The Duchess of Malfi

Powerless Women: How a Streetcar Named Desire and the Duchess of Malfi Illustrate This Theme

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Power is the underlying current that runs through both Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, a 17th century revenge tragedy, and Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, a 20th Century modern domestic tragedy. Both plays offer stark representations of power’s tendency to corrupt, a corruption that often leaves women low in the social hierarchy, with little or no authority. Mens’ thirst for control makes female characters powerless to their authority in fear of punishment if they retaliate. However, women are also depicted as powerless to their own desires and psychological state, a theme that interestingly prevails more apparently in Streetcar than Malfi.

Both Williams and Webster use symbolism and plastic theatre to evoke a cogent sense of female powerlessness. Julia naively ‘kisses’ the Cardinal’s ‘poisoned’ bible, then swiftly dies. The Cardinal’s servants have made their exit before this particular action unfolds, leaving the Cardinal and minor character Julia isolated centre-stage. These proxemics ensure that the pair are at the scene’s cynosure, yet more importantly highlight Julia’s lack of power, as her opportunity to receive help from others is now utterly non-existent. Historians have noted the popular Jacobean stereotype of Italians as vengeful and bloodthirsty, and the juxtaposition of the Cardinal’s insuperable figure over his diminished concubine illustrates this, whilst also being a prominent display of male prowess, thus female weakness. Pathos at Julia’s tragic demise and physical powerlessness may be felt by the audience, yet surprise would not, for violent death is a theme that prevails throughout the revenge tragedy genre- and in this instance portrays the Cardinal’s Machiavellian rancour. The scene’s lurid satire can be wholly appreciated only by a Jacobean audience, who understand the ‘poisoned bible’ as an attack on Catholic revivalism. Protestant Britain responded to the Catholic’s failed explosion of Parliament (1605) with resentment and genuine fear, therefore this crude mockery would have been more than welcomed. The prop also reveals that even faith (a virtue generally perceived as pure) is powerless in the corrupt society of Malfi, where high-status males ultimately dictate what is good or bad, leaving little political power for females, who were left to endure whatever dogma had been decided upon. Whilst the primary cause of Julia’s powerlessness is the malcontent of male superiors, Stella’s helplessness and lack of authority can be blamed on her own insipid spirit and fear of the past, which roots her in New Orleans. However, that there is no male dominance over Stella would be false: whilst Julia is never allowed to rise higher than her status as a mistress, Stanley ‘pulls’ Stella from the ‘pillars’ of her Southern Belle status down to his own social class, demonstrating an inescapable power that forces her to adjust into his lifestyle.

Williams also uses symbolism and plastic theatre to underline Stanley’s brutality and ultimately create a sense of female powerlessness: The radio prop is ‘snatched’ by Stanley before he ‘tosses’ the instrument out of the window ‘with a shouted oath.’ The words ‘snatched’, ‘tosses’ and ‘shouted’ create a semantic field of brutish imagery, which exaggerates the sense of Stanley’s aggressive vigour and the machoism he is so eager to promote. This can be seen as an example of the ‘plastic theatre’ that Williams worked to develop in the 1940’s. Williams felt that the visual and audible aspects of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ should not be disregarded for excess dialogue, as both were equally important in communicating the psychological states of the characters to the audience, as well as developing the themes of the play. One could imagine Stanley (who, interestingly, is also powerless to the male stereotype he must embody) bellowing the ‘oath’ with threatening relish, suggesting Stella’s powerlessness, as any apparent act of authority on her part could be met with a similar outburst of dangerous emotion. In this way, the prop acts not only as a prolepsis for Stanley beating Stella, but also for Blanche’s tragic demise- the rape. The ironic destruction of the ‘radio’ (an object often associated with music) by philistine Stanley symbolises Blanche’s powerlessness to the working class lifestyle as she is unable to orchestrate her ‘finer-thinking’ as a former English teacher onto the household. This character contrast could be seen as a microcosm for the post-war class conflict between the emerging working class and the Old South- a civilisation shaped by wealth and slave labour. The use of plastic theatre also suggests that Stanley’s powerful physique will never be overpowered by the physically weaker sisters, which quickly becomes a pivotal theme. Through the characterisation of Ferdinand, Webster also foregrounds a sense of foreboding for female characters. The imagery within the peremptory ‘take fire when I give fire’ immediately brands Ferdinand, like Stanley, as exhibiting a dangerous desire for control, a tendency which leaves the Duchess powerless due to her lower social status. However, although his incestuous passions ultimately sap the Duchess of any authority, as Stanley’s completely diminish Blanche, Ferdinand himself is powerless to his passions, which act as a vehicle for his crushing demise.

Both playwrights use dialogue to draw attention to the theme of powerlessness: the exclamation ‘Yes- I was flirting with your husband Stella!’ takes place directly after a congratulatory remark regarding Stella’s pregnancy. The exclamation mark suggests a register of ecstasy, connoting Blanche’s thrill when still treated as desirable, tying into the theme of passion pointed in the title and reminding Blanche of her sexual power. This could perhaps reflect post-war American society in which it was frequent for women, so treasured in their youthful beauty, to be discarded as mere objects after a certain age when their comeliness began to decline. Not only was it their looks, but also their sexual purity that would have been treated as nonexistent post this age. Blanche’s eagerness to flaunt her sexual authority is obvious- a pitiful attempt to reassure herself as much as Stella that the male ego is still something she can manipulate. The non sequitur diversion from the prior topic of Stella’s pregnancy suggests the opposite; a newborn would prolong Stanley’s lifestyle for all of it’s upbringing, leaving Blanche no chance to rescue Stella from her husband’s abusive clutches. Alternatively, Blanche’s reference to the romantic dialogue with Stanley, and the non-conventional engagement with Stella’s pregnancy, could connote a sense of her own selfishness, and power over Stella- a hint at her presumed ease at which she could disrupt the Kowalski lifestyle. A darker side to Blanche is revealed when we remember her past exploits of prostitution that funded every ‘one night’s shelter’, and we see how her relaxed ‘flirt{ation}’ serves as a desperate appeal to Stanley for stability, proving her powerless to his will. Imperatively, the scene serves as an ironic prolepsis to Blanche’s final degradation in which sex ultimately leads to her downfall (peripeteia) and complete loss of power. The Duchess is another protagonist whose demise is catalysed by controversial sexual attitudes, however, whilst Blanche is forced to rely on lust as a survival method, the Duchess’ appeal to sex demonstrates her regain of control and indomitable spirit.

Webster also uses dialogue to draw attention to the theme of female powerlessness. At the start of Act 3, the verbal exchange between the play’s antagonists is used to immediately highlight the brothers’ disgust as they discuss an apt punishment for the Duchess’ promiscuity: ’Her fault and beauty, Blend together like leprosy.’ This rhyming couplet highlights the distorted Jacobean misogyny that links together female genitalia and the Catholic ideas of Hell- an association which automatically diminishes the Duchess’ remaining sexual power to a base sin, and ties in with the play’s revivalist motif. One can imagine the bitter spitting of these monosyllables in a 17th Century production of the play- probably mirroring the audience’s disapproval of rewed widows. This disgust- so intense that widows were often blockaded from social circles- manifested from the threat of an economically independent woman with previous sexual experience, who, lacking the authority of a rational male, was at risk of running sexually rampant. The simile of leprosy encapsulates this revolt, and also constitutes Ferdinand’s incestuous jealousy, (which ironically, he himself is powerless to). This emotion will later drive him to lock up his sister, an act that diminishes her social authority and forces a dependance upon him. ‘Leprosy’ perhaps also symbolises Ferdinand’s own malcontent, and the blending of ‘beauty’ being his poisoning of the Duchess’ reign and pioneering spirit. However, the scene not only implies ‘incestuous passion’ but also ‘naked patriarchal power’ (Brian Gibbons); after a brief diversion of dialogue, the brothers discuss their sibling’s banishment to the ‘state of Ancona’ with turn-taking. This display of bleak control forces the Duchess into a place she can be monitored, ensuring that any power to move freely or preach her unconventional social ideology is removed. Whilst perhaps being the play’s most unforgivable moment to a contemporary crowd, this attitude would not be met with surprise by a Jacobean audience whose society deemed female relations as property to be owned by male family members. Similarly, Blanche’s status as a widow leaves her powerless to Stanley’s intolerance, who flippantly asks: ‘You were married once, weren’t you?’ However, whilst Stanley’s inimical actions remain unpunished, Malfi’s antagonists undergo an apt exhibition of karma in their physical deaths.

Both playwrights aim to present their female characters as dominated by the distorted misogyny of the respective societies. Interestingly, Williams divulges a far weaker image of the female sex; both Stella and Blanche eventually succumbing to patriarchal ideals. Whilst the Duchess’ indomitable spirit and haughty resilience distinguish her- even at her deathbed- as an idol worthy of the title, Blanche’s pathetic naivety can only mark her out as powerless: we pity her as the doctor leads her ‘from the portieres’, yet we do not admire. Feminist critics have attacked Williams for this victimising view of women, but I would argue that it is this weakness that allows us to establish human connections; we find ourselves reflected in Blanche’s faults. Whilst Malfi offers a more exultant protagonist, Williams’ motif of powerlessness gives an effectively disturbing insight into the internalised misogyny of 1940s America.

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The Tragic Heroes of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Chapter Three of Leech’s The Critical Idiom: Tragedy (henceforth shortened as Tragedy), the traditional Aristotelian view of a tragic hero is defined as an exalted person, usually of high rank, who is held because of said rank “in a position of recognizable eminence” (34). Eminence is a key component of being and recognizing an Aristotelian tragic hero because it is eminence which gives the hero his or her defining characteristic of holding superiority over others. Leech quotes Aristotle as defining these tragic heroes in terms of being “better than we are” in terms of not just social standing but essence (34). “What is important is the sense of full, or at least unusual, realization of the powers and tendencies peculiar to man. Orestes kills his mother, Oedipus marries his mother and kills his father, Medea kills her children: yet they are, in a sense, more fully themselves than men and women dare to be,” Leech writes, “It must be remembered, too, that in Greek theatre the actor was a remote figure, masked…He stood for the people…But he was representing a king or hero…he necessarily induced awe, a sense of being ‘above’ as he fell” (34). This sense of aboveness is what defines the titular protagonist of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (TDM) as a tragic hero, at least according to Leech’s interpretation of an Aristotelian tragic hero. Here is a woman of high rank, a noble, who occupies by manner of her birth a different space compared to the ordinary person, who is eventually stripped of her innate superiority by the hands of seemingly unforeseeable forces. Webster’s Duchess fits Leech’s interpretation of Aristotelian tragic heroes comfortably in that she is not only noble-blooded and an empowered force within her life, she seems to also be doomed by Fate in a way similar to the classical Greek tragic heroes Leech brings attention to in Chapter Three of Tragedy. Like her classical Greek predecessors, the Duchess suffers “the fall” necessary to mar a works protagonist as a tragic hero within Aristotle’s definition. “A fall there always is, and the tragic writer is inevitably concerned with how it operates. Aristotle insisted that it came through ‘hamartia’, an error of judgement which allowed disaster in. This has always been usually interpreted as involving a kind of ‘poetical justice’…,” Leech writes (38).

However, this is where Leech disagrees with Aristotle when in it comes to defining a tragic hero. Leech echoes the sentiment that Aristotle’s approach to defining tragic heroes might be too limiting because in Nonetheless, although Leech does touch upon the idea of the Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero too limiting in that Aristotle fails to recognize that the “tragic burden can be shared” (45). Leech uses Marlowe’s Mortimer from Edward II and Brutus and Cassius from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to demonstrate how the “tragic position” can be shared despite the stress being on the titular character; and, it is with this relationship between characters like Mortimer and Edward and Brutus and Caesar that the full depth of a tragedy is realized (45). The circumstance of the tragic burden being shared among other characters within a work seems to be the case in The Duchess of Malfi where the play seems to be as much about the murderous yet pitiable Bosola as it is the Duchess. Despite Bosola not carrying the traditional attributes of a tragic hero—Bosola does not possess noble rank or has an essence of superiority—Bosola is still tragic in that his circumstances seem to be just as helpless as the Duchess’s. As with Leech’s examples of plays where the tragic burden is shared, The Duchess of Malfi does not venture too far from this notion; in fact, the symbolism of circles present within the work seems to to encourage the shareable nature of the tragic burden.

Although Bosola and the Duchess are pitted against one another as two competing forces, Bosola being described by Antonio as an opportunistic sycophant who “rails at those things which he wants” while the Duchess is contrasted as the beautiful and virtuous “the right noble duchess”, both Bosola and the Duchess seem to share the same ill-fated destiny that seems to be demonstrated through the symbolism circles have in the play (1.1. 25-35, 1.2. 110-115). The symbols circles represent within The Duchess of Malfi are ideas such as matrimony, the dichotomy between trust and distrust, sovereignty, private worlds and secrecy. From Act 1, circles are included to represent a range of ideas and begin to make its mark as an overarching symbol within the play beginning with the covert marriage between Antonio and the Duchess. In Scene 3 of Act 1, the Duchess, proclaiming her wedding ring to be a cure to one of Antonio’s bloodshot eyes, says that her ring is “very sovereign” and that she “did vow to never part with it/ But to my second husband” (1.3.110). The word sovereign means in this context that the ring possesses healing attributes but it still carries an overtone of royal power[1] because of the Duchess’s nobility. The dual meanings of the word sovereign can also illustrate how the Duchess views her position as dowager of Amalfi in regards to her ability to trump social conventions by marrying someone below her station and expecting critics such as her brothers to eventually concede to her point of view with time (“Yet, should they know it, time will easily/ Scatter the tempest (2.1.170-176). This illustration of the Duchess’ naivety in this circumstance, perhaps more in hindsight rather then as story takes place within the text, may be the symptom of a larger issue relating to the Duchess’ characterization: her pride. Proclaiming one’s ring as sovereign both in terms of healing and royal capabilities can be seen as an example of the Duchess using the privileged space she occupies to persuade her lover to accept her proposal. In “Spiritual Echoes of The Duchess of Malfi” (“Spiritual Echoes”), Hunt critiques the Duchess’ behavior in regards to her treatment of religion and her interactions with her brothers and Cariola; and, Hunt suggests that the Duchess’s “proud self-creation of her destiny independent of conventional morality by wooing Antonio and singularly wedding him may make her to be an admirable prototype of self-reliance” (175). However, because of the ease of how the Duchess dismisses Cariola’s judgement of the Duchess’s attitude towards the Church and how Cariola declares the Duchess “mad” because of her disregard of “Ferdinand’s warnings and the social context she, Antonio and their children must live”, the Duchess’s seemingly high regard for her own perspective might be the central characteristic of her harmartia in its subtle suggestion of a “problematic ambiguity” in her character (175).

In light of Hunt’s suppositions, the symbol of the circle draws more attention towards this possibility of pride being the root of the Duchess’s hamartia; especially, as the symbol of the circle incorporates other concepts beyond matrimony and sovereignty such as sanctuary, secrecy and the dichotomy between trust and distrust. When Antonio asks of what the couple should do about the Duchess’ brothers who will despise their marriage, the Duchess replies “Do not think of them./ All discord without this circumference/ Is only to be pitied, and not feared” to which Antonio, perhaps out of genuine belief that her brothers will come to accept their marriage, agrees with her (1.3. 169-174). The word the Duchess uses, circumference, implies a sense of the Duchess carving out a boundary that immediately separates the people she trusts (Cariola and Antonio) and people she distrust (the Cardinal and Ferdinand) and by doing so, the Duchess has established a new order within her household. The word circumference[2], similar to sovereignty, carries a double meaning that can either represent the very room the Duchess is married in or the embrace of the couple themselves, which, again, brings the question of how the Duchess views herself as well as brings to mind the “problematic ambiguity” to her character Hunt mentions. In establishing this new order where all things she finds suitable are within the circumference and all things that she does not are outside of it, the Duchess is creating a private world, a sanctuary, where she can thrive without the hindrances of undesired actions and opinions; and, in creating such a boundary, the Duchess has, regardless of intention, set up a dichotomy between those whom she trusts (Cariola and Antonio) and those whom she distrusts (The Cardinal and Ferdinand). Because her of actions, the Duchess can be viewed as being naive as well as proud because, as she later discovers, she allowed one of the most untrustworthy people around her to enter her private world where he would later betray her. With the establishment of the circumference, her sanctuary and private world, the Duchess has perhaps extended her authority beyond its natural ability.

Nonetheless, the establishment as circles as private worlds are not unique to just the sanctuary the Duchess created with Antonio and Cariola. The play presents a strong dichotomy between trust and distrust in how each of the other characters are grouped in regards to one another so that they, too, share a private world.Ferdinand and the Cardinal possess their own circle that consists of Castruccio, Silvio, Pescara, Malateste and Julia with Bosola mediating between the brothers’ circle and the Duchess’s. Antonio and Delio possess their own separate circle in which Delio, similar to Bosola although not as malcontent, drifts from Ferdinand’s and the Cardinal’s circle back to Antonio in order to help his dear friend. In a small way, Bosola and Antonio share their own circle in that Bosola, desperate to save Antonio’s life in Act V and to later avenge him, share their own circle although it seems to contain a highly spiritual component where Bosola desires a way to redeem himself as demonstrated in the following lines:

“Oh poor Antonio, though nothing be so needful/ To thy estate as pity, yet I find/ Nothing so dangerous./…Well, good Antonio,/I’ll seek thee out, and all my care shall be/ To put thee into safety from the reach…/I’ll join thee in a most just revenge;/…O Penitence, let me truly taste thy cup,/” (5.3.312-330).

Circles as symbols of private worlds further exemplifies Leech’s suggestion that the relationships between characters of opposing, perhaps downright hostile, perspectives showcases the ability these relationships have in unveiling the depth of the tragedy in plays like The Duchess of Malfi because it shows how the tragic burden spreads to each character depending on which world they occupy. When the Duchess is taken to be the focus of the play regardless of how she created boundaries between herself, Antonio, Cariola and her brothers, it seems too simplistic to place the tragic burden solely on her because the story does not end when she dies but when Bosola dies. In this regard, Bosola becomes less of antagonist to the Duchess but a separate tragedy within The Duchess of Malfi.

Bosola is motivated by a desire to win the respect of the Cardinal and Ferdinand and procure, at last, the things in which he feels he is entitled to (1.1 50-55). His desperation to prove himself to the brothers proved to be his ultimate downfall but this is not a result that is realized once the play ends. Bosola, unlike the Duchess, seems to have a strong sense of self-awareness as well as a deep understanding of other characters’ motivations. In Act 1, Scene 2, Bosola demonstrates this awareness of himself and Ferdinand’s motivations when he asks the duke as soon as the duke hands him money, “So:/ What follows? Never rained such showers as these/ Without thunderbolts i’ th’ tail of them./ Whose throat must I cut?” (l.150-155). Bosola demonstrates a similar level of self-awareness when he says after Ferdinand dismisses him, “Let good men, for good deeds, covet good fame,/ Since place and riches oft are bribes of shame;/ Sometimes the devil doth preach” implying that he knows what he does is morally wrong but he is helpless against his desires for riches (l.194-195). Nevertheless in one of the stronger examples of his self-awareness of his actions, Bosola, demonstrates remorse in Act 4, Scene 2 when he tells Ferdinand:

“Wherefore I should be thus neglected. Sir,/ I served your tyranny, and rather strove/ To satisfy yourself than all the world,/ And though I loathed the evil, yet I loved/ You that did counsel it; and rather sought/ To appear a true servant than an honest man” (l. 305-310).

Again, Bosola is not a tragic hero if we are to base it on a narrow Aristotelian definition that relies heavily on eminence as a quality of someone of high rank. He is not noble like the Duchess and there are no qualities that would make the reader feel as if he is superior to him; yet, despite not fulfilling the definition of a concerning a tragic hero by strict Aristotelian interpretation, Bosola still manages to provoke a sense of eminence about him. As Leech notes in Tragedy, Aristotle rejected the notion of an evil or totally good hero because “one would not move us to pity and the fall of the other would merely shock us” (38). Bosola shifts from being a simple, treacherous obstacle in the Duchess’ path to happiness when he becomes pitiable, becomes humanlike through the unveiling of later virtuous traits such as when he nobly lies to the Duchess to console her during her final moments (TDM 4.2. 325-330). By showing compassion during a time where he should be rejoicing because certainly now he would finally win the favors of the Cardinal and Ferdinand after trying so long to please them, Bosola unveils that even he has the “special virtue” necessary in a tragic hero (Tragedy 38). Bosola’s status as a tragic hero is further illustrated when Bosola shows characteristics of an anagnorisis, after all his self-awareness and speech to Ferdinand after he killed the Duchess shows that he has experienced a sharp revelation. When Bosola , desperate for redemption, decides that instead of following the orders of his masters he would rather save Antonio’s life, Bosola’s place in the story shifts from just being an antagonist like the Cardinal or Ferdinand because, unlike them, Bosola now seems to have just as much at stake as the Duchess (5.2. 315-330). This shift in Bosola’s characterization illustrates Leech’s concluding point on what makes a tragic hero a tragic hero: the tragic hero is “one of us” and is a person who reminds us of strongly of our own humanity and can be accepted as standing for us (Tragedy 46). Bosola reminds of us of our humanity when he decides to comfort the dying Duchess with a lie so she may die in peace. Bosola reminds us of our humanity when he shows Antonio the same compassion but telling him the truth about his wife and children (TDM 5.4. 55-59). It is because of these reasons that Bosola is a tragic hero rather than a mere antagonist like Ferdinand or the Cardinal because it illustrates that Bosola is too human and he suffers because of it.

Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi’s the layered symbolism of circles help contribute to the expansion of the tragic burden within the play to include not just the titular character but her main antagonist as well. In spreading of the tragic burden, the work manages to uplift Bosola from a simple antagonist and into a deuteragonist who has much claim in the story as the Duchess. It is through this interaction of symbols and plot that the depth of the tragic burden is realized.

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The Schizophrenic Ferdinand the Duchess of Malfi

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Much of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” centers around the subversions and perversions of Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brother. Ferdinand is an immensely disturbed man who has been driven to insanity by his inability to control his sister, and his resultant inability to control his own life. His incestuous desires, though subtle, fill him with the need to wield power over her, even though this leaves him unable to rule his land, his real dominion. When he realizes that he cannot rule the Duchess, he begins to use legal rhetoric, situating himself verbally, if not physically, as her judge. When this ractic fails him, and he relinquishes even more control, Ferdinand loses a grip on his sanity. He develops the belief that he is a werewolf, and cannot maintain a definite self. All of these events begin, however, with his unnatural sexual longing for the Duchess.

The reader realizes that something is amiss with Ferdinand’s sexuality when he learns that Ferdinand is not sexually active. Ferdinand is the only character in the play who should be sexually active, and yet he is not. The Cardinal is a holy man who has made a vow of celibacy, but is having an affair with Julia; he doesn’t even seem to have any qualms about the shameless disregard he shows his vows. The Duchess marries Antonio and bears him children, implying that she is quite sexually active. However, because she is has been widowed, because her brothers forbid her to remarry, and because she promises to obey them, she should not have wed again. Even Julia engages in wrongful sexual activities: she is married, and is allowed to sleep with her husband, but instead chooses to sleep with others. Ferdinand, whose duty it is to sire children who will rule in his place when he dies, fails to do so. The reader first recognizes that Ferdinand’s unspent sexual energy is directed at his sister when he discovers that she has had a lover. He imagines quite vividly that she has indulged in the “shameful act of sin” with

Some strong-thighed bargeman,

Or one o’th’woodyard, that can quoit the sledge

Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire

That carries coals up to her privy lodgings. (II.5.43-46)

Ferdinand also talks of destroying her territory as effectively as she has shattered her honor:

I might toss her palace ’bout her ears,

Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,

And lay her general territory as waste

As she hath done her honors. (II.5.18-21)

Ferdinand even goes so far as to talk about cutting the Duchess to pieces, and then giving her child his handkerchief to wipe up the blood. He is not merely talking about punishment or retribution – he is talking about total annihilation. This reaction is given even more strength in contrast with the Cardinal’s response. The Cardinal hardly seems upset at all – in fact, he wonders at Ferdinand’s rage, and tries to calm him, telling him that his anger is intemperate and unnecessary. The Cardinal’s only insult is aimed at the deceitful nature of women in general; he does not take the Duchess’ actions as a personal injury, and does not resort to violence in any form. The difference in the brothers’ responses is staggering, and the fact that the two respond in such opposing manners is quite telling, particularly because we are told in the first act that the brothers are like twins in their natures (I.1.172). Here, we see that they are in fact quite disparate – Ferdinand, unlike the Cardinal, feels particularly powerful and passionate emotions toward his sister.

Another bond that Ferdinand feels with his sister that the Cardinal does not share is that he and the Duchess are twins. He speaks several times as if her blood is his blood – as if because she is sullied, so is he; it is almost as if they are the same person. When he has her imprisoned, Bosola pities her and asks the Duke if they can give her a prayer book and prayer beads so that she can repent. Ferdinand denies her this. He says that “[that] body of hers, / While that my blood ran pure in’t, was more worth / Than that which thou wouldst comfort, called a soul” (IV.1.123-25). The Duchess’ body, once soiled, cannot be cleaned like a soul can be purified through prayer. Once her body has been tainted, his has been, as well. Because he wishes to control her (and through her, himself), the Duchess’ actions upset Ferdinand’s life. When he suddenly discovers that she has been used by another, is in fact owned by another, he feels that he too is being controlled by someone else. The irony lies in the fact that it is in Ferdinand’s blood to be in control, to rule, but he fails to rule his sister, and therefore fails as a duke, as well.

Ferdinand also fails to recognize what is in himself. While the reader realizes that Ferdinand’s actions hinge on jealousy, it is not clear whether Ferdinand himself understands this. When he pays Bosola to spy on the Duchess, he refuses to give a reason. After she is dead, he laments, “I must confess, I had a hope, / Had she continued widow, to have gained / An infinite mass of treasure by her death; / And that was the main cause [of my anger]” (IV.2.282-285). The question remains, however: do we believe him? More importantly, does Ferdinand believe his own words? Whether his denial is real or feigned for Bosola’s benefit, he will not admit to the desires within him. At this point, Ferdinand also admits the Duchess’ innocence, and acknowledges that he made a mistake in sentencing her. He says, “I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t” (IV.2.278-279). If he won’t recognize his unnatural desire for his sister, at least he acknowledges his mistake in having judged her wrongly. This is a clear admission that he has lost control, even over his own thoughts. Many of Ferdinand’s actions henceforth are attempts to regain that control – to make himself feel, once again, as though he is in charge.

Ferdinand accomplishes this aim by immediately taking on the air of a judge – the one position in his life where he cannot be usurped. In his own courthouse, he is the judge and the commander by law. He uses this position to his advantage, however unjustly. Delio says that “the law to him / Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider: / He makes it his dwelling and a prison/ To entangle those shall feed him” (I.1.177-180). He becomes the self-appointed judge of his sister, imprisoning her and then condemning her to death. After he has had her killed, he reverts to using legal language to reassure himself of his innocence in the matter. He says to Bosola, “Was I her judge? / Did any ceremonial form of law / Doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury / Deliver her conviction up i’th’court?” (IV.2.300-304) With these words, Ferdinand disclaims responsibility and lays the blame for the murder on Bosola. He judges one man guilty, while at the same time admitting that he is not in control – he is not the judge. The Duchess never went before a judge, and if she had, she would have been found innocent. The Duchess committed no crime worthy of punishment by law, and certainly not punishable by death. Here, Ferdinand is trying to say that he did not judge her – however, he neglects to see that nobody had the right to judge her, because she did not err. Ferdinand’s “proof” that she did in fact do wrong, was her husband. In his eyes, the existence of a lover was more than enough to sentence her. Ferdinand has an obsession with proof – evidence, no matter how trivial, allows him to justify his wrongful actions.

Ferdinand’s obsession began with the naming of the father of the Duchess’ children. Though he found out very early that she had borne a child, he waited several years and three children later to confront her about it, because he was waiting until he had the name of the father. This was quite unnecessary, but Ferdinand needed the reassurance. He imposes his need for evidence upon others as well. To prove to the Duchess that he has murdered Antonio and two of her children, he has an artist contrive wax figures of them posed in death, and hides them in her cell. Though his word would have been sufficient for her to believe them dead, he feels the need to show her, to provide her with visual confirmation. The Duchess’ body, to him, is proof that their blood is ruined. For this reason, he refuses to look at her once he has confronted her on the matter of her supposed indiscretions. If he does not see her, he cannot prove to himself that she has done what she has. Even after her death, he says to Bosola, “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle; she died young” (IV.2.2); he does not want to see her, or acknowledge what he has done to her. He says that “she died young”, as if she died of natural causes; this is because he is already in a state of denial, already refusing to take responsibility. Once the Duchess is dead, he tells Bosola that “the wolf shall find her grave and scrape it up, / Not to devour the corpse, but to discover / The horrid murder” (IV.2.310-312). By this, he means that her body will stand as evidence that she was wrongfully slaughtered. This also foreshadows Ferdinand’s sickness: he believes himself to be a werewolf, and digs up the graves of dead men. Without proof, Ferdinand has no control. His feeling of helplessness is the cause for this obsession with proof – he is constantly searching for something true, something that will prove he is whole.

Our initial impression of Ferdinand presents him as disjointed, not unified. The first time he is mentioned, Antonio says of him, “The Duke there? A most perverse and turbulent nature. / What appears in him mirth is merely outside; / If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh / All honesty out of fashion” (I.1.169-172). The idea of a difference between the “outside” and the “inside” of the Duke is key – it is not only what others see, but what he feels. “Madness is conceived as a disordering or disruption of the normative meaning of the body, signifying a disorder within both subject and State since the head and the monarch share the same rule according to the metaphor of the body politic” (Salkeld 60). Ferdinand is subject to this disorder of mind and body, and this plays itself out in his insanity. Madness is a sign of sovereignty in crisis, whether it be sovereignty of monarchy or of reason (Salkeld 60) – with Ferdinand, it is both. Ferdinand feels that the monarchy is in crisis because the Duchess has married below her rank, and his reason is in crisis because he desires her but cannot have her. He loves her, and yet he must have her killed: he has divided intentions, and because these intentions are not reconciled, he is left mad.

This split in Ferdinand’s psyche reveals itself in several ways. In his letter to Antonio, he writes with double meanings. He says, “I want Antonio’s head in a business” and “I would rather have Antonio’s heart than his money” (III.5.28,36). Through these lines, he says both what can be taken at face value and what can be read beneath – that he wants Antonio in pieces. The Duchess sees through his duplicity, and sends her husband fleeing. When Ferdinand gives his sister the dead man’s hand in place of his own, this is also a representation of his split self. The ring on the corpse’s finger is a wedding ring, the ring that united her with her past husband and with Antonio. Now this ring unites her and Ferdinand. He hands it to her, and she accepts it. This symbolizes a displacement of Ferdinand’s sexual desires for his sister. Symbolically they are united, but they cannot be – will never be, because the union is wrong.

The result of Ferdinand’s indecision is that the split in his psyche becomes even more pronounced. He attacks his own shadow, saying that it haunts him and that he must catch it. In his mind, his shadow is a replica of his self – there are two of him, and he must get rid of one. More significantly, this divide in Ferdinand manifests itself as Lycanthropia, a disease in which those possessed imagine “themselves to be transformd into wolves, / Steal froth to churchyards in the dead of the night / And dig dead bodies up” (V.2.10-12). Ferdinand becomes literally split: man by day, wolf by night, smooth on the outside, hairy on the inside. There is a matching up of his mental disorder with his physical confusion, as “the language of the body made sense of the soul” (Salkeld 66). The doctor describes Ferdinand’s actions to the soldier Pescara:

Two nights since

One met the Duke ’bout midnight in a lane

Behind Saint Mark’s Church, with the leg of a man

Upon his shoulder; and he howled fearfully;

Said he was a wolf, only the difference

Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,

His on the inside; bade them take their swords,

Rip up his flesh and try. (V.2.12-19)

It is important to note that Ferdinand feels deformed inwardly. His conscience has gotten to him – even his soul feels “hairy”. Ironically, the soul is the very thing that he says the Duchess need not have saved because her body is already ruined. Here is an inversion – the Duchess had a clean soul and a “soiled” body, while Ferdinand has a pure body and a hairy soul. He acknowledges that his soul is soiled, just as he felt his sister’s body was. As a wolf, he digs up bodies in the graveyard at Saint Mark’s church. Saint Mark is the patron saint of notaries (a type of legal secretary). Here, again, we find the law. Ferdinand is used to twisting the law in order to pass judgments as he wishes, and knows that this is wrong. By choosing Saint Mark’s church, he is again creating disorder in the realm of the law. Though he told Bosola that the wolf would find his sister’s corpse in her grave to prove the murder, as a wolf he chooses not to do this. It is male legs he carries upon his shoulders, not female ones; not the Duchess’. He is not attempting to prove her murder, nor trying to condemn himself. Just as he would not look upon her in death, he will not dig her up to prove to himself that he has killed her.

In his final scene, Ferdinand dies with his sister’s name on his lips: “My sister, oh my sister! There’s the cause on’t. / Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust” (V.5.86-88). He dies both because of his sister – for she was his undoing – and because of his own desires. The image of being “cut” also reinforces the discord between Ferdinand’s mind and his body; both his own desires and the actions of his sister caused this deep wound. Though Ferdinand initially appears to be one of the characters with the most agency in the “The Duchess of Malfi”, it is ultimately revealed that he is entirely powerless to control either his fate, or the fates of others.

Secondary Sources

Salkeld, Duncan. Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.

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Explore and analyse Webster’s treatment of women and their status in society as presented in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Webster’s decision to cast strong female characters as the protagonists in his two most popular plays could have been considered highly controversial and unexpected by the audiences of his time. This unintended effect immediately seems to prompt a critical questioning of his rationale. The initial reaction of the modern theatre-goer prompted by the contentious discussion surrounding the strong central female characters in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi may be to question whether Webster’s presentation of women in his plays is an accurate one, and if so, what the theatrical and social implications of this might amount to. However, perhaps a more relevant debate – and one that might have been more interesting to the contemporary theatre-goer – might take into account the playwright’s presentation of the Duchess and Vittoria, but ultimately focus on whether Webster objectively had a social and moral purpose in furthering the rights of women at all (as it has been suggested). Alternatively, the argument that Webster was in fact merely a flamboyant showman wallowing in spectacular gore and death as part of an exciting plotline is another issue that should be considered when analysing the contentions of those critics that stand by the idea that Webster wrote simply to entertain his audiences, with no polemic in mind.

Both the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi and Vittoria in The White Devil display a failure, or at least a marked resistance, to conform to contemporary societal expectations, and yet they do so in quite different ways. While the Duchess seems to be presented as a virtuous and noble woman, Vittoria, appears at times to be more corrupt even than her unquestionably flawed society. However, the presentation of both female characters and their interactions with their male counterparts serve to highlight an intensely patriarchal society, apparently grounded in the strongly misogynistic streak particularly perceptible in the earlier Mediaeval Christianity. Ferdinand’s very first orders to Bosola,

‘To live i’the’ court, here: and observe the Duchess

To note all the particulars of her ‘haviour

What suitors do solicite her for marriage

And whom she best affects: she’s a young widow,

I would not have her marry again’ (I, ii: 176 – 179), alert the audience to Ferdinand’s domineering, suspicious character. Even if convention held that noble widows should remain chaste after their husbands’ deaths, Ferdinand’s controlling nature may have seemed rather extreme even to the audiences of the time. Even Bosola questions, ‘No sir?’ (line 180), but Ferdinand’s prompt rebuke, ‘Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied, I say I would not’ (181 – 182), is indicative of the threatening menace behind his actions. Evidence for this cruelty is found in Act III, scene ii, when Ferdinand hears from the Duchess that she has acted against his wishes and has remarried. His exceptionally hostile reaction to this information is to call her a ‘vile woman’ (line 100) who should ‘cut out [her] own tongue

Lest it bewray him [Antonio]’ (108 – 109). This response is part of a virulent attack that incorporates images of traditionally ominous night-time animals such as the ‘wolf’, the ‘screech-owl’, ‘dogs’, and ‘monkeys’; all animals frequently perceived as ‘wicked’. Directly associating these creatures with the lovers has the cumulative effect of insulting their honour and reputation in a very dark, threatening way.

In a similar vein, Flamineo attempts to take control of his sister out of selfishness. Flamineo’s actions, however, contrast with Ferdinand’s command that the Duchess remain chaste. Flamineo seduces Vittoria in order to curry favour and further his career as the Duke’s secretary. In doing so, he corrupts his sister’s reputation; just as Ferdinand insulted Antonio’s honour, Flamineo slights Camillo: ‘So unable to please a woman that like a Dutch doublet all his back is shrunk into his breeches’ (I, ii, 33 – 34). Vittoria is also subject to vitriolic abuse in the trial scene in Act III: Monticelso, the Cardinal, labels her a ‘whore’ (line 77), expounding upon that by describing whores using a number of grotesque similes: ‘They are worse/Worse than dead bodies, which are begg’d at gallows/And wrought upon by surgeons, to teach man/Wherein he is imperfect’ (95 – 98). The grotesque image of a rotting corpse juxtaposed against the clinical background of a surgeon’s table could be seen to mirror the situation in two ways: not only does it refer to Monticelso’s metaphorical dissection of Vittoria as he publicly humiliates her, but it also reveals his belief that he is exposing her guilt. The latter interpretation seems to suggest Webster’s implicit undermining of Monticelso’s perception of Vittoria.

Webster compounds the apparent injustice against women by creating female protagonists who are intelligent, honourable and valiant even at the moment of death. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Act IV, scene i of The Duchess of Malfi, in which the Duchess, imprisoned and awaiting her inevitable murder, is subjected to a number of gruesome and cruel methods of psychological torture, including being forced to kiss a dead man’s hand, see artificial figures of her Antonio and her children appearing as if they were dead, and having a group of madmen unleashed around her. However, her response to this persecution, though naturally one of horror, is always marked by extraordinary dignity. She courageously speaks out in defiance of Bosola’s feigned reverence (‘All comfort to your Grace’ [line 18]), declaring almost insolently ‘I will have none.

Pray-thee, why dost thou wrap thy poison’d pills

In gold and sugar?’ (18 – 20). She displays her fortitude and strength of character when she aligns herself with Christ by forgiving her executioners and fixing her mind not on her imminent death, but on ‘th’other world’ (IV, ii, 213). Her intelligent powers of reasoning remain evident as she calmly explains to Bosola that she cannot be afraid of ‘the manner of [her] death’ (213) with a ‘number of astute rhetorical questions:

‘What would it pleasure me, to have my throat cut/With diamonds? or to be smothered/With cassia? or to be shot to death, with pearls?’ (216 – 218). The Duchess’s courage is also exemplified by her clever inversion of the horror of physical strangulation: she wills the executioner’s ropes to pull harder, wishing to figuratively pull heaven down towards her. In the audience’s eyes, she dies the death of a martyr, slain at the hands of villains.

Similarly, Webster seems to imbue Vittoria with an intelligence and calm endurance during her trial that contrasts sharply with the blustering lawyer and the venomous Monticelso. This serves to highlight the injustice being perpetrated against her. It is suggested that Vittoria’s rhetorical strategy of creating the impression of heroic scorn (‘That my defence of force like Perseus’ [135]) and innocence will convince the audience of her truthfulness, as she shrewdly comments, ‘Temptation to lust proves not the act’ (199). Her insistence that the lawyer speaks in the vernacular, not in ‘hard and undigestible words’ (37) makes a pedantic fool of him; he stands in direct contrast to her marked lack of pretension. The injustice being perpetrated against Vittoria seems to be exacerbated by Webster’s presentation of her as judicious and incisive, not a ‘whore’.

In creating The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Webster draws on conventions endorsed by specific genres and various events from history, but transforms them for his own ends. One possible reason for these transformations is Webster’s desire to comment on the status of women, an endeavor that would have been impossible to achieve under traditional conventions. The Duchess’s initiation of the wooing and marriage to her steward is indeed unconventional, as she herself admits when she says, ‘For I am going into a wilderness,/Where I shall find nor path, nor friendly clew/To be my guide’ (I, i, 281 – 283). This is a clear inversion of the Jacobean constraints of both gender and class. The traditional structure of a Jacobean drama is also significantly altered when the eponymous protagonist dies an entire act before the end of the play. Webster also chooses to significantly alter the historical scenarios behind his plots; these amendments frequently expose his desire to propel a more coherent, consistent ‘message’ than that which could be conveyed with pure historical accuracy. For example, he chooses to allow the Duchess’s eldest son to inherit the rank of his mother, thereby deviating from the source in order to authenticate her nonconformist marriage. Furthermore, in The White Devil Webster presents Isabella as virtuous and undeserving, pledging to pray for Bracciano and take on herself the blame for their separation, in hope of inspiring his repentance: ‘I will make/Myself the author of your cursed vow’ (II, i, 217 – 218). However, the real Isabella was not nearly so virtuous – indeed, she had another lover of her own. Similarly, Webster intentionally omits the fact that Camillo (whose real name was Peretti) is actually very young: by transforming him into a feckless adult, he almost gives Vittoria an excuse for her adulterous behavior. While Webster’s deviations from traditional conventions and the original historical sources may simply be consequences of his desire for a different, perhaps more exciting, plot, it could also be suggested that the playwright wished to accentuate the virtuous characteristics of women and the negative attributes of men, thereby drawing attention to the gender divide.

However, in exploring Webster’s treatment of the status of women in sixteenth-century Britain, it is important to look beneath the surface in order to avoid oversimplifying either the characters or our reactions to them. Closer analysis reveals that Webster actually created the Duchess and Vittoria not only as stock ‘oppressed female’ characters, merely illustrations of the social constraints placed upon women at the time, but also as realistic, ‘human’ characters with a value that transcended mere representations of ‘typical’, noble, sixteenth-century Italian women. He does this by creating complex, multilayered characters: while stock characters would fit into a single mold (for example, ‘tragic’), these characters exhibit contradictions that seem to reveal their humanity. In examining this, we realize that ‘the Duchess is a simpler…figure than Vittoria’ (although both exemplify ‘human’ qualities). For example, while Vittoria is ultimately presented as a victim, swept up in the corruption of court life by the ambitious men around her, she herself is actually an adulterous woman who should most likely be vilified by the audience of the time. However, the audience is led to pity Vittoria, since the play’s viewpoint is ambiguous. At times, Webster confuses our viewpoint in an effort to prompt us either to take an unconventional or unprecedented view, or enhance ambiguity by not explicitly instructing us about which viewpoint to take. For example, the play’s perspective on the Duchess’s re-marriage is ambiguous, and seems to emphasise her courage rather than her foolhardiness. The Renaissance was a time during which the individual was emphasized: this can be extended, although in a far more limited sense, to an increased emphasis placed on women, as well. In Webster’s works, the female protagonists’ actions are initially presented as heroic. However, the fate of the Duchess complicates this view, suggesting that female heroicism in such a patriarchal society has its limitations: were her actions really worth her death? The play’s overt tragedy is often undermined by its subtle satire: quite often, this satire is perpetrated by Flamineo. This tragicomic aspect adds to the ambiguity that surrounds Webster’s presentation of an entire society steeped in exploitation and deception. It is perhaps because of this Webster was able to prevent the audience from sympathizing with individual characters, instead drawing our attention to the corruption of the society as a whole.

One might easily conclude that Webster did not write either The Duchess of Malfi or The White Devil as a treatise on women’s rights. While the sixteenth century did see the beginnings of the challenge to the status quo, and assertive female characters began to appear in dramatic works, ‘actual changes for the better in the position of women at this time were distinctly limited.’ Dollimore suggests that rather than presenting a case for female emancipation, most Jacobean tragedy – including Webster’s – actually underscored the oppression of women, since this exploitation was part of the social order observed by the playwright. Webster, one might conclude, was not a radical – he was not really trying to alter the perceived status of women. Instead, Webster harnessed the baser human instincts of his characters to show two sides of humanity – positive and negative. It is thus possible to view his plays more as an observational commentary on society than as a radical polemic.

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A comparison into the themes of reputation and chastisy in A streetcar Named Desire and The Duchess of Malfi

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, and Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, written in 1947, both men consider the themes of chastity and the effect chastity has on the main female characters’ reputation within society. Both are widows, but Blanche is desperate to remarry after fleeing her reputation of promiscuity, while the Duchess is unashamed of her sexuality and marries a man below her social status secretly, against the wishes of her brothers. Blanche is greatly concerned with appearing pure, while the Duchess is more concerned with her own happiness and power.

Both plays were written at times of a Patriarchal society, so a woman’s chastity was key in determining society’s outlook on her, which Williams and Webster investigate. Webster explores the value of chastity through the brothers’ control of the Duchess, for example their attempt to arrange a marriage between her and Malateste. ‘Malateste’ means ‘bad testes’, which, combined with the mocking of his masculinity in Act 3, Scene 3, for example ‘He has worn gunpowder in’s hollow tooth, // For the tooth-ache.’ It can be believed that Ferdinand wants the Duchess to marry a relatively weak man who couldn’t control her, so that position would be left to him; alternatively, this paired with Ferdinand’s allusions to incestuous feelings towards the Duchess may suggest that he hopes that Malateste will not have sex with the Duchess, and her chastity will remain as it is. Webster also demonstrates Ferdinand’s resistance against the Duchess’ sexuality in Act 1, Scene 1, when he responds with ‘Whores, by that rule, are precious’ to a progressive statement on female sexuality made by the Duchess. This shows the strength of how much Ferdinand values the Duchess’ chastity, as he shuns her for even considering the notion. Webster also shows the effect the Duchess’ lack of chastity has on her fate in her death scene – just before she is strangled, the executioner says ‘Here’s your wedding ring’ as he shows her the noose. Webster is essentially revealing that the Duchess’ marriage is what will kill her – her marriage went against the wishes of her brothers, who wanted her to remain a widow, and her disobedience has ultimately led to her death. This was potentially foreshadowed by Ferdinand threatening her with a poniard in Act 1, Scene 1 and Act 3, Scene 2, when her sexuality and marriage is being discussed. Webster explores the societal value on chastity through the unhealthy desire of the Duchess’ brothers (mainly Ferdinand) to control it. This can be challenged by the critic Christopher Hart, who wrote that ‘The two brothers are not driven by any sense of possessive outrage, however warped, but by a delight in malice itself, a “motiveless malignity” even against their own flesh and blood,’ suggesting that the brothers were controlling for the sake it being controlling, rather than ulterior motives, although the Ferdinand’s actions disprove this.

Williams also explores the value society placed on chastity through the male characters’ treatment of Blanche after finding out about her past promiscuity. Mitch’s shock, shown by Stanley telling Stella that Mitch thought Blanche ‘had never been more than kissed by a fellow’ in Scene 7, shows the value of chastity, as Mitch has expected purity and chastity from Blanche, despite her past marriage. Mitch’s shock eventually develops into rage and disgust, as in Scene 9, he tells Blanche ‘you’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.’ This suggests that Mitch doesn’t actually care about her past and what reputation she has, but that she is no longer pure to him, which fuels his rage and belief that he can use her for sex, shown by his attempted rape of Blanche. This mirrors the Patriarchal society, which retained traditional values that placed women on a moral pedestal above men, resulting in double standards that expected women to remain pure, while male promiscuity was accepted. Simone de Beauvoir’s book ‘The Second Sex’ explores the idea that women are second to men, which matches the ideas and expectations of each gender in a Patriarchal society. Williams has Stanley use mocking named for Blanche, such as ‘Sister Blanche,’ ironically comparing her to celibate nuns, and saying that she is ‘no lily.’ The metaphor of a lily evokes an image of purity, as white connotes virginity – which Blanche no longer has, but the reproductive organ of a lily stains anything it touches, which mimics how Blanche’s sexuality has tarnished society’s view of her, which suggests that she is like a lily. Finally, like how Webster suggests that the Duchess’ marriage led to her death, Williams does the same through Blanche’s journey to Stella and Stanley’s apartment. First she takes the streetcar named ‘Desire’, then one called ‘Cemetaries’, getting off at ‘Elysian Fields.’ This physical journey is a metaphor for Blanche’s demise, as her sexual desire led her to her death, and the Elysian Fields was the afterlife in Greek mythology. Both Williams and Webster explore the dangerous levels of value placed on chastity through their cautionary tales.

Webster and Williams also consider how important a good reputation was in society at the times both plays were written. Blanche’s desperation to keep a good reputation and hide her bad reputation due to fear of being a societal outcast is evident in her avoidance of light, which Williams used as a symbol of the truth. Williams writes in the stage directions that when Mitch rips the lantern off the light bulb in Scene 9, Blanche ‘utters a frightened gasp.’ Her fear demonstrates the importance of reputation, as she is scared of the consequences now Mitch has literally been enlightened on the truth of her past and subsequent reputation. When Stanley tells Stella of Blanche’s past, he says that ‘she is as famous in Laurel as if she was the President of the United States, only she is not respected by any party!’ The likening of Blanche’s infamy to that of a politician, only Blanche has a lack of respect, suggesting that politicians are immune to disrespect can be linked to Webster, as the Duchess’ reputation culminates in her office being taken away from her, as the Pope had heard of her ‘looseness.’

Webster also looks at the effect of reputation being important had on male characters, and not just sexual reputation – the Cardinal murders Julia because he ‘knew thou couldst not keep my counsel.’ Webster is suggesting that he fears that Julia exposing him for his role in the murder of the Duchess, possibly as well as his affair with a married woman, will harm his reputation as a man of the church. In Jacobean theater, corruption in the Catholic church was a common feature, as it was an easy target for the anticlericalism in Protestant England. This is redundant, as the brothers already have a bad reputation for corruption, shown by how Webster’s metaphor of a plum tree in Act 1, Scene 1, where Antonio says that they are ‘rich and overladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them,’ implying that they are extremely powerful but surround themselves with a bad crowd.

Blanche and the Duchess are presented as unbothered by their own chastity, but Blanche is definitely more concerned with her reputation than the Duchess. The Duchess keeps her relationship secret, but is she just concerned about the reaction it will get, saying the she is ‘going into a wilderness.’ She is most likely worried due to her brothers expectations and attempts to control her chastity, which is proven to be a rational fear when Ferdinand tells her ‘for thine own sake // Let me not know thee,’ warning the Duchess not to reveal the father of her children’s identity for his safety, The only person who initially knows of the marriage and identity is Cariola, which suggests that the Duchess trusts the woman, as women could be more sympathetic about female sexuality, which can be demonstrated by Cariola saying she ‘owes her much pity’ for the conflict between the Duchess as a woman and the Duchess as the Duchess of Malfi, The Duchess’ almost-pride in her sexuality and lack of shame can be seen when she says to Ferdinand, ‘why should only I // Of all the other princes of the world // Be cased up like a holy relic?’ showing her frustration at the double-standards that society had about male and female sexuality. The comparison of the Duchess to male princes can be interpreted as complimentary, and Webster demonstrating her strength, but feminist-readers may question why a female character could not be viewed as strong as a female holding political office.

Blanche is desperate to marry anyone so she can seem respectable – looking for affection from anyone, not bothered with who, just that she’ll get it. Her concern for her reputation is evident when she says to Stella, ‘You haven’t heard any – unkind – gossip about me?’ the break that separates and emphasizes ‘unkind’ shows her to be tentative, implying that she is so concerned about her reputation that she doesn’t even want her sister to know about it and the reasons for it. Blanche tells Stanley she was born under Virgo – ‘the virgin’, which is a clear, explicit example of how she wants people to think of her as virginal. Some of Blanche’s difficulties can be traced to the narrow roles open to females during that period. The 20th century critic Lynn Spampinato says that ‘although she is an educated woman who has worked as a teacher, Blanche is nonetheless constrained by the expectations of Southern society. She knows that she needs men to lean on and to protect her,’ which explains the causes for her behavior. She wears a ‘white suit’ with ‘white gloves and hat’, which corroborates the view that she tries to present herself as pure, as white has connotations of chastity and virginity. Her ‘fluffy bodice’ appears like angel wings, also contributing to her presentation of herself as pure. Williams compares Blanche to a ‘moth’, which dislike and are confused by light, which leads to their demise (often death), which is a symbol of how the light, which is a symbol of the truth ultimately leads to Blanche’s demise.

Both Webster and Williams consider the importance of chastity and the effect it has on reputation, both women seem to be unconcerned with their chastity, while male characters tend too react negatively to their lack of chastity, most likely influenced by society’s approaches to women, however Webster presents reputation as more important as male characters were concerned with their reputation, not just female characters.

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How the Entrapment Theme Comes Out in a Streetcar Named Desire and Duchess of Mali

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Both Webster in ‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ a Jacobean revenge tragedy, and Williams in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ a 20th century modern-domestic tragedy, use entrapment as a pivotal focus for chief dramatic moments. The playwrights especially focus on the physical and psychological entrapment of females as a result of the respective society’s patriarchal attitudes. However, the harm men suffer due to the patriarchy is also explored, although, interestingly, more apparently in ‘Malfi’ than ‘Streetcar.’

Both plays use the speech of men to convey that female characters are threatened by the dangerous patriarchal ideology that will essentially trap and destroy them. In Act 1, Webster uses the verbal exchange between the Duchess and her brothers to immediately highlight the relentless battle concerning the Duchess’ right to marriage and social status: ‘You are a widow’. This patronising register assumes that the Duchess’ identity is not bound to her good virtues, but to her social category and the men around her- thus she should act accordingly. Depicted through Ferdinand, this attitude entraps the Duchess- restraining her from exploring ideas of her own, such as remarriage. One can imagine the bitter spitting of these monosyllables in a Jacobean production of the play- probably mirroring the audience’s terror of widows. This fear- so intense that widows were often blockaded from social circles- manifested from the threat of an economically independent women with previous sexual experience, who, lacking the authority of a rational male, was at risk of running sexually rampant. Webster conveys the Duchess’ resentment to these attitudes in Act 4: ‘The robin redbreast and the nightingale/ Never live long in cages.’ Aside from accentuating the Duchess’ discontent towards her physical entrapment, this metaphor more importantly serves to highlight the oppression of her ‘noble’ spirit- which is symbolised by the animalistic imagery of a ‘robin’ and ‘nightingale’- birds which suggest joy and liberation. In addition to highlighting the Duchess’ anger at her imprisonment, the colour ‘red’ is used by Webster as a prolepsis to danger and the tragic outcome of the play, therefore trapping her in her fate- as this outcome includes her own death. Due to the play’s status as a revenge tragedy this catastrophe is made inevitable from early on; just as it is in plays like ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, where the tragic protagonists also suffer as a result of their own hamartia. The Duchess’ death leads to ultimate entrapment: she becomes ossified into the ‘monument she insisted she was not’ (Christina Luckyj). The ghost of her former self becomes fossilised in some mute and mystical ‘monument’ whose ruins are ‘never to be pitied’. This could link to Freud’s ‘Madonna-whore complex,’ which suggests that men view women as either saintly ‘Madonnas’ or debased ‘whores.’ Despite the Duchess’ stoic efforts to be seen as more than just a sacred idol (‘this is flesh and blood sir’), her death traps her in a ‘gallery’ just like the many statues of the Madonna found around Rome. Interestingly, Blanche is also eventually trapped and destroyed by the imperative patriarchal attitudes, however they do not escalate to a physical death but a metaphorical one.

Williams also uses the speech of male characters to forefront the patriarchal dominance of family relations, an attitude which seeks to ensnare the female characters: ‘Let me enlighten you on a point or two, baby.’ Not only does this statement demonstrate the hubristic nature of Stanley, but the offhand remark of ‘baby’ infantilises Stella, entailing belief that she is utterly dependent on him for basic human requirements such as food and a ‘regular allowance’. Stella is trapped by this manipulation, as her desires to become independent are swiftly quelled by Stanley’s violence. In the 1951 film adaptation, this abusive stance is amplified by Marlon Brando, who contorts his facial muscles to forefront Stanley’s primatial passion: ‘STELL-AHHHHH.’ This exclamation demonstrates the entrapment of Stella in her marital relationship, due to the threat of uncontrolled physical violence if she dares attempt escape. Describing the proper noun, the adjective ’heaven-splitting’ illustrates Stanley’s capacity for corrupting anything of value (heaven), hence, trapping Stella from liberty simultaneously traps her from a last possible opportunity for happiness. Despite this complete authority over his wife, Stanley’s lust for supremacy has not quite yet been quenched. Williams represents Stanley’s entrapment of Blanche through his desire for control in scene 8: ‘Every man is a king! And I am the king around here’. Directly quoted from the corrupt senator Huey Long, this statement illustrates the escalating conflict between the emerging working class and the fading moneyed class, whose luxurious wealth had been built upon the backs of slaves. This friction ultimately traps Blanche, whose frivolous southern opinions are not tolerated in New Orleans, thus she must learn to adopt a less archaic approach to life. The Duchess is another character whose high-status offends others, who trap her through retaliation. However, whilst Stanley benefits from this vengeance, the perpetrators in ‘Malfi’ suffer retribution.

Both plays use the motif of light to illustrate how morally good characters are trapped in the corrupt worlds they inhabit. In Act 4 of ‘Malfi’, Webster uses the close proxemics of the prison to create a proto-gothic atmosphere, which juxtaposes the Duchess’ ‘pure’ spirit: ‘You were too much i’th’light. But no more.’ This monosyllabic phrase accurately portrays the malevolent nature of Ferdinand, whose suffocating attitudes ultimately entrap the Duchess, eventually leading to her execution. In this way, the privation of light during this scene is an ironic prolepsis to the eventual catastrophe, in which darkness engulfs her metaphorical ‘light’ completely. This toying with light effects would have have been especially impressive during the Jacobean productions of ‘Malfi’ held in ‘Blackfriars Theatre.’ Smaller and more intimate than The Globe, Blackfriars’ apron-stage was illuminated by bees-wax candles, and sunlight was often sealed from the theatre by dark blinds, allowing the malcontent of characters such as Ferdinand to mirror the physical dim-light. Due to Ferdinand’s frequent associations with darkness; the correlation of his character and a more vicious light, fire, seems surprising: ‘we must not now use balsamum, but fire’ ‘to feed a fire as great as my revenge.’ These allusions illustrate the entrapment of Ferdinand behind his lecherous fury, which prevents him from noticing his sister’s true virtues. Critics have debated that both of the twin’s associations with light unveil distinct similarities between the two (stubbornness, a thirst to remain relevant in society, etc…), which possibly catalyse their ultimate degradation- trapping them in utter physical (the Duchess’ death) and psychological (Ferdinand’s lycanthropy) torment. Perhaps Ferdinand is not in fact the Duchess’ antithesis, as they are in this way, disconcertingly similar. Webster reveals the Duchess’ pioneering spirit at the climax of the play- her death. Despite this ultimate attempt to entrap her, the intended outcome inverts; Ferdinand becomes the one entrapped by her death- his legacy a ‘snow print’ melting in the Duchess’ ‘sunlight’, demonstrating that the Duchess’ light was essentially capable of defeating his darkness. Interestingly, Blanche’s legacy also ‘stains the past and lights the time to come’, as the other characters become trapped by their memories of her.

The motif of light is also used throughout ‘Streetcar’ to highlight Blanche being trapped in her distorted state of mind. Williams uses the prop of the ‘chinese lantern’, and the action of Stanley tearing it from the bulb in scene 11, to reference the theme of violent emotion pointed in the title, and to also reinforce Stanley’s capacity for violence, which so entraps Blanche. This action serves as an analepsis to the climax of the plot- the rape scene. Williams uses the exclamation of Blanche to convey how she is suddenly being dragged back into an undoubtedly horrific memory in which her privacy was violated beyond repair, hence is now trapped in that past thought. However, Webster’s interesting simile comparing ‘herself’ to the lantern suggests a disgusted Blanche, just beginning to realize that Stanley has corrupted everything she uses to define herself by: her family, her partner, her clothes, her sex- leaving them trapped outside her reach. Through this simile, Williams depicts the degree of which Stanley’s subtle manipulation has been executed: Blanche has been driven to horrify herself, and is now trapped away from her prior identity. During the 1940s, it was frequent for women, so treasured in their youthful beauty, to be discarded as mere objects after a certain age when their comeliness began to decline. Not only was it their looks, but also their sexual purity that would have been treated as nonexistent post this age. Through the plastic theatre of ‘merciless’ light, Williams represents Blanche as stripped from the shadows of youthful beauty, therefore her sexual dominance over men. In the 1972 movie, Vivien Leigh amplifies the sense of entrapment by covering her face when met with this light, illustrating Blanche’s reluctance to confront, for the first time, the ‘perpetual war’ of her imperfections ‘kindled’ inside her (David Hume), which essentially morphs her into her own worst enemy, and leaves her trapped in the ‘blinding light’ of the present. In this way, Blanche and the Duchess differ, as the Duchess refuses to suppress her indomitable spirit, and does not fear confronting it, therefore it fails to torment and entrap her, the way it does Blanche.

Both playwrights explore the patriarchy’s ability to entrap with admirable success. Although Webster’s withering rhetoric provides a droll replica of male attitudes in staggeringly hyperbolic lines, Williams displays the patriarchy’s tragic nature at its most devastatingly human. The cosy domestic lifestyle of the Duchess and Antonio in Act 3 seems a utopia when contrasted with Blanche’s perpetual anguish throughout her stay in Elysian Fields, where sanctuary is scarce. Whilst critics have attacked the playwrights for this deplorable exhibition of the female sex, it could be argued that female anti-heroes such as Blanche and the Duchess have sparked shifts in ideologies, carving out a lurid and brutal prototype of early feminism; clearly flagging the path for many generations of inspired feminists to come.

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Bosola and Antonio: Preferment and Admission of Inferiority

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Renaissance Era was a period when theatre, among other forms of art, bloomed in its adolescence, as it outgrew old, traditional characteristics of the Middle Ages, and gradually evolved into what would later become known as modern history. Unlike tragedies of previous eras – which depended highly on one fatal flaw of the protagonists to lead them to perpetual torment – tragedies of the Renaissance age saw a great shift in the complexities of the characters in a play, as the period was highly influenced by humanism. Characters were no longer ‘flat’ but ‘dynamic’, thus, resembling that of real-life individuals more accurately than before. With such shifts in characterization, themes and conflicts in theatre consequently underwent similar developments from being plain and straightforward, to thought-provoking and relatable. One such thought-provoking and relatable theme found in The Duchess of Malfi is the concept of inferiority and its necessity for advancing in society; a concept which can be identified and explored through the characters Bosola and Antonio.

Cunning, malcontent, and vengeful Bosola is the catalyst to the tragedies which befall the Duchess and her family. From the very first act, Bosola is introduced as an ex-criminal who vocalizes his frustration with how underappreciated he is for his services. He finds it difficult to accept his lowly position given the fact that he has done so much for his employers. He compares himself to a “soldier that hazards his limbs in a battle”, and receives “nothing” in return, while “there are rewards for hawks and dogs when they have done us service.” Even Antonio acknowledges this misfortune of Bosola’s, stating, “’Tis great pity he should be thus neglected: I have heard he’s very valiant. This foul melancholy will poison all his goodness…” which also hints to readers and the audience of the future corruption that Bosola will embody. However, Bosola perseveres, and is determined to “thrive some way”, even if it means having to degrade himself to a creature unworthy of honour and respect.

When Ferdinand offers him gold and a better position in return for spying on the Duchess, Bosola fervently refuses and proclaims that he would much rather kill than spy on a woman. Moreover, the task would make him an “impudent traitor”; “a very quaint invisible devil in flesh.” Yet, strangely, Bosola accepts the task – with some unwillingness, it seems – which highlights the extent this man is willing to demean himself in order to rise in the social ladder. This is the first scene in the play that outlines the question, “Does a ‘preferment’ in the world necessitate admission of inferiority?”

This scene is not unusual; nor is this question only applicable to the period of time when this play was composed. The act of degrading yourself in one way or another – whether out of humility or mere greed – in order to rise in power and attain wealth, is and has always been a popular theme in literature and art throughout history. Evidently, Bosola’s motive for accepting the task of a spy is out of greed and ambition. On the other hand, Antonio exhibits a similar notion of unavoidable subordination towards the Duchess but does so with all the admirable qualities of a good, loyal, and humble servant.

Antonio does not conceal his admiration, respect and fidelity for the Duchess. She is introduced in the play through his exaltations of her, as though she were a being devoid of flaw, almost goddess-like. This highly subjective opinion insinuates possible feelings of love towards the Duchess, but being her social inferior, we, the readers and the audience, are fully aware that any such feelings for his employer is to be cast aside, for he could never openly court her. So, when the Duchess reveals her love for him and takes the initiative to woo and propose to Antonio, it does not seem completely absurd as she is in a position to do so. However, her gender must have obviously been a factor that made her proposal highly unorthodox at the time, if not absurd. Moreover, the fact that the audience and readers know that the Duchess slyly plans to propose to him whereas Antonio has absolutely no idea of her underlying intentions emphasizes his inferior position. This shift in gender roles – caused by the restrictions which social class conventions imposes upon society – is not overlooked by Antonio. He points out his awareness of this peculiar gender-role-swap, saying to his wife, “These words should be mine,” as the Duchess not only takes on the role of a confident leader during the proposal, but even throughout much of the play; such as repeatedly reassuring Antonio of their safety, because Antonio is constantly fearful of eminent danger.

With regards to the notion of inferiority, it is manifest in Antonio’s actions that he has no choice but to humble himself before the Duchess. His love for her is unquestionable, and so his feelings of “unworthiness” is most likely an outcome of his veneration for the woman he loves. However, he is still a male character of the 17th century and putting aside his pride as a man in order to accept being proposed to must have taken some impressive amount of modesty. On top of that, there is the possibility that Antonio is motivated to cast aside his male pride because he is aware of the power he would gain if he were to accept this proposal. “Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,” he says. This is evidence of his consciousness and caution of the situation. Antonio is a righteous character who fears that his reasons for marrying the Duchess may be mixed with both love and ambition. Whether he accepts the proposal out of pure love alone, or both love and ambition, Antonio does advance in the social hierarchy through the necessary act of admitting his inferiority – much like Bosola. What differs between the two major characters is that Antonio’s advancement is out of being simply good and honest. He advances through the holy and romantic system of matrimony, whereas Bosola advances through deceit and immoral means.

To sum up, Webster has made this idea of indispensable subordination – and the inescapable act of embracing it – a prominent theme in The Duchess of Malfi. Through Bosola and Antonio, two extremely different characters, Webster has evoked the question of whether a rise in social status or power necessitates the admission of inferiority. The answer is an unsettling truth which Webster demonstrated through this play. It is proven that there is no escaping it; our inferiority cannot be ignored when an advancement in life is at stake. It is an answer that is manifest in the question itself, for why would there be a need to ‘rise’ at all if we are not inferior in some way?

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Forbidden Love: A Comparison of “The Merchants Prologue and Tale” and “The Duchess of Malfi”

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Despite the varying contexts with which they wrote their work, as well as the vastly different tone and content, both Chaucer in ‘The Merchants Tale’ and Webster through ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ explore the theme of forbidden love- or forbidden lust- and its attractions and implications. Whilst Chaucer’s humorous fabliau of adultery and grotesque miss-matches certainly contrasts with the twisted tale of status and gender imbalance in Webster’s tragedy, both writers appear to indicate in their respective texts the contradicting forces of the negative consequences of forbidden relationships, as well as their intense magnetism.

Chaucer, through the relationship between May and Damyan, explores the concept that a romance’s main attraction could be its forbidden nature. Damyan’s ‘love’ for May is most often described in the pain he experiences by not being with her, such as his ‘langwissheth for love’ and the attraction. Whilst May’s character seems to be predominantly motivated by lust- at the first opportunity she gets her and Damyan “had dressed/ in swich manere it may nat been expressed”, implying that their romance is driven by sexual impulse rather than romantic love. Chaucer’s poetry being a fabliaux, the characters are not fully realized and serve rather stock characters to serve the story, and by the point of Damyan’s love letter to May she had not been given any dialogue. This further implies that their attraction for each other does not extend beyond lust. Furthermore, the concept of May’s sole interest in Damyan being his status as forbidden and unattainable is stressed by their sexual engagement in the tree- Eve’s had the choice of all the fruit in the garden of Eden but sought out the fruit of the tree of knowledge because of its forbidden nature.

Similarly, in the Duchess of Malfi the Duchess’ love for Antonio originally appears to have been inspired by the containment of her sexual feelings by her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand. The juxtaposition of the scene in which her brother’s declare her “lusty widow” and implore that she let “not youth, high promotion, eloquence…sway your high blood”, immediately followed by her claim that she will “wink and choose a husband” seem to imply that her initial attraction to Antonio emerges not because of his personal merits or qualities, but rather her magnetism to the forbidden. Her choice of Antonio for a partner only solidifies this argument. Marrying any man would anger her brother Ferdinand, who rallies against the idea of the Duchess remarrying despite the ideas of the time- a widow, who had far more power and authority than an unmarried woman, was encouraged to get married as soon as possibly as she was seen as a threat to the patriarchal order. However, her marriage to a man far below her status presents a more conventional forbidden romance than just her brothers telling her not to. Social mobility was a much-feared concept, and the Duchess’ disregard for social norms, represented by her telling Antonio to “raise yourself/… (her) hand to help you”, could signify a specific attraction that she cites in Antonio- his forbidden nature as someone below her in status.

That said, Webster portrays the Duchess’ love for Antonio as a far less amoral romance than that of May and Damyan’s in the Merchants tale. Despite the Duchess’ arguably stronger moral compass than the Cardinal and her sounder mental state than Ferdinand, she naturally stands as inferior to her brothers because of the patriarchal ideals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Her decision to marry Antonio is forbidden only because the will of the Duchess is suppressed by her brothers, and her marriage to Antonio in part seems to justify their romance as holy and moral, the Duchess asking “what can the Church force more?”. The presence of Cariola makes the marriage between the Duchess and Antonio legally and morally bound in the religious context of Webster’s time, and the Duchess’ defiance of what her brothers deem forbidden, rather than what the Church does, arguably puts the Duchess on the moral high ground and makes her seem a more sympathetic character.

This is a direct contrast to the forbidden nature of the romance between May and Damyan, in which the two directly violate the sanctity of the marriage bond by committing infidelity. Rather than exploring Damyan’s moral turmoil over pursuing a married woman, or engaging sympathy for May through her marriage to the old and lusty January, Chaucer presents both of the two as morally weak. This is highlighted by May and Damyan’s copulation taking place in “a tree… charged was with fruit”, a play on the image of the original sin beginning at the tree of knowledge, in the garden of Eden. Chaucer’s comparison of May to Eve in this way is fairly unforgiving, and her increasing calculation, motioning Damyan to climb the tree as she says to January that “(she) is no wenche” contributes to the idea that her pursuit of the forbidden Damyan is immoral and calculated.

Although both the Duchess and May’s pursuit of forbidden tastes results, initially, in satisfaction (emotionally or sexually), in some ways both Chaucer and Webster present manifestation of forbidden tastes as disturbing, rather than ‘sweet’. Ferdinand’s obsession with his sister’s sexual actions is increasingly disconcerting throughout the play, and the audience’s view of his character is heavily influenced by his craving of the forbidden. Whilst the Cardinal certainly shows distaste at the idea of the Duchess having sex (to his knowledge) outside marriage in Act II scene 5, he remains relatively impersonal and merely shows aversion to the idea of the Duchess ‘sleeping beneath her’, expressing contemptuously “shall our blood… be thus attained?”. In contrast, Ferdinand shows extreme, unfiltered rage at the idea, fuming “I (will) hew her to pieces”, and his anger at the man who impregnated his sister implies a jealousy that is very disturbing in a brother. His references to the Duchess’ “milk” and “blood” show an unsavory obsession with her body and his generally unpleasant behavior could be Webster’s way of conveying to the audience that that which is forbidden and immoral should not be ventured into.

Similarly, Chaucer presents January’s legal, but arguably transgressive, marriage to May as unsavory and grotesque. Although January’s marriage to May is not unethical in a religious sense- he ironically goes the extra mile to make sure that he is married before having sex with May so that he may have “leveful procreacioun”- and the context of the time rendered it not an uncommon situation for a far older man to marry a young woman, Chaucer nevertheless creates the image of January’s relationship with May as repulsive, if not humorous for the audience. Chaucer’s description of January as having a beard “lyk to the skin of a houndfish”, and “the slake skin aboute his nekke shaketh” is repellent, and juxtaposing his eagerness to have sex with May sitting “as stille as stoon” almost creates the idea that January had violated her, and that age gap between them makes his lust for her morally, if not religiously and legally, forbidden and illicit.

Furthermore, Webster and Chaucer further explore the idea that the exploration of the forbidden is destructive and only ends in failure by the consequences of those who sought it. Ferdinand’s mental health is visible throughout the play, with his threatening his sister with his “father’s poniard” after little aggravation, but his instability becomes unignorable once he learns that his sister was pregnant, his ravings leading the Cardinal to ask “Are you stark mad?”. The audience’s disgust for Ferdinand peaks at the death of the Duchess, a demand of Ferdinand that was influenced by the merging of hate, religious expectation and his sexually repressed feelings toward her, and the harm that the forbidden sexual feelings he had towards her are amplified in his almost immediate regret, stating “cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young”. Once the jealously and lust he once likely felt towards her is largely dispelled through her death, his judgement appears less clouded, and through this Webster implicitly challenges the notion that forbidden tastes are ‘the sweetest’; rather suggesting that they are the most deceptive and destructive, and perhaps outlining the consequences for not following the contemporary moral guidelines.

Chaucer’s portrayal of the pursuit of the forbidden is similar to Webster’s when it comes to the culmination of the relationship between May and January, in that January’s amoral indulgence in ‘forbidden tastes’ only ends in his own failure and cuckoldry. Whilst The Merchant’s Tale’s ending of deceit and a potential pregnancy is told lightly by the Merchant- in comparison to Webster’s response of killing both Ferdinand and the Duchess- the conclusion of the story would no doubt be disturbing to both the Merchant’s and Chaucer’s male audience. In the context of the late 14th century, and continuing for many centuries after, being a cuckold was one of the greatest shames a man could bare in society- it implied that he could not control his wife, a member of the fairer sex, and that he was not satisfactory at sexually satisfying her. Although January’s blindness (both physically and mentally) to May’s infidelity make him seem foolish and it wouldn’t be difficult for men of the time to distance themselves from him, his “palays hoom he hith (May) lad” implies that many men may think they are in charge, and are ‘leading the woman’ so to speak, when in fact that may be just what the women wants them to believe. May’s main motivation for her infidelity seems to be that she “preyseth nat his pleying worth a bene”, something which we can only assume is due at least partly to his old age. In presenting January’s cuckoldry as penance for his seeking of the ‘morally forbidden’ May, Chaucer is effectively presenting the pursuit of forbidden tastes as not worth the harm they cause, in the same way as Webster presents Ferdinand’s lust of his sister as his undoing.

In conclusion, both Webster and Chaucer present the manifestation of multiple forbidden or immoral relationships, but the difference between the former and the latter’s take on them is significant. Almost all the romantic relationships explored in the Duchess of Malfi are in some way taboo or controversial, and they almost all end up in tragedy. Although by both a 17th century and a modern audience the Duchess may be looked at as reckless and “ambitious”, her willingness to challenge the men who have constrained her is admirable and most would agree she died a moral woman. In contrast, the character of May, also challenging society’s expectation of a chaste women (although arguably in not as commendably a way) is looked at with scorn by the audience, may not get to heaven and she will live her life in immorality, but she will likely relish in it- she has January’s money and will get sexual satisfaction from Damyan. From this we can conclude that perhaps forbidden fruits are the sweetest, but that if one is to indulge in them, they must be prepared to deal with the possibly sour aftertaste.

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The Role-play and Identity in John Milton’s and John Webster’s Works

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

The writers of the early modern period often presented in their texts characters who struggled with a crisis of identity. Furthermore, these characters were unable to reconcile their identity with the role that they played within the fictional world they inhabited. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, the character of Satan struggles with the subtext of performing the role of antagonist in the poem, a role which stems from the uncertainty of his identity due to his opposition to God and his fall from heaven. In a contrasting manner, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster presents a central character who accepts her role as an individual of power fully, even going so far as to defy contemporary perceptions of gender and class in the process, all due to the absolute certainty she has in her identity. It is clear to see that within the early modern period writers attempted to resolve tensions between role-play and identity, resulting in both positive and negative portrayals of the relationship between the two.

The Satan of Paradise Lost is often interpreted as a romantic hero, his portrayal being compared to that of Prometheus, Odysseus or Achilles, Lucy Newlyn noting that ‘Satan is measured according to the heroic standards embodied in classical epic, romance and tragedy’[1]. Satan’s portrayal stems from Milton’s manipulation of these ‘heroic standards’ and the literary conventions used by writers such as Homer and Virgil to present their classical heroes. These conventions range from the poem opening in media res on Satan to Satan being given the longest speeches, being paid the most attention by the poet and having his motives and intentions being explored with greater detail than the other characters of the poem. The imagery used to depict Satan, furthermore, presents him as both dynamic and relatable through a worrying amount of humanity. After his opening speech in Book I where he recounts the fall from heaven, Satan is described as being an ‘apostate angel, though in pain, / vaunting aloud, but racked with deep despair’[2]. ‘Apostate angel’ is something of a contradictory, if not paradoxical, title, but puts forward the image of an angel who has truly abandoned the forces that govern a Christian universe. ‘Vaunting’ is similarly contradicted by ‘racked with deep despair’, Satan thus exhibiting a sense of denial about the absolute hopelessness of his situation, instead opting to remain determined to succeed in achieving autonomy from God. Satan is immediately presented as being inherently contradictory, conscious of his defeat but adamant to deny it. The reader is thus prone to sympathize with Satan, viewing him as something of a defeated underdog.

The physical appearance of Satan further portrays him as a sympathetic hero, Milton describing him as being:

‘above the rest

In shape and gesture proudly eminent

Stood like a tower; his form had not yet lost

All her original brightness, nor appeared

Less than archangel ruined, and the excess

Of glory obscured’. (1.589 – 594)

Satan is ‘proudly eminent’ despite his defeat, suggesting that the devils and angels who fought, and lost, beside him still view him with high esteem. Furthermore, it is clear to see that he is something of a glorious figure, able to captivate both the reader and his army of followers. There is also a sense of hope for the reader who may sympathise with him, but is conscious of his inherent villainy, that he still retains some of the ‘original brightness’ that defined him as an angel of God, suggesting that there is hope he may return to having good intentions. Satan is both physically and mentally captivating, riddled with anguish and denial but presenting himself visually to the reader and to his peers as proud and determined despite defeat. Milton’s Satan is thus rejecting the traditional role he is associated with as a wholly evil and morally corrupt figure, instead becoming a dynamic and sympathetic hero.

The uncertain and contradictory nature of Satan is a stark contrast to the Duchess of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. The Duchess inherits all of the political influence of her husband following his death and thus becomes something of an exceptional woman within Renaissance Italy; a single woman with immeasurable power. She utilizes her newfound power in order to become fully autonomous and independent, free to make her own decisions and carve out her own path in life. ‘I am making my will, as ‘tis fit princes should’ [3] is said by the Duchess moments prior to her proposal to Antonio, the subject of her affections and a man of significantly lower social class. The Duchess asserts a direct relationship between the role of being a ruler and the ability, and power, to do as one wishes. She is able to ‘make her will’, a statement that can be read on two levels. First, that free from the influence of her husband she is the one who determines her aspirations and goals, not anybody else. Secondly, by being a ‘prince’ she is able to go one step further than merely intellectually forming her own will, but actually achieves her goals and gets what she wants in reality. In a manner that almost creates a caricature of obnoxious male rulers, such as her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal who do as they wish without considering consequences, the Duchess begins to define herself by her title and the power that is associated with it. For all intents and purposes, the Duchess fully inhabits the role of a ‘prince’, openly conscious of her ability to do as she wishes.

There is a sense, however, that the Duchess performs the role of ruler in a manner that differs greatly from that of the other characters in the play that are in positions of power, her brothers. Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal are presented as misusing their power, exploiting their roles as aristocrats to allow them to be as detestable, abusive and abhorrent as possible. While both characters are shown as capitalizing upon the inherent sexism of the period, they abuse their privileged positions in different ways. Ferdinand is shown as using his power to validate his personality and protect his fragile, yet enormous, ego. ‘Methinks you that are courtiers should be my touchwood: take fire when I give fire, that is, laugh when I laugh, were the subject never so witty’ (1.1.124-126) is an example of how Ferdinand exploits his influence over those who surround him to create the illusion that he is a likeable and popular ruler. This, of course, has the opposite effect, Ferdinand becoming to both the other characters and the audience an entirely unlikeable individual who acts on petty, often incestuous and malicious motives and lacks the humanity necessary for the audience to sympathize with him. The Cardinal, furthermore, abuses the power associated with his role as a religious leader to carry out political schemes. The first description we have of the Cardinal comes from Antonio, who says ‘Where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules, as he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters.’ (1.1.160-163) Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal are presented by Webster as villains, their misuse of the power connected to their roles as leaders putting them in direct contrast to their sister.

The Duchess herself exhibits both the inflated sense of power that is associated with the role as leader, but also the positive attributes that we, as the audience, see as necessarily present in the ideal leader. The Duchess is presented throughout the play as a pious, gentle mannered yet unapologetic character, who fully accepts the consequences of her actions despite being conscious of the unjust motives behind these consequences. Even when she faces her own death, she accepts her fate with a stoic, composed manner. Her final words before her murder show this composed demeanor:

‘Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength

Must pull down heaven upon me

[…] Come, violent death,

Serve for mandragora, to make me sleep’. (4.2.237-232)

The Duchess makes no allusion to feelings of hatred towards her brothers in her final moments nor does she confess to regret her actions. Instead she merely requests a quick and easy death, accepting her fate fully, Kim Solga going as far as to say that the attitude the ‘Duchess [expresses] makes towards a martyr’s calm’.[4] The Duchess performs her role as ruler so completely that she doesn’t question her fate, she accepts the negative consequences that may stem from a position of power. This ‘martyr’s calm’, however, is not the only aspect of the Duchess that represents her humility before her death, she also shows great appreciation to her devoted servant Cariola:

‘Farewell, Cariola.

In my last will I have not much to give;

A many hungry guests have fed upon me.

Thine will be a poor reversion.’ (4.2.194-197)

The Duchess voices her regret at not being able to repay Cariola for her service and, despite being faced with the immediacy of her own mortality, offer her apologies to her uncompensated, and similarly doomed, servant. The Duchess, in her final moments, thus shows that she performs the role of ruler with compassion and humility. In comparison to her brothers, the Duchess comes to serve as the ruler the audience would prefer; kind, humble and considerate of others. The manner in which the Duchess fulfills her role stems from her highly progressive identity, her character being one that defies traditional conceptions of gender and class.

This identity that the Duchess carves for herself is undeniably headstrong and fearless. She secretly marries and has children with a lower class man despite the fact that marriage alone, disregarding the class of the suitor, is seen as unsavory for a widow to engage in, not to mention that she has been forbidden to marry again by her brothers. The Duchess, in a bold manner, makes no effort to disguise her humanity or the sexual desires that come with it: ‘This is flesh and blood, sir; / ‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband’s tomb.’ (1.1.454-456) The Duchess refuses to be defined solely as her husband’s widow, instead asserting herself as a living woman, the sensuous imagery and sexual tone of ‘flesh and blood’ hinting towards her desire to independently decide her sexuality and a disregard for her brothers selfish wishes. Furthermore, the Duchess shows an open disregard for the boundaries that class creates between herself and the focus of her desire, Antonio:

‘This goodly roof of yours is too low built;

I cannot stand upright in’t, nor discourse,

Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,

Or, if you please, my hand to help you’. (1.1.1417-420)

The Duchess is aware of the difficulties that class presents to her relationship with Antonio, that there is a metaphorical glass ceiling over his head that she cannot symbolically ‘stand upright’ underneath; he is too lowly to stand next to her and she is too grand to stoop to his level. She realizes that in order for their relationship to based on equality and mutual respect she must elevate his class through marriage. The Duchess, therefore, crosses two boundaries in her relationship with Antonio: first the one created by class differences and the second by defying the typical image of the grieving widow. Dympna Callaghan notes that through her marriage to Antonio the Duchess is ‘undermining differentiation at the levels of both gender and class’[5]. The Duchess’s identity is defined by a need to undermine the forces that intend to control her life, whether they be the celibate image of the widow, the expectations of the upper class or the wishes of her brothers. She is, at her core, a rebel opposed to that which attempts to control her, a rebellious nature that is projected onto her role as an autonomous yet gracious ruler.

Satan, like the Duchess, can also be interpreted as a rebel, though his motivations are somewhat more uncertain. Satan’s questioning of his role as villain, his attempt to redefine himself as a romantic hero, is a direct result of his lack of certainty in himself and his own identity. Satan’s identity, and how the reader perceives him as a character, is determined by his quest for separation and autonomy from God. It is Satan’s belief that it is ‘Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven’ (1.263) that defines him. This belief, which seems to the reader initially as a statement made with absolute certainty and earnestness, is itself full of contradictions and doubts.

Satan is dependent on the notion of free will as an opposition to predestination, two concepts that translate into freedom and control. In Book III, God the Father states that he made Satan ‘Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’ (3.99), meaning that Satan made the conscious choice to rebel and thus to also fall from heaven. This projects the idea that those who reside in the universe are completely free to do as they wish. This idea, however, is contradicted by God the Father’s ability to foresee the future:

‘And now

Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way

Not far from heaven, in the precincts of light,

Directly towards the new created world,

And man there placed, with purpose to assay

If him by force he can destroy, or worse,

By some false guile pervert’. (1.86-92)

This passage shows that God foresees man falling as a consequence of Satan’s action, yet we can see from the poems conclusion that he does nothing to stop such a fate for his newest creation. God’s ability of foresight hints towards the possibility of predestination, that events are designed to happen in a particular order with particular results and thus we, as subjects of the universe, have no choice but follow in such a divine performance. This contradicts any notion or definition of free will, that all autonomy we believe to possess is just an allusion. Satan’s wish to ‘reign in hell’ is, therefore, a continuation of his serving in heaving, just at a greater distance from God. Satan’s efforts to rebel, to repel the control of God and create his own independent identity are thus all in vain. He is doomed for failure, the identity he wishes to possess is impossible and thus the reader sympathizes with him and the role of villain is once again questioned.

Both the Duchess and Satan define themselves through their independence. Both of their identities are determined by their capability to rule as well as their independence, for the Duchess from her brother’s sexual constraints and the perceptions of womanhood and for Satan from the influence of God. For the Duchess the ability to perform in the role of a ruler is something that she prides herself in. Even until the moment she dies the role she plays is her greatest achievement, this role being validated by her strong sense of identity and self. She is proudly able to say ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still.’ (4.2.138) But, while the Duchess accepts and fully performs her role, Satan is more hesitant. On a sub-textual level, Satan is at odds with the reader’s perception of him as a villain. Satan sees himself fulfilling the role not of antagonist but of hero, the individual denied freedom and autonomy. The way in which he is represented in the poem attempts to reconcile the relationship between his identity and the role that the reader projects onto him, to create a harmony between the two. For Satan, role-play and identity exist unharmoniously, a constant conflict between himself and the reader. For the Duchess there is no conflict, she is aware that her identity and role coexist and complement each other, the audience perceiving her in all the glory that she aspires to.

Works Cited

[1] Lucy Newlyn, Paradise Lost and the Romantic Reader, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pg.70

[2] John Milton, Paradise Lost, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1.125 -126

[3] John Webster, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katherine Eisaman, Maus and Eric Rasmussen, (York: W. W. Norton & Company), 1.1.377

[4] Kim Solga, Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pg. 104

[5] Dympna Callaghan, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy, (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), pg. 150

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Ferdinand’s Growing Mental Disturbance

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Webster’s Machiavellian antagonist Ferdinand demonstrates a decline into insanity in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ through displaying signs of uncontrollable emotions, fixations on his sister and incestuous desires, and the development of lycanthropy.

Ferdinand’s explosive fits of rage and his passionate plotting against the Duchess when he discovers her secret marriage reflect a man without control over his own behavior. One example of this can be found when he plans to dip her children in ‘sulphur/ and ‘light them like a match’. In this scene Ferdinand delivers numerous lengthy monologues in which he describes murdering the Duchess and her children, whereas the Cardinal speaks only one or two lines at a time; the contrast between the two of them highlights Ferdinand’s uncontrollable passion and anger, whereas the Cardinal is shown to be much more in control of his emotions despite holding the same anger at the Duchess’ betrayal of the brothers. Later in this scene Ferdinand addresses his incestuous desires for his twin sister; he displays a literal loss of control of his thoughts when he asks the Cardinal to distract him or his ‘imagination will carry (him) to see her in the shameful act of sin’. By asking the Cardinal to do this Ferdinand displays how his subconscious is angry with his sister being intimate with another man rather than the revelation of her pregnancy and bastard children, as he cannot help but imagine his sister in a sexual light.

In the 2016 Cambridge interpretation of the play, the actor who played Ferdinand displayed numerous physical losses of control regarding the Duchess, such as flinching to touch her and even kissing her corpse, which could tell the audience that his mental state is now controlling him and he in fact has no control over his actions.Ferdinand’s anger in this conversation is directed at the Duchess’ sexual activity, which insinuates that he is jealous of her lover rather than angry at her betrayal. This is further demonstrated when he imagines who she has slept with physically as a ‘strong-thighed bargeman’, Ferdinand’s fixation on who her lover is physically rather than socially or emotionally reflects how he is fixated on the physical element of his sister’s relationship. Ferdinand’s inability to accept that his incestuous desires are his own flaw rather than the Duchess’ is shown through his decision to murder her and her children, rather than face his own personal and mental issues with incest. By blaming the Duchess for his own issues Ferdinand displays arrogance and a lack of personal awareness, this could also have been influenced by the patriarchy that ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ was written during, which could lead to women being blamed for men’s wrongs.

In Renaissance England when ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ was written, werewolves held connotations of an unbalanced relationship between a human’s body and mind. Contemporary audiences of the play during the Jacobean era were more likely to have believed lycanthropy to be a real illness and have more belief in the supernatural, however modern audiences are more likely to see Ferdinand’s ‘transformation’ into a wolf as a more comical element in the play. Although lycanthropy was sometimes believed to be a literal transformation from man into wold, it was also commonly referring to someone who was deluded enough to believe that they were capable of such transformations. Although Ferdinand is related to wolves and animal imagery frequently throughout the narrative, such as when he calls the Duchess’ children ‘cubs’ and the Cardinal refers to his anger at the Duchess as ‘beastly’, he is not diagnosed with ‘A very pestilent disease, my lord… The call it lycanthropia’ until the final act.

However, if we assume that Ferdinand’s lycanthropy is induced by ‘melancholy’, otherwise known as depression, as was said to be it’s cause at the time, it can be argued that his illness began after the Duchess’ murder in Act Four, when he says, ‘I bade thee, when i was distracted of my wits… Go kill my dearest friend’. Although he ordered Bosola to murder his sister, he gets angry after, claiming that he was out of his mind when he ordered Bosola to do so; his language here suggests that his madness has already begun prior to her death.

Ferdinand’s delusions reach a climax in Act Five before his death; the doctor mentions seeing’the duke, ’bout midnight…with a leg of a man upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully; said he was a wolf; only the difference was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside, his on the inside’. The doctor’s description of Ferdinand here not only demonstrates the height of his delusions; claiming he is literally a wolf and digging up corpses from graveyards, but also reiterates Ferdinand’s foul character by calling him ‘hairy’ on the inside. The description of Ferdinand’s insides being ‘hairy’ suggests to the audience that his mind and inner personality was always corrupt, possibly insinuating that his insanity was present from the start of the narrative, but has only grown with the development of the narrative.

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