tragedy borrowed its idea from the Greek and Roman (classical) plays. The entire play runs on characters interest on revenge. “The Duchess of Malfi” is a Jacobean revenge tragedy while “The Rovers” is a Restoration comedy. Features of Jacobean revenge tragedy includes: Strong desire for revenge, Bloody violence, satire, secret murder, torture, forbidden sexual desire, insanity, purgation of pity, portrays negative effect of Machiavellian principle.


The two texts share Jacobean and restoration comedy features in common. The features they share are as follows. 1. The Manifestation of Hobbes and Machiavellian principle.

2. Satire

3. Onomastic study of man

  1. Forbidden sexual desire
  2. Violence 


In “The Duchess of Malfi”, Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavellian’s principle is greatly applied in the text. According to Thomas Hobbes, human beings are innately selfish, ultimately rule by desire and emotion and not reason. They also apply Niccolo Machiavellan principle which says that human desire can be achieve by using the lawful means or forceful means. In “The Duchess of Malfi”, we can see Ferdinand and Cardinal’s selfishness. They do not want their sister, Duchess, to re-marry. Their reason is to possess her wealth when she dies; if they allow her to re-marry, definitely, her new husband or offspring will possess her wealth according to custom. Their selfishness and desire makes them a hobbian figure. Bosola, works for Ferdinand and his brother Cardinal in order to be rewarded in a special way. Out of his selfishness he kills souls under the instruction of his boss, rule by the reward he will get, without reasoning; this makes him a Hubbian figure. In “The Rovers”, we can see the selfishness of Florinda’s father and his son Don Pedro. Florinda’s father wants her to marry Don Vincentio, an old wealthy man. “…Don Vincentio’s fortune and Jointure he ‘ll make you.” The quoted statement exposes Florinda’s father’s interest in Vincentio. His intention is for her daughter to inherent the man’s wealth when he dies. He fails to honour her daughter’s feelings, but prefer his own selfish desire. This also makes him a Hubbian figure.

Florinda’s brother, Don Pedro, wants her to marry Antonio. His reason is that Antonio is wealthier than Vincentio, and also Vincentio is his friend, he will benefit more if her sister marries his wealthy friend, Antonio. This makes him a hubbian figure.

In “The Duchess of Malfi”, in order to achieve their desire, they establish a means, lawful means and forceful means. The two brothers negotiate with their sister to remain a widow and never to marry. This is also acceptable in their custom; because barren widows are allowed to inherent their husband’s property and then, pass it to their siblings. They use this lawful way to achieve their desire. When their sister, Duchess of Malfi, violates their agreement; she marries Antonio, and gives birth to children. They apply the forceful means by killing her and her two children, in other to make sure that there is no heir to her wealth except them. This makes them a Machiavellian figure. In “The Rovers”, Don pedro uses the forceful means to achieve his desire; by commanding Florinda never to meet Belvile, his love and instruct her to marry Antonio the next day. He did this in order to make sure that Florinda marries his rich friend, Antonio, and go against their father’s wish as well as her heart desire.


            The two texts satirise the upper class. In “The Dochess of Malfi”, Duchess who has a high title of nobility, chooses Antonio, the master of her household to be her husband. Duchess who comes from aristocratic class brings herself down by marry her servant, Antonio. Antonio is being described in the text by Ferdinand as “a slave that only smell’d of ink and counters, and never in his life looked like a gentleman. The ills of the society is also satirise, by portraying Ferdinand and his brother, Cadinal, who murdesr their only sister, Duchess, because of their desire to possess her wealth.  The text ridicules the aristocratic class and the ills of the society. In “The Rovers”, the aristocratic class is also ridiculed. Florinda, who comes from an aristocratic class fails to behalf like people from the upper class. She rejects those rich men from upper class that wants to marry her. Instead, she choose Belvile, a man that “has no jewel or wealth to offer, rather than his eye and heart, a banished man in his country” who has nothing.


            The two texts employ onomastic study of man. It studies man in relation to their names, meaning and implication. In “The Duchess of Malfi”, we have a character named Duchess. Duchess means a widow of a duke, a female ruler of a duchy. Actually, the semantic meaning of her name suggests her role and status in the play. In the text, she is a widow of a duke, and a female ruler of her territory. In “The Rovers” we have a character named willmore. Will means desire and more means to a greater degree. He desires more. The implication of his name is seen in the text, when he wishes to sleep with Angelica, a famous prostitute and succeeded, even without paying a token to her. He desires more wealth and succeeds in taking Angelica’s money by pretending to love her. Another character is Blunt. Blunt means dull in understanding, stupid etc. Blunt is dull in understanding and this makes it possible for Lucetta rob him easily.


            This feature is shown in “The Duchess of Malfi”, Duchess desires to re-marry, but she is forbidden by his brothers never to re-marry. In “The Rovers”, Don Pedro, forbids Florinda not to marry Blunt. Don Pedro’s father also forbids her daughter, Hellena, not to marry but to be a nun.


“The Duchess of Malfi” and “The Rovers” differs in the following features.

1. Strong desire for revenge

2. Bloody violence

3. Torture

4. Induction of pity

5. Tone of satire

6. Insanity

7. Negative implication of Machiavellian principle

There is a strong desire for revenge in “The Duchess of Malfi”. A property and reverse revenge takes place in the play. This occurs when Ferdinand and Cardinal avenge their sister, Duchess, who marries against their agreement and bear children. They kill their sister and two of her children in order to inherent her property.  Bosola takes a reverse revenge in the play. He swears to avenge the death of innocent Duchess, whom his brothers instruct him to kill, and finally, fails to compensate him of his act. He carries out the reverse revenge and the two brothers are killed. In “The Rovers”, no revenge is carried out. Angelica wishes to avenge willmore, but she never carried out the revenge.


In “The Rovers” the violence that takes place in this text, do not eat a soul, but in “The Duchess of Malfi”, a deadly violence takes place in this play. Eight souls are destroy(dies) in the text.


There is both physical and emotional torture in “The Duchess of Malfi”. Duchess undergoes a physical torture when she is locked in a prison and is being tormented by mad people. Emotional torture occur when Ferdinand makes an artificial figure of Antonio (her husband) and her children which appears as if they are dead. A dead man’s hand with a ring on his finger is also presented to her .She kiss the hand thinking it is her husband’s hand. This makes her to be mentally imbalance and she says,” I am full of daggers puff.” In “The Rovers”, the character who is under torture escapes from it. This is seen when Hellena is locked in a prison, because she poisons her sisters mind not to marry Vincentio or Antonio. She pleads the security, and they allows her to attend a carnival that was going on.


“The Duchess of Malfi” induces pity on the audience or reader.This pity is evoke when innocent characters is killed. Such characters are Duchess, Antonio, her children, Cariola and Julia. The characters is not worthy of death, but they can thwart it. This feature did not appear in “The Rover”, the actions of the characters, amuse the audience.


 Bloody violence occurs in “The Duchess of Malfi” when Bosola strangle Duchess, her children and Cariola. Cardinal poison Julia, Bosola stabs Antonio and Cardinal, Ferdinand stabs Bosola, Bosola uses his last strength and kills him before he (Bosola) dies. The killing  of one person, leads to massive killing of other characters. In “The Rovers”, violence occurs, when Antonio and Willmore fights with a sword, Willmore injured Antonio severely but the not kill him. Pedro and Blunts (who disguise himself as Antonio) fights each other with sword in honour of Florinda. Despite all this violence, nobody is killed.


The tone of satire use in “The Duchess of Malfi” is Juvenalian satire while the type use in “The Rovers” is Horatian satire. juvenalian satire uses harsh and bitter tone, evokes shock and feeling contempt .Harsh tone is use in this play. This is seen in Ferdinand’s statement -For I account it honourablest revenge, were I may kill to pardon and other characters tone, such as Duchess, when she is oppress, Bosola ,and Cardinal etc. The ills of the society is satirise in a serious note. “The Rovers” uses Horatian satire. A light hearted tone is used, and a pleasant and amusing nature is noted. The character’s harsh tone is always unserious. This is seen when Blunt is cursing all the women on earth; because Lucetta, a prostitute robs him, in the nest minute, we see him looking for a lady he will sleep with. The main intention of this satire is to induce laughter.


            Ferdinand is mentally distorted after the killing of her sister,Duchess, In“The Duchess of Malfi”. This makes him to be frightened by his own shadow. Ferdinand also beats the doctor that comes to treat him. This feature is not seen “in The Rovers”


In “The Rovers” those characters that applies the Machiavellian principles goes scot free. The characters are Don Pedro, Florinda, Willmore etc. In the Duchess Malfi all the characters that applies this principles becomes a victim. All of them pays with their head. Such characters are Duchess, Ferdinand, Cardinal and Bosola.


The similarities and differences between “The Duchess of Malfi” and “The Rovers” can never be overemphasize. Restoration comedy and Jacobean Revenge tragedy deeply applies Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavellian’s principle. Restoration comedy celebrates this principle while Jacobean revenge tragedy discourages the principle by pointing out its negative effect.

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