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Critical Analysis

Reaffirming the Male Ambition in John Webster's
The Duchess of Malfi

Throughout Webster's tragedy the Duchess is defined not through her ideals, as noble as they may be, but through Webster's characters' twisted definitions of the Jacobean patriarchy. Her demise at the conclusion of act four is indeed caused by her marriage to Antonio. However, the marriage to Antonio can only be seen as indirectly causing her downfall. The marriage is subverted by the Duchess' defiance of her brother's warped sense of patriarchal conventions concerning widowhood. As I hope to show, the Duchess did not defy social conventions concerning the remarrying by widows. Rather, Ferdinand and the Cardinal's depiction of a sadistic patriarchy twists the noble marriage into something horrific and this, not her marriage to Antonio, is the true cause of the Duchess' downfall.

The first lengthy depiction of Ferdinand and the Cardinal clues the reader to the fact that Malfi's patriarchs are disturbed. Although the description comes from Bosola, the reader soon learns that the malcontent's view of the Duchess' brothers is accurate. Bosola describes the pair as "plum trees that grow crooked over / standing pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but / crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them" (I.i.46-8). The "crooked" reference applies to their corruption of the court. This corruption is not withheld when concerning their sister and her affairs. Crows, pies (a bird of evil omen), and caterpillars also suggest their corruptive behavior at court, here symbolized by a stagnant pool where nothing (e.g. equality for women, etc.) can grow or be nurtured.

Antonio’s opening description of France’s idealic monarchy contrasts what the reader soon discovers to be the corruption of Ferdinand and the Cardinal, Malfi’s patriarchs. Antonio states: “Considering duly that a prince’s court / Is like a common fountain, whence should flow / Pure silver drops in general, but if ‘t chance / Some cursed example poison ‘t near the head, / Death and diseases through the whole land spread” (I.i.11-5). The “cursed example” mentioned is the poison at the head of Malfi’s court, namely Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s corruption. Antonio also foreshadows the Duchess’ death when he instructs Delio that “Though some o’ th’ court hold it presumption / To instruct princes what they ought to do, / It is a noble duty to inform them / What they ought to foresee. - Here comes Bosola” (I.i.19-22). The “noble duty” to inform the Duchess what she “ought to foresee,” her murder, is a duty not undertaken by any of the characters in Webster’s drama. The entrance of Bosola here signifies him as the Duchess’ executioner. Antonio also comments on the presumption of Ferdinand and the Cardinal to instruct the prince (the Duchess) on how she should run the court of Malfi. As Antonio allusion shows, Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s corruption will spread death and disease throughout the land, its wrath not excluding their sister the Duchess. Ironically, the diseases caused by the brothers’ corruption inverts on themselves when Ferdinand suffers from lycanthropy at the close of Webster’s play.

In Christy Desmet's discussion "In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama," Ferdinand and the Cardinal's motives are made clear. The dialogue of both brothers throughout the first act suggest that Desmet is correct in thinking that they "build their argument on a litany of common female faults: because women are all driven by lust, widows who remarry are not far removed from whores. Naturally shameless, women also neglect their reputation; and weak in both mind and will, they succumb easily to amorous advances and smooth tales of courtship" (Desmet 79). Yet the Duchess' actions seem to refute this concept of widowhood. Indeed, Antonio does not court the Duchess. In fact, the situation is reversed. The Duchess removes her wedding band and places it on Antonio's finger. In a sense she courts him and explains (or perhaps defends) her actions: "We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us; / And as a tyrant doubles with his words / And fearfully equivocates, so we / Are forced to express our violent passions / In riddles and in dreams, and leave the path / Of simple virtue, which was never made / To seem the thing it is not" (I.iii.145-51). Here the Duchess defends her actions through defending Antonio's worthiness of nobility. At the same time, her brothers' twisted ambitions suppress and distort simple virtues into riddles and dreams. Desmet's argument concurs, stating that "not only does Malfi's Duchess work assiduously for virtue during the day, she has such innocent nights that even her dreams are as chaste as other women's 'shrifts' (I.ii.115-33)" (Desmet 79).

Desmet’s argument continues this theory, exploring the idea of the Jacobean female prince’s “body politic:” “By emphasizing his sister’s femininity, Ferdinand seeks to deprive her not only of her life and political title, but of her very identity. The Duchess defends herself against Ferdinand’s stereotypes with stoic exemplars of her own, choosing to die like Brutus’s faithful wife Portia” (84). In order to clarify this argument, a further step must be taken. Female sexuality does not inherently threaten the integrity of the body politic until viewed from the corrupt male characters’ point of view. No evidence exists within the play which suggests the Duchess uses her sexuality to further her political position. Rather, the Duchess uses her sexuality in order to distinguish a clear separation between her body natural and her body politic; a need for a private life separate from the political realm, a separation her corrupt brothers are unable to recognize. Desmet’s argument further substantiates this claim, refuting Lord Tennennhouse’s idea that “womanhood and sovereignty are logically incompatible” to “shed light on the fate of Webster’s Duchess” (81). Again, these arguments are only justified when viewing the Duchess from her corrupt brothers’ point of view. As I intend to show, the Duchess remained within societal sexual limitations concerning widowhood. She only exceeds the boundaries when seen from the twisted views of her corrupt brothers.

A historical comparison between Arabella Stuart and Webster's Duchess lends evidence to the Duchess' remaining within societal norms concerning marriage by widows. Sara Jayne Steen's essay "The Crime of Marriage: Arabella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi" asserts that "responses to Stuart suggest a more complex historical interpretation is in order" (Steen 62). Steen's argument parallels King James/Ferdinand and Arabella Stuart/ Duchess of Malfi. In a historical context, Stuart's marriage to William Seymour parallels the Duchess' situation. Seymour/Antonio was of a lower station and the marriage was not condoned by King James/Ferdinand. Steen provides evidence that "before Stuart's escape [related to the Duchess' fleeing from Malfi], both young Prince Henry and James's chief adviser, Robert Cecil, urged James to be lenient" and "James's English advisers saw little danger in the marriage" (68-9). Steen reports that the Florentine secretary, too, recorded the widespread court anticipation of a happy outcome . . . The people who thought so were engaging in wishful thinking, but to them love was an extenuating circumstance, even at court and even when the woman was of royal blood" (70). Steen's most convincing argument also relates to love as an extenuating circumstance: "Clearly some Jacobeans regarded the separation more as a violation of the marriage than the marriage as a violation of anything" (70). Perhaps Webster intended for his theatrical audience to hold the same views concerning the Duchess' actions. Either way, existing evidence proves that citizens and theater attendees alike would not have automatically condemned the Duchess' marriage to Antonio (63).

Many critics chastised Stuart for her actions. Steen clarifies and refutes their argument: “The crime as Clement Edmonds saw it when he wrote his brother about the marriage was the immorality of lying: the couple had promised that they would never marry without consent, then did so, and that was wrong. A pamphlet writer branded Stuart a descendant of Eve, an unruly woman who had ‘touched pleasures in order to transgress,’ an accusation more revealing of misogynistic than royalist fears” (68). These misogynistic fears parallel Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s actions toward their sister. In a sense, the Duchess was forced into lying because of her brothers’ irrational fears of losing their places at court. These patriarchal fears instigate the chain reaction leading to the Duchess’ downfall by blaming these fears on her marriage to Antonio. Quoting Harley, Steen also provides contextual evidence from the church to support her theory. A Bishop named “Durham assured himself and others ‘God in time will move his Majesties hearte to haue Compassion vpon her,’ apparently unconvinced that Stuart was damned on theological grounds since he expected God to argue her case” (70). This endorsement from the church suggests that neither Stuart nor the Duchess’ actions were outside societal boundaries.

Dympna Callaghan’s discussion on “Feminism and Tragedy” falsely agrees with other critics’ claims that the Duchess defies the boundaries of family/politic. She states that “Marriage is a ‘state’ ordained by God, and the implication is that the married state constructs the State (that is the organised, centralised government of a country) and not the other way around. Marriage, moreover, as the foundation of the family, is also the foundation of the family/State analogy. Rebellion over the marriage issue constitutes a very serious threat to the order of the State” (21). A critical point which Callaghan fails to recognize is that the Duchess theoretically already controls the state by her title which should allow her to marry as long as she remains within the societal rules for remarriage. From this perspective, a more rational conclusion would be that Ferdinand’s incestuous and political ambitions replace the state’s official views on the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio.

Elizabeth Oakes, in her essay "The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity," provides further evidence in the play that the Duchess goes to great lengths to remain within societal boundaries for widows. Her argument begins by stating that “the importance of Webster’s depiction of the Duchess’ widowhood lies not only in his exonerating her but also in his using the dynamics of her marital status to construct and then deconstruct a female hero within the genre of tragedy” (51). Continuing, Oakes argues for the rights of the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio: "Although remarriage was not uncommon for widows of all ages [and, in fact, critics have shown that remarriage was common for young widows], a year's wait was customary. As William Heale phrases it, a woman who 'remarrieth within her yeere of mourning, is by the law free from infamy, but by the lawe also adjudged unworthie of mattrimonial dignity.' Although no definite time is reported in the text, the ritual mourning period seems to have passed, because the Duchess has been giving parties. In fact, it is to talk about 'these triumphs [festivities] and this large expense' (I.i.365) that she calls in Antonio to inspect his accounts of her estate. Surely a lady of her rank would not have breached custom so, and surely Ferdinand would have commented on it if she had" (Oakes 55). Ferdinand's lack of comment on this aspect of the Duchess' ambition leads to his own motives. Clearly the Duchess makes every effort to remain within societal boundaries. The problem arises when Ferdinand's assumptions about his sister's ambitions and his own desires, both sexual and political, enter into his decisions.

Oakes’ argument proceeds a step further, justifying the Duchess’ choice in marriage to the reader. Webster “presents the Duchess as choosing well, diminishing the difference in rank between her and Antonio” (57). Antonio’s opening speech signifies his noble ability, relating the purity of the French court to Delio. This speech places Antonio as a noble figure, worthy of marrying the Duchess. In Oakes’ words, Antonio’s speech “introduces a standard into the play from which we can clearly judge the two brothers . . . Indeed, they reject him as a spy on the Duchess, deeming him, according to the Cardinal, ‘too honest for such business’ (I.i.230)” (58). In Webster’s tragedy, “before [Antonio] marries the Duchess, he shows some gentlemanly skill when he wins the ring at jousting. Moreover, [he is] morally superior to the brothers” (57). Webster clearly shows that Antonio is worthy of nobility which leads to the corrupt motives of the Cardinal and Ferdinand.

Ferdinand’s motives also must be explored in order to justify the Duchess’ marriage to Antonio. Partly using a discussion from Nicholas Brooke, Frank Whigham’s rational argument sheds light on the Duchess’ corrupt brother: “Brooke emphasizes how Ferdinand’s courtly appearance constitutes an ‘absolute spectacle’ (‘laugh when I laugh,’ ‘The Lord Ferdinand / Is going to bed’ [III.i.37-8], ‘the Lord Ferdinand laughs’ [III.iii.54]) (Brooke, 52, 54, 61) . . . This pattern of distancing objectifies those below Ferdinand, as mere reflective witnesses to his absolute surpassing. His embattled sense of excellence insists on ontological separation from those below, but his frenetic iteration of this motif suggests its ongoing failure” (Whigham 267). This failure of Ferdinand’s is perhaps one reason which causes Ferdinand’s inability to view Antonio as worthy of acquired nobility. Other of Ferdinand’s irrational desires and reasons also suggest his “ongoing failure.”

One cannot discuss Ferdinand's motives toward his sister without considering Ferdinand's false assumptions concerning the Duchess' political ambitions. Desmet quotes Leonard Tennenhouse's description of the Duchess' body politic: "In the Jacobean period, however, there appears a second notion of the body politic, which represents 'the female body - . . . specifically that of the aristocratic female - as the symbol and point of access to legitimate authority, thus as the potential substitute for blood and a basis for counterfeit power.' Under these circumstances, female sexuality threatens the integrity of the body politic" (80). By analyzing Ferdinand's actions throughout the play, the reader can justify this theory as one of Ferdinand's motives for the supression and eventual murder of the Duchess. Therefore, the Duchess does not transgress Jacobean societal boundaries on widowhood, but transgresses only her brother's opinions on how she should conduct her private life.

In “The Duchess of Malfi: tyranny and spectacle” Karin Coddon justifies the Duchess’ actions through the malcontent Bosola. Coddon claims that in Webster’s tragedy “melancholy is chiefly emblematic and instrumental, bound to visible strategies of corrupt political practices. But this overt appropriation of madness by the authority to which it is ostensibly antagonistic does not structurally efface the space of transgression. Rather, it opens up a different, but significant, site for contestation as well as for subjectivity: the private and domestic sphere that the resolutely sane Duchess and Antonio strive to occupy” (4). This argument reinforces the corruptibility of Ferdinand’s desires when contrasted with the “private sphere” the Duchess seeks to obtain. Ferdinand’s corruption is seen further when Coddon states that “the spectacle cannot show the ideal but only narrates it, for representation is itself implicated in the corrupt world of dissembling but opaque appearance” (5). This “appearance” represents the public motives of Ferdinand versus his true, private motives, revealed in part when the “madness in the play becomes a material instrument of an equally diordered power” (4). Ferdinand’s corrupt desire to control both the public and private life of the Duchess ultimately ends in death and madness. This corruption is the true cause of the Duchess’ downfall, a corruption perhaps instigated but not directly caused by her marriage to Antonio.

The masque of madmen Ferdinand sends to the Duchess' chambers in act IV also lends evidence to the Duchess' nobility and Ferdinand's twisted ambition. By presenting the madmen to a sister who still clings to noble virtue, Ferdinand "forces the Duchess to see and experience all those vices which should make her, as a female governor, unfit to rule her dukedom and her fortune . . . Ferdinand's allegory of woman's proverbial madness, vanity, and impiety is therefore an exercise in identity manipulation; demonstrating through association that the Duchess shares the vices common to all women, he seeks to prove that she is not, properly speaking, a female prince" (Desmet 84). I would take this argument a step further by postulating that the combination of Ferdinand's incestuous desire for his sister and his own political ambition causes his warped sense of female vices and that these vices are initially defined by the patriarchy to subjugate women into subservient roles. While the Duchess' intended separation of body politic and body natural causes much debate, the Duchess' actions and motives are not driven by political ambition, but rather driven by a need to seek her own identity in a world where the patriarchal Ferdinand does not allow her a public or private identity.

Through Ferdinand murdering his sister, Webster attempts to reaffirm a stable patriarchy. Oakes contends that "the Duchess comports herself in a way that is congruent with her society's mores, but not with her brother's wishes, and in the end he wins" (52). The Duchess' claim before she dies that she is "Duchess of Malfi still" (IV.iv.128) can be seen not as an affirmation of her power in the face of patriarchy, but, as Oakes eloquently states, "with that title she negates her relationship with Antonio: she becomes the woman carved in stone that Ferdinand wanted her to be" (52). In other words, the Duchess reverts to Ferdinand's wish for her to be a chaste widow and shuns her marriage to Antonio, ultimately giving in to her brother's depiction of the patriarchy.

Ultimately, Webster's patriarchy fails to reaffirm its stable identity in act five due to the corrupt nature of its leaders. After the Duchess' death and before Antonio is "mistakenly" murdered by Bosola, the corrupt Cardinal and Ferdinand attempt to bring Antonio back to Malfi for execution. The Cardinal gives Antonio's land to his mistress Julia, herself a sign of the Cardinal's corruptibility, and Antonio replies that they "fortify themselves with my ruin!" (V.i.37). The scene here shows that the Cardinal attempts to "fortify" the patriarchy, but ultimately fails to do so due to both his and Ferdinand's corrupt nature. While the Cardinal attempts to reestablish the patriarchy, Ferdinand echoes his own madness with a retreat into lycanthropy, a fitting end for a corrupt political leader.