Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi explores the issue of female agency vis a vis the Duchess’ symbolic identity. How is the Duchess' personality defined by the others around her?
The Duchess stands out in this play as a contrast to practically all the other characters. She is the only true strong, independent personality. She remains true to her own ideals and dies with her sense of identity still intact. The other characters act from lust, envy, fear and hatred and are revealed as being essentially weak and/or confused; the Cardinal cries out for help as he is killed, Ferdinand goes wholly mad and Bosola too dies in a sense of confusion. These three are the principal villains of the play who serve to throw the Duchess's good points into sharp relief. But other characters, like the minor female characters Julia and Cariola also highlight the Duchess's strength of character by contrast; Julia is a mere wanton, comparable to the Duchess in choosing her lovers but without any comparable sense of virtue, while Cariola, the Duchess's maid, is inferior both in social class and strength of mind. As for Antonio, the Duchess's lover, he too appears more irresolute and hesitant than she does. She is the one that takes charge; she refuses to submit to men as females in her time were generally expected to do, and she takes a strong active role in the play, refusing to be cowed even in death.