My research on John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi spans the last eleven years of scholarly material, including books, book chapters, essays published in literary journals, and thesis dissertations. The topic range of criticism on Webster's Duchess is astounding. The diversity of critics' arguments range from a historical medicinal perspective (in the discussion of the masque of madmen in act four) to feminism. For clarity, I will group the criticism into three categories. First, critics explore the sexual issues of the play, concentrating mainly on the Duchess and Ferdinand's complex relationship. The malcontent Bosola also receives some minor discussion in this area as well as Julia's relationships with both Delio and the Cardinal. Secondly, many critics attempt a conclusion based on historical contexts, ranging from the author's personal issues to linking the Duchess with historical females in political power. Critics debate on the appropriate historical figure to which the Duchess should be linked, but several convincing arguments are presented. Lastly, and most abundantly, critics read The Duchess of Malfi using feminist ideology. The feminist perspective seems the most popular among critics and constitues the bulk of criticism on Webster's tragedy.
When discussing sexual issues in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi critics focus mainly on the Duchess and Ferdinand's complex relationship. In Theodora Jankowski's article "Defining/Confining the Duchess, Negotiating the Female Body in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi," Jankowski discusses the Duchess' use of sexuality in terms of her "body natural" and "body politic": "despite the character's failure to create a successful means by which she can rule as a woman sovereign, she challenges Jacobean society's views regarding the representation of the female body and woman's sexuality" (222). Jankowski focuses on the ramifications of Ferdinand's desire to control both the political and natural body of his sister, the Duchess. Ferdinand refers to "the poniard (and his implicit threat to use it) and to the lamprey/tongue/(penis) imply[ing] the demand (and desire) for more intimate sexual knowledge" (229).
Lori Haslem's essay "'Troubled with the Mother': Longings, Purgings, and the Maternal Body in Bartholomew Fair and The Duchess of Malfi takes an interesting stance on male (Ferdinand and the Cardinal's) perception of female sexuality. Haslem states that the play "develops a thematic association between the digestive process and the course of pregnancy" (451). Continuing her argument, Haslem states that "Tudor and Stuart conceptions held that, as a widow, the Duchess would be all the more prone to 'fits of the mother' because the uterus of a sexually inactive woman was more likely to wander" (451). Haslem uses several discourses between Ferdinand and the Duchess to show that the male perception of female sexuality links the female gastronomic with sexual appetites (452).
Critics have also taken the stance that the Jacobean perception of female sexuality implies greater political overtones. Laura Behling's article "'S/He Scandles our Proceedings': The Anxiety of Alternative Sexualities in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi" and Frank Whigam's "Incest and Ideology" both stress the political ramifications of the Duchess' sexuality. Behling proposes 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). Behling's argument centers on the idea that the Jacobean society seeks to eliminate any ruler, regardless of sex, who threatens the order of society (35). The danger [to society] "is posed by anyone, whether male or female, who is gendered masculine by virtue of her/his power and who threatens the patriarchy through sexuality and an unnatural disruption of the bloodline" (35). Whigam's article takes a more historical position on sexuality, claiming that the Duchess and Ferdinand's relationship represent "the friction between the dominant social order and emergent pressures toward social change" and can be read "in light of anthropological notions of incest" (263). The essay defines the anthropological view of incest as that which "emphasizes not sex relations but the maintenance of institutional forms" and links this definition with Ferdinand's behavior and the "all-embracing issue of social mobility" (266). Whigham's essay, like many other critical views of the play, focuses on Ferdinand's incestuous desires for his sister, relating these desires to political change: "Both the taboo and its infringements are thus seen as social products, determined by the pressures and limits of particular social formations" (264). Whigam continues discussing the limiting structure of societal boundaries through the Duchess's desire for an identity of her own and Ferdinand's desire for his sister: "The problem of mobility of identity is palpably at the center of the cultural consciousness . . . the class-endogamy pressure specifies an outer frontier of licit marriage, which the duchess trespasses, just as the incest taboo marks the inner wilderness, where Ferdinand longs to dwell" (265-6).
Different genres of historical criticism related to Webster's play are also persued by several critics. My discussion will focus on three essays: William Kerwin's "'Physicians are like Kings': Medical Politics and The Duchess of Malfi, Jameela Lares' "The 'Duchess of Malfi' and Catherine- of-Valois: Historical Model for John Webster's Play," and Sara Jayne Steen's "The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi ." Kerwin's essay blends the theatrical role of the Jacobean physician with that of Webster's political figures and describes both as corrupt. Focusing on the masque of madmen Ferdinand sends to the Duchess's chamber in act four, Kerwin argues that the play's "medical theater displays how claims to ancient and disinterested tradition can cover up base interests; here, the masque is connected not only to the dark forms of nature - 'ravens, screech-owls, bulls, and bears' - but also to the court of Malfi, the 'common fountain' (I.i.14) which has become poisoned" (96). Kerwin's argument focuses on how the "play undermines [the] very act of specialization by aligning physicians with the most unstable sources of Jacobean authority" and how the play's "use of medical theater - the representation of healing as a performance - repeatedly connects the authority of educated physicians and the attenuated legitimacy of the court at Malfi" (96). Kerwin's argument repeatedly focuses on the relationship between Jacobean physicians and politicians, claiming 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" (97).
Jameela Lares and Sara Jayne Steen both take a purely historical reading of Webster's play, postulating on the historical woman figure on which Webster might have based the Duchess. Lares first discredits the popular trend in historical criticism to link Arabella Stuart to the Duchess. A more apt reading, Lares contends, is the linking of Catherine of Valois to Webster's Duchess: "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). Lares' argument against the Duchess's correlation to Arabella Stuart is flimsy at best. Lares bases her argument on the fact that Arabella did not marry "as far below her station" (208) nor did she conceive children with her second husband, two points which become irrelevant when considering the other similarities between Arabella Stuart and Webster's tragic heroine. Sara Jayne Steen's article not only convincingly links the Duchess to Arabella, but contends that "responses 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 believes that contemporary audiences would not have automatically condemned Stuart or the Duchess for her actions. Rather, the problem arises when considering the "immortality of lying: the couple had promised that they would never marry without consent, then did so, and that was wrong" (68). Steen supports her argument with textual evidence from the period showing that not all political figures disapproved of Stuart's marriage, signifying that "some Jacobeans regarded the separation more as a violation of the marriage than the marriage as a violation of anything" (70). Steen convincingly relates Stuart's historical context to Webster's Duchess, showing how the opposition to the Duchess and Stuart's marriage reveals more of "misogynistic than royalist fears" (68).
Lastly, a popular genre of criticism for Webster's tragedy lies in feminist theory. My discussion will consider three perspectives on Webster's play: Christy Desmet's "'Neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife': Rhetoric of the Woman Controversy in Measure for Measure and The Duchess of Malfi," Elizabeth Oakes' "The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity," and Dympna Callaghan's "Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil." These three sources present the most conclusive, interesting arguments on Webster's play when approached from a feminist perspective.
Desmet's feminist perspective argues 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" and "men who blame their own crisis of identity on the women resort to stereotypes of female vice" (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's correlation with historical occurences. 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). Indeed, the basis for her brothers' treatment of her is founded on common Jacobean feminine stereotypes not necessarily pertaining to the Duchess: "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" (79). This false assumption relates more to Ferdinand's own identity issues than to the Duchess. 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).
Elizabeth Oakes' essay considers the Duchess's fatal decisions through the context of Jacobean social and religious conventions. From a feminist perspective, Oakes argues that "the Duchess is so easily within the bounds of her society in remarrying that her widowhood is not the cause but the context for her martyrdom" (51). Oakes' argument details several different instances within Webster's play where the Duchess maintains the social requirements for widows. The feminist perspective seen here sets the Duchess' decisions in marriage as exemplary of relevant social constructs. Oakes then deconstructs the downfall of the Duchess through the patriarchal conventions not of Jacobean society, but of the misrule of the patriarchy by the Duchess' brothers. Oakes contends that Webster "uses the nuances of contemporary attitudes and customs about widowhood to make her virtually blameless" (66). Oakes concludes that the Duchess "dies netted in a construct conferred by the society, not one she won but one she was given" (66).
Callaghan's essay "Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy" approaches Webster's text from a feminist political perspective. Callaghan claims that her analysis "extends the fundamental premise of feminism, namely that gender is a crucial category of analysis . . . by positing that the gender opposition is probably the most significant dynamic of Renaissance tragedy, and that the gender categories produced both within and outside dramatic text are precarious and problematic" (3). Callaghan begins by deconstructing the ideology of Jacobean England, stating that it is "profoundly hierarchical. It affirms the legitimacy of a patriarchial society in which power emanates from God the Father down through king and lord, to every man whose domain is woman" (9). She then states that her argument will not "be concerned with the degree to which . . . Webster followed or deviated from any given prescription for tragic form available in the period, but rather with the perimeters of the concept tragedy in a more ideological construction" (50). Using other criticism, Callaghan also discusses the correlation between "female transgression [and its] important relation to tragedy, which does not mean that in it femininity is valorised, but rather that femininity is punished with what Sidney called 'sweet violence' (a phrase redolent with sadistic eroticism)" (50). The author's discussion of Webster's Duchess focuses on the tragic consequences of female transgression in a patriarchal, Jacobean society: "At the level of transgression (and therefore of tragedy), female characters frequently serve to demystify the assumption that 'man' is at the centre of his universe" (63).