How and where does the Duchess distinguish herself as a very remarkable woman in a man's world?

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Jonathan Hobbs        -  -        5/7/2007

How and where does the Duchess distinguish herself as a very remarkable woman in a man's world?

The Duchess is clearly the central figure in the play and manages to dominate proceedings, despite the untouchable power of her brothers and the firmly established patriarchal system in early-16th century Italy.  She displays many admirably qualities, although her courageous strength and passion could be perceived as threatening in a male-dominated society.  The Duchess is the sole female figure with any sort of power and respect in Webster's play.  This is unusual firstly, because he based The Duchess Of Malfi on a version by William Painter in which the Duchess was portrayed as too lusty in a sternly moralistic fashion honourable as opposed to honourable.  Also, although the Duchess is never referred to by her name, she is a very individual character and, having no female equals, conducts herself very well as a free spirit in a world of stifling constrictions.

The Duchess exhibits her free will and nonchalance toward her brothers' controlling nature by marrying Antonio irrespective of their opinions.  In response to Ferdinand and the Cardinal's bitter diatribe against remarriage, the Duchess wittily responds completely unafraid, "I think this speech between you both was studied, / It came so roundly off."  Not only does she marry against the rule of jealous men, but also, she marries someone she loves instead of using her body as a tool of commerce as was common with fathers practically selling their daughters to their husbands.  The Duchess breaks the accepted rules regarding station as Antonio is a commoner and not a highly respected courtier, who was worthy of receiving the family's riches, as would have been expected.  She deserves a lot of respect for her courage and the way she avoids using her body as a means for political power by allying warring factions or providing heirs for a lonely despot with her childbearing capabilities.  The Duchess is a kind, grounded optimist, not a hardened realist who is cold and distant to emotions such as passion and love.  She clearly cares very much about Antonio as is shown by their coyly shy and flirty courting ritual and the way she takes the impetus daringly risking herself by offering him her wedding ring – "I did vow never to part with it / But to my second husband."  Again, this highlights how adept she is at coping in a world primarily controlled by men – as a high-ranking Duchess, it is she who must make the proposition.  Similarly, notice how it is the Duchess, not Antonio, who later makes the plans for their escape.

The Duchess is a very human figure who the audience can relate to much more easily than to the insecure megalomaniac Ferdinand or the cowardly Cardinal who carefully plots people's death.  She evokes much sympathy with her emotional speech after offering her to Antonio with lines such as, "The misery of us, that are born great" and "This is flesh and blood, sir, 'tis not the figure cut in alabaster".  However, she is a particularly tragic heroine because all the while she stretches out and desperately reaches for freedom from social constraints and her brothers' authority, she pulls death closer and closer.  Perhaps her fatal flaw is lustfulness or her desire for liberation but, either way, she dies for what she believes in.  Her wretched naïveté in failing to see through Bosola's duplicity and over-trustful innocence in being conned so easily arouse a strong sense of compassion and pity.

The Duchess says in a soliloquy that she does not care if she will be remembered to have "winked" or chosen a husband without thinking of the consequences but the audience is shown that, in fact, she is very aware of what she has done.  Antonio's warning, "He's a fool that, being a-cold, would thrust his hands i'th' fire to warm them" is a reminder that she has set the ball rolling and that her death is now only inevitable and is chillingly underscored by her reference to signing his "Quietus est", like some morbid kiss of death.  It is hard not to feel any pity for the Duchess when considering the position she is in.  All she wants to do is act on her strong emotions and try to break free from the restrictive grasp of her title and all that comes with in.  However we know the Duchess' dreams are all futile and her actions desperate.  It is most heart-rending when she ecstatically exclaims, "I prithee, when were we so merry?" having, at last, found true happiness moments before her world falls apart and she is forced to abandon her children with no hope of seeing them alive again in one of the play's most emotional scenes.

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The Duchess is very intelligent and a witty charmer who can verbally outmanoeuvre her brothers in an argument with ease and does not need her lines to be italicised to allow the aphoristic sententia to shine through.  She is very noble and, with everyone around doing so, does not actively plot against anyone, but is unwittingly forced to deceive out of necessity.  The Duchess' positive traits such as her cunning and strength allow her to stay sane through Ferdinand's elaborate series of tortures.  She is rather ambitious but she has failed to plan for the inevitable and she is independent ...

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