The Duchess of Malfi
Throughout Webster’s tragedy the Duchess is defined not through her ideals, as noble as they may be, but through Webster’s characters’ twisted definitions of the Jacobean patriarchy. Her demise at the conclusion of act four is indeed caused by her marriage to Antonio. However, the marriage to Antonio can only be seen as indirectly causing her downfall. The marriage is subverted by the Duchess’ defiance of her brother’s warped sense of patriarchal conventions concerning widowhood. As I hope to show, the Duchess did not defy social conventions concerning the remarrying by widows. Rather, Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s depiction of a sadistic patriarchy twists the noble marriage into something horrific and this, not her marriage to Antonio, is the true cause of the Duchess’ downfall. The first lengthy depiction of Ferdinand and the Cardinal clues the reader to the fact that Malfi’s patriarchs are disturbed. Although the description comes from Bosola, the reader soon learns that the malcontent’s view of the Duchess’ brothers is accurate. Bosola describes the pair as “plum trees that grow crooked over / standing pools; they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but none but / crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them” (I.i.46-8).
The “crooked” reference applies to their corruption of the court. This corruption is not withheld when concerning their sister and her affairs. Crows, pies (a bird of evil omen), and caterpillars also suggest their corruptive behavior at court, here symbolized by a stagnant pool where nothing (e.g. equality for women, etc.) can grow or be nurtured. Antonio’s opening description of France’s idealic monarchy contrasts what the reader soon discovers to be the corruption of Ferdinand and the Cardinal, Malfi’s patriarchs. Antonio states: “Considering duly that a prince’s court / Is like a common fountain, whence should flow / Pure silver drops in general, but if ‘t chance / Some cursed example poison ‘t near the head, / Death and diseases through the whole land spread” (I.i.11-5). The “cursed example” mentioned is the poison at the head of Malfi’s court, namely Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s corruption. Antonio also foreshadows the Duchess’ death when he instructs Delio that “Though some o’ th’ court hold it presumption / To instruct princes what they ought to do, / It is a noble duty to inform them / What they ought to foresee. – Here comes Bosola” (I.i.19-22). The “noble duty” to inform the Duchess what she “ought to foresee,” her murder, is a duty not undertaken by any of the characters in Webster’s drama. The entrance of Bosola here signifies him as the Duchess’ executioner.
Antonio also comments on the presumption of Ferdinand and the Cardinal to instruct the prince (the Duchess) on how she should run the court of Malfi. As Antonio allusion shows, Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s corruption will spread death and disease throughout the land, its wrath not excluding their sister the Duchess. Ironically, the diseases caused by the brothers’ corruption inverts on themselves when Ferdinand suffers from lycanthropy at the close of Webster’s play. In Christy Desmet’s discussion “In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama,” Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s motives are made clear. The dialogue of both brothers throughout the first act suggest that Desmet is correct in thinking that they “build their argument on a litany of common female faults: because women are all driven by lust, widows who remarry are not far removed from whores. Naturally shameless, women also neglect their reputation; and weak in both mind and will, they succumb easily to amorous advances and smooth tales of courtship” (Desmet 79). Yet the Duchess’ actions seem to refute this concept of widowhood. Indeed, Antonio does not court the Duchess. In fact, the situation is reversed. The Duchess removes her wedding band and places it on Antonio’s finger. In a sense she courts him and explains (or perhaps defends) her actions: “We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us; / And as a tyrant doubles with his words / And fearfully equivocates, so we / Are forced to express our violent passions / In riddles and in dreams, and leave the path / Of simple virtue, which was never made / To seem the thing it is not” (I.iii.145-51). Here the Duchess defends her actions through defending Antonio’s worthiness of nobility.
At the same time, her brothers’ twisted ambitions suppress and distort simple virtues into riddles and dreams. Desmet’s argument concurs, stating that “not only does Malfi’s Duchess work assiduously for virtue during the day, she has such innocent nights that even her dreams are as chaste as other women’s ‘shrifts’ (I.ii.115-33)” (Desmet 79). Desmet’s argument continues this theory, exploring the idea of the Jacobean female prince’s “body politic:” “By emphasizing his sister’s femininity, Ferdinand seeks to deprive her not only of her life and political title, but of her very identity. The Duchess defends herself against Ferdinand’s stereotypes with stoic exemplars of her own, choosing to die like Brutus’s faithful wife Portia” (84). In order to clarify this argument, a further step must be taken. Female sexuality does not inherently threaten the integrity of the body politic until viewed from the corrupt male characters’ point of view. No evidence exists within the play which suggests the Duchess uses her sexuality to further her political position. Rather, the Duchess uses her sexuality in order to distinguish a clear separation between her body natural and her body politic; a need for a private life separate from the political realm, a separation her corrupt brothers are unable to recognize.
Desmet’s argument further substantiates this claim, refuting Lord Tennennhouse’s idea that “womanhood and sovereignty are logically incompatible” to “shed light on the fate of Webster’s Duchess” (81). Again, these arguments are only justified when viewing the Duchess from her corrupt brothers’ point of view. As I intend to show, the Duchess remained within societal sexual limitations concerning widowhood. She only exceeds the boundaries when seen from the twisted views of her corrupt brothers. A historical comparison between Arabella Stuart and Webster’s Duchess lends evidence to the Duchess’ remaining within societal norms concerning marriage by widows. Sara Jayne Steen’s essay “The Crime of Marriage: Arabella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi” asserts that “responses to Stuart suggest a more complex historical interpretation is in order” (Steen 62). Steen’s argument parallels King James/Ferdinand and Arabella Stuart/ Duchess of Malfi. In a historical context, Stuart’s marriage to William Seymour parallels the Duchess’ situation. Seymour/Antonio was of a lower station and the marriage was not condoned by King James/Ferdinand. Steen provides evidence that “before Stuart’s escape [related to the Duchess’ fleeing from Malfi], both young Prince Henry and James’s chief adviser, Robert Cecil, urged James to be lenient” and “James’s English advisers saw little danger in the marriage” (68-9). Steen reports that the Florentine secretary, too, recorded the widespread court anticipation of a happy outcome . . . The people who thought so were engaging in wishful thinking, but to them love was an extenuating circumstance, even at court and even when the woman was of royal blood” (70). Steen’s most convincing argument also relates to love as an extenuating circumstance: “Clearly some Jacobeans regarded the separation more as a violation of the marriage than the marriage as a violation of anything” (70).
Perhaps Webster intended for his theatrical audience to hold the same views concerning the Duchess’ actions. Either way, existing evidence proves that citizens and theater attendees alike would not have automatically condemned the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio (63). Many critics chastised Stuart for her actions. Steen clarifies and refutes their argument: “The crime as Clement Edmonds saw it when he wrote his brother about the marriage was the immorality of lying: the couple had promised that they would never marry without consent, then did so, and that was wrong. A pamphlet writer branded Stuart a descendant of Eve, an unruly woman who had ‘touched pleasures in order to transgress,’ an accusation more revealing of misogynistic than royalist fears” (68). These misogynistic fears parallel Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s actions toward their sister. In a sense, the Duchess was forced into lying because of her brothers’ irrational fears of losing their places at court. These patriarchal fears instigate the chain reaction leading to the Duchess’ downfall by blaming these fears on her marriage to Antonio. Quoting Harley, Steen also provides contextual evidence from the church to support her theory. A Bishop named “Durham assured himself and others ‘God in time will move his Majesties hearte to haue Compassion vpon her,’ apparently unconvinced that Stuart was damned on theological grounds since he expected God to argue her case” (70). This endorsement from the church suggests that neither Stuart nor the Duchess’ actions were outside societal boundaries. Dympna Callaghan’s discussion on “Feminism and Tragedy” falsely agrees with other critics’ claims that the Duchess defies the boundaries of family/politic.
She states that “Marriage is a ‘state’ ordained by God, and the implication is that the married state constructs the State (that is the organised, centralised government of a country) and not the other way around. Marriage, moreover, as the foundation of the family, is also the foundation of the family/State analogy. Rebellion over the marriage issue constitutes a very serious threat to the order of the State” (21). A critical point which Callaghan fails to recognize is that the Duchess theoretically already controls the state by her title which should allow her to marry as long as she remains within the societal rules for remarriage. From this perspective, a more rational conclusion would be that Ferdinand’s incestuous and political ambitions replace the state’s official views on the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio. Elizabeth Oakes, in her essay “The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity,” provides further evidence in the play that the Duchess goes to great lengths to remain within societal boundaries for widows. Her argument begins by stating that “the importance of Webster’s depiction of the Duchess’ widowhood lies not only in his exonerating her but also in his using the dynamics of her marital status to construct and then deconstruct a female hero within the genre of tragedy” (51). Continuing, Oakes argues for the rights of the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio: “Although remarriage was not uncommon for widows of all ages [and, in fact, critics have shown that remarriage was common for young widows], a year’s wait was customary. As William Heale phrases it, a woman who ‘remarrieth within her yeere of mourning, is by the law free from infamy, but by the lawe also adjudged unworthie of mattrimonial dignity.’ Although no definite time is reported in the text, the ritual mourning period seems to have passed, because the Duchess has been giving parties. In fact, it is to talk about ‘these triumphs [festivities] and this large expense’ (I.i.365) that she calls in Antonio to inspect his accounts of her estate. Surely a lady of her rank would not have breached custom so, and surely Ferdinand would have commented on it if she had” (Oakes 55). Ferdinand’s lack of comment on this aspect of the Duchess’ ambition leads to his own motives.
Clearly the Duchess makes every effort to remain within societal boundaries. The problem arises when Ferdinand’s assumptions about his sister’s ambitions and his own desires, both sexual and political, enter into his decisions. Oakes’ argument proceeds a step further, justifying the Duchess’ choice in marriage to the reader. Webster “presents the Duchess as choosing well, diminishing the difference in rank between her and Antonio” (57). Antonio’s opening speech signifies his noble ability, relating the purity of the French court to Delio. This speech places Antonio as a noble figure, worthy of marrying the Duchess. In Oakes’ words, Antonio’s speech “introduces a standard into the play from which we can clearly judge the two brothers . . . Indeed, they reject him as a spy on the Duchess, deeming him, according to the Cardinal, ‘too honest for such business’ (I.i.230)” (58). In Webster’s tragedy, “before [Antonio] marries the Duchess, he shows some gentlemanly skill when he wins the ring at jousting. Moreover, [he is] morally superior to the brothers” (57). Webster clearly shows that Antonio is worthy of nobility which leads to the corrupt motives of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s motives also must be explored in order to justify the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio. Partly using a discussion from Nicholas Brooke, Frank Whigham’s rational argument sheds light on the Duchess’ corrupt brother: “Brooke emphasizes how Ferdinand’s courtly appearance constitutes an ‘absolute spectacle’ (‘laugh when I laugh,’ ‘The Lord Ferdinand / Is going to bed’ [III.i.37-8], ‘the Lord Ferdinand laughs’ [III.iii.54]) (Brooke, 52, 54, 61) . . .
This pattern of distancing objectifies those below Ferdinand, as mere reflective witnesses to his absolute surpassing. His embattled sense of excellence insists on ontological separation from those below, but his frenetic iteration of this motif suggests its ongoing failure” (Whigham 267). This failure of Ferdinand’s is perhaps one reason which causes Ferdinand’s inability to view Antonio as worthy of acquired nobility. Other of Ferdinand’s irrational desires and reasons also suggest his “ongoing failure.” One cannot discuss Ferdinand’s motives toward his sister without considering Ferdinand’s false assumptions concerning the Duchess’ political ambitions. Desmet quotes Leonard Tennenhouse’s description of the Duchess’ body politic: “In the Jacobean period, however, there appears a second notion of the body politic, which represents ‘the female body – . . . specifically that of the aristocratic female – as the symbol and point of access to legitimate authority, thus as the potential substitute for blood and a basis for counterfeit power.’ Under these circumstances, female sexuality threatens the integrity of the body politic” (80). By analyzing Ferdinand’s actions throughout the play, the reader can justify this theory as one of Ferdinand’s motives for the supression and eventual murder of the Duchess. Therefore, the Duchess does not transgress Jacobean societal boundaries on widowhood, but transgresses only her brother’s opinions on how she should conduct her private life. In “The Duchess of Malfi: tyranny and spectacle” Karin Coddon justifies the Duchess’ actions through the malcontent Bosola. Coddon claims that in Webster’s tragedy “melancholy is chiefly emblematic and instrumental, bound to visible strategies of corrupt political practices.
But this overt appropriation of madness by the authority to which it is ostensibly antagonistic does not structurally efface the space of transgression. Rather, it opens up a different, but significant, site for contestation as well as for subjectivity: the private and domestic sphere that the resolutely sane Duchess and Antonio strive to occupy” (4). This argument reinforces the corruptibility of Ferdinand’s desires when contrasted with the “private sphere” the Duchess seeks to obtain. Ferdinand’s corruption is seen further when Coddon states that “the spectacle cannot show the ideal but only narrates it, for representation is itself implicated in the corrupt world of dissembling but opaque appearance” (5). This “appearance” represents the public motives of Ferdinand versus his true, private motives, revealed in part when the “madness in the play becomes a material instrument of an equally diordered power” (4). Ferdinand’s corrupt desire to control both the public and private life of the Duchess ultimately ends in death and madness. This corruption is the true cause of the Duchess’ downfall, a corruption perhaps instigated but not directly caused by her marriage to Antonio. The masque of madmen Ferdinand sends to the Duchess’ chambers in act IV also lends evidence to the Duchess’ nobility and Ferdinand’s twisted ambition. By presenting the madmen to a sister who still clings to noble virtue, Ferdinand “forces the Duchess to see and experience all those vices which should make her, as a female governor, unfit to rule her dukedom and her fortune . . . Ferdinand’s allegory of woman’s proverbial madness, vanity, and impiety is therefore an exercise in identity manipulation; demonstrating through association that the Duchess shares the vices common to all women, he seeks to prove that she is not, properly speaking, a female prince” (Desmet 84). I would take this argument a step further by postulating that the combination of Ferdinand’s incestuous desire for his sister and his own political ambition causes his warped sense of female vices and that these vices are initially defined by the patriarchy to subjugate women into subservient roles. While the Duchess’ intended separation of body politic and body natural causes much debate, the Duchess’ actions and motives are not driven by political ambition, but rather driven by a need to seek her own identity in a world where the patriarchal Ferdinand does not allow her a public or private identity.
Through Ferdinand murdering his sister, Webster attempts to reaffirm a stable patriarchy. Oakes contends that “the Duchess comports herself in a way that is congruent with her society’s mores, but not with her brother’s wishes, and in the end he wins” (52). The Duchess’ claim before she dies that she is “Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.iv.128) can be seen not as an affirmation of her power in the face of patriarchy, but, as Oakes eloquently states, “with that title she negates her relationship with Antonio: she becomes the woman carved in stone that Ferdinand wanted her to be” (52). In other words, the Duchess reverts to Ferdinand’s wish for her to be a chaste widow and shuns her marriage to Antonio, ultimately giving in to her brother’s depiction of the patriarchy. Ultimately, Webster’s patriarchy fails to reaffirm its stable identity in act five due to the corrupt nature of its leaders. After the Duchess’ death and before Antonio is “mistakenly” murdered by Bosola, the corrupt Cardinal and Ferdinand attempt to bring Antonio back to Malfi for execution. The Cardinal gives Antonio’s land to his mistress Julia, herself a sign of the Cardinal’s corruptibility, and Antonio replies that they “fortify themselves with my ruin!” (V.i.37). The scene here shows that the Cardinal attempts to “fortify” the patriarchy, but ultimately fails to do so due to both his and Ferdinand’s corrupt nature. While the Cardinal attempts to reestablish the patriarchy, Ferdinand echoes his own madness with a retreat into lycanthropy, a fitting end for a corrupt political leader.
John Webster (c.1580–c.1634) was Shakespeare’s contemporary, though sixteen years younger. He makes a brief appearance in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love as a boy who tortures mice, spies on Shakespeare’s love-making, and feels inspired to take up the pen himself after seeing Shakespeare’s blood-soaked revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. ‘Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing’, he asserts. This affectionate but crude caricature testifies to Webster’s reputation for writing dark and violent plays. Yet it also testifies to the enduring popularity of those plays. Shakespeare had many gifted colleagues in the play-writing business, but only two – Webster and Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) – are graced with roles in this enormously popular mainstream movie about the late sixteenth-century theatre scene.
This unit will look at Webster’s most well-known play, The Duchess of Malfi, and consider some possible reasons for the play’s continued prominence in the twenty-first-century theatre repertoire. The Duchess of Malfi does indeed have ‘plenty of blood’, but this is nothing unusual in Renaissance tragedies. Webster’s play is a tragedy about a forbidden love, more specifically a forbidden marriage, which leads ultimately to the deaths of the lovers and many others. Webster’s focus in his tragedy of love is class, or rank, to use a more authentically early modern term. Historians of the period often prefer the term ‘rank’ on the grounds that it better captures relationships in a highly stratified society where the vertical ties of patronage and deference were strong and class consciousness poorly developed in social groups below the level of the ruling elite. Both terms will be used in this unit. At the centre of The Duchess of Malfi stands a heroine rather than a hero, which is fairly unusual in Renaissance tragedy. The play also contains an extremely enigmatic and sinister villain. This unit will examine how Webster represents his heroine’s marriage for love, which goes against the wishes of her aristocratic family with disastrous consequences.
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Arbella Stuart, Catherine of Valois, and The Duchess of Malfi: An Examination of Women, Marriage, and Widowhood in Jacobean England by Nanci Lamb Roider
Throughout history, man has sought to understand and chronicle himself, his experiences, and his culture. One of the primary ways this has been achieved is through the written word. Writing about one’s experiences and surroundings provides not only an outlet for self-expression and understanding, but also provides a means by which future generations can glimpse the past. John Webster’s 1614 play The Duchess of Malfi gives us a glimpse into the politics of seventeenth century English marriage, social mobility, and the law. Additionally, we can use reactions to Webster’s work as a means of judging the attitudes of seventeenth century English society; Webster’s play paints a vivid portrait of Jacobean society’s relationship with women, and outlines the norms surrounding marriage, the freedom of women, and the state of patriarchy in England. Upon closer examination it becomes clear that the plight of the Duchess mirrors at least two real life cases. Our ability to consider the fictitious Duchess’ situation in relation to two actual women’s plight sheds even more light on the relationship of women to, and as, property, both in and outside the confines of marriage. As a result, this Jacobean tragicomedy not only entertains and transports us, it can also teach us about the English past, the status of noble women, and about the patriarchal system’s transitional nature during the seventeenth century. The Duchess of Malfi has been interpreted in many different ways since it was first performed nearly 400 years ago. Some have seen it as a
cautionary tale that shows what can happen when women marry without being granted the “proper” consent, while others argue that it is a feminist story of a strong woman ahead of her time.1 I argue that neither of these interpretations is entirely correct, rather, The Duchess of Malfi is a study of an emancipated widow that reflects the great social and political transitions found in Jacobean England. The Duchess’s fight for autonomy and self-determination is, on the one hand, inspiring, yet given her ultimate failure, disheartening on the other. That the Duchess’s life mirrors the plight of real seventeenth century women cannot be ignored, thus she serves not only as a role model, but also as a tragic reminder of the world in which she had to function. Her struggle for autonomy is lamentable on many levels. First, it is important to note that, while we understand her deepest thoughts and are privy to her most intimate moments, we are never told her given name. She is known throughout the play merely as “the Duchess,” a title which she would not have had were it not for her now-deceased first husband. Time and again reviewers have praised the Duchess for her strength, passion, courage, ambition, and cunning, yet they have nearly universally failed to recognize that these traits were not simply desirable facets of her character, but were integral to her very survival. She is a completely isolated character, utterly alone in the world, associated with no female companions of her own rank.2 She is young, has lost her husband, has been left with a young son and daughter to raise, and has been forbidden by her brothers to remarry. Regarding her as a “strong” woman, considering her circumstances, is the least amount of credit one can give her. The Duchess’s status as a wealthy widow can be regarded as both and asset and a liability. The most positive way to interpret her widowhood would be to focus on the new, special rights accorded to her upon becoming a dowager, namely, freedom from the laws of coverture, the system of laws that applied to married and never-before-married women. Under the system of coverture, women were governed by their closest male relative, usually their father or husband. This male relative enjoyed sole control over the fate of the woman’s property, money, and any other chattels. Women under coverture had no legal standing, and were, themselves, considered property. Widowed women, however, were not bound by these constraints, and thus exercised full legal authority over their person, property, and chattels. Widows were allowed to enter into
legally binding contracts, could bring a suit before a court, and were not subject to any male’s personal authority. Another benefit to widowhood under the laws of seventeenth century England concerned the control of widows’ dowries. Upon the death of one’s husband, the dowry of the wife was returned to her and she was given sole control over one third of her husband’s lands and property for the remainder of her lifetime. Widows were free to remarry or to remain single.3 Further, if a woman chose to remarry but did not wish to lose control over her dower portion, she could turn it over to a trustee, thereby safeguarding her control of the property while at the same time eliminating the chance that her new husband could seize its control.4 Despite these freedoms, few women wished to remain unmarried after the death of their husbands. For many women, widowhood actually resulted in an increased dependency on male family members to secure the political and/or social favors previously sought on their behalf by their husbands. Additionally, they often suffered a loss of kinship connection to their husband’s family, thus making it even more difficult to repay the favors granted to her by her new advocates.5 Furthermore, many women saw remarriage as a wonderful tool with which they could advance themselves both socially and financially. They retained the social status of their deceased husband until remarriage, thus they could use the title “Duchess,” “Marchioness,” or “Countess” to attract a man of similar social ranking, along with their dower portions, which provided them excellent dowries to offer their suitors. Lastly, in an age when most women defined themselves in terms of their husbands and families, widowhood left many women with a feeling of insecurity and purposelessness. In effect, women would often lose themselves when they lost their husbands. Remarriage could provide definition, a renewed sense of purpose, and a feeling of belonging that was absent from their lives in the widowed state. The Duchess of Malfi doubtless felt the pressures, both positive and negative, associated with widowhood, and there is evidence that she experienced some difficulty reconciling the two. She is clearly aware of her rights as a widow, yet she still allows herself to be constrained by the traditional patriarchal elements of her society. On one hand she asserts her freedom by marrying Antonio against the wishes of her brothers, yet on the other, most notably in her conversation with Ferdinand in Act I, scene 1, lines 290-304, she allows Ferdinand and the Cardinal to
attack her virtue, and then adds the self-defeating comments in which she likens herself to a diamond whose value increases each time it is passed through another man’s hand.6 By sexualizing herself and allowing the innuendoes about the lustiness of widows to go unchecked, she allows herself to be degraded. This sort of incongruous behavior continues throughout the play as the Duchess time and again reconfirms her brothers’ assumptions. When Ferdinand attacks her motives for remarriage, she only replies “If all my royal kindred/ Lay in my way unto this marriage,/ I’d make them my low footsteps…Let old wives report/ I winked and chose a husband” (I.1.332-4; 339-40). Despite these self-defeating comments early in the play, the Duchess continues to act as though she regards herself as a free, autonomous woman. She marries her steward, Antonio, despite the objection of others, and even comments on the odd role reversal found in their courtship, “The misery of us that are born great:/ We are forced to woo because none dare woo us” (I.1.431-2). She also represents herself as the sole heir and acting ruler of the Duchy of Amalfi, as we see in her death scene when she asks Bosola, “Am I not thy Duchess?” and then answers herself, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.2.127; 134). Despite these efforts to assert her independence, her work is undone by her controlling brothers. In I.1.246-7, Ferdinand tells Bosola that “she’s a young widow,/ I would not have her marry again.” When she does, he retaliates by telling the Pope who, “forehearing of her looseness,/ Hath seized into th’protection of the church/ The dukedom which she held as a dowager” (III.4.31-34). With this duplicitous act, we see, as apparently the Duchess does not, that her “freedom” never truly existed. She was allowed its illusion as long as it remained convenient for her brothers, but once she began to assert herself it was taken from her.7 Considering the problems the Duchess encounters after following her own course, we see that her real strength of character lies not in her determination to marry the man of her choosing, or in her general defiance of her brothers; rather, it can be found in her ability to endure the grief she brings upon herself as a result of her independent thoughts and actions.8 The complexity of the Duchess’s plight, such as the question of remarriage, lends a great deal of realism to Webster’s play; fortunately, his taste for realism extends beyond the question of remarriage versus widowhood, and encompasses a great many more issues. The relationship
of the Duchess and Antonio gives us an excellent insight into the state of matrimonial custom and law during the seventeenth century. Because the Duchess and Antonio married secretly with only Cariola the waiting-woman as a witness, their marriage falls into the canonical category per verba de presenti, or, an orally contracted marriage deemed wholly binding by the Roman Catholic Church. According to canon law, any oral contract of marriage executed in the present tense and in front of a witness was substantially, though not ceremonially, complete.9 The church recognized such unions, however they were not binding under civil law until they were formally and publicly solemnized in a church ceremony. Until the marriage was solemnized, women were not subject to the laws of coverture, no dower rights were conferred, and, according to civil authorities, any children born of the marriage would be ruled illegitimate. We can assume that the Duchess and Antonio’s marriage was at some time formalized, as the question of the children’s legitimacy is never broached. Given both the civil advantages and the church’s belief that marriage is a sacrament, marriages performed away from the church were considered less desirable than those performed in a more traditional manner at the church doors, one of the most public places in any community. Despite this preference for public marriage, the church did recognize that the traditional posting of the banns and public celebration was sometimes, for whatever reason, not always feasible. This recognition of a binding, yet covert marriage signals a transition in canonical thought. Here we see a shift from the focus on community, as evidenced with the public marriage ceremony, to a focus on the individual, as shown through the tolerance of private ceremony. The Duchess and Antonio’s marriage also signals a shift in marital expectations and customs found throughout seventeenth century English culture. By this time, the public had become familiar with the notion of romantic love in marriage through works such as Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Sonnets. Further, they were accustomed to recognizing the power of lust in an open, honest manner, as shown in French fabliaux and Chaucer’s “Miller’s” and “Clerk’s” Tales. Exposure to these tales of love and lust slowly led the English population to regard them as valid, or at least potentially valid, reasons for instigating a marital relationship. While the traditional notion of marriage based solely
on economic and political factors had certainly not fallen by the wayside, people at this time were beginning to ask themselves if the marriage relationship wasn’t deep and complex enough to accommodate feelings of love and affection.10 The middle and lower classes were the first to embrace these notions, as they had the least to gain or lose from marriage alliances, but by the seventeenth century, love matches like that of the Duchess and Antonio were not unheard of among the aristocracy.11 The Duchess had already married for the “right” reasons, and, in her widowhood, sought to marry for love (dare we say even, lust) and companionship, while her brothers, for whom the traditional modes of marriage proved more convenient, held fast to the marriage practices of the past. What we see here is the beginning of an ideological clash, one that would not fully resolve itself until the late nineteenth century, between marriages based on duty, and favored by proponents of patriarchy, and marriages based on love, promoted by champions of the individual. 12 In addition to reflecting the changing nature of the marriage relationship in Jacobean England, we can find in the characters of the Duchess and Antonio traces of the new social mobility that was working its way into English society at the time. As her title indicates, the Duchess is the ruler of Amalfi; she also claims lineage in the royal houses of Castile and Aragon. By virtue of her pedigree, her social status is unquestioned and immutable. Antonio, however, does not enjoy this same background. He is what could be called a “self-made” courtier. He has no impressive pedigree, but has worked his way into his position through hard work and (presumably) good networking skills. It is important to note that the first glimpse we are given of Antonio is at a joust he has just won. He is pleased with his success in this sport of the nobility, while Ferdinand, an observer of noble blood, is bored with the tourney. Antonio appreciates where he is; Ferdinand takes it for granted.13Antonio’s success is a classic example of the possibility for social advancement in Jacobean England. By approaching the proper people and successfully performing the right tasks, Antonio’s identity became “mobile” and carried him into the upper echelons of society.14 As a steward of the household, Antonio is valued by all, but as a marriage prospect for the Duchess, is soon cast as a feared interloper. Frank Whigham contends that Antonio’s successful social ascendance accounts for Ferdinand’s incestuous
desires for his sister. Whigham argues that Ferdinand’s attraction to the Duchess belies his insecurity about the maintenance of his house, and that he, above all, is seeking to prevent contamination of the bloodline. This desperate move to keep outsiders out is understandable in a time when any well-connected commoner, it seems, can enter the aristocracy if he plays his cards right.15 Interestingly, Ferdinand is not the only person who seems intimidated by Antonio’s newfound status as a Duchess’s husband. Antonio himself seems a bit frightened by his situation. He has certainly improved his social ranking, yet, by virtue of its clandestine nature, he cannot openly enjoy his new status. In III.2.147-9, Antonio hides while Ferdinand threatens the Duchess. Antonio’s initial reaction is to defend his wife, yet knows he must remain hidden. When he does emerge to console her, he is terrified by another knock at the door, and cries out, “How now! Who knocks? More earthquakes?” (l. 155). He wants to exercise his new role to its fullest, yet he cannot without jeopardizing both himself and the Duchess.16 Antonio’s unease with his new role is also evidenced by his self-deprecating humor. He teases the Duchess that his “rule is only in the night” (III.2.8). Later, when asked by Cariola why he rises so early in the morning, he jokes that “Labouring men/ Count the clock oftenest Cariola,/ Are glad when their task’s ended” (III.2.17-9). He purports to be tired of “labouring” with the Duchess all night when in reality he must rise early so as to avoid detection. Because he must keep it a secret, his sexual relationship with the Duchess seems more akin to adultery than it does to Holy Matrimony.17 These “jokes” that Antonio makes indicate that, deep down, he is really very insecure in his new position. He doubtless had few qualms about his previous social advances, yet those were always undertakes with the knowledge that there would be a limit to his success. With his marriage to the Duchess, all social boundaries have been torn down, and Antonio is left without any usable frame of social reference. His commoner’s upbringing prepared him to serve, not to be served, and this change, it seems, may be too much for him to handle.18 As we have noted, The Duchess of Malfi reflects Jacobean society on many levels, thus it should come as no surprise that it was based in part on another societal commentary or that it also has roots in the real lives of at least two noblewomen. Webster acknowledged that he borrowed the names and general plot for his play from
the 1566/7 tale of “The Duchess of Malfi, the infortunate marriage of a Gentleman, called Antonio Bologna, with the Duchess of Malfi, and the pitiful death of them both,” which can be found in William painter’sPalace of Pleasure.19 Painter’s version of the story does not favor the Duchess at all, and blames her solely for the ruination of herself and Antonio: Thus I say bicause a woman being as it were the Image of sweetnesse, curtesie and shamefastnesse, so soone as she steppeth out of the right tracte, and leaueth the smel of hir duetie and modestie, bisides the denigration of hir honor, trusteth hir self into infinite troubles and causeth the ruine of such which should be honored and praised, if womens allurement solicited them no to follie.20 Webster’s more even-handed depiction of the Duchess might be a result of the influence of two real women’s very similar circumstances. The life of Lady Arbella Stuart bears a striking resemblance to that of the Duchess’s, as does the life story of Catherine of Valois. Lady Arbella (1575-1715) was the first cousin of James I, the only child of Charles Darnley (brother of Henry) and Elizabeth, the daughter of Bess of Hardwick. She was considered a likely claimant to the English Throne during the reign of Elizabeth I, and, upon James’ ascension to the Throne, was brought to court to serve as the “second lady” of England.21 She had never married, and in 1610, at age thirty-four, asked her cousin’s permission to wed. This was grated with the stipulation that she not marry any foreign prince. Arbella agreed, and soon announced her intention to wed the Oxford scholar William Seymour (who possessed his own, more distant, claim to the Throne). James forbade the marriage, and made them promise to abandon their plans. They agreed, but later defied him and were married that year at Greenwich. James retaliated by imprisoning them. Arbella was sent to Lambeth under house arrest; William was thrown into the Tower. In 1611, Arbella and William coordinated an escape attempt. Arbella successfully crossed the English Channel, but was apprehended off the coast of Calais while she awaited word of William’s whereabouts (he apparently did not escape). Arbella was returned to England and imprisoned in the Tower, where she died of suicide by starvation in 1615.22 Presumably, William also died at the Tower. An even closer parallel to the Duchess’s life can be found in the case of Catherine of Valois (1401-37) and Owen Tudor (1400-61). Catherine was the widow of Henry V and mother of Henry VI. When Henry V died in 1422,
the year of Henry VI’s birth, Catherine was forced to become dependent upon her brothers-in-law, John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Like many young widows, Catherine wanted to remarry, but in 1428, Gloucester put a bill through Parliament that forbade the Queen Dowager to marry without the king’s consent.23 Given that Henry VI was both a minor and a half-wit, Gloucester was the one whose consent was actually required. During the previous six years, however, Catherine’s eye had been drawn to Owen Tudor, a member of Henry V’s household whom she had promoted to clerk of her wardrobe in 1422. Owen was poor and a servant, but did come from royal Welsh stock (he was a cousin of Owain Glyndwr). It is likely that at the time of the bill’s passage in 1428 Catherine and Owen were already wed. Catherine and Owen had five children together, four of whom survived to adulthood, three sons and a daughter.24 The children were kept a secret until 1436, when Catherine fell ill and was sent to Bermondsey Abbey. The children were placed in the care of Catherine de la Pole, Abbess of Barking. Catherine of Valois died the following year, in 1437, and Owen was imprisoned twice at Newgate. He later escaped and fled to Wales. 25 The similarities between the lives of the Duchess, Arbella Stuart, and Catherine of Valois cannot be ignored. All were noble women in socially isolated environments, each was at the mercy of more powerful male relative(s), and the Duchess and Catherine were widows with young sons to raise. All three wanted to remarry but were forbidden to do so, yet each insisted on marrying anyway. Further, each married not only the man of her choice, but someone beneath her on the social scale. Each woman and her husband was subjected to persecution and captivity after the marriage, and each died under unpleasant circumstances while in confinement. Examining the reception Arbella and Catherine received from their contemporaries can help us understand how the Duchess of Malfi (both as a character and the play as a whole) was regarded, just as analyzing the attitudes revealed in The Duchess of Malfi can give us a greater insight into how society treated the true-life cases of Arbella and Catherine. In short, the notion that society and literature often mirror one another is evident here. Arbella and William’s marriage apparently came as somewhat of a surprise to those around them, and was regarded both positively and negatively. Some, such as her cousin James I, thought that she was guilty of shirking her public responsibilities when she married for
love, not social or economic gain. He also thought her guilty of violating the norms established by the patriarchal system (since she ignored his express wishes), and that she had committed a terrible breach of decorum by marrying beneath her. Perhaps the most shocking of all to her detractors, Arbella’s choice of a mate reveled her sexual desires and identity that most women of the day kept hidden at all costs.26 Given these charges, it comes as no surprise that many withheld their support of the couple’s union. James accused them before the Privy Council of “caprice” and claimed they were guilty of “divers great and hainous offences” with one another. 27 In reality, James was most hurt by Arbella’s refusal to abide by his wishes, as he felt that her rebellion had hurt his honor. Moreover, James was aware that any child born to Arbella and William could offer a claim to his Throne, or could easily become a rallying point for his enemies on the Continent.28 In 1611 and anonymous Latin treatise, which was perhaps authored unofficially by the palace, circulated around both England and the Continent defending James’ dealings with Arbella and William. It argued that Arbella had not in fact married William for love, but rather married him so that she could forge a political alliance with the Seymour family. Such and alliance was unacceptable to James, thus once he was provoked he had no option but to act as he did.29 By even mentioning the love aspect of Arbella’s and William’s relationship, the anonymous author revealed the extent to which he believed many readers would be moved to sympathy in the face of mutual marital affection. If the public would not have deemed love a reasonable motive for marriage, they would have had no reason to support Arbella’s and William’s cause, thus no “anonymous treatise” would have needed to be circulated. Other opponents of Arbella’s and William;’s marriage condemned them not on legal grounds, but on moral and social ones. One writer argued that their crime was not inappropriate marriage, but was lying, since they had given James their word that they would not wed. 30 Despite these critics, Arbella and William enjoyed widespread support from nearly all those around them. The court neither condemned nor defended them, but adopted an air of tolerance and acceptance of their relationship. It is unclear whether this was because they had no qualms about the marriage, or whether their personal relationship with the involved parties made them more willing to turn a blind eye “in the name of love.” The Lords of the Privy
Council and the Queen both accepted Arbella’s and William’s marriage, and publicly urged James to reconsider his position, as did James’ personal physicians. Arbella’s servants remained loyal to her, and even followed her into confinement. While there, they worked with William’s gaolers to arrange correspondence between the couple, as well as the occasional clandestine meeting.31 Most telling, the Bishop of Durham often expressed a belief that one day God would soften James’ heart toward the couple and that a happy ending would result. Obviously he was not worried about the validity or appropriateness of their marriage or their supposed violation of decorum. Sara Jayne Steen notes that, “clearly some Jacobeans regarded the separation more as a violation of the marriage than the marriage as a violation of anything.”32 Reactions to the marriage of Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor are not as well documented as those regarding Arbella Stuart and William Seymour. Modern sources usually discuss their relationship in conjunction with the reign of Henry V or that of their grandson, Henry (Tudor) VII. By examining these reactions to real-life events we can see that the public’s reaction to The Duchess of Malfi was by no means homogeneous. Many critics who study the Jacobean period assume that audiences would have soundly condemned the Duchess for marrying below her station, yet after reading of the widespread support for Arbella Stuart and William Seymour, this assumption falls apart. Why would people have supported, accepted, and advocated the actions of a real couple while at the same time denouncing the same actions of a fictional couple? Rather, it is more likely that audiences of the play, like the acquaintances of Arbella and William, would have had mixed reactions to the Duchess.33 One of The Duchess of Malfi’s chief critics was James I. That the play was written and first performed during Arbella’s imprisonment would not have been lost on James. As a result, he did all within his power to distance himself from the play itself and the actions of the murderous Ferdinand. After Arbella’s death in 1615, James went to great pains to distance himself from The Duchess of Malfi. While the play was first performed in Blackfriars in 1614, it was still fresh in the public’s memory when word of Arbella’s death emerged the following year. James feared the public would suspect foul play, thus only one day after her death he had a team of six doctors perform an autopsy on her body. An official report was then issued outlining the cause of death, liver
failure, 34 and thereby eliminating any speculation of foul play.35 Further, James ordered Arbella’s body removed from the Tower under the cover of darkness, and forbade any royal funeral to be held. The basic funeral readings were performed in a private ceremony as her body was interred in a vault at Westminster Abbey.36 A final irony regarding the striking parallels between Arbella’s the Duchess’s lives can be found in IV.1.75-6, when the Duchess declares, “The church enjoins fasting:/ I’ll starve myself to death.” Arbella refused all medical treatment beginning in 1614, thus she had already begun to starve herself to death by the time these lines were first uttered on the stage. Because of details such as this, one cannot help but marvel at the eerie coincidences between the lives of these two women. Considering the great of negative publicity the Crown brought to The Duchess of Malfi, one must wonder what, if any, positive feedback John Webster received about his play. Happily, the play was a success and enjoyed a great deal of public support (as evidenced by the fact that it is still performed today, nearly four hundred years after its initial performance). Anti-monarchal forces and proponents of romantic love and individualism were the greatest supporters of the play. They immediately embraced it, and soon the Duchess and her real-life counterpart, Arbella Stuart, was regarded as a role model for others, a Protestant martyr and saint, and a woman of greatness. Anti-monarchal groups cited James’ treatment of both his cousin and the play as evidence of his tyrannical ways, and called for his downfall. This widespread public support for the play and the woman unnerved James, as it brought with it, according to Steen, “a hint of unrest.”37 Supporters of the individualistic ideal also championed both the play and the real couple, as they saw the two as role models for the triumph of companionate marriage and romantic love over the colder, less personal marriage and family relationships of the past.38 Victorian-era critics almost unanimously cast their lots in with the supporters of the Duchess and Arbella. They held James personally responsible for not finding Arbella a suitable mate before she reached the age of thirty-four, and also tended to regard Arbella and the Duchess as victims of a cold, uncaring and unfeeling, barbaric society; they often used these cases to congratulate themselves for the advancement of English society. They could look back at this play and Arbella’s plight to remind themselves of just how how far human behavior had
advanced in the past three hundred years.39 In short, The Duchess of Malfi was judged by some as a cautionary tale, by others as an inspirational one, and by most as one to be pitied, since “all may be attributed to the great love she had for the person she had chosen to be her husband.”40 In conclusion, The Duchess of Malfi shows us how literature can mirror everyday life and how everyday life is revealed through the written word. By analyzing the play as a whole, especially the actions and statements of the Duchess and Antonio, we can gain a great deal of insight into the ways Jacobean men and women dealt with issues such as gender roles and expectations, familial pressures, social mobility, sexual desire, and legal responsibility. The seventeenth century was a time of great change in the English mind set, as some elements of society struggled to fulfill the destiny of the Renaissance by uplifting the individual, while others fought to maintain the traditional, community and family oriented mores of the past. Though John Webster explored these issues nearly 400 years ago, the struggles are not entirely alien to our own late twentieth century experience. Today women must reconcile the pressures of family and work, much as the Duchess had to maintain her relationships with her brothers, her husband, and her subjects in Amalfi. Furthermore, Antonio’s struggle for self-definition is a universal one. Upon his marriage to the Duchess, he found himself in a social setting for which he was totally unprepared. This is not unlike the way many of us feel today, given the relative smallness of our world, the isolation brought on by increasing technology, and the seemingly limitless frontier of social interaction. As never before, people of the twentieth century are called upon to relate to others from infinitely varied backgrounds and life experiences, and are expected to navigate the murky waters of human relations flawlessly. Given these circumstances, perhaps Antonio’s feelings of insecurity, while not the cornerstone of Webster’s play, are in fact the most enduring and universal of all the issues explored in The Duchess of Malfi. Notes
1 Lisa Jardine, “The Duchess of Malfi: A Case Study in the Literary Representation of Women.” Teaching the Text, eds. Susanne Kappeler and Norman Bryson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983) 204. 2 Jardine, 204-5.
3 Miriam Slater, Family Life in the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge, 1984) 81. 4 Lawrence Stone, The Family Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800, abridged ed.(new York: Harper Colophon, 1979) 167. 5 Slater, 106.
6 John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, c. 1614, ed. René Weis, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 7 Jardine, 215.
8 Jardine, 210.
9 Lawrence Stone, Uncertain Unions: Marriage in England 1660-1753, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992) 18. 10 Stone, Family, 134.
11 One prominent earlier example of such a match would be that of John of Gaunt, father of the House of Lancaster, and his second wife Katherine Swynford, who were lovers for nigh on thirty years, and were married for the last three years of John’s life. 12 Stone, Unions, 21.
13 Frank Whigham, “Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi,” PMLA, 100:2 (March 1985): 175. 14 Whigham, 168.
15 Whigham, 168-9.
16 Whigham, 176.
17 Whigham, 174.
18 Whigham, 175.
19 Jardine, 209.
20 Jardine, 209.
21 Sara Jayne Steen, “The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi,”Sixteenth Century Journal, 22:1 (1991): 63. 22 Steen, 64.
23 Jameela Lares, “The Duchess of Malfi and Catherine of Valois,” Notes and Queries, 40:2 (June 1993): 428. 24 They were: a priest named either Owen, Thomas, or Edward (1429-1502); Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and father of Henry (Tudor) VII, (1430-56); Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke and Duke of Bedford (1431-95); an unnamed daughter who became a nun; and Margaret (b. and d. 1437). 25 Lares, 208.
26 Steen, 61.
27 Steen, 66.
28 Steen, 67.
29 Steen, 71.
30 Steen, 68.
31 Steen, 69.
32 Steen, 70.
33 Steen, 62.
34 Interestingly, liver failure, or death of a “broken liver” was the seventeenth century equivalent to death brought on by a “broken heart.” This conclusion by James’ physicians can only lead to speculation about the doctors’ personal opinions regarding James’ handling of the Arbella/William situation. 35 Steen, 74.
36 Steen, 75.
37 Steen, 72.
38 Steen, 72.
39 Steen, 66.
40 Steen, 76.
© Nanci Lamb Roider
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The Duchess of Malfi
by John Webster
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The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster
The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster
The Duchess of Malfi John Webster
The following entry presents criticism of Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi(1613). See also John Webster Criticism. The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most frequently revived Jacobean plays other than those of Shakespeare. Indeed, estimations of The Duchess of Malfi, along with Webster’s other great tragedy, The White Devil, have led some critics to rank Webster second only to Shakespeare as a writer of tragedy. The source of one of the stage’s great female characters, The Duchess of Malfi centers on the character of the Duchess, in whom audiences observe a provocative mixing of sensuality, passion, rage, piety, and virtue. The play as a whole features a complex interweaving of lechery, incest, murder, and torture with nobility, tenderness, and forgiveness. The darkness and horror of The Duchess of Malfi are dramatically compelling, but its unexpected glimpses of light give
it a complexity and richness that have maintained the interest of scholars and audiences for centuries. Plot and Major Characters
A hallmark of Webster’s drama is its depiction of strong women characters. In The White Devil Vittoria Corombona is powerful and intelligent, if also wicked; the title character of The Duchess of Malfi is strong, independent, and noble. The heart of the story is the relationship between the widowed Duchess and her steward, Antonio, whom she secretly marries, defying both social convention and the wishes of her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, her twin. The brothers want the Duchess to remain unmarried, appealing to Christian piety; however, as the play later reveals, greed and incestuous lust are their true motivations. Years pass before they discover the truth about her marriage, which is uncovered by the spy Daniel de Bosola. At the behest of Ferdinand, Bosola kills the Duchess, but is then overwhelmed with remorse. Bosola plans to save Antonio, who had escaped, and punish the brothers, but he mistakenly kills Antonio instead. Bosola then attacks the Cardinal, but is himself attacked by Ferdinand. Bosola succeeds in killing both brothers, but is himself killed in the process. The play concludes with the presentation of Antonio’s son, who is the sole surviving member of the family. Webster had many sources to draw upon in writing the play, which is based on a true story, though his chief was William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1567). One of Webster’s chief contributions to the development of the tale was his characterization of the major figures, particularly the Duchess herself. Ferdinand is the Duke of Calabria, a menacing man who appears obsessed with the repression of sexual impulses. Though he is the twin brother of the Duchess, he is cruel to her from the beginning of the play, and his employment of Bosola as a spy is an indication of his distrustful nature. Ferdinand’s brother, the Cardinal, is similarly cruel, but whereas Ferdinand is hot-tempered, the Cardinal is cold and calculating. His affiliation with the church lends him a seemingly supernatural power, but that power is evil; more than once, the Cardinal is affiliated with the devil. In an act symbolic of his diabolic alliance, the Cardinal murders his secret lover, Julia, with a poisoned Bible. The Duchess stands in contrast to her brothers, but she is not flawless. In her scenes with Antonio, she is unabashedly sexual. She is passionate and sometimes
haughty, though she is also maternally tender, dignified, and pious. During her torture and death at the hands of Ferdinand and Bosola, she demonstrates a Christian attitude of forgiveness and confidence in her salvation. The ambiguity of her character is crystallized when she says as she dies, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” a line capable of various interpretations. The character of Antonio lacks the complexity of the three siblings; he is more a victim than an actor in the tragedy. He is a worthy man, though of a lower class than the Duchess, and his distaste for lechery stands in contrast to the lustfulness of nearly every other man in the play. His nobility, however, seems naïve in the context of the court. By contrast, the world-weary attitude of Bosola reveals his understanding of the court’s intrigues. Bosola begins the play as cynical and self-serving. As he manipulates the Duchess into revealing the truth to him, he appears utterly without scruples or compassion. Yet the transformation of Bosola in the final act of the play leaves his character open to interpretation. He dies as he lived, a murderer; yet his recognition of the Duchess’s virtue and his pity for her make him a more sympathetic figure than the brothers who hired him. Major Themes
Themes central to The Duchess of Malfi include identity, sexuality, and power, which are all closely intertwined in the tragedy. The theme of identity is carried through the play in several ways. The twin relationship between Ferdinand and the Duchess makes the characters mirrors for each other; the frequent presence of mirrors as stage props makes the metaphor explicit. The Duchess also battles with the issue of conflicting public and private identities: her status as an aristocratic lady contests with her love for the lower-born Antonio, and the connection between birth and identity is an open question throughout the play. Her brothers press upon her the identity of the virtuous widow, one that she is unwilling to accept. When she says, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” it is not clear whether she is affirming or lamenting this identity. The theme of sexuality is tied to identity, particularly in regards to Ferdinand and the Duchess; his apparent desire for her is a perversion of socially acceptable sexuality as well as a kind of narcissism. Sexuality is generally linked to danger and violence, as the most explicitly sexual characters are shown to be the most evil. Even
the comparatively healthy sexuality of the Duchess is considered suspect, a sign of excess passion, even if it is not, as Ferdinand and the Cardinal would imagine, a mark of depravity. Moreover, although the Duchess has neither Ferdinand’s incestuous desires nor the Cardinal’s affairs, it is in one sense her sexuality that propels the violence of the play. The desire for power, however, is also a controlling force in the drama; the Duchess’s brothers are driven by a desire to control the family fortune. More generally, however, the play opens the question of the bases of power and authority, and who rightfully holds it. The corrupted authority of Ferdinand and the Cardinal casts doubt on the power they wield, while the nobility of the Duchess as she faces her death suggests the possibility of a different sort of authority. Critical Reception
Initial response to Webster’s play was strong. For decades the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries as one of the great tragedies of the English Renaissance. The role of the Duchess continues to be a favorite of leading actresses, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Juliet Stevenson. As critic John Russell Brown has suggested, The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form and the themes of the play. Webster’s talent as a technician has been a matter of some debate. In his study of Webster’s dramatic art, Charles R. Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights successfully to create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred. But because the Duchess dies in the fourth act, the fifth act is sometimes seen as disconnected from the coherent whole of the first four acts. Early critics considered this a sign of Webster’s lesser skill as a playwright, but more recently scholars have suggested that Webster employed a complex structure that is not flawed but rather sophisticated and innovative. Christina Luckyj’s study of form in Webster’s work proposes a different model for understanding the structure of his plays, suggesting a pattern of repetition and circular movement rather than a linear progression through consecutive acts. Jacqueline Pearson has considered the play in generic terms, maintaining that the difference
between the fifth act and the others is the presence of tragicomic elements, setting the final scenes apart from the pure tragedy of the earlier part of the play. As M. C. Bradbrook has pointed out, The Duchess of Malfi also incorporates the dramatic form of the masque, a genre that would have been readily recognized and understood by a Renaissance audience. A trend toward feminist studies of Renaissance drama in the late 1980s and 1990s brought the Duchess to the attention of several scholars. As a strong, sexual woman who nonetheless dies proclaiming Christian piety and forgiveness, the Duchess has resisted definitive interpretation. The model of subversion and containment applied by some critics to much Renaissance drama seems to suit the Duchess, who is severely punished for her private violations of patriarchal order. Yet as Emily Bartles has argued, the Duchess’s seeming complicity in her “containment” poses a challenge to that model. The containment of her sexuality has particularly interested critics. Dympna Callaghan and Laura Behling are among those feminist scholars who have included the Duchess in studies of the discourse of sexuality. As Behling has suggested, in the character of the Duchess relations between gender, sexuality, and power are brought to the fore, presenting a challenge to traditional notions of authority that is left unresolved. Principal Works
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