Behling, Laura L. "'S/He Scandles our Proceedings': The Anxiety of Alternative Sexualities in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi." English Language Notes. 33, no. 4 (Jun 1996): 24-43.
Behling begins her argument by discussing the idea of homosexuality during Webster's age: "anxiety about transgressing the boundaries of sex and gender suggest that though homosexuality may not have been 'morbidly' feared, it was, at the very least, anxiety-provoking in a society seeking its political and sexual identities" (24). The argument stresses the transformation of the Duchess into a specifically male persona while Ferdinand transgresses into a castrated, if not female, persona. At the base of these sexual transformations is Behling's argument that "what causes the most anxious moments in Webster's stagecraft are challenges to sexual authority, and the dis-ordering of traditional sex and gender relations and hence, political power bases" (25). The Duchess, Behling claims, adheres to this challenge of sexual authority simply by legitimizing her legal claim to the throne, a claim viewed as masculine by the Duchess' opposing, male counterparts, Ferdinand and the Cardinal: "the women's assumption of masculine behavior and the men's submission disrupt the homosocial bonds of male order" (27).
Callaghan, Dympna. Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989.
Callaghan's book on Women and Gender takes a traditionally feminist perspective toward Webster's protagonist, relating the Duchess to other literary women characters of the age such as Desdemona, Cordelia, and Vittoria, as well as historical women figures. Defying modern 'masculine' criticism by Maynard Mack and his essay "The Jacobean Shakespeare," Callaghan believes most "abstract transcendence to femininity is assumed and then defined in relation to men - as an affair. Actual and even fictive women then disappear from view while the positive quality they symbolize is attributed exclusively to males" (57). The bulk of Callaghan's discussion then focuses on the idea of female transgression, explaining how female transgression seems "to be a legitimate, not to say, central category of analysis since it is inscribed within the Renaissance providentalist scheme that women will ever after repeat the transgression of Eve" (59). The author ties this theory of transgression with the actions of Webster's protagonist and concludes that female characters, specifically the Duchess, "cease to be passive victims who exist primarily to embellish the downfall of the tragic hero" (63). Callaghan instead believes that through this transgression the female character in a sense becomes the tragic hero.
Coddon, Karin S. "The Duchess of Malfi: Tyranny and Spectacle in Jacobean Drama." Themes in Drama. Ed. Redmond, James. Vol. 15. Cambridge: University Press, 1993. 1-17.
Coddon's article focuses on "inward subjectivity" and the play's relation to social and political ideas of 17th Century England. The main character epitomizing these ideas in Coddon's argument is the malcontent Bosola. Coddon's view emphasizes the external forces acting upon his individuality. She explains that the "individual - and individuated - mad tragic subject is displaced by emblematic madmen whose 'out of fashion melancholy' no longer signifies internalized contradictions in a disruptive dialogue between subject and authority: it now signifies the external, manifestly public effects of that disruption" (1). The article examines specific instances where authority figures transpose their madness on others. Coddon concludes that the "figuration of authority rather than subjectivity as irrational suggests the conditions under which opposition is generated and legitimized - that is, rendered reasonable" (15). The focus on subjectivity and irrationality is also applied to "drama's productive role in pre-Revolutionary as well as post-Reformation society" (15).
Desmet, Christy. "Neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife": Rhetoric of the Woman Controversy in Measure for Measure and The Duchess of Malfi." In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama. Ed. Kehler, Dorothea and Susan Baker. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1991. 78-88.
In this chapter of In Another Country Desmet uses a feminist perspective combined with rhetoric to argue that the Duchess undergoes "trials of the spirit, enduring the kinds of verbal abuse promulgated regularly by antifeminist writers" (71). Desmet surmises that "the drama affirms traditional hierarchies through rhetorical play" (71). Using theories borrowed from John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women Desmet concentrates on the Duchess' two bodies, that of body politic and body natural, and focuses, in part, on the Duchess' correlation with historical occurences, linking the Duchess with the history of Elizabeth I. Extending beyond Knox's theories, Desmet discusses the feminist implications of Ferdinand's torture of the Duchess. She considers the torture to be representative of "commonplaces about feminine frailty" (82). The portrayal of the Duchess as a pawn in Ferdinand's desire to maintain his own aristocratic identity raises larger social-feminist issues for Desmet. She concludes that "reading the play from the perspective of the controversy over women underscores the fact that a patriarchal culture seeks to define the female ruler out of existence" (86).
Fleche, Betsy. "Cryptonymy: The Theater of Madness and Mysticism of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi." Studia Mystica 14, no. 4 (WIN 1991): 43-69.
Fleche's essay "examines the theatricality of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi alongside Abraham and Torok's theory of cryptonymy from their study, The Wolf Man's Magic Word" (43). She examines the difficulties in Webster's text and discusses the theme of madness through the definition of Abraham and Torok's term "cryptonymy." According to Fleche's source, cryptonymy is defined as naming "a way of reading that is distrustful of the presumed transparency of words themselves and even of the motivations behind revealing a secret. In fact, according to cryptonymy, secrecy and revelation are not oppositional but one in the same" (43). Fleche first disects Abraham and Torok's theories for the reader and explains her argument through their terms. She relates cryptonymy to "the notions of mysticism and madness in order to explore the expression of madness which was so attractive to Renaissance playwrights such as Webster" (43). Fleche explores "the different notions of classical, religious, and secular theatricality respectively in order to examine the particular theatrical use of mystical vision, secrecy, and madness in Webster's play" (43-4).
Haslem, L.S. "'Troubled with the Mother': Longings, Purgings, and the Maternal Body in Bartholomew Fair and The Duchess of Malfi. Modern Philology 92, no. 4 (May 1995): 438-59.
The first half of Haslem's essay focuses on Jonson's Bartholomew Fair where Haslem compares the themes and implications of excretion, and female bodily functions in general, when related to pregnancy and the generalized female persona. Haslem makes the same comparisons when discussing Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Focusing mainly on what Haslem deems the "apricocks scene," she contends that the scene "not only dramatizes anxieties and suspicions about the female body but also elicits them from a receptive Tudor-Stuart audience" (451). Haslem's essay explores the three- fold relationship between female body, the Tudor-Stuart audience, and Webster's intimate relationship with both. As Haslem concludes her essay, she surmises that there "remains a gap between figurative and literal representations of female appetites, between the general idea of a collective female body and the particular representation of a single female body, for it is mainly through . . . Webster's particular portrayals of the body that eats, drinks, urinates, defecates, copulates, expands with pregnacy, and gives birth that [Webster] summons up anxieties and suspicions toward this body" (459).
Jankowski, Theodora A. "Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi." Studies in Philology 87, no. 2 (1990): 221-45.
In Jankowski's article she argues that the Duchess challenges early modern society's perception of the female body and woman's sexuality in general. Like many modern critics, Jankowski first links the Duchess to a political perspective, portraying Webster's protagonist in relation to both Elizabeth I and Mary Tudor, and surmises certain feminist conclusions about the play. The Duchess' two bodies, that of body politic and her private body, are then emphasized, contrasted, and compared in relation to not only her actions, but also to other characters' (namely Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Antonio) perception of her. Scene comparison is also used in the article to explain and theorize a theme Jankowski names the "ideologically contradictory nature of The Duchess of Malfi" (232). Through the actions of the Duchess, Jankowski concludes that the "final representation of [the Duchess] is not as ruler, but as idealized suffering wife/mother/woman. Her cry, 'I am Duchess of Malfi still,' becomes ironic, for this seeming validation of her political self occurs within a context that more completely validates her private self as wife and mother" (243). Jankowski arrives at this conclusion through emphasizing scenes concerning the language of the Duchess' relationship with Antonio and her decision to deny both husband and children a role in her body politic, thus seperating her private life from her public role as Duchess, a decision which the author critiques as one of the Duchess' main flaws.
Jankowski, Theodora A. Women in Power in the Early Modern Drama. Chicago: U of Illinois Press, 1992.
In this longer theoretical profile by Jankowski Webster's overt themes of the Duchess' body politic and body natural and the implications and effects upon her and society are more fully explored. Jankowski deflates recent critics' lack of thoroughness, stating that "rather than attempting to analyze why . . . Webster chose to write of women rulers, or how these women gained and secured political power, or what lessons might be learned from the examination of a female paradigm of rule, critics have, for the most part, been content to contain . . . the Duchess through a series of readings that focus on any aspect of [her] li[fe] except [her] sovereignty" (147). In order to obtain a more concentrated reading, Jankowski focuses and views the Duchess "primarily as a political figure," but clarifies her stance by believing that "each character's success or failure as a ruler depends upon how she is shown to use her bodies natural and politic to serve political ends" (149-50). The author specifies the lack of "good" criticism, refuting Joyce E. Peterson's argument which shows the Duchess as a poor ruler because she places more importance on her body natural than on that of her body politic. Jankowski does not concur: "By not discussing why the Duchess' marriage is so threatening and by reproducing oppressive gender ideologies in an unqualified way, Peterson . . . blunts her argument and simplifies the very complex nature of the representation of 'woman' - especially 'woman as ruler' - displayed in this play" (150). The bulk of Jankowski's argument focuses on these ideas which Peterson omits, shown through dialogue and anaylsis. The author concludes that "while Webster's protagonist is an unsuccessful ruler, the end of act 4 leaves us with a strong picture of the Duchess as a character who would subvert her society's political and soical ideologies by recreating patriarchal discourses regarding marriage" (181). Jankowski then postulates on the purpose of act V and surmises that it is Webster's attempt to contain the political freedoms of the Duchess and restore patriarchal order, an order which is never truly restored because of the corruption of both her Machiavellian brothers and the patriarchy in general(181).
Kerwin, William. "'Physicians are like Kings': Medical Politics and The Duchess of Malfi." English Literary Renaissance. 28, no. 1 (WIN 1998): 95-117.
Kerwin's discussion focuses mainly on the fourth act of The Duchess of Malfi, specifically on the masque of madmen sent by Ferdinand to the Duchess' chambers. His argument states that Webster intermingles the symbol of the physician with that of Malfi's politicians and describes both as corrupt: "Webster's play undermines [the] very act of specialization by aligning physicians with the most unstable sources of Jacobean authority" (96). Kerwin's essay first discusses historical background of physicians in Jacobean England. Upon establishing a solid history of the physician's "role" in society, Kerwin "reads the ways John Webster incorporates medical perfomrances into his critique of a 'sick' monarchy in The Duchess of Malfi" (97). The essay argues that the Jacobean physician acted in much the same way as the theatre actor of Webster's day and that Webster connects "political injustice with a particular style of medical professionalism, asking a viewer or reader to consider connections between rituals of physic and aristocratic misrule. The connection between bad medicine and bad government is one made explicitly by the playwright" (97).
Lares, J. "The Duchess of Malfi and Catherine-of-Valois." Notes and Queries. 40, no.2 (Jun 1993): 208-11.
Lares takes a purely historical perspective on Webster's heroine. While much criticism relates the Duchess with popular historical figures such as Elizabeth I or Mary Tudor, Lares argues that "a more apt though historically distant resonance is the secret marriage of Catherine of Valois to her steward Owen Tudor, grandfather of Henry VII and thus ancestor to both James and Arabella through Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII" (208). Through detailing the story of Catherine of Valois, Lares also makes correlations other than the Duchess. The author compares Ferdinand with "Catherine's brother-in-law, the Duke of Gloucester. He is known to history as 'the good Duke Humphrey', probably because he retained, like Webster's Ferdinand, his popularity with the people, but he was in fact a choleric and lecherous man" (209). Lares' historical interpretation is also related to the turmoil of politics during the time. The "elevation of an heir" is depicted as the most important aspect of Lares' historical argument, and the author believes this point is "explicated [in] the troublesome detail of two heirs in The Duchess of Malfi, including the suggestion of a civil war" (210). The article then branches off and relates the story of Catherine of Valois to other literature including Shakespeare's Henry VIII and Twelfth Night.
Oakes, Elizabeth. "The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity." Studies in Philology. 96, no. 1 (Win 1999): 51-67.
In the first section of Oakes' argument, she joins "several recent critics who exonerate the Duchess by placing her in her historical context" (66). Oakes then proceeds, demonstrating through direct, contextual quotes and related critics' arguments that "Webster was more careful than has been shown in his creation of her. He uses the nuances of contemporary attitudes and customs about widowhood to make her virtually blameless" (66). Oakes continues that Webster ultimately shows "in the character of a woman what the hero loses in the process. The hero's original sin - what he, and, in this case, she, must give up or lose in the genre - is the private life" (67). Oakes states that, in a larger scope, "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).
Price, David Joseph. An Application of Third Force Psychology to Characters in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Cullowhee, NC: WCU Press, 1994.
In Price's thesis, the theories behind "Third Force Psychology" are first explained. Price states that Third Force psychological theory opposes the "better-known theories of Freudianism and behaviorism [and] considers people's actions in the light of a supposed force at work in all humans, a constructive, evolutionary impetus to 'self-actualize,' or to realize their potentialities" (iv). The theory's components and specificities are explained in detail. Price feels that the three main elements of Third Force Pyschology "make it both appropriate and easy to apply in the analysis of literary characters" (6). Price contrasts the positive, self-actualizing efforts of the Duchess and, on a lesser scale, Bosola with the more destructive yet same self-actualizing efforts of her two brothers. Price's study of The Duchess of Malfi argues that "the Duchess and Bosola provide examples of evolving psychological health, and that Ferdinand and the Cardinal exhibit classic neuroses of arrogance and vindictiveness" (v). Using leading theorists' research efforts in the field of "Third Force Psychology," such as Bernard Paris' Third Force Psychology and the Study of Literature and Abraham Maslow's Psychology of Being among others, Price's thesis evolves into a detailed psychological profile of the four characters.
Steen, S.J. "The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi ." Sixteenth Century Journal 22, no. 1 (1991): 61-76.
Steen begins her argument by first discussing common trends in scholarship concerning opposing views of the legitimacy of the Duchess' marriage to Antonio, comparing her marriage to Arbella Stuart's marriage in the Jacobean age. Steen's discussion focuses mainly on Stuart's marriage to William Seymour and its relation to Webster's work. Stuart's marriage "has been rocgnized as a close contemporary parallel to the Duchess of Malfi's case, and reponses to Stuart suggest a more complex historical interpretation is in order, one that more fully acknowledges the tensions within the early seventeenth-century codes of gender and morality" (62). Steen then discusses how "Jacobean audiences [and contemporary scholars] reacted to the Duchess's marriage" (63), postulating that not all scholars and audiences in the Jacobean age immediately condemned the Duchess or Stuart for their actions.
Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. The Norton Anthology of English literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams. Vol. 1. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000. 1432- 1507.
Webster's text of The Duchess of Malfi.
Whigham, Frank. "Incest and Ideology." Staging the Renaissance: Reinterpretations of Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. Ed. Kastan, David Scott and Peter Stally Brass. New York: Routledge, 1991. 263-73.
Frank Whigham portrays Ferdinand and the Duchess' relationship through "anthropological notions of incest" and relates Ferdinand's incestual desire to the predominant issue of the time, social change (263). His reading agrees with past vessels of analysis, "psychological inquiry" and "moral evaluation," but seeks to understand the issue of incest from a basic, societal perspective. He explains that "Webster's interrogation of the highly charged boundary phenomena of a stratified but changing society" is the predominant motive for the play's incest (263). Through direct quotes and secondary criticism, Whigham views incest and its social implications as products of the limits of society. In essence, Whigham's argument centers on the "anthropological view of incest, which emphasizes not sex relations but the maintenance of institutional forms," linking Ferdinand's behavior with the "all-embracing issue of social mobility" (266). Whigham also focuses on what he calls "social absolutes." Ferdinand's perception of the deterioration of social classes is objectified in the Duchess' marriage to Antonio. He argues that Ferdinand's "class paranoia" is one of the major factors contributing to the incest in The Duchess of Malfi (268).
Wilks, John S. The Idea of Conscience in Renaissance Tragedy. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Wilks' chapter on The Duchess of Malfi details his argument for the reasons behind the characters' actions. Wilks believes that "Webster's vision is, in truth, inexorably Augustinian in its harsh awareness of the pitiful inadequacy of man's reason, and the irredeemable depravity of that 'deep pit of darkness' which is for him the natural order of things" (194). At the core of Wilks' argument is the idea that all of humanity succumbs to corruption. Wilks begins his argument by comparing Webster's chaotic sense of corruption in The Duchess of Malfi to the overall sense of "ordered" chaos, or a chaos which reaches some sort of redeemable conclusion, of Shakespeare's works. Instead of focusing on the Duchess herself Wilks discusses the overall themes in Webster's play, using a Calvinist approach to the work. Wilks feels that a Calvinist ethos "goes far towards explaining that curious ambivalence in The Duchess of Malfi, concerning the attribution of moral responsibility, a refractivity of vision which permits all human judgments to return double- edged to plague the inventor, implicating each character in a universal and disabling context of guilt of which he is only partially aware" (199). Wilks continues by focusing on the malcontent Bosola as the prime example of this Calvinist theory. Wilk's concluding comparison uses "contemporary commentaries" on The Old Testament's Book of Job, believing that the similarities "are enough to suggest an important philosophic congruence between the two works, particularly in their approach to the problem of evil, rahter than a straight forward analogy" (209). Wilks uses this comparison to further explore the conscience of Webster's play, concluding with a comparison of Webster and Calvin. Wilks articulates that "man has first to be aquainted with the 'sad misery' which is the very essence, the absolute condition of being human" (220). Wilks believes that Webster, like Calvin, "can see a moral quality in [this] determined act," but shows that Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is in many ways "tinged with pathos," a play darker and more disturbing than suggested by his Calvinistic reading.