The Theme of Entrapment in The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire.
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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