This is my recent essay comparing John Webster’s, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and a selection of Samuel Coleridge’s poetry, an interesting comparison nevertheless; but it was a part of my A level English course (OCR exam board, mark 30/30).
Both Webster and Coleridge explore the conflict between order and chaos via the symbolism of religion, the abuse of social hierarchy and nature. The usurpation of Christ in Coleridge’s poetry and the transition between accepted Protestantism and Catholicism allows the potential for chaos. The manipulation of social hierarchy through Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and in ‘Kubla Khan’ and the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ displays chaos through the desire for social ascension. The Romantic ideals of nature and their transgression leads to chaos and the corruption of the Jacobean court embodied through nature allows the audience to clearly see the lack of order.
Religion is a key way that both Webster and Coleridge explore the conflict between order and chaos, through the decline of religion and constant intellectual and philosophical debate between religion and nature. In Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ this can be clearly seen as the Mariner battles with the guilt of killing the albatross, which can be seen as an allegorical representation of Christ, “Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung”. The sin is a parallel to Adam and Eve’s original sin, where the act of killing the bird instigates a break with nature, bringing the Mariner out of harmony with the natural world and causing punishment akin to the Fall of man. In this way, Coleridge is presenting the chaos which breaks from the order of religion; as the poem’s supernatural and various Pagan elements exist parallel with Christian ideas. This mirrors Coleridge’s own religious debate as he showed how Christianity was not merely desirable but philosophically true, he argued himself out of a Unitarian position into a Trinitarian one and became a staunch defender of the orthodox Christian concept of God as containing three persons as he believed that a personal God was necessary to him. Therefore, strengthening his link to order and shying away from chaos. But by Coleridge’s adoption of Spinoza’s pantheism, a system of belief in which God, man and nature share one substance leaves the potential for chaos as the natural world changes. The Cardinal in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ behaves a similar way, he has bribed his way up the ecclesiastical hierarchy, redistributes Antonio’s lands, and has illicit affairs with married women and suborns murder. Bosola describes him as, “Some fellows, they say, are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil and make him worse.” He exercises his power through his religious background and transfers his power to a more violent and aggressive source, transitioning from an ordered religious perspective to a chaotic corrupt soldier. Religion within Jacobean society was also open to corruption and chaos; apart from a brief return to Catholicism under Mary I, England had been a Protestant country since Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic in the 1530’s. Catholics were presented as ritualistic ideal-worshippers who were politically and morally corrupt, as anti-Catholic prejudice was enshrined in the law, with harsh punishments for refusing to follow Protestant doctrine. This conflict between order and chaos of the Catholic religion mirrors the imaginary battle of the speaker in ‘The Pains of sleep’ in which the speaker at passionate silent prayer battle imaginary demons to pray aloud. The tension between traditional religious order and the adoption of Pantheism, Catholicism and military action all bring about the potential for chaos.
The desire for social hierarchy and superiority leads to chaotic events and characters open to manipulation and betrayal. Bosola in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’ battles the conflict between himself of conscience and guilt, as he seeks to ascend the social ladder- he will do anything to achieve his end goal. Webster presents the status quo in society as chaotic, as social mobility imposes constrictions and eventually people rebel. The Cardinal abuses his status to manipulate others, such as Julia “I have taken you off your melancholy perch”, the audience however can see the chaos and destruction that the Cardinal brings by imposing the social hierarchy of the time. Just like King James court as Webster’s evocation of a court riven by favouritism, factionalism, betrayal and intrigue aptly captures the political realities of the day. The extent to which James’ government fell short of the king’s own ideal as set out in Basilikon Doron and in the ‘French court’ as described by Antonio in his opening speech, is of central importance. Webster is clearly mirroring his audience’s unfavourable perception of James’ court when he has Bosola describe the Aragonian brothers as ‘plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools…and caterpillars feed on them”. The clear conflict between lack of order and the chaotic abuse of status and social hierarchy is displayed by Webster and shown in James’ court. In ‘Kubla Khan’ the Khan decrees a “stately pleasure-dome” and he builds a wall to enclose a fertile paradise of gardens, streams and groves, the force of water “a mighty fountain momently was forced” is described in terms which suggest turmoil and chaos, erosion and fertility all at once. Kubla imposes the power of man over nature displaying a different kind of social hierarchy. In the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by Coleridge and Wordsworth they expressed their experience of romantic ideals; recollecting dignity in the commonplace, which had the same effect as the French revolution. Their aim was to create a democratic world in which the outcasts, women and children had a voice of individual consciousness; they succeeded where the revolution had failed, they gave politics a human face and brought order to chaos. In the same way that the genuine fear of social mobility in deeply conservative Elizabethan and Jacobean society is challenged and displayed in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “then everything includes itself in power, power into will, will into appetite”. Just as Delio vows to restore the hierarchy and warn others of revenge in the ‘Duchess of Malfi’, “let us make noble use of this great ruin” – bringing order back to the chaos which had ensued from the abuse of social hierarchy.
The consequent embodiment of nature within Coleridge’s Romantic ideals and Webster’s use of nature to portray madness and corruption is vital. The presentation of nature within “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” symbolises how since nature is omnipotent there is no such thing as solitude and order is renewed. The “prison” in which Coleridge finds himself in is outweighed by the ministrations of nature which can transcend any such imprisonment, bringing order to chaos. In ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ the Mariner is plagued by “water, water, everywhere” the natural source is taken away as torture for what he has done, for the chaos he has created. Just like the corruption and decay within the ‘Duchess of Malfi’, “crooked over standing pools” via the court and hierarchy is cleverly displayed through the metaphorical references to water and fountains. The combination of religion and nature used by Coleridge highlights clearly the chaos which can arise from a lack of order. In ‘Christabel’, a “bright green snake coiled around its wings and neck” references the snake from the Fall in which Adam and Eve were tempted. The cunning and sly nature of the snake within ‘Christabel’ is also portrayed via Ferdinand and the Cardinal who corrupt the “idyllic court” and the Duchess’ happiness and in turn bring about the chaotic disintegration of society. The paradox as Leggatt points out, is while Webster depicts a world of chaos, the play “resists that chaos by the conscious, deliberate shaping of its own art”. It is clearly a portrait of the Duchess’ brothers about the destructive lusts of sexuality and power, rather than the chaotic force of nature.
To conclude, both Webster and Coleridge explore the conflict between order and chaos via religion, social hierarchy and nature. Coleridge’s philosophical debate between religion and nature brings chaos, whilst the abuse of social hierarchy portrayed by Webster shows the lack of order within society. Ultimately the conflict between order and chaos is shown via the tensions which both Webster and Coleridge symbolise via man, nature and societal structure.