chapter  15
Rotting together? The quest for community in Webster’s tragedies
ByHELEN WILCOX
Pages 22

I Introduction In P.D. James’s novel The Skull Beneath the Skin, the detective heroine is called upon to investigate the case of an actress who is receiving death threats. In a witty manner typical of her accomplished crime novels, James constructs the mysterious threats in the form of quotations from Shakespeare and his contemporaries: ‘to lie in cold obstruction and to rot’, or ‘He that dies pays all debts’.1 Intrigued by the case of this literary would-be murderer, the detective duly travels to an island off the coast of Dorset, where an actress is preparing to perform her next role in the private theatre of a rebuilt mediaeval castle in a location with a ‘violent and bloodstained history’.2 James’s title ostentatiously evokes T.S. Eliot’s description of John Webster as one who was ‘much possessed by death’ and could see the ‘lipless grin’ of the human skull lurking ‘beneath the skin’.3 It is therefore no great surprise to learn that the actress has already played the part of Vittoria in Webster’s The White Devil and is about to play the title role in his tragedy The Duchess of Malfi in this uneasy and secluded setting. The first threatening letter to reach her once she has arrived on the island instructs whoever reads it to ‘Call upon our dame aloud, / And bid her quickly don her shroud!’; the second asks ominously, ‘Who must despatch me?’ and a third announces, with Bosola, ‘I am come to kill thee’.4 Despite the threats, the actress asserts that she is ‘Duchess of Malfi still’. The detective, by contrast, far from being the one who keeps matters under control, senses that she is in some kind of charade in which ‘unseen hands spun her round’ and ‘an unknown intelligence watched, waited and directed the play’.5 Needless to say, the actress meets a startlingly violent death even before the play has reached the stage. The murder weapon, a marble severed arm, in true Websterian style, also functions as a ghoulish paper-weight for the triumphant

message taken from The Duchess of Malfi (IV ii 253): ‘Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out’.6