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Consider the relative merits of each of these judgements of Act 5: The Duchess of Malfi

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Consider the relative merits of each of these judgements of Act 5: 'The true tragedy is with the Duchess. When she is gone, what are Bosola and Julia, what are Ferdinand and the Cardinal but hateful leftovers.' (Evaughan) Act 5 is to be regarded as Webster's achievement of his moral purpose: to pursue to the end his theme of sin and retribution. (Federick Allen) To some extent, I agree that the "true tragedy is with the Duchess." "The Duchess of Malfi hinges around this female protagonist. Right from the beginning of the play she is seen as the 16th century Renaissance stereotype of a 'lusty widow.' The Duchess was expected to fulfil an androgynous role. She had to have the so-called 'manly' intelligence yet appear feminine and motherly. She was expected to be tough and yet submissive. The protagonist was a powerful woman but she is a woman who goes beyond the bounds of social acceptability. 'It shows a fearful madness,' giving the impression of a courageous woman in the 16th century who breaks political constraints. In doing so, she provides light to a somewhat melancholic play. ...read more.


He is the antithesis of Cardinal as both are coldly-calculating and 'sycophants//of the court.' However, Cardinal is comparatively less sinister because Ferdinand is motivated by a somewhat mad and fiery spirit. The spectators will compare the actions of the Aragonian brothers to the Duchess. She has not participated in any sort of corrupt behaviour. It was the narrow minded society at that time which deemed her relationship as unacceptable. Conversely, Cardinal's commits in 'Adultary,' his hypocrisy impresses upon the audience, the unjust and tragic fate of the couple. Their love appears to be untainted and 'sweetly.' The character of Bosola, who services Ferdinand, places him in the category of the Renaissance dramatist 'type,' 'the malcontent.' Although disgustingly unpleasant, he does provide a great comedy element to the play. In light of the 'melancholy' of Act 5 he compares the assissting of his 'murders' as 'applying horse leeches to a rank swelling.' This character is not a 'hateful leftover.' His character appeals to the working class audience who enjoys a 'blood-bath' for entertainment. Webster takes pleasure in the pun in his name. ...read more.


Ferdinand, in contrast has lost his 'lust' and is left to wail 'O my sister.' As he immerses himself in the Duchess's body, the audience is reminded of his sin which he now has to pay for. The mudering of the Duchess and her children illustrates how moral corruption is rife throughout the play. The predicament may also act as a paradigm with which to protest about the society of that time. While it was accepted for a male of power to marry below his rank, it was considered heresy for a noble female to conduct herself in such a way. In this manner, we can question the accuracy of the critic's opinion; 'Webster's moral purpose of sin and retribution' because he partly succeeds in voicing the inequity of the law involving women in Jacobean society. Countering the despair of the last act, is the Duchess's courage and individual integrity, as she faces her death she does 'not' go 'mad' instead, she asserts herself as 'still the Duchess of Malfi.' Thus Allen's critique is not wholly accurate. He appears to suggest that Webster's 'moral purpose' was solely to 'pursue sin and retribution.' Another theme that finds expression in 'The Duchess of Malfi' is an affirmation of merit rather than birth as the criterion of power and 'nobility.' ...read more.

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