The Duchess of Malfi
“I am Duchess of Malfi still”: How the Duchess Redefines the Role of the Woman
In British literature of the 16th and 17th centuries, plots often center on romance, royalty, and the battle for power. With this emphasis come stories that feature the stereotypes of the damsel in distress, the powerless princess, and the haughty heiress. Although women of this era may have been born into nobility and unending wealth, society and expectations of the time period placed limitations on many of the women in such literature. However, this rarely stopped some of the fictional female characters from bending the rules in the best interests of themselves and those they cared for. In the Duchess of Malfi, the main protagonist, the Duchess, steps beyond societal boundaries by destroying the image of herself as a powerless widow and instead recreating herself as a powerful political figure, a mother, and a wife; since society worried about giving women too much power or control, the Duchess took matters into her own hands and showed her ability to make her own decisions while still excelling at her “feminine roles” as a mother and wife. Instead of hiding in the shadows of her husband or other male leaders, the Duchess does it all. Through her actions, she demonstrates an early glimpse of feminism and of “the modern woman” in early literature.
As one of the most audacious female characters in British literature, the Duchess is aware of her political position once she becomes the Duke of Malfi’s widow. In the play, Webster first introduces her in the role of a widow. However, the Duchess does not intend to stay in this position of mourning, regardless of what those around her advise her to do. Her two corrupt brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, want full control over her decisions, including whom she decides to marry. The Duchess ignores the requests of her brothers and marries whom she wants, her social inferior and steward Antonio, in secrecy. This action conveys a bold statement on the Duchess’s opinion of societal expectations because she not only marries below her social class but also marries against the orders of her power-hungry brothers.
Widows, like the Duchess, had clear expectations that Renaissance society expected them to follow. The behavior of women following being widowed was an issue that needed to be addressed because early death was not uncommon. In his essay “Webster’s ‘Worythest Monument’: The Problem of Posterity in The Duchess of Malfi,” Brian Chalk points out that “Widows were thus common figures who needed to be acknowledged and accounted for in everyday life. In his Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, Jeremy Taylor articulates a view toward widows disturbingly similar to Ferdinand’s, insisting that ‘a widow must be a mourner and she that is not, cannot so well secure the chastity of her proper state’” (388). By marrying too soon after her husband’s death and to someone not equal or higher in political position, the Duchess was not fulfilling what society expected her to do as a widow. Although remarrying was typical for widows, and although the Duchess remarks, “I have not gone about in this to create / Any new world or custom,” her brothers believed that they should be in charge of when and who was the recipient of her power (1604). Society recommended that a mourning widow should not be responsible for securing a new, appropriate husband; however, the Duchess decides, against the wishes of her brothers, that she can make her own decisions without their interference.
Perhaps one of the main reasons the Duchess’s brothers attempted to control her actions was because of how dangerous her new status made her. Chalk continues: “As a new widow, the Duchess is a particularly dangerous figure to her brothers. An early exchange makes clear that their desire to control both her present and posthumous reputation is at the center of their concerns: ‘Duchess: I’ll never marry. Cardinal: So most widows say. But commonly that motion lasts no longer than the turning of an hour-glass; the funeral sermon and it, end both together” (387). Her brothers are preoccupied with the idea of their sister remarrying and what it might do to her reputation; as a result, they highly recommend against it. They want to be completely involved with her decision-making; similarly, society felt that women should not make important decisions. However, there is more to the brothers’ interests in controlling their sister. They view her as a gateway to their own increased power and wealth. If she remarries, especially an unsuitable person, it may affect their political position.
In addition, Ferdinand’s apparent infatuation with his sister resides at the root of all the reasons he does not want her to remarry. He is attracted to the Duchess, as most men are: she is powerful, beautiful, and intelligent. Ferdinand’s opposition to her remarriage arises partially because he would prefer to have her for himself, and if he cannot have her, no one should. In a conversation with his henchman, Bosola, Ferdinand says, “She’s a young widow, I would not have her marry again.” When Bosola questions why, Ferdinand responds, “Do not you ask the reason, but be satisfied I say I would not” (1578). He declines to share his reasoning for not allowing his sister to remarry, a sign that his logic may be his inappropriate desire to have an incestuous relationship. In “Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi,” Theodora Jankowski explains, “The brothers may be justified in taking an interest in their sister’s marital affairs, but it is rather difficult to see how they can be justified in their inordinate interest in her sexual being as well” (227-228). Although Ferdinand has a clear sexual interest in his sister, their obsession with her sexuality comes back to power. To them, the Duchess is not a powerful political figure; she is an “object of trade to be owned” (Jankowski 228). By producing heirs, their sister has the ability to make treaties with other rulers. Jankowski continues, “In this sense, their inquiry into the chastity of their sister’s body is understandable, though grotesque, for her production of children the patriarchy considers illegitimate would decrease her value as a trade article for her family” (228). If the Duchess has children out of wedlock, she will not be as valuable as an object of trade. Her brothers fear that her status, as a widow, will cause her to act with promiscuity. They want to keep a close eye on her to make sure that this does not happen.
The Duchess confirms her brothers’ fears when she does exactly what they hoped to avoid: she marries a social inferior, her steward, and begins defining her image as a wife. Jankowski points out, “It also becomes easier to understand Ferdinand’s obsession with the Duchess’s blood and her reference to “all [her] royal kindred” who might lie in the path of her proposed marriage to a steward of lower rank, which would pollute this blood” (227). The Duchess’s choice of marriage does not help advance her politically; as a result of this decision, some critics view her as a bad ruler since she failed to place the needs of her subjects before her own desires. Because her brothers would object to this marriage, the Duchess must keep it a secret. Even though marrying Antonio did not result in political advances, her decision to marry the man she cares for shows a leap of feminism. Instead of marrying for power, politics, or wealth, the Duchess redefines the meaning of marriage as an act between two people who have real affection for each other. She selects Antonio because he is kind and loyal, a union John Halkett describes as “a relatively modern concept of marriage as a partnership of love and mutual helpfulness” (qtd. in Jankowski 230). The Duchess’s reasoning behind her marriage completely opposed society’s expectations for a woman of political power. To society, the union of a powerful woman to a man of lower class was madness because the woman did not gain anything; if anything, she lost value. Jankowski argues, “She has violated existing patriarchal conventions of marriage to create her own concept of the state. To do so, this character has drawn upon an ideology of marriage quite different from the dynastic union her brothers speak of” (230). The Duchess upsets the definition of marriage as dictated by society and instead creates her own idea of wedlock. She plays into the image of the wife as a loving companion who helps her partner as he helps her. Instead of becoming the powerless wife of another aristocrat, the Duchess uses marriage to Antonio as a gateway to shared power and mutual respect.
The intimacy and friendship shared by the Duchess and Antonio appear in various scenes throughout the play. The pair even incorporates fun and flirtation into marriage. An example of this is in Act 3, Scene 2, as Antonio and the Duchess fool around before bed: “Duchess: To what use will you put me? Antonio: We’ll sleep together. Duchess: Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?” (1601). Their ease with each other and loving demeanor proves the depth of their relationship. The Duchess shows her ability to be a loving spouse to Antonio. As a result, the Duchess and Antonio are friends, lovers, and life companions until death.
Yet another duty the Duchess takes on faithfully is the role of a mother. Unlike many wealthy mothers of the time who distanced themselves from their children with servants and wet nurses, the Duchess cared for her children and their well-being. In the moments before her death, she instructs Cariola, “I pray thee, look thou giv’st my little boy / Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl / Say her prayers ere she sleep” (1625). In “Just a Spoonful of Sugar: Syrup and Domesticity in Early Modern England,” Wendy Wall questions, “What does it mean for a ‘hero’ to bid farewell in these terms? How are audiences to understand a character who is prepared to die ‘like a prince,’ but who concerns herself, at this momentous occasion with administering homey remedies to her children?” (149). The Duchess’s final requests to her friend demonstrate her nurturing, maternal instincts. She worries about her son receiving medicine for his cold and her daughter remembering to say her prayers when she is no longer there to care for them. Although the Duchess had duties as a political figure and a wife, among other things, she valued her role as a mother most.
In addition, the Duchess did not fear for the political future of her children; she is most concerned with their health and well-being. Some view the Duchess’s final moments as her recognition of her defeat as she gives up her power and life. Lisa Jardine regards the Duchess as a “stereotypical nurturing mother . . .stripped of dynastic power” (qtd. in Wall 150). However, the Duchess proves herself to be anything but the stereotypical mother of her time, since losing prestige does not bother her. Any other mother in her position would worry about the social and political status of her heirs (offspring being regarded first as heirs, second as children) after her death. Wall continues, “the Duchess’s indifference toward seeing her children as heirs, paired with her general lack of concern for her political legacy, convinces critics that something new – perhaps mystifying, perhaps liberatory – is afoot” (150). Unlike a majority of the powerful and wealthy people of her time, the Duchess is able to separate politics from her private life. She does not view her children as heirs and objects; she views them as her children whom she loves. In her final moments, she does not concern herself with the legacy she will leave behind or how they “dispose [her] breath” (1626). As Bosola dangles the cord the executioners will use on her and attempts to frighten her about her manner of death, the Duchess merely remarks that she does not care how she dies. She announces, “What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut / With diamonds? Or to be smothered / With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?” (1625). To the Duchess, whether she dies with diamonds or pearls is irrelevant so long as her son receives his cough syrup. “This is maternal care, feelingly revealing her core values as she is extinguished by a corrupt world” (Wall 150). This is yet another example of the Duchess’s modern ability to set herself apart from society and act as both a human and a mother. Instead of concerning herself with her own loss, she worries about her children. She offers a final display of her selflessness by placing the needs of her children before all else.
What makes the Duchess a remarkable character is not her position of power alone; instead, she is remarkable in her ability to balance all of the roles she must fulfill: mother, wife, and duchess. When looking only at her role as the Duchess, one may not view her as successful. As Joyce Peterson argues, “Webster’s character places her private desire to marry Antonio above her public responsibility as a ruler, an action that identifies her with her corrupt brothers” (qtd. in Jankowski 223). This is not true. In her singular role as a political figure, the Duchess may have failed. However, looking at her actions as a duchess alone is not an accurate manner of evaluating of her success or failure as a character because she does not fill a singular role. Instead, the Duchess takes on the role of the modern woman: she has a “career” and is a mother and wife. With her ability to balance her duties, the Duchess represents a type of woman that would not surface for several hundred years; she is a glimpse of the modern woman before such a female existed. Today, society does not define a woman solely on the success of her career. Society instead looks at a woman’s ability to make a living for herself and family, her dedication as a mother, and the loyalty and compassion in her marriage. When rating the Duchess’s success using modern standards, society would view her as a highly respectable woman who balances her work, children, and marriage.
Ultimately, this attempt to redefine the image of the monarch, mother, and wife costs the Duchess her life. Her ambitious, feminist behavior made a bold statement before her life spiraled out of control and into the hands of her corrupt brothers. However, Webster still painted a bold picture of how women can successfully take on multiple roles, both as leaders and as mothers. Even with the murder of the Duchess, the conclusion of the play sends a strong message. As Michelle Dowd points out in “Delinquent Pedigrees: Revision, Lineage, and Spatial Rhetoric in the Duchess of Malfi,” “Many commentators argue that the play champions Protestant ideals of marriage and domestic life; by privileging the Duchess’ child from her marriage to Antonio, the play thus validates the ideology of companionship and domestic harmony that this union represents” (500). The Duchess’s legacy lives on through her surviving son. With this conclusion, Webster indicates that the Duchess was justified in her secret marriage to Antonio. Thus, in the Duchess of Malfi, Webster created a female protagonist with ideals and beliefs far ahead of her time. Readers and spectators of the play could reconsider what the expectations of a widow in a position of power and wealth should be, and realize that a woman could successfully take on the complex role of monarch, wife, and mother.
Chalk, Brian. “Webster’s ‘Worthyest Monument’: The Problem Of Posterity In The Duchess Of Malfi.” Studies In Philology 108.3 (2011): 379-402. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.
Dowd, Michelle M. “Delinquent Pedigrees: Revision, Lineage, And Spatial Rhetoric In The Duchess Of Malfi.” English Literary Renaissance 39.3 (2009): 499-526. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.
Jankowski, Theodora A. “Defining/Confining The Duchess: Negotiating The Female Body In John Webster’s The Duchess Of Malfi.” Studies In Philology 87.2 (1990): 221-245. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.
Wall, Wendy. “Just A Spoonful Of Sugar: Syrup And Domesticity In Early Modern England.” Modern Philology: Critical And Historical Studies In Literature, Medieval Through Contemporary 104.2 (2006): 149-172. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.
Webster, John. “The Duchess of Malfi.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.
Merit in The Duchess of Malfi
“Her days are practis’d in such noble virtue,That, sure her nights, nay more, her very sleeps,Are more in heaven, than other ladies’ shrifts.Let all sweet ladies break their flatt’ring glasses,And dress themselves in her” – (1.2.123-127)These eulogizing words are spoken by Antonio in what is contextually the first mention of the duchess in the play. Even though these lines happen to come from one who is obviously enamoured by the Duchess’s charm, it is clear that she is seen to be an exemplum for other women. Furthermore, this entire speech contrasts the Duchess against her brothers, as an individual who deserves her high position and not merely by virtue of birth. This juxtaposition of the attitudes towards merit and degree remains a constant theme in the play, right from the beginning when Antonio lauds the French court for its meritocratic approach. Therefore, the Duchess at one level symbolically stands as a beacon for noble spirit against orthodox societal notions such as those of hierarchy and gender, embodied in the negative characters of her brothers. As Anand Prakash puts forth in his introduction, the duchess is seen as “an all-inspiring entity on the strength of her bold assertion of individual entity”. Even her death seems to “reaffirm her nature of uncompromising persistence with the ideals she has cherished all along.”Throughout the play, the Duchess comes across to be a spirited and resolute woman as seen in her resolve in going against her brothers’ wishes: “If all my royal kindred lay in my way unto this marriage: I’ll’d make them my low foot-steps”. Through her second marriage she defies her brothers’ orthodox and irrational views, which could be recognized as a reflection of popular notions of the time, and thus, through the Duchess, Webster could be seen to be making a point regarding the circumstances of his time. While this could clearly be interpreted as embracing the feminist cause, Lisa Jardine asserts that instead of a ‘true heroine’, the Duchess is merely a “transposition of a complex of attitudes towards women into a travesty of seventeenth-century womanhood” She further goes on to brutally dissect the Duchess’s character and Webster’s intent in typical twentieth century feminist fashion. However, what must be kept in mind is that Webster wrote the play in the seventeenth century inspired from a true story about a woman with all the odds stacked against her, such that in the end, she had no recourse but to willingly accept her fate. Jardine herself admits that the Duchess does come across as a convincing portrayal even if given from a distinctively male viewpoint.In her forthright proposal to Antonio, it is evident that the Duchess is fully aware of the situation and the consequences of her decision. While Antonio, is deemed inferior by birth, the Duchess too is marginalized by virtue of being born a woman in a patriarchal society, even if her position is somewhat elevated thanks to her degree. Yet, in her defiance, she takes a clear stance echoing a faith in justice and a confidence in her own self, even if they both turn to be somewhat vain: “All discord, without this circumference, is only to be pitied, and not fear’d”. Thus, in the proposal one finds a conscious subtle reversal of gender notions where Antonio comes across as timid and fearful while the Duchess plays the ‘masculine’ part, as suggested by critics. This view is further strengthened by Antonio’s retort: “These words should be mine, and all the parts you have spoke”. The Duchess then goes on to glorify the stature of love by questioning mere rituals and ceremony: “How can the Church build faster? We now are man and wife, and ‘tis the Church that must but echo this.”James Calderwood further claims, “the Duchess’s intent in the wooing scene is to divest herself of her role as social better, to discard degree, to establish herself and Antonio as equals”, which is concurrent to John Selzer’s view, “the Duchess decides to violate degree not out of weakness or passion or naiveté, but because she wishes – like Webster – to promote in Malfi a new ethic, one rooted in the primacy of worth over degree”. These opinions can be corroborated through numerous instances in the text such as when the Duchess seeks to symbolically emulate the French court by asking Antonio to wear his hat in her presence. Therefore, as discussed before, the Duchess is seen to try and herald a new order of merit and fairness in the Italian court, which is given to nepotism and sycophancy. Moreover, the Duchess holds on to her views even while being at the mercy of Bosola and Ferdinand, as corroborated by her ‘Salmon and Dog-fish’ tale and her declaration: “Man is most happy, when’s own actions be arguments and examples of his virtue”Even in the face of imminent danger, the Duchess demonstrates remarkable courage, as when confronted by Ferdinand, she claims, “Whether I am doom’d to live, or die, I can do both like a prince,” and in her eventual execution, she proves the veracity of her statement. Furthermore, she goes on to try and calmly appeal to Ferdinand’s logic but of course her efforts prove ineffectual against Ferdinand’s dogmatic rage. Also, it is more than evident that the Duchess possesses a sharp and prudent mind complementing her courage and determination, as witnessed through her instantaneous concoction and artifice while sending Antonio off to Ancona or later to Milan:“A behaviour so noble, as gives a majesty to adversity”, these words mark Bosola’s imminent change of heart, for the Duchess’s noble charm affects even the cold, calculative and objective character in the play. As vouched by Bosola, even in her confinement, the Duchess maintains her level-headed grace, as she gradually realizes the inevitability of fate and thus comes to accept the same: “Necessity makes me suffer constantly, and custom makes it easy…I am chain’d to endure all your tyranny.” As the moment of her death finally approaches, the Duchess is seen to have reconciled herself to the play of events and in fact, stresses a certain optimism for the life that lay ahead “Who would be afraid on’t (death)? Knowing to meet such excellent company in th’other world”; and in her plaintive speech to Cariola and her noble last words, Webster’s sensitivity to the tragic heroine is there for all to see. As Robert Ornstein explains, “the Duchess’s self-possession in the face of death is a spiritual victory rather than a glorious defeat; a vindication of the value of action and virtue.”After her death, the play is seen to somewhat disintegrate into parallels and perversions of tragedy to further highlight her noble character. As Jacqueline Pearson states, “The society she leaves behind her is negative and sterile”, and in the Duchess’s figurative and spectral presence in Act V, Pearson finds “a constant poignant reminder of a better way of living.” While John Selzer concludes that the Duchess is finally vindicated through the triumph of the order of merit espoused by her, it is somewhat a biased interpretation keeping in mind the ambiguous nature of the conclusion, for Selzer seems to have forgotten that the Duchess’s real heir was her son from her first marriage. As a result, though the play seems to have reached a somewhat bittersweet climax, there is a hint of further darkness raising the question whether justice and merit do indeed prevail. Whether Webster intentionally included this ambivalence or was it a mere oversight on his part is of course debatable. However, it is undeniable that in the Duchess, he creates a magnificent heroine who shines forth both as a icon and as an individual in the face of a dogmatic society, such that despite all the atrocities, she retains her glorious stature in the readers’ imagination. As a result, her passionate avowal rings true in all its intensity:“I am Duchess of Malfi still.”
Flying of Fate: the Echoes of “The Duchess of Malfi”
The main themes of “The Duchess of Malfi” are expertly demonstrated by Webster throughout many of the play’s intriguing scenes and dialogues. One particular instance occurs in the famous echo scene (5.3.1-55) between Antonio and Delio. As they are discussing the nature of fate in the lives of men, their words are met with a ghostly echo, presumably the voice of the Duchess’ from beyond the grave. The echo, a definitively gothic element, is important in exploring the limitations of death and the power of fate as themes in this classic tragic tale.The idea of female power and its limitations is uniquely crafted by Webster in the character of The Duchess. In life, she is depicted as a definite figure of female heroism and a bold and fearless woman of power. Due to the many stigmas surrounding her behavior as a female, the Duchess is consequently met with scorn and is faced with limitations upon her power to make decisions. These hindrances, however, often do not deter her from giving up her independence or bold spirit. The famous line “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.134) relays the power, duty, and above all, heroism the Duchess possesses even at the brink of death.The echo scene marks a complete shift in the Duchess’s possession of power. Here, the Duchess is still able to communicate and suggest ideas to her husband, but she is unable to physically ensure that they are accomplished. Death represents the definitive limitation against the Duchess. In life, most of her power was relayed not only through her voice and words, but by her body as well. Naturally, her physical beauty had played a role in her successes in dealing with others. Antonio earlier states that, “Whilst she speaks, She throws upon a man so sweet a look, that it were able to raise one to a galliard” (1.1.189-191) — meaning that she could sway a man with just one look. It is clear that her possession of physical beauty played a large part in how well she was able to influence others, and it seems to have been a key advantage in her sense of female power. In the echo scene, death has left her at a loss for her most powerful asset in persuasion—her body.In this scene, the spirit of the Duchess expresses itself through the mysterious echoing that follows Antonio and Delio’s words: “A thing of sorrow” (5.3.23), “Do not” (5.3.29), and “Be mindful of thy safety” (5.3.32) are all cautions the Duchess desperately attempts to relay to Antonio. Importantly, the spirit of the Duchess does not repeat each line that is spoken — as a true echo would — but rather only highlights those words dealing with death, sorrow and fate. Due to the Duchess’s lack of physical presence, her warnings are ultimately unsuccessful in gaining the serious attention of these two men. Antonio instead seems to spurn the ghostly advice of his wife by dismissing it as nothing more than a natural occurrence.These echoes also serve to craftily explore the ambiguity regarding the nature of fate and how much influence our decisions have over our own lives. While standing in the ruins of an ancient abbey, Antonio regards that “all things have their end: Churches and cities, which have disease like to men, Must have like death that we have.” (5.3.17-19). He is reflecting on the idea that men have no true influence over their own fates nor the fate of what is around them. As the phrase goes, often the best laid plans of men go awry. After Antonio makes this statement, the echo presents its first interjection, repeating his line about death. Delio comments that the echo has “caught” Antonio, an interesting insinuation that he is helpless not only to his fate but to these ominous warnings as well. This introduces the notion that there is a higher power among the characters in the ruins, one that could possibly be in control of Antonio’s own future. Ignoring the advice of his companion and that of the ghostly echoes, Antonio asserts his belief that one cannot outrun one’s own fate. As Delio reminds Antonio to “be mindful of thy safety” (5.3.31), Antonio replies that he is ambivalent towards caution. He is compelled to be careful; however, he also realizes that treading along the path of life softly does not ensure that you can do so safely. “You’ll find it impossible/To fly your fate” (5.3.33-34), he proclaims. Here, the Duchess interjects with an alarming echo that disagrees with Antonio’s opinion: “O fly your fate” (5.3.35), the echo calls in an almost pleading manner. It is clear the Duchess is also very concerned for the safety of Antonio, and believes he must attempt to escape his fate.To her credit, the Duchess does manage to get Delio on her side. He tells Antonio that the echo seems to be giving good advice, and that perhaps Antonio should dodge his fate. However, Antonio dismisses the echo as a mere “dead thing” (5.3.39) and holds fast in his idea to face whatever the future holds for him. Antonio clearly believes that men have no true power over the events that occur in their lives, and often their attempts to change it prove for the worst: “Though in our miseries Fortune have a part, Yet in our noble suff’rings she hath none. Contempt of pain—that we may call our own.” (5.3.54-56). Antonio decides to face his future head-on by remaining at the castle, rather than flee the country and risk living in a “mockery and abuse of life” (5.3.47).The echo scene of Act V clearly raises the question of how much influence one man can have over his own life. It also raises the question as to whether or not these characters can truly outrun their fates. Webster presents both sides of the argument: Delio and the Duchess’ echoes are clearly in agreement as they both believe Antonio can escape his foreboding death by running away, while Antonio maintains that fate will play out the way it wishes, irregardless of any man’s attempts to flee it. He would much rather prefer to stand up to his fate than fly from it. In this case, fate does win over as most of the characters, Antonio included, are eventually brutally murdered. This echo scene thus serves as Webster’s masterful attempt at exploring the limitations of death and the nature of fate in the lives of humans. The prevailing role of fate is most beautifully captured by Bosola in his final musings at the closing of the play: “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and banded/Which way please them.” (5.4.54-55).
Explore and analyse Webster’s treatment of women and their status in society as presented in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi
Webster’s decision to cast strong female characters as the protagonists in his two most popular plays could have been considered highly controversial and unexpected by the audiences of his time. This unintended effect immediately seems to prompt a critical questioning of his rationale. The initial reaction of the modern theatre-goer prompted by the contentious discussion surrounding the strong central female characters in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi may be to question whether Webster’s presentation of women in his plays is an accurate one, and if so, what the theatrical and social implications of this might amount to. However, perhaps a more relevant debate – and one that might have been more interesting to the contemporary theatre-goer – might take into account the playwright’s presentation of the Duchess and Vittoria, but ultimately focus on whether Webster objectively had a social and moral purpose in furthering the rights of women at all (as it has been suggested). Alternatively, the argument that Webster was in fact merely a flamboyant showman wallowing in spectacular gore and death as part of an exciting plotline is another issue that should be considered when analysing the contentions of those critics that stand by the idea that Webster wrote simply to entertain his audiences, with no polemic in mind.Both the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi and Vittoria in The White Devil display a failure, or at least a marked resistance, to conform to contemporary societal expectations, and yet they do so in quite different ways. While the Duchess seems to be presented as a virtuous and noble woman, Vittoria, appears at times to be more corrupt even than her unquestionably flawed society. However, the presentation of both female characters and their interactions with their male counterparts serve to highlight an intensely patriarchal society, apparently grounded in the strongly misogynistic streak particularly perceptible in the earlier Mediaeval Christianity. Ferdinand’s very first orders to Bosola, ‘To live i’the’ court, here: and observe the DuchessTo note all the particulars of her ‘haviourWhat suitors do solicite her for marriageAnd whom she best affects: she’s a young widow,I would not have her marry again’ (I, ii: 176 – 179), alert the audience to Ferdinand’s domineering, suspicious character. Even if convention held that noble widows should remain chaste after their husbands’ deaths, Ferdinand’s controlling nature may have seemed rather extreme even to the audiences of the time. Even Bosola questions, ‘No sir?’ (line 180), but Ferdinand’s prompt rebuke, ‘Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied, I say I would not’ (181 – 182), is indicative of the threatening menace behind his actions. Evidence for this cruelty is found in Act III, scene ii, when Ferdinand hears from the Duchess that she has acted against his wishes and has remarried. His exceptionally hostile reaction to this information is to call her a ‘vile woman’ (line 100) who should ‘cut out [her] own tongueLest it bewray him [Antonio]’ (108 – 109). This response is part of a virulent attack that incorporates images of traditionally ominous night-time animals such as the ‘wolf’, the ‘screech-owl’, ‘dogs’, and ‘monkeys’; all animals frequently perceived as ‘wicked’. Directly associating these creatures with the lovers has the cumulative effect of insulting their honour and reputation in a very dark, threatening way.In a similar vein, Flamineo attempts to take control of his sister out of selfishness. Flamineo’s actions, however, contrast with Ferdinand’s command that the Duchess remain chaste. Flamineo seduces Vittoria in order to curry favour and further his career as the Duke’s secretary. In doing so, he corrupts his sister’s reputation; just as Ferdinand insulted Antonio’s honour, Flamineo slights Camillo: ‘So unable to please a woman that like a Dutch doublet all his back is shrunk into his breeches’ (I, ii, 33 – 34). Vittoria is also subject to vitriolic abuse in the trial scene in Act III: Monticelso, the Cardinal, labels her a ‘whore’ (line 77), expounding upon that by describing whores using a number of grotesque similes: ‘They are worse/Worse than dead bodies, which are begg’d at gallows/And wrought upon by surgeons, to teach man/Wherein he is imperfect’ (95 – 98). The grotesque image of a rotting corpse juxtaposed against the clinical background of a surgeon’s table could be seen to mirror the situation in two ways: not only does it refer to Monticelso’s metaphorical dissection of Vittoria as he publicly humiliates her, but it also reveals his belief that he is exposing her guilt. The latter interpretation seems to suggest Webster’s implicit undermining of Monticelso’s perception of Vittoria. Webster compounds the apparent injustice against women by creating female protagonists who are intelligent, honourable and valiant even at the moment of death. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Act IV, scene i of The Duchess of Malfi, in which the Duchess, imprisoned and awaiting her inevitable murder, is subjected to a number of gruesome and cruel methods of psychological torture, including being forced to kiss a dead man’s hand, see artificial figures of her Antonio and her children appearing as if they were dead, and having a group of madmen unleashed around her. However, her response to this persecution, though naturally one of horror, is always marked by extraordinary dignity. She courageously speaks out in defiance of Bosola’s feigned reverence (‘All comfort to your Grace’ [line 18]), declaring almost insolently ‘I will have none.Pray-thee, why dost thou wrap thy poison’d pillsIn gold and sugar?’ (18 – 20). She displays her fortitude and strength of character when she aligns herself with Christ by forgiving her executioners and fixing her mind not on her imminent death, but on ‘th’other world’ (IV, ii, 213). Her intelligent powers of reasoning remain evident as she calmly explains to Bosola that she cannot be afraid of ‘the manner of [her] death’ (213) with a ‘number of astute rhetorical questions:’What would it pleasure me, to have my throat cut/With diamonds? or to be smothered/With cassia? or to be shot to death, with pearls?’ (216 – 218). The Duchess’s courage is also exemplified by her clever inversion of the horror of physical strangulation: she wills the executioner’s ropes to pull harder, wishing to figuratively pull heaven down towards her. In the audience’s eyes, she dies the death of a martyr, slain at the hands of villains.Similarly, Webster seems to imbue Vittoria with an intelligence and calm endurance during her trial that contrasts sharply with the blustering lawyer and the venomous Monticelso. This serves to highlight the injustice being perpetrated against her. It is suggested that Vittoria’s rhetorical strategy of creating the impression of heroic scorn (‘That my defence of force like Perseus’ ) and innocence will convince the audience of her truthfulness, as she shrewdly comments, ‘Temptation to lust proves not the act’ (199). Her insistence that the lawyer speaks in the vernacular, not in ‘hard and undigestible words’ (37) makes a pedantic fool of him; he stands in direct contrast to her marked lack of pretension. The injustice being perpetrated against Vittoria seems to be exacerbated by Webster’s presentation of her as judicious and incisive, not a ‘whore’.In creating The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Webster draws on conventions endorsed by specific genres and various events from history, but transforms them for his own ends. One possible reason for these transformations is Webster’s desire to comment on the status of women, an endeavor that would have been impossible to achieve under traditional conventions. The Duchess’s initiation of the wooing and marriage to her steward is indeed unconventional, as she herself admits when she says, ‘For I am going into a wilderness,/Where I shall find nor path, nor friendly clew/To be my guide’ (I, i, 281 – 283). This is a clear inversion of the Jacobean constraints of both gender and class. The traditional structure of a Jacobean drama is also significantly altered when the eponymous protagonist dies an entire act before the end of the play. Webster also chooses to significantly alter the historical scenarios behind his plots; these amendments frequently expose his desire to propel a more coherent, consistent ‘message’ than that which could be conveyed with pure historical accuracy. For example, he chooses to allow the Duchess’s eldest son to inherit the rank of his mother, thereby deviating from the source in order to authenticate her nonconformist marriage. Furthermore, in The White Devil Webster presents Isabella as virtuous and undeserving, pledging to pray for Bracciano and take on herself the blame for their separation, in hope of inspiring his repentance: ‘I will make/Myself the author of your cursed vow’ (II, i, 217 – 218). However, the real Isabella was not nearly so virtuous – indeed, she had another lover of her own. Similarly, Webster intentionally omits the fact that Camillo (whose real name was Peretti) is actually very young: by transforming him into a feckless adult, he almost gives Vittoria an excuse for her adulterous behavior. While Webster’s deviations from traditional conventions and the original historical sources may simply be consequences of his desire for a different, perhaps more exciting, plot, it could also be suggested that the playwright wished to accentuate the virtuous characteristics of women and the negative attributes of men, thereby drawing attention to the gender divide.However, in exploring Webster’s treatment of the status of women in sixteenth-century Britain, it is important to look beneath the surface in order to avoid oversimplifying either the characters or our reactions to them. Closer analysis reveals that Webster actually created the Duchess and Vittoria not only as stock ‘oppressed female’ characters, merely illustrations of the social constraints placed upon women at the time, but also as realistic, ‘human’ characters with a value that transcended mere representations of ‘typical’, noble, sixteenth-century Italian women. He does this by creating complex, multilayered characters: while stock characters would fit into a single mold (for example, ‘tragic’), these characters exhibit contradictions that seem to reveal their humanity. In examining this, we realize that ‘the Duchess is a simpler…figure than Vittoria’ (although both exemplify ‘human’ qualities). For example, while Vittoria is ultimately presented as a victim, swept up in the corruption of court life by the ambitious men around her, she herself is actually an adulterous woman who should most likely be vilified by the audience of the time. However, the audience is led to pity Vittoria, since the play’s viewpoint is ambiguous. At times, Webster confuses our viewpoint in an effort to prompt us either to take an unconventional or unprecedented view, or enhance ambiguity by not explicitly instructing us about which viewpoint to take. For example, the play’s perspective on the Duchess’s re-marriage is ambiguous, and seems to emphasise her courage rather than her foolhardiness. The Renaissance was a time during which the individual was emphasized: this can be extended, although in a far more limited sense, to an increased emphasis placed on women, as well. In Webster’s works, the female protagonists’ actions are initially presented as heroic. However, the fate of the Duchess complicates this view, suggesting that female heroicism in such a patriarchal society has its limitations: were her actions really worth her death? The play’s overt tragedy is often undermined by its subtle satire: quite often, this satire is perpetrated by Flamineo. This tragicomic aspect adds to the ambiguity that surrounds Webster’s presentation of an entire society steeped in exploitation and deception. It is perhaps because of this Webster was able to prevent the audience from sympathizing with individual characters, instead drawing our attention to the corruption of the society as a whole. One might easily conclude that Webster did not write either The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil as a treatise on women’s rights. While the sixteenth century did see the beginnings of the challenge to the status quo, and assertive female characters began to appear in dramatic works, ‘actual changes for the better in the position of women at this time were distinctly limited.’ Dollimore suggests that rather than presenting a case for female emancipation, most Jacobean tragedy – including Webster’s – actually underscored the oppression of women, since this exploitation was part of the social order observed by the playwright. Webster, one might conclude, was not a radical – he was not really trying to alter the perceived status of women. Instead, Webster harnessed the baser human instincts of his characters to show two sides of humanity – positive and negative. It is thus possible to view his plays more as an observational commentary on society than as a radical polemic.
Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”: Mad, Mad Ferdinand
Much of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” centers around the subversions and perversions of Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brother. Ferdinand is an immensely disturbed man who has been driven to insanity by his inability to control his sister, and his resultant inability to control his own life. His incestuous desires, though subtle, fill him with the need to wield power over her, even though this leaves him unable to rule his land, his real dominion. When he realizes that he cannot rule the Duchess, he begins to use legal rhetoric, situating himself verbally, if not physically, as her judge. When this ractic fails him, and he relinquishes even more control, Ferdinand loses a grip on his sanity. He develops the belief that he is a werewolf, and cannot maintain a definite self. All of these events begin, however, with his unnatural sexual longing for the Duchess.The reader realizes that something is amiss with Ferdinand’s sexuality when he learns that Ferdinand is not sexually active. Ferdinand is the only character in the play who should be sexually active, and yet he is not. The Cardinal is a holy man who has made a vow of celibacy, but is having an affair with Julia; he doesn’t even seem to have any qualms about the shameless disregard he shows his vows. The Duchess marries Antonio and bears him children, implying that she is quite sexually active. However, because she is has been widowed, because her brothers forbid her to remarry, and because she promises to obey them, she should not have wed again. Even Julia engages in wrongful sexual activities: she is married, and is allowed to sleep with her husband, but instead chooses to sleep with others. Ferdinand, whose duty it is to sire children who will rule in his place when he dies, fails to do so. The reader first recognizes that Ferdinand’s unspent sexual energy is directed at his sister when he discovers that she has had a lover. He imagines quite vividly that she has indulged in the “shameful act of sin” withsome strong-thighed bargeman, Or one o’th’woodyard, that can quoit the sledgeOr toss the bar, or else some lovely squireThat carries coals up to her privy lodgings. (II.5.43-46)Ferdinand also talks of destroying her territory as effectively as she has shattered her honor: I might toss her palace ’bout her ears,Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,And lay her general territory as wasteAs she hath done her honors. (II.5.18-21) Ferdinand even goes so far as to talk about cutting the Duchess to pieces, and then giving her child his handkerchief to wipe up the blood. He is not merely talking about punishment or retribution – he is talking about total annihilation. This reaction is given even more strength in contrast with the Cardinal’s response. The Cardinal hardly seems upset at all – in fact, he wonders at Ferdinand’s rage, and tries to calm him, telling him that his anger is intemperate and unnecessary. The Cardinal’s only insult is aimed at the deceitful nature of women in general; he does not take the Duchess’ actions as a personal injury, and does not resort to violence in any form. The difference in the brothers’ responses is staggering, and the fact that the two respond in such opposing manners is quite telling, particularly because we are told in the first act that the brothers are like twins in their natures (I.1.172). Here, we see that they are in fact quite disparate – Ferdinand, unlike the Cardinal, feels particularly powerful and passionate emotions toward his sister.Another bond that Ferdinand feels with his sister that the Cardinal does not share is that he and the Duchess are twins. He speaks several times as if her blood is his blood – as if because she is sullied, so is he; it is almost as if they are the same person. When he has her imprisoned, Bosola pities her and asks the Duke if they can give her a prayer book and prayer beads so that she can repent. Ferdinand denies her this. He says that “[that] body of hers, / While that my blood ran pure in’t, was more worth / Than that which thou wouldst comfort, called a soul” (IV.1.123-25). The Duchess’ body, once soiled, cannot be cleaned like a soul can be purified through prayer. Once her body has been tainted, his has been, as well. Because he wishes to control her (and through her, himself), the Duchess’ actions upset Ferdinand’s life. When he suddenly discovers that she has been used by another, is in fact owned by another, he feels that he too is being controlled by someone else. The irony lies in the fact that it is in Ferdinand’s blood to be in control, to rule, but he fails to rule his sister, and therefore fails as a duke, as well. Ferdinand also fails to recognize what is in himself. While the reader realizes that Ferdinand’s actions hinge on jealousy, it is not clear whether Ferdinand himself understands this. When he pays Bosola to spy on the Duchess, he refuses to give a reason. After she is dead, he laments, “I must confess, I had a hope, / Had she continued widow, to have gained / An infinite mass of treasure by her death; / And that was the main cause [of my anger]” (IV.2.282-285). The question remains, however: do we believe him? More importantly, does Ferdinand believe his own words? Whether his denial is real or feigned for Bosola’s benefit, he will not admit to the desires within him. At this point, Ferdinand also admits the Duchess’ innocence, and acknowledges that he made a mistake in sentencing her. He says, “I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t” (IV.2.278-279). If he won’t recognize his unnatural desire for his sister, at least he acknowledges his mistake in having judged her wrongly. This is a clear admission that he has lost control, even over his own thoughts. Many of Ferdinand’s actions henceforth are attempts to regain that control – to make himself feel, once again, as though he is in charge.Ferdinand accomplishes this aim by immediately taking on the air of a judge – the one position in his life where he cannot be usurped. In his own courthouse, he is the judge and the commander by law. He uses this position to his advantage, however unjustly. Delio says that “the law to him / Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider: / He makes it his dwelling and a prison/ To entangle those shall feed him” (I.1.177-180). He becomes the self-appointed judge of his sister, imprisoning her and then condemning her to death. After he has had her killed, he reverts to using legal language to reassure himself of his innocence in the matter. He says to Bosola, “Was I her judge? / Did any ceremonial form of law / Doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury / Deliver her conviction up i’th’court?” (IV.2.300-304) With these words, Ferdinand disclaims responsibility and lays the blame for the murder on Bosola. He judges one man guilty, while at the same time admitting that he is not in control – he is not the judge. The Duchess never went before a judge, and if she had, she would have been found innocent. The Duchess committed no crime worthy of punishment by law, and certainly not punishable by death. Here, Ferdinand is trying to say that he did not judge her – however, he neglects to see that nobody had the right to judge her, because she did not err. Ferdinand’s “proof” that she did in fact do wrong, was her husband. In his eyes, the existence of a lover was more than enough to sentence her. Ferdinand has an obsession with proof – evidence, no matter how trivial, allows him to justify his wrongful actions.Ferdinand’s obsession began with the naming of the father of the Duchess’ children. Though he found out very early that she had borne a child, he waited several years and three children later to confront her about it, because he was waiting until he had the name of the father. This was quite unnecessary, but Ferdinand needed the reassurance. He imposes his need for evidence upon others as well. To prove to the Duchess that he has murdered Antonio and two of her children, he has an artist contrive wax figures of them posed in death, and hides them in her cell. Though his word would have been sufficient for her to believe them dead, he feels the need to show her, to provide her with visual confirmation. The Duchess’ body, to him, is proof that their blood is ruined. For this reason, he refuses to look at her once he has confronted her on the matter of her supposed indiscretions. If he does not see her, he cannot prove to himself that she has done what she has. Even after her death, he says to Bosola, “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle; she died young” (IV.2.2); he does not want to see her, or acknowledge what he has done to her. He says that “she died young”, as if she died of natural causes; this is because he is already in a state of denial, already refusing to take responsibility. Once the Duchess is dead, he tells Bosola that “the wolf shall find her grave and scrape it up, / Not to devour the corpse, but to discover / The horrid murder” (IV.2.310-312). By this, he means that her body will stand as evidence that she was wrongfully slaughtered. This also foreshadows Ferdinand’s sickness: he believes himself to be a werewolf, and digs up the graves of dead men. Without proof, Ferdinand has no control. His feeling of helplessness is the cause for this obsession with proof – he is constantly searching for something true, something that will prove he is whole.Our initial impression of Ferdinand presents him as disjointed, not unified. The first time he is mentioned, Antonio says of him, “The Duke there? A most perverse and turbulent nature. / What appears in him mirth is merely outside; / If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh / All honesty out of fashion” (I.1.169-172). The idea of a difference between the “outside” and the “inside” of the Duke is key – it is not only what others see, but what he feels. “Madness is conceived as a disordering or disruption of the normative meaning of the body, signifying a disorder within both subject and State since the head and the monarch share the same rule according to the metaphor of the body politic” (Salkeld 60). Ferdinand is subject to this disorder of mind and body, and this plays itself out in his insanity. Madness is a sign of sovereignty in crisis, whether it be sovereignty of monarchy or of reason (Salkeld 60) – with Ferdinand, it is both. Ferdinand feels that the monarchy is in crisis because the Duchess has married below her rank, and his reason is in crisis because he desires her but cannot have her. He loves her, and yet he must have her killed: he has divided intentions, and because these intentions are not reconciled, he is left mad.This split in Ferdinand’s psyche reveals itself in several ways. In his letter to Antonio, he writes with double meanings. He says, “I want Antonio’s head in a business” and “I would rather have Antonio’s heart than his money” (III.5.28,36). Through these lines, he says both what can be taken at face value and what can be read beneath – that he wants Antonio in pieces. The Duchess sees through his duplicity, and sends her husband fleeing. When Ferdinand gives his sister the dead man’s hand in place of his own, this is also a representation of his split self. The ring on the corpse’s finger is a wedding ring, the ring that united her with her past husband and with Antonio. Now this ring unites her and Ferdinand. He hands it to her, and she accepts it. This symbolizes a displacement of Ferdinand’s sexual desires for his sister. Symbolically they are united, but they cannot be – will never be, because the union is wrong.The result of Ferdinand’s indecision is that the split in his psyche becomes even more pronounced. He attacks his own shadow, saying that it haunts him and that he must catch it. In his mind, his shadow is a replica of his self – there are two of him, and he must get rid of one. More significantly, this divide in Ferdinand manifests itself as Lycanthropia, a disease in which those possessed imagine “themselves to be transformd into wolves, / Steal froth to churchyards in the dead of the night / And dig dead bodies up” (V.2.10-12). Ferdinand becomes literally split: man by day, wolf by night, smooth on the outside, hairy on the inside. There is a matching up of his mental disorder with his physical confusion, as “the language of the body made sense of the soul” (Salkeld 66). The doctor describes Ferdinand’s actions to the soldier Pescara:two nights sinceOne met the Duke ’bout midnight in a laneBehind Saint Mark’s Church, with the leg of a manUpon his shoulder; and he howled fearfully;Said he was a wolf, only the differenceWas, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,His on the inside; bade them take their swords,Rip up his flesh and try. (V.2.12-19)It is important to note that Ferdinand feels deformed inwardly. His conscience has gotten to him – even his soul feels “hairy”. Ironically, the soul is the very thing that he says the Duchess need not have saved because her body is already ruined. Here is an inversion – the Duchess had a clean soul and a “soiled” body, while Ferdinand has a pure body and a hairy soul. He acknowledges that his soul is soiled, just as he felt his sister’s body was. As a wolf, he digs up bodies in the graveyard at Saint Mark’s church. Saint Mark is the patron saint of notaries (a type of legal secretary). Here, again, we find the law. Ferdinand is used to twisting the law in order to pass judgments as he wishes, and knows that this is wrong. By choosing Saint Mark’s church, he is again creating disorder in the realm of the law. Though he told Bosola that the wolf would find his sister’s corpse in her grave to prove the murder, as a wolf he chooses not to do this. It is male legs he carries upon his shoulders, not female ones; not the Duchess’. He is not attempting to prove her murder, nor trying to condemn himself. Just as he would not look upon her in death, he will not dig her up to prove to himself that he has killed her.In his final scene, Ferdinand dies with his sister’s name on his lips: “My sister, oh my sister! There’s the cause on’t. / Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust” (V.5.86-88). He dies both because of his sister – for she was his undoing – and because of his own desires. The image of being “cut” also reinforces the discord between Ferdinand’s mind and his body; both his own desires and the actions of his sister caused this deep wound. Though Ferdinand initially appears to be one of the characters with the most agency in the “The Duchess of Malfi”, it is ultimately revealed that he is entirely powerless to control either his fate, or the fates of others. Secondary SourcesSalkeld, Duncan. Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.
The Duchess of Malfi and a Certain Fish Story
There are many complex personalities in John Webster’s classic play, “The Duchess of Malfi”. Webster’s character named “Bosola” is perhaps the most complex of any. Throughout the play, one may notice a variety of emotional traits in each of the main characters. There is the greed and resentment of Ferdinand and the Cardinal, the nobility of the Duchess, and the psychological onion that is Bosola. I use the metaphor of an onion to represent the many different layers of Bosola’s personality that are peeled away throughout the text. In the beginning, Bosola fit the description bestowed upon him by Antonio in Act I, “(Bosola)…Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud, Bloody, or envious, as any man, If he had means to be so”(Norton, p1434). However, as the waters of life and circumstance sweep below the bridge that is Bosola, a noble metamorphosis transpires: a “lecherous, covetous, and proud” man becomes a martyr for all the plebes that have been trod upon by the nobility.Through the first three acts of the play, I thought to myself that Bosola was the most unlikable of all the villains in the play. He is a greedy servant who will do anything to please his master. He begins as an informant for Ferdinand, assigned to keep a close eye of the Duchess, sister of Ferdinand. His character is best summed up with his own words on wisdom, spoken to Antonio. “Oh, sir, the opinion of wisdom is a foul tetter that runs all over a man’s body. If simplicity direct us to have no evil, it directs us to a happy being, for the subtlest folly proceeds from the subtlest wisdom…”(Norton, p 1449). Here he is stating that “simplicity” (foolishness) is a distributor of wisdom and that folly, the lack of good sense, comes from subtle wisdom. This is the outer layer of “Bosola the onion”. These beliefs continue until later on in the play.The first major change in Bosola is triggered by a parable told to him by the Duchess, who is now imprisoned by the order of Ferdinand. She speaks to Bosola as he looks over her children and enlightens him about the unknown values of individuals. “A salmon, as she swam unto the sea, Met with a dogfish, who encounters her With this rough language: ‘Why art thou so bold To mix thyself with our high state of floods, Being no eminent courtier, but one That for the calmest and fresh time o’ th’ year Dost live in shallow rivers, rank’st thyself with silly smelts and shrimps? And darest thou pass by our dog-ship without reverence?’ ‘Oh!’ quoth the salmon, ‘sister, be at peace: thank Jupiter we have both passed the net! Our value never can be truly known, Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown…”(Norton, p1477). She is telling Bosola that, although he is now the superior “dogfish”, each of their values can only be measured after death. They are both susceptible to Ferdinand’s net. In Ferdinand’s case, Bosola is the one that “rank’st” himself with “silly smelts and shrimps”. He has yet to realize the wisdom in what the Duchess has told him, but perhaps the second layer of the onion is now hanging loosely.A crucial change in Bosola takes place in Act IV scene II after Ferdinand’s orders have led to the deaths of the Duchess and her illegitimate children. After the deed is done, Ferdinand enters the room and Bosola confronts him. Bosola challenges, “She (Duchess) is what you’d have her. But here begin your pity. Alas, how have these (the children) offended?…Do you not weep? Other sins only speak; murder shrieks out: The element of water moistens the earth, But blood flies upwards and bedews the heavens…her infelicity Seemed to have years too many”(Norton, p 1487). The tragic executions of the Duchess and her children are very moving to Bosola. They cause him to reexamine his place in life, and his service of Ferdinand and those like him. Bosola illustrates the changes that he realizes when he continues his conversation with Ferdinand. “I served your tyranny, and rather strove to satisfy yourself than all the world, and though I loathed the evil, yet I loved you that did counsel it; and rather sought to appear a true servant than an honest man”(Norton, p 1489). Here Bosola represents a common figure in modern society, the “Yes-Man”. The “Yes-Man” always does what he is told by powerful figures, even when it hurts or destroys something else; all of this in the hope that he will be promoted to a better position. Bosola has spent his life in servitude, hoping for rewards that would lift him out of his common position. Only now is he beginning to realize that the rewards due him are not sufficient compensation for the damage that he has caused to others. “Off, my painted honor! While with vain hopes our faculties we tire, We seem to sweat in ice and freeze in fire. What would I do, were this to do again? I would not change my peace of conscience for all the wealth of Europe…”(Norton, p1489). With this confession, Bosola’s transformation is complete. He has evolved beyond his earlier, greedy self2E His second layer is finally revealed when he goes on to avenge the deaths of the Duchess and her family. After he accomplishes this, and dies in the process, the core of the onion is finally revealed. We see the real Bosola.Bosola’s transformation represents the beauty of human nature. It represents hope in the noblest sense of the word for all of humanity. His change illustrates clearly that humanity is not always perfect, but at least we can come to a point of self-realization that compels us to atone for some of the pain that we have caused in our lives. Our ability to evolve and change is what makes us “onions”. It should be the hope of every human to peel away their layers before it is too late. Fortunately for Bosola, he accomplished this.
Bosola and Antonio: Preferment and Admission of Inferiority
The Renaissance Era was a period when theatre, among other forms of art, bloomed in its adolescence, as it outgrew old, traditional characteristics of the Middle Ages, and gradually evolved into what would later become known as modern history. Unlike tragedies of previous eras – which depended highly on one fatal flaw of the protagonists to lead them to perpetual torment – tragedies of the Renaissance age saw a great shift in the complexities of the characters in a play, as the period was highly influenced by humanism. Characters were no longer ‘flat’ but ‘dynamic’, thus, resembling that of real-life individuals more accurately than before. With such shifts in characterization, themes and conflicts in theatre consequently underwent similar developments from being plain and straightforward, to thought-provoking and relatable. One such thought-provoking and relatable theme found in The Duchess of Malfi is the concept of inferiority and its necessity for advancing in society; a concept which can be identified and explored through the characters Bosola and Antonio.
Cunning, malcontent, and vengeful Bosola is the catalyst to the tragedies which befall the Duchess and her family. From the very first act, Bosola is introduced as an ex-criminal who vocalizes his frustration with how underappreciated he is for his services. He finds it difficult to accept his lowly position given the fact that he has done so much for his employers. He compares himself to a “soldier that hazards his limbs in a battle”, and receives “nothing” in return, while “there are rewards for hawks and dogs when they have done us service.” Even Antonio acknowledges this misfortune of Bosola’s, stating, “’Tis great pity he should be thus neglected: I have heard he’s very valiant. This foul melancholy will poison all his goodness…” which also hints to readers and the audience of the future corruption that Bosola will embody. However, Bosola perseveres, and is determined to “thrive some way”, even if it means having to degrade himself to a creature unworthy of honour and respect.
When Ferdinand offers him gold and a better position in return for spying on the Duchess, Bosola fervently refuses and proclaims that he would much rather kill than spy on a woman. Moreover, the task would make him an “impudent traitor”; “a very quaint invisible devil in flesh.” Yet, strangely, Bosola accepts the task – with some unwillingness, it seems – which highlights the extent this man is willing to demean himself in order to rise in the social ladder. This is the first scene in the play that outlines the question, “Does a ‘preferment’ in the world necessitate admission of inferiority?”
This scene is not unusual; nor is this question only applicable to the period of time when this play was composed. The act of degrading yourself in one way or another – whether out of humility or mere greed – in order to rise in power and attain wealth, is and has always been a popular theme in literature and art throughout history. Evidently, Bosola’s motive for accepting the task of a spy is out of greed and ambition. On the other hand, Antonio exhibits a similar notion of unavoidable subordination towards the Duchess but does so with all the admirable qualities of a good, loyal, and humble servant.
Antonio does not conceal his admiration, respect and fidelity for the Duchess. She is introduced in the play through his exaltations of her, as though she were a being devoid of flaw, almost goddess-like. This highly subjective opinion insinuates possible feelings of love towards the Duchess, but being her social inferior, we, the readers and the audience, are fully aware that any such feelings for his employer is to be cast aside, for he could never openly court her. So, when the Duchess reveals her love for him and takes the initiative to woo and propose to Antonio, it does not seem completely absurd as she is in a position to do so. However, her gender must have obviously been a factor that made her proposal highly unorthodox at the time, if not absurd. Moreover, the fact that the audience and readers know that the Duchess slyly plans to propose to him whereas Antonio has absolutely no idea of her underlying intentions emphasizes his inferior position. This shift in gender roles – caused by the restrictions which social class conventions imposes upon society – is not overlooked by Antonio. He points out his awareness of this peculiar gender-role-swap, saying to his wife, “These words should be mine,” as the Duchess not only takes on the role of a confident leader during the proposal, but even throughout much of the play; such as repeatedly reassuring Antonio of their safety, because Antonio is constantly fearful of eminent danger.
With regards to the notion of inferiority, it is manifest in Antonio’s actions that he has no choice but to humble himself before the Duchess. His love for her is unquestionable, and so his feelings of “unworthiness” is most likely an outcome of his veneration for the woman he loves. However, he is still a male character of the 17th century and putting aside his pride as a man in order to accept being proposed to must have taken some impressive amount of modesty. On top of that, there is the possibility that Antonio is motivated to cast aside his male pride because he is aware of the power he would gain if he were to accept this proposal. “Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,” he says. This is evidence of his consciousness and caution of the situation. Antonio is a righteous character who fears that his reasons for marrying the Duchess may be mixed with both love and ambition. Whether he accepts the proposal out of pure love alone, or both love and ambition, Antonio does advance in the social hierarchy through the necessary act of admitting his inferiority – much like Bosola. What differs between the two major characters is that Antonio’s advancement is out of being simply good and honest. He advances through the holy and romantic system of matrimony, whereas Bosola advances through deceit and immoral means.
To sum up, Webster has made this idea of indispensable subordination – and the inescapable act of embracing it – a prominent theme in The Duchess of Malfi. Through Bosola and Antonio, two extremely different characters, Webster has evoked the question of whether a rise in social status or power necessitates the admission of inferiority. The answer is an unsettling truth which Webster demonstrated through this play. It is proven that there is no escaping it; our inferiority cannot be ignored when an advancement in life is at stake. It is an answer that is manifest in the question itself, for why would there be a need to ‘rise’ at all if we are not inferior in some way?
Chastity and Reputation in The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire
In Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, and Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, written in 1947, both men consider the themes of chastity and the effect chastity has on the main female characters’ reputation within society. Both are widows, but Blanche is desperate to remarry after fleeing her reputation of promiscuity, while the Duchess is unashamed of her sexuality and marries a man below her social status secretly, against the wishes of her brothers. Blanche is greatly concerned with appearing pure, while the Duchess is more concerned with her own happiness and power.
Both plays were written at times of a Patriarchal society, so a woman’s chastity was key in determining society’s outlook on her, which Williams and Webster investigate. Webster explores the value of chastity through the brothers’ control of the Duchess, for example their attempt to arrange a marriage between her and Malateste. ‘Malateste’ means ‘bad testes’, which, combined with the mocking of his masculinity in Act 3, Scene 3, for example ‘He has worn gunpowder in’s hollow tooth, // For the tooth-ache.’ It can be believed that Ferdinand wants the Duchess to marry a relatively weak man who couldn’t control her, so that position would be left to him; alternatively, this paired with Ferdinand’s allusions to incestuous feelings towards the Duchess may suggest that he hopes that Malateste will not have sex with the Duchess, and her chastity will remain as it is. Webster also demonstrates Ferdinand’s resistance against the Duchess’ sexuality in Act 1, Scene 1, when he responds with ‘Whores, by that rule, are precious’ to a progressive statement on female sexuality made by the Duchess. This shows the strength of how much Ferdinand values the Duchess’ chastity, as he shuns her for even considering the notion. Webster also shows the effect the Duchess’ lack of chastity has on her fate in her death scene – just before she is strangled, the executioner says ‘Here’s your wedding ring’ as he shows her the noose. Webster is essentially revealing that the Duchess’ marriage is what will kill her – her marriage went against the wishes of her brothers, who wanted her to remain a widow, and her disobedience has ultimately led to her death. This was potentially foreshadowed by Ferdinand threatening her with a poniard in Act 1, Scene 1 and Act 3, Scene 2, when her sexuality and marriage is being discussed. Webster explores the societal value on chastity through the unhealthy desire of the Duchess’ brothers (mainly Ferdinand) to control it. This can be challenged by the critic Christopher Hart, who wrote that ‘The two brothers are not driven by any sense of possessive outrage, however warped, but by a delight in malice itself, a “motiveless malignity” even against their own flesh and blood,’ suggesting that the brothers were controlling for the sake it being controlling, rather than ulterior motives, although the Ferdinand’s actions disprove this.
Williams also explores the value society placed on chastity through the male characters’ treatment of Blanche after finding out about her past promiscuity. Mitch’s shock, shown by Stanley telling Stella that Mitch thought Blanche ‘had never been more than kissed by a fellow’ in Scene 7, shows the value of chastity, as Mitch has expected purity and chastity from Blanche, despite her past marriage. Mitch’s shock eventually develops into rage and disgust, as in Scene 9, he tells Blanche ‘you’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.’ This suggests that Mitch doesn’t actually care about her past and what reputation she has, but that she is no longer pure to him, which fuels his rage and belief that he can use her for sex, shown by his attempted rape of Blanche. This mirrors the Patriarchal society, which retained traditional values that placed women on a moral pedestal above men, resulting in double standards that expected women to remain pure, while male promiscuity was accepted. Simone de Beauvoir’s book ‘The Second Sex’ explores the idea that women are second to men, which matches the ideas and expectations of each gender in a Patriarchal society. Williams has Stanley use mocking named for Blanche, such as ‘Sister Blanche,’ ironically comparing her to celibate nuns, and saying that she is ‘no lily.’ The metaphor of a lily evokes an image of purity, as white connotes virginity – which Blanche no longer has, but the reproductive organ of a lily stains anything it touches, which mimics how Blanche’s sexuality has tarnished society’s view of her, which suggests that she is like a lily. Finally, like how Webster suggests that the Duchess’ marriage led to her death, Williams does the same through Blanche’s journey to Stella and Stanley’s apartment. First she takes the streetcar named ‘Desire’, then one called ‘Cemetaries’, getting off at ‘Elysian Fields.’ This physical journey is a metaphor for Blanche’s demise, as her sexual desire led her to her death, and the Elysian Fields was the afterlife in Greek mythology. Both Williams and Webster explore the dangerous levels of value placed on chastity through their cautionary tales.
Webster and Williams also consider how important a good reputation was in society at the times both plays were written. Blanche’s desperation to keep a good reputation and hide her bad reputation due to fear of being a societal outcast is evident in her avoidance of light, which Williams used as a symbol of the truth. Williams writes in the stage directions that when Mitch rips the lantern off the light bulb in Scene 9, Blanche ‘utters a frightened gasp.’ Her fear demonstrates the importance of reputation, as she is scared of the consequences now Mitch has literally been enlightened on the truth of her past and subsequent reputation. When Stanley tells Stella of Blanche’s past, he says that ‘she is as famous in Laurel as if she was the President of the United States, only she is not respected by any party!’ The likening of Blanche’s infamy to that of a politician, only Blanche has a lack of respect, suggesting that politicians are immune to disrespect can be linked to Webster, as the Duchess’ reputation culminates in her office being taken away from her, as the Pope had heard of her ‘looseness.’
Webster also looks at the effect of reputation being important had on male characters, and not just sexual reputation – the Cardinal murders Julia because he ‘knew thou couldst not keep my counsel.’ Webster is suggesting that he fears that Julia exposing him for his role in the murder of the Duchess, possibly as well as his affair with a married woman, will harm his reputation as a man of the church. In Jacobean theater, corruption in the Catholic church was a common feature, as it was an easy target for the anticlericalism in Protestant England. This is redundant, as the brothers already have a bad reputation for corruption, shown by how Webster’s metaphor of a plum tree in Act 1, Scene 1, where Antonio says that they are ‘rich and overladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them,’ implying that they are extremely powerful but surround themselves with a bad crowd.
Blanche and the Duchess are presented as unbothered by their own chastity, but Blanche is definitely more concerned with her reputation than the Duchess. The Duchess keeps her relationship secret, but is she just concerned about the reaction it will get, saying the she is ‘going into a wilderness.’ She is most likely worried due to her brothers expectations and attempts to control her chastity, which is proven to be a rational fear when Ferdinand tells her ‘for thine own sake // Let me not know thee,’ warning the Duchess not to reveal the father of her children’s identity for his safety, The only person who initially knows of the marriage and identity is Cariola, which suggests that the Duchess trusts the woman, as women could be more sympathetic about female sexuality, which can be demonstrated by Cariola saying she ‘owes her much pity’ for the conflict between the Duchess as a woman and the Duchess as the Duchess of Malfi, The Duchess’ almost-pride in her sexuality and lack of shame can be seen when she says to Ferdinand, ‘why should only I // Of all the other princes of the world // Be cased up like a holy relic?’ showing her frustration at the double-standards that society had about male and female sexuality. The comparison of the Duchess to male princes can be interpreted as complimentary, and Webster demonstrating her strength, but feminist-readers may question why a female character could not be viewed as strong as a female holding political office.
Blanche is desperate to marry anyone so she can seem respectable – looking for affection from anyone, not bothered with who, just that she’ll get it. Her concern for her reputation is evident when she says to Stella, ‘You haven’t heard any – unkind – gossip about me?’ the break that separates and emphasizes ‘unkind’ shows her to be tentative, implying that she is so concerned about her reputation that she doesn’t even want her sister to know about it and the reasons for it. Blanche tells Stanley she was born under Virgo – ‘the virgin’, which is a clear, explicit example of how she wants people to think of her as virginal. Some of Blanche’s difficulties can be traced to the narrow roles open to females during that period. The 20th century critic Lynn Spampinato says that ‘although she is an educated woman who has worked as a teacher, Blanche is nonetheless constrained by the expectations of Southern society. She knows that she needs men to lean on and to protect her,’ which explains the causes for her behavior. She wears a ‘white suit’ with ‘white gloves and hat’, which corroborates the view that she tries to present herself as pure, as white has connotations of chastity and virginity. Her ‘fluffy bodice’ appears like angel wings, also contributing to her presentation of herself as pure. Williams compares Blanche to a ‘moth’, which dislike and are confused by light, which leads to their demise (often death), which is a symbol of how the light, which is a symbol of the truth ultimately leads to Blanche’s demise.
Both Webster and Williams consider the importance of chastity and the effect it has on reputation, both women seem to be unconcerned with their chastity, while male characters tend too react negatively to their lack of chastity, most likely influenced by society’s approaches to women, however Webster presents reputation as more important as male characters were concerned with their reputation, not just female characters.
Forbidden Tastes are the Sweetest: Motivations and Desires
John Webster explores the attraction of that which is forbidden in a plethora of ways. The nature of the attraction, and the powers that determine that which is forbidden vary throughout. However, the theme remains manifest in all the instances discussed in this essay. It is clear that a strong comparison can be drawn between ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ concerning the theme of attraction to the forbidden.
One of the first allusions to the theme of attraction to the condemned is that of Bosola discussing the corrupted and morally repulsive nature of Ferdinand and the Cardinal. He states that “He and his brother are like 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.” This demonstrates how he is aware that their actions within the court are utterly reprehensible and therefore arguably morally forbidden. However, later in his discourse he mentions how he “would hang on their ears like a horse-leech till I were full, and then drop off.” Despite being aware of the moral bankruptcy of the brothers, he is prepared to submit himself to an internally self-destructive moral conundrum in the pursuit of monetary and social patronage. He depends on this patronage to sustain himself as due to his previous criminalities, he has been forced to surrender part of his autonomy to the brothers. This notion of pandering in the court would’ve resonated especially with the Jacobean audience of the period. James I’s court was notoriously plagued with corruption; it was an institution abundant with those tasting the financially and socially sweet fruit that is political sycophancy. A key tenet of renaissance tragedies is the greater emphasis on an anthropocentric world view. Therefore, God and the divine becomes a lesser element within the plays. This change is also paralleled in the morals of renaissance plays as ethical paradigms shifted to that which is more self-serving as opposed to the teachings exemplified in religion. This explains the sycophancy within the court of James I, and also Webster’s cynical depiction of the courtiers in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. The mention of “plum-trees… o’erladen with fruit” can be interpreted as an allusion to the forbidden fruit of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Although in ‘Paradise Lost’ the tree in the Garden of Eden is presented as somewhat divine, it truly represents the transition into a postlapsarian era and the fall of man. Therefore, the crooked plum tree metaphor that Bosola talks of is similar in that it represents sin and sycophancy, and vices of mankind, akin to the tree in the Garden of Eden.
The marriage of the Duchess and Antonio is also a clear example of attraction to the forbidden. For Antonio, he is socially forbidden to marry the Duchess as he would be marrying above his status and overreaching. Although Antonio acts against the social construct that forbids their marriage, he simultaneously participates in it, as he upholds many social expectations of him, even minor things such as doffing his hat. In the Jacobean period, it was considered a gross violation of societal norms for nobility to marry those considered unworthy of their wedlock. Despite this, and the Duchess’ brother’s inevitable violent repercussions, Antonio goes ahead with the marriage anyway. Although his pursuit of this marriage is self-destructive, his demonstration of a lewd incitation of both lust and love for the Duchess with his lengthy speech in Act 1 Scene 2 shows that he is prepared to risk well-being in virtue of love. He revels in her rapture and the ecstasy within her speech; “For her discourse, it is so full of rapture, You only will begin then to be sorry when she doth end her speech”. This demonstrates how he considers the Duchess to be arguably the sweetest taste of all. Furthermore, the fact that she is forbidden in the social sphere to Antonio may be the cause of his desire and love for her. However, an alternative interpretation would be that it is false to draw a connection between the Duchess being socially forbidden and Antonio’s intense attraction towards her. There is nothing to explicitly suggest that the cause for his attraction to the Duchess is due to the fact that she is forbidden, although it can be entertained as a potential factor for his love.
The dynamic of the marriage can also be looked at from the perspective of the Duchess, as she too would have been forbidden to marry. Although the brothers did suggest marriage to a few potential suitors, including Bosola, it is clear through later dialogue that they wish for her to remain unmarried. This is primarily so that the financial wealth of the Duchess isn’t shared and drawn out from the family. Like Antonio, the Duchess would’ve been socially forbidden from marrying Antonio because of the general public disdain for marrying outside of one’s class. The Jacobean audience of the period would’ve shared this sentiment and would argue that policy should be upheld. It should be noted that the primary source of the play was ‘The Palace of Pleasure’, which is a text that would’ve argued for the condemnation of the Duchess’ marriage as she is marrying below her quality. Quality was determined by one’s position in society, and she is violating an accepted societal norm by ignoring Antonio’s quality. The statement of ‘forbidden tastes are the sweetest’ seems most applicable here, as it can be argued that part of the reason she pursues Antonio is because by doing so she realizes the ability to demonstrate her autonomy, and becomes an explorer of the unknown. She is a woman employing her freewill, which was largely uncommon, and therefore by pursuing Antonio she is combating patriarchal social confinements that attempt to bar her from doing so. The Duchess would’ve also been forbidden from marrying Antonio on a potentially legal and moral level. If her previous marriage was not annulled, then it would be incredibly improper for her to then marry again. The contemporary audience of the time would’ve been aware of this and therefore would be less sympathetic towards the Duchess. The audience wouldn’t have been afforded the same social mobility as a more modern audience would be, so this must be considered when contemplating how they would react. A present-day audience would be far more sympathetic to the Duchess than a contemporary Jacobean audience and therefore this must be considered when investigating Webster’s portrayal of characters. The Duchess’ actions are the catalyst for the tragedy within the play, linking to the theme also present in ‘Paradise Lost’, where straying women bring about final destruction of their societies. The Duchess and Eve are both not free from blame as although they acted with no malicious intent, they both brought downfall upon themselves and their loved ones through their disobedience to social structures. It can be argued that they were naive to believe they could challenge or overcome these structures.
A clear instance in the play that would relate to the statement would be that of the apricots in Act 2 Scene 1. That which is forbidden in the play usually can be categorized as either socially, morally, or legally forbidden. These events and occurrences aforementioned are intrinsically forbidden, however the apricots are forbidden consequentially. The act of eating an apricot is, of course, not forbidden in and of itself. However, for the Duchess, they are forbidden in relation to her because they expose her, and they also expose that which is forbidden. People of the renaissance era believed that pregnant women craved fresh fruit, and that apricots specifically would induce labor. Webster’s contemporary audience would’ve been acutely aware of this and therefore the mention of apricots would’ve immediately alerted them to the danger that the fruit possessed for the Duchess. There is a plethora of relations that can be drawn to ‘Paradise Lost’, relating to the forbidden fruit and the acts of women. In an aside, Bosola says “How greedily she eats them!”, demonstrating the Duchess’ intemperance. This relates to Paradise Lost as the intemperance of women (the Duchess and Eve) directly causes their downfall. Eve too cannot resist the temptation of the fruit and therefore succumbs to her intemperance and eats it. This directly leads to her and Adam’s downfall. There are also similarities in the perpetrator who seduces the woman of both texts, Bosola and Satan. They both present the fruit as something that should be eaten, and they both deceive the women into exposing themselves. Another relation can be drawn between Adam in Paradise Lost’ and Antonio; they are both men who suffer because of their partners succumbing to temptation. Furthermore, the apricots not only are forbidden as they will expose the Duchess, but what they expose (the pregnancy) is also forbidden too. The baby is the result of a potentially illegitimate marriage as the previous marriage of the Duchess is suggested to have not been annulled. This would’ve meant the Jacobean audience, who were more concerned about the holy sanctity of marriage and the legitimate procedure of the sacrament, would’ve had less sympathy towards the Duchess for marrying Antonio whilst not properly ending the marriage with her previous deceased husband (as aforementioned).
The statement ‘Forbidden tastes are the sweetest’ also relates to forbidden sexual desire. For example, Julia is a forbidden fruit for the Cardinal, as this adulterous relationship is forbidden both socially and morally, and furthermore the Cardinal’s position in the Church means that he should be abstaining from sexual relations anyway, making his sexual fraternizing even more shocking. This exposure of corruption within the Church parallels David Carnegie’s statement “the Church stripped of its disgusting roes be revealed as barbaric.” The actions of the Cardinal would’ve greatly shocked a renaissance audience; however, the severity and scandalous nature of his actions may be lost on a present-day audience. In an attempt to combat this, directors of recent renditions of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, notably Kevin Spacey, have gone as far as to have the actors portray sex on stage in order to attempt to incite the same outrage as a Jacobean audience. The most prominent example of a forbidden relationship is the incestuous relationship that Ferdinand desires with the Duchess. He has an intense desire for her, but recognizes that it is socially and morally forbidden so he attempts to conceal it. Upon Bosola’s inquiry as to why Ferdinand wants him to survey the Duchess; “Do you not ask the reason; but be satisfied. I say I would not.” Ferdinand’s taboo desire arguably stems from his obsession with maintaining a purity of blood, and hence why he is so disapproving of the Duchess marrying anyone else. It can be alternatively argued that this isn’t the case as Ferdinand does suggest different suitors for the Duchess, however it seems clear that he doesn’t truly intend for these marriages to come to fruition and he suggests them simply to maintain the mask of not having incestuous desires for the Duchess. This desire motivates a lot of his actions throughout the play, however upon realizing that the Duchess had married Antonio and produced children with him, his motivation shifts. No longer is the forbidden sweet taste an incestuous relationship with the Duchess, but instead it has become murderous revenge. His revenge killing of the Duchess is also forbidden in moral, social, and legal fields, however the sating nature of revenge means that the sweetness of this forbidden action makes it impossible for Ferdinand to violate the Duchess in this way.
To conclude, it is evident that there are multiple observable instances of forbidden tastes being the sweetest. Although there are instances in the play where forbidden tastes are shunned, such as Bosola’s protestations to torturing the Duchess, and his general shift in motivation towards the end of the play. However, it remains clear that sweetest tastes are forbidden, as all the main character’s primary motivations are forbidden. The Duchess and Antonio both desire each other which is socially forbidden as it’s a violation of marrying to one’s quality. The Cardinal desires to retain power and he does so through information from intelligencers and sycophants which is morally dubious. Ferdinand’s primary desire is to keep the Duchess from marrying so she can retain her economic wealth (which he ultimately can control), but also, he is motivated by an incestuous desire. Therefore, I would argue that it is clear that there is a clear theme of intense attraction to the forbidden. Webster’s reason for making this theme so prevalent was likely to comment upon the flaws of the society in which he existed and participated in. He would’ve observed the panderers of James I’s court, and the social confinement of women. His position as a social outcast would likely have inspired sympathy for women, so therefore he portrayed the Duchess as a moral center of the play and a victim of that which is socially forbidden. The social constriction of women limits her from actualizing her morally good desires; to love Antonio.
Death in Context: Analyzing the Characters of The Duchess of Malfi
In ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ the characterisation of the protagonists allows the concept of death to be explored deeply. Webster’s portrayal of the Duchess marks her embracement of death as she appears to be prepared for her fate, whereas the Cardinal is shown to be terrified when truly exposed to the idea of mortality. This is due to their contrasting beliefs with regards tot the afterlife – as the Duchess has faith that she will united with her loved ones after death, whereas the Cardinal shows no ushc beliefs. This suggests that although the characters are shown to be aware of death, their unawareness of what may await after impacts the way in which they perceive their end.
Webster captures the characters’ awareness of death via their ability to embrace their end – this is particularly apparent with regards to the Duchess’ execution scene. Despite the fact that the Duchess is fully conscious of her inevitable end, she remains composed and ‘kneels’ to her death. She then simply states ‘come violent death’ – this marks her collected nature, as Webster suggests that she is almost content with her sentence. The Duchess’ unfazed attitude is marked by her cry ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ which again demonstrates that although she is aware of her physical end, she is also aware that her name will remain alive throughout history. This provides a contrast to the presentation of the Cardinal, who is shown to fear death rather than embrace it. This is exemplified via Webster’s use of short cries from the Cardinal in his death scene, such as “Help!”, “My dukedom for a rescue!”, “Help, help, help!”, therefore presenting his death as far less graceful. R.S White regards the Duchess’ death as somewhat valiant, describing the play as a ‘tragedy of a virtuous woman who achieves heroism through her death’. This stresses her bravery, indicating that she is clearly aware of mortality, unlike the Cardinal who remains determined to escape death. One may also argue that Webster’s decision to portray the Duchess’ death as courageous is evidence of his nature as a an author with some feministic leanings. This is due to the fact that Webster almost illustrates the Duchess as superior to her male subjects – many of which are shown to be afraid of death (notably the Cardinal and Ferdinand). This positive presentation is far ahead of Webster’s time, as during the 17th century women were largely regarded as inferior and significantly weaker than men, therefore it is somewhat ironic that Webster has chosen to reverse this stereotype and allow his female protagonist to adopt a role with many conventionally masculine traits. It could be debated that this approach from Webster is consequent of the contemporary societal context, as throughout the 1600’s death was by no means unusual – especially in the city of London which was often plagued by disease. The high rates of infant mortality and homicide are likely to have influenced the outlook of Webster, as it’s evident that death was regarded as normal to an extent.
Despite the apparent acceptance of death from the Duchess, her awareness of what lies after death differs to other characters in the play. The Duchess is shown to be a strong believer in the afterlife; for example when speaking to Antonio she explains that they will ‘know one another in the other world’. This allows Webster to suggest that the Duchess’ faith in a safe afterlife is what grants her the ability to face death peacefully. The portrayal of the valiant Duchess is reflective of the contemporary context, as during the 1600’s both England and Spain remained predominantly Christian nations; Catholicism and Protestantism forming a key part of society. This meant that many people of this period believed in an afterlife, which was not only a Christian belief but also provided them with a sense of comfort – due to the fact that the mortality rates were extremely high. A modern audience may regard this belief as somewhat foolish and unreliable, therefore one could argue that the Duchess perhaps convinces herself that she is aware of what awaits after death – merely as a form of self-comfort. Nevertheless contemporary audiences will have shared the same perception as the Duchess herself, meaning spectators would have been more likely to sympathise with her and belief her embracement of death is characteristic of traditional Christian teachings.
When considering the characters’ awareness of death, it is clear that this differs as a result of their beliefs of what awaits after death. This is likely to have been largely influenced by the views and societal contexts surrounding Webster – as the normality of death means that the characters are generally aware of their end. Despite the fact that both the Duchess and the Cardinal meet their end in the play, their different feelings towards the afterlife slightly hinders their perception of death – as the Duchess sees it as a triumph to be united with her family, whilst the Cardinal is shown to be reluctant and scared; perhaps Webster has characterized him in this manner to stress the irony of his unreligious ways.