Duchess of Malfi

Duchess of Malfi

In The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, the Duchess is introduced as an independent and young woman who has lost her husband. As a widow, the Duchess has complete power over Malfi and her court, a power usually held by a man, and her all male court is under her command. The reversal of power is made starkly apparent as Webster illustrates the Cardinal and Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brothers, as being hostile and oppressive and Antonio as being a man struggling to find his own identity and position in society.

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On the other hand, the Duchess is spirited and defiant as she chooses to follow her ideas instead of being easily influenced by the male-dominated world she lives in. Throughout Acts 1-3, the Duchess’ relationships with Antonio, Ferdinand, and the Cardinal depict her struggle for power and her independent nature through her thought that “We are forced to woo because none dare woo us” (1. 1. 434). The Duchess is depicted as a completely isolated character with no strong female companions of her status.

Although she does confide in her maid, Cariola, she ultimately rejects Cariola’s warnings about “jesting with religion” (3. 2. 313) and believes that she is a “superstitious fool” (3. 2. 314). Merely known as “the Duchess,” a title which she would not have had without her deceased first husband, she is all alone in her society. As a woman, the Duchess refuses to be submissive to men. She ignores Ferdinand’s requests not to marry again (1. 1. 249), and thus she takes the initiative to court Antonio, a steward whom the Cardinal does not believe highly of and deems him of being “too honest” (1. . 223). Allowing passion to overcome reason and disregarding her brothers’ warnings not to marry again, the Duchess goes forward with her plan to marry Antonio and affirms her desire to act in a manner that pleases her. Instead of Antonio wooing her, the Duchess persuades Antonio for his hand in marriage and is the voice in their relationship. Single-handedly, the Duchess creates their relationship suited for marriage, and Antonio cannot even speak on his own behalf as he declares “Truth speak for me” (1. 1. 51). Duchess understands Antonio’s inability to speak up for his wishes and reminds him who is the authority in their relationship by stating, “I would have you lead your Fortune by the hand” (1. 1. 482). Recognizing the odd role reversal in their courtship, the Duchess states “The misery of us that are born great, / We are forced to woo because none dare woo us” (1. 1. 433-4). The Duchess seeks to define Antonio, as she is the one who removes her wedding band and places the ring on his finger (1. 1. 396-400).

Trying to persuade him, the Duchess even mentions the “wealthy mine” that Antonio could have power over if he weds the Duchess (1. 1. 421). Antonio, still struggling to find his self-definition, succumbs to the Duchess’ continuous physical affections and her words as he claims that the Duchess’ words should have been his (1. 1. 464). His insecurity is contrasted with the Duchess’ confidence in her actions and thoughts as the Duchess convinces him that they “now are one” and leaves no room for him to protest (1. 1. 485).

She continually orders him around by telling him when to kneel yet Antonio is so weak that he is unable to speak against the Duchess (1. 1. 466). The Duchess’ manipulation of Antonio and power over him proves to be successful as she is able to convince him to marry her. Being easily influenced by the Duchess, Antonio is unable to act without her command. While Antonio has improved his social status, he cannot openly enjoy his new social position because of its secretive nature. When Ferdinand threatens the Duchess, Antonio merely hides even though he realizes that he should defend his wife because of his “warrantable love” (3. . 148). The Duchess’ strong character illuminates the evil and darkness surrounding this scene as even in immediate danger, she is courageous and declares, “whether I am doom’d to live, or die, / I can do both like a prince” (3. 2. 68-9). The Duchess is not afraid of death whereas in comparison, Antonio’s actions are not linked with his bold words as he cowardly carries around a pistol for his protection (3. 2. 141). Although he tries to appear that he is in control by claiming that he is “standing on [his] guard” (3. 2. 147), he actually is a frightened young man as he cries out, “How now?

Who knocks? More earthquakes? ” when he hears knocking (3. 2. 154). The Duchess is the one that must calm him down, and he listens to the Duchess’ commands to “instantly part hence” as the Duchess has planned everything out already (3. 2. 159). Even though Antonio is the Duchess’ husband, he is not the stereotypical man in their relationship as he relies on the Duchess for everything. He throws himself onto her as he declares to the Duchess, “I am all yours” (3. 2. 203). While the Duchess is manipulating Antonio and is complete control over him, Antonio does nothing to gain power ut instead remains submissive to the Duchess’ desires. Furthermore, Antonio’s nervousness as the Duchess’ husband is depicted by his self-deprecating banter with the Duchess. He teases her that his husbandly rule is “only in the night” and by the day, he has a different job, to remain as the Duchess’ steward (3. 2. 8). Since Antonio has to keep his marriage as a secret, his sexual relationship with the Duchess seems to better classified as adultery. His continuous joking of “labouring” with the Duchess throughout the night indicates that his role in their relationship is merely a physical one (3. . 17), which makes him uneasy. He compares himself in bed with the Duchess to workers who hate their job and are “Glad when their task’s ended” (3. 2. 19) However, with the Duchess controlling him, Antonio does not feel comfortable enough nor does he exhibit signs that he wants to talk with the Duchess about their lack of a real and meaningful relationship. His jokes indicate his insecurity in his new position as now that he is married to the Duchess, all the former social boundaries should be demolished.

Instead the breaking down of social barriers has not occurred as the Duchess is still in control over her husband even though Antonio is a male in a patriarchal society. The change proves to be too much to Antonio as he is unable to gain power and thus, is forced to remain in control by the Duchess. Besides Antonio’s lack of power, Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s desire for control over the Duchess greatly conflicts with the Duchess’ own struggle for control in a male dominated society. Ferdinand’s controlling nature is made clear as he exclaims, “courtiers should be my touchwood, […] laugh when I laugh” (1. . 120-22). His desires to control his sister are more extreme as suggested by the idea that the Duchess’ and Antonio’s explicit passion for one another is miniscule compared to Ferdinand’s strong feelings for his sister. Ferdinand’s incestuous desires are obvious from the very start when he hires Bosola as a spy to “observe the Duchess” (1. 1. 20). When prompted by Bosola on the reasons why he does not want his sister to marry again, Ferdinand brushes off the question and exclaims Bosola to “not ask the reason, but be satisfied” (1. . 250). Even when speaking directly to the Duchess, Ferdinand speaks with overly apparent sexual innuendo as he declares that “women like that part which, like the lamprey, hath ne’er a bone in’t” (1. 1. 328-9). In his frustration and anger with the Duchess’ secret marriage to Antonio, Ferdinand’s violent and hateful side emerges. Ferdinand bitterly claims that his sister has become a “notorious strumpet” (2. 5. 4) and declares that she has no shame in her actions (3. 2. 80-1).

His lustful idealization of his sister is destroyed, and the emotional investment in his relationship to his sister is now deemed worthless. Ferdinand’s obsession with his sister is juxtaposed with the Duchess’ free spirit and disregard for other people’s opinions. While the Duchess selfishly follows her heart instead of thinking about others and Malfi, she still remains in control over her relationships. Only on occasion does the Duchess show some poor judgment. She carelessly disregards her brothers’ capability to stir up trouble and declares, “time will easily / Scatter the tempest” (1. . 463-4). Besides disregarding her brothers’ potential, the Duchess also disregards the opinion of the common people who believe that she is a “strumpet” (3. 1. 26) by stating “Let old wives report / I winked and chose a husband” (1. 1. 340-1). Additionally, being blinded by her passion for Antonio (1. 1. 482) and thus losing some of her ability to notice the details, the Duchess easily puts too much faith in Bosola by telling him of her plans with Antonio in Act 3. Even with her faults, the Duchess still is able to retain control over Antonio and acts in a manner that pleases her.

Throughout Acts 1-3, the Duchess, the female protagonist of Webster’s play, is forced to struggle for her own independence and power as her brothers’ attempt to control her to behave in a manner that they see fit. Her relationship with Antonio and her disregard for her brothers’ opinions reveal her rebellious nature and her courage to break social norms by secretly marrying a male who is of lower rank. The Duchess’ strong character is a cause for trouble as the men in the play have difficulty in dealing with her independence which ultimately leads to the destruction as seen at the end of the play.


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