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 in that she puts her pleasure and personal issues before those of the state. Perhaps she secretly believes that the justness of her cause will be sure to triumph, but she is too romantic a character and, in direct opposition to Ferdinand's callousness, the Duchess disregards his potential for evil saying, "Time will easily scatter the tempest". However, in the end, her marriage has ended and most of the cast including her husband and two children are dead. Even so, she tragically dies with the famous line, "I am Duchess of Malfi still" in much dignity and for what she believes in even after surviving the trials of a twin long ago turned mad.
She emerges most strongly through her wit and refreshing optimism. The Duchess always secretly hopes she will get away with it but, nevertheless, is a strong individual who is the prime mover in the play and forces events to revolve around herself. After all, in this world so dominated by uncaring men she is the only person she can rely upon both physically and spiritually. Throughout the play, she admirably refuses to be subservient to men and creates great freedom for herself. She is resolutely defiant and unrepentant but accepting to the last: "whether I am doom'd to live or die, I can do both like a prince". This is a poignant line, which illustrates the best of the Duchess – eloquence, bravery, honour and a sense of deserved womanly pride.
There are many reasons why Antonio is so smitten with the Duchess. Firstly, in true fashion, she actively woos him and goes out of her way to seduce the man she lusts after. Her timeless wit, maternal aura and domestic cheer all would have attracted an honest man such as he. She is not only very sensual and beautiful, but clever and can ably stand up for herself unintimidated by the men around her and without resorting to using her body. Despite the Duchess' near-solitude in her tragic journey she never seems helpless, but motivated and, even during the most harrowing times, is a steady figure of female empowerment. She mournfully observes, "The birds that live i'th' field / On the wild benefit of nature, live / Happier than we" which shows her closeness to nature and is associated with maternal instinct. Animals are faithful, kind and are not warring or spiteful unlike men. In striving to be more like them, the Duchess hopes all humans can leave behind their long disseverance from natural, instinctive reactions and learn to be acceptant and live in happiness.
The Duchess does "Stain the time past and light the time to come" in that she was a female character far ahead of her time. She shows qualities that would have been extirpated and deracinated by the court system long before in lesser women and her resoluteness and intelligence make her a true heroine. Her great beauty, compassion and strength all but eclipse anyone in the past and her remarkable charm and free spirit are a promising hope for generations to come. The Duchess is far ahead of her time and as a woman is an encouraging symbol for times ahead. Even though her struggle required so much torment and took so many life, the on-going battle was greatly furthered and the respect and admiration she attracted did a lot toward her goals for Malfi and beyond.
- Respect and admiration – marries for love, intelligent and witty charmer, doesn't plot herself, only duplicitous out of necessity, stays sane through Ferdinand's torture,, , strong, independent, intelligent, witty, cunning, ambitious.
- Pity – cos of Ferdinand and no way out, has to married but knowingly condemns them both to inevitable death – futile and desperate, "oh I pray, when were we ever so happy?", tragic heroine, however hasn't planned or seen through Bosola, dies for what she believes in despite only privately caring about herself – personal before state, naïveté and innocence in being conned
- Emerge most strongly – wit and sententia, wishful thinking in hoping she'll get away with it or no-one will ever find out, prime mover, doesn't plot against, accepting and dignified death, refuses to be subservient to men, only herself to rely upon – physical and spiritual solitude. Defiant and unrepentant: "whether I am doom'd to live or die, I can do both like a prince", take initiative in planning escape.
- Why Antonio besotted – because clever and pretty sensual
- "Stain the time past and light the time to come" – see above, hope for the court.
Webster likes using aphoristic sententia. Nature thingy.
Along with The White Devil, one of John Webster's more famous plays. Our heroine, the Duchess, has already married and is now a widow. Her vile brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, urge her not to remarry, but she defies their wishes and marries Antonio, a lowly clerk. Bosola, a malcontent spy for Ferdinand, discovers the Duchess' pregnancy through a mistake of Antonio's and reports this back, sending Ferdinand into an insane rage.
Ferdinand travels to Malfi to investigate and overhears the Duchess and Antonio talking. As Antonio leaves, he confronts her. She attempts to flee into exile, but she is captured while Antonio is able to escape with their eldest child.
The Duchess is taken back to her palace at Malfi where Ferdinand's hideous psychological tortures await her. He locks her in a dark room, shows her what she thinks is Antonio's and her children's corpses (but is actually a wax replica), and surrounds her with the insane. However, the Duchess keeps her head and dies nobly- which is more than can be said for her servant Cariola.
Antonio, not knowing any of this is happening, attempts a reconciliation with Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Meanwhile, Bosola, moved by the Duchess' death (and Ferdinand's refusal to pay him) seeks to kill the brothers. Spying on the Cardinal, he manages to obtain the keys to their house and sneaks in. Unfortunately, he mistakes Antonio for the Cardinal and kills him instead. The Cardinal and Ferdinand arrive, and the three manage to kill one another, just in time for Antonio's eldest child to arrive and take control of the country which is rightfully his.
About the Play
Webster took a lot of the source for this play from Painter's "Palace of Pleasure", although the message has been heavily changed. Painter presented the Duchess as a lusty widow, and although this can be seen at some points in Webster's text, she is more able to justify her actions- and, more importantly, to act nobly when the situation demands it.
As with a lot of Webster's work, the body count is high and the tone is dark. The former is typical of the "revenge tragedy" genre. The Duchess, Cariola and her children are strangled. Julia, the Cardinal's mistress, is killed by kissing a poisoned Bible. Antonio is killed by accident, and Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal kill each other.
The events are very melodramatic and extreme, and about as far detached from reality as a play could be. Ferdinand is furious and threatening- almost a pantomime villain, so unable to control his temper that he becomes stricken with madness and suffers an attack of lycanthropia.
Finally, it is worth mentioning Webster's ever-shifting viewpoint. During the play he never allows the audience to make up their mind about an issue, whether it is Antonio's marriage above his station or Bosola's morality. Each character justifies his actions, although some, of course, are more easily justified than others.
In standing up to her overbearing brothers, and in her delightful seduction of Antonio, the Duchess demonstrates her most attractive character traits: strong, passionate, sensual, courageous, independent, intelligent, witty, cunning, ambitious. “In temperament she is a heroine of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy” (Ornstein, in Morris, John Webster, Mermaid Critical Commentary, 147). These qualities, which most of today's audience would find admirable, were potentially threatening to a male-dominated society.
Webster's primary source for his story (mostly true to history), William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567), shows less sympathy for the Duchess, taking a strict, moralistic tone, condemning her for being too lustful and for breaking the accepted rules of her social status. Was she guilty according to Renaissance standards of conduct? In Webster's own time, King James had his cousin Lady Anabella imprisoned for marrying beneath her against his wishes.
A modern audience's admiration of her may stem from other values just beginning to be explored in Renaissance thought. From a modern perspective she plays the role of existential hero: going into an unknown wilderness with assurance only in herself. Later in the face of death, she affirms, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii), “one expression of that continual declaration of human independence which proclaims the unique value of a particular human existence in the face of the inevitable triumph of death” (Alexander in Morris, 95). She finds herself a woman lost in a corrupt world of men, having no female equals, a free spirit in a world of stifling restrictions.
In Skull beneath the Skin, Forker remarks, “Since the facts of the Duchess's story cast her so prominently in the role of sufferer and victim, it was important to devise a means for avoiding the impression of abject helplessness and passivity ... Webster had to suggest uptapped reserves of stamina in the character. ... The tragic journey on which she embarks is largely solitary in both the physical and spiritual senses, and ironically this is true despite her romantic motivation. Her husband cannot protect her nor even be at her side in the crisis--a crisis that Webster dramatizes as a wrenching ordeal of self-discovery”(319).
Webster created in the Duchess what Shakespeare never did, a tragic female protagonist (Juliet doesn't act on her own, Cleopatra shares the world stage with Antony) who represents a challenge to social hierarchy and “natural” order:
As a woman she refuses to be subservient to men: she ignores her brothers' commands not to marry, and she takes the initiative to woo Antonio. A rich widow presented a special threat to male-dominated families, as she was now free to marry of her own choosing for love, and to give the family wealth to another man.
As an individual she places her personal desires above the good of the state. In the Renaissance doctrine of the king's two bodies, a ruler was considered to have both a public and private persona; when private self-interest rules, the state suffers (as seen in Richard II, or Marlowe's Edward II). The 16th century cautionary work Mirror for Magistrates depicted the fate of historical rulers such as Julius Caesar who put private concerns before public. The Duchess also places her personal decisions over the authority of the church, being rather cavalier about official rites of marriage and holy pilgrimages; but note that she still believes in heaven.
As a free-spirited individual, she places passion above reason. Many male tragic heroes are known for their powers of reasoning and intricate self-examination (Hamlet, Macbeth, Brutus). However, the common view of women was that their faculty for reasoning was weaker than in men, being more easily swayed by passion, and more easily deceived (as in the case of Eve), thus the need for male leadership in matters of family, church, and state. Truly, the Duchess does show herself a poor judge of character: she too quickly dismisses her brothers' potential for evil (“time will easily scatter the tempest”), later she too easily trusts Bosola with her secret (III.ii). She disregards the opinion of the people (“let old wives report I winked”) and admits to be blinded by passion for her new husband.
Notice how the Duchess' strength of character shines through the darkness of this scene. In the face of death she is defiant and unrepentant: “whether I am doom'd to live or die, I can do both like a prince,” foreshadowing her most famous line in the next act, “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” Once the immediate threat is past, she takes the initiative in planning their escape, not Antonio (whose bold words are seldom matched with action).
The final action provides another contrast between the Duchess' attempt to create a cover story for their escape, which Bosola easily sees through, and Bosola's superb acting as an accomplished liar who convinces the naive Duchess too quickly to offer him her confidence.
On the Duchess' mournful observation, “The birds that live i'th' field / On the wild benefit of nature, live / Happier than we”:
The French essayist Montaigne (1533-1592), whose influence can be seen throughout this play, challenged the common Renaissance and Christian assumption of human superiority to animals, based on the faculty of reason.
As he noted, unlike men, animals are kind to their young, faithful to their mates, and do not wage war against each other. He felt the superiority of reason was overrated, having severed men from their natural, instinctive qualities (which the Duchess seems to possess above her brothers).
William Painter's collection of stories The Palace of Pleasure (1566-67), with the difference being that Painter adopts a judgmental & sternly moralistic attitude toward the duchess because she
proves too lusty and
breaks the accepted "rules" regarding degree or station.
Webster breaks with this tradition: he presents the duchess as courageous, strong and honorable.
Does not use body as means of power, woman as tool of commerce "sold" from father to husband, political power found in child-bearing capabilities.