The Duchess of Malfi Questions and Answers
by John Webster

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Theme of madness in The Duchess of Malfi?

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Madness can be a useful device in literature: by abandoning the constraints of sanity and rationality, a character can explore grey areas which are not available to the sane. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama made full use of this device to create dramatic spaces which plumbed the heights and depths of human experience. Madness in the works of playwrights such as Thomas Kyd and John Webster also served as a tool of divine justice: the punishment the sane laws of man could not mete out, the laws of madness exacted. As we'll see, madness operates in all these different ways in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623).

The Duchess is a young widow who now wishes to marry the man she loves: her steward Antonio. However, her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, object to the union on the grounds of propriety. They believe that the marriage will sully the reputation of their noble house, so they declare the relationship null. Refusing to toe the family line, the Duchess marries Antonio in...

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I would say you can find some elements of, what was then called, male madness prior to his complete, apparent insanity. He says he has "grown mad" at the beginning of Act 2 Scene 5 and so the rush of rage and his uncontrolled babbling can be said to be symptoms of male madness. After his sisters death though we see a flip in the madness expressed by ferdinand. After the death he starts to express symptoms of female madness such as hysteria and it can be said he has lost all of the biblical virtue of fortitude as he somewhat reflects the madness of Ophelia in hamlet.


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