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.
The representation of gender in The Duchess of Malfi is very interesting, not least in how it subverts traditionally assigned gender roles. Right from the outset, Webster makes it abundantly clear just how little regard contemporary Italian society has for women, even aristocratic ladies like the Duchess herself. Her deeply unpleasant brother Ferdinand epitomizes the general level of misogyny when he openly declares
What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale; Make a woman believe?
In other words, Ferdinand believes that any woman can be charmed by a smooth-talking rogue. Furthermore, Ferdinand expresses the attitude of many in his society when he tells the Duchess
thou art but a bare name, and no essential thing.
What he means by this is that women have no identity of their own; they are nothing more than the subjects of their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Their identities, like their names, are owned by other people.
Despite the stifling air of misogyny, the Duchess is able to confound expectations of how a woman—especially a noblewoman—should behave in society. Notoriously, she invites scandal by proposing marriage to an astonished Antonio, completely reversing the established convention. In turn, the proposal, and the marriage to which it leads, acts to undermine the traditional role of the husband. As the Duchess' marriage to Antonio takes place in secret, Antonio cannot act the part of her husband in public. He must remain in a subordinate position in the capacity of a humble steward. At the same time, this clandestine arrangement causes problems for the Duchess. As Antonio cannot be publicly acknowledged as the Duchess' husband, he is unable to protect her from her wicked, devious brothers.
The main character, the Duchess, is shown to contravene gender roles in this play. She is shown to be a strong and wilful woman who acts independently of societal and familial expectations. Women of that time were expected to be submissive and dutiful to men, particularly in such an important business as marriage. Instead, the Duchess marries a man entirely of her own choice and one of lower social standing, an act which appears unforgivable in the eyes of her brothers. They set out to punish her for transgessing gender roles and thus let loose an orgy of destruction which envelops themselves also.