Comments on Act 4 Scene 1
The grotesque business with the severed hand and the wax corpses is typical of Jacobean tragedy and its delight in bloody effects (inspired by the Roman plays of Seneca known for their gruesomeness). However, Webster uses these horror devices for more than shock effect or sensationalism. Ferdinand is obsessed with having power over his sister. Not only does he seek to put her in her place, to punish her for disobedience and betrayal; he wants to control her, body and soul. Her death is not his primary goal; through sadistic trickery he strives to break her independent spirit, which in the end he fails to do (see next scene).
Peter Murray (A Study of John Webster, 1969) writes: “Webster’s handling of these scenes of torment is superb. When the play is staged, our attention is drawn not to the horrors but to the Duchess’ reaction to them; she beholds horror and we behold her … Our attention is fixed on the Duchess because she is so deeply and pitiably human in her anguish.”
In a 1979 Birmingham Repertory production, the children tumbled out of a cupboard. The Royal Exchange Theater (1980) rolled the bodies out on hospital stretchers. The National Theater (1985) dragged Antonio’s body on in a bloody shroud.