Gender is one of the most prominent themes that both provides the basic premise and structures the action of The Duchess of Malfi. First, the protagonist is female, which was unusual in Jacobean plays. Second, she takes an active role in affecting the circumstances of her life and those...
Gender is one of the most prominent themes that both provides the basic premise and structures the action of The Duchess of Malfi. First, the protagonist is female, which was unusual in Jacobean plays. Second, she takes an active role in affecting the circumstances of her life and those of her children. She defies her family, as represented by her two brothers, to chart her own path. The male protagonist, her husband Antonio, is of a lower class and has a far less forceful personality.
In addition, the overall scenario presented about women’s inheritance of property drew on but did not reflect contemporary English practices. The basic premise of the play is that the Duchess has inherited her husband’s lands, but because she is childless, on her death they will pass to her brothers. Webster capitalized on his audience’s interest in gender and inheritance. England had been rocked by the secret marriage of Arbella Stuart, a cousin of King James and member of his court, to William Seymour, a nobleman, but of lesser rank—a scandal that ended in her imprisonment and in the Tower of London precisely when Webster was writing his play.
The playwright set the play in Italy because, in part, he was drawing on an actual historical case there— but he was also disguising the Stuart-Seymour allusion as well as providing a setting where those unusual policies might be plausible. Arguments about female sexuality are used throughout as the brothers criticize their sister’s possible future marriage as based in her carnal desires. Her brother Ferdinand calls her a “lusty widow” and accuses her of the sin of “luxury,” which was then a synonym for lust.
Hypocrisy in gendered interactions also arises as a theme. The Duchess’s other brother is a Cardinal. He rants about his sister’s honor, worrying about carnal temptations that he thinks abound in her court. Yet the Cardinal has a mistress, who is herself a married woman. That the Cardinal is not only breaking church law in carrying on a sexual liaison, but drawing the woman into a sinful relationship, shows how gendered interactions shape the author’s portrayal of the characters’ morality.
The idea that women should be subordinate or weaker than men repeatedly arises. Near the end, when Bosola is about to die, he lambasts mankind itself, equating human fear with femaleness: “O, this gloomy world! / In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness, / Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!” Throughout the play, however, rendered norms of behavior stand in contradiction to actual behaviors.