What are some examples in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster of intersection between the personal and the political?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An important example of the intersection between the personal and the political occurs at the conclusion of the play. Antonio, the Cardinal, the Duke and Bosola lie in "this great ruin," with Bosola the last to die before the entrance of Delio, who enters with Antonio's son. Delio declares Bosola, the Duke and Cardinal, the Duchess and Antonio, in "[b]oth form and matter," melted away as the sun melts snow and frost:

Delio. [They] Leave no more fame behind 'em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.

In this example, the political intersects with the personal because the deaths of the Duke and Cardinal were the result of political power struggle, while Antonio's son stands before his father's corpse. To explain, in grasping for the Duchess's land and wealth, the Duke and Cardinal were also grasping for the political power it would deliver to them: The Duke's realm of governance would be increased as would the Cardinal's realm of religious authority. Antonio's son is uninvolved in the political intrigues and the power struggles even though he becomes Duke as a consequence. His interest, a personal one, is in the lives of his mother and father.

Another example occurs during the Duchess's imprisonment. Duke Ferdinand enters with a severed hand, intimating that it is Antonio's hand: 

Ferdinand. I come to seal my peace with you.  Here 's a hand
       Gives her a dead man's hand.
To which you have vow'd much love; the ring upon 't
You gave.

His motivation is a political one: He wants to maneuver the political situation revolving around his sister's wealth, power and marriage to his advantage. To do so, he attacks her psychologically on her personal relationship, hoping "To bring her to despair."

kinsleykoons | Student

One of the biggest examples of the tension between the personal and the political is through the lament and regret of Ferdinand, the brother of the Duchess, after the death of the Duchess, his sister. 

Upon gazing at the body of the dead Duchess, Bosola says: 

BOSOLA: Do you not weep? Other sins only speak: murder shrieks out; The element of water moistens the earth, But blood flies upward, and bedews the heavens.

FERDINAND: Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.

[Act.4 Scene 2] 

After the death of the duchess, when Ferdinand should only have to feel the satisfaction of accomplishment, he cannot even look at the face of his sister. He seems to be filled with regret and a realization that his act of revenge ultimately meant nothing. The revenge was politically motivated, while his love and relation to his sister is highly personal. Unlike his sister, Ferdinand was not at all in touch with any sort of spiritual transcendence, making his earthly actions all that mattered to him. So, in this moment of regret, we see the heartbreaking reality of the intersection of the political and the personal. 


Chase Burns | Student

The Duchess of Malfi, a seminal play in the classical English canon, explores the love of a Duchess who marries a member of the lower class. While The Duchess of Malfi is often remembered because of its poetic language and complexity, the play is unique in its portrayal of sexual and social mobility. These depictions of mobility are the most poignant intersections between the personal and political in The Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess, a twin sister to the Duke of Calabria and a brother to the Cardinal, is the central figure in the play. While her brothers struggle to keep her from marriage, she marries Antonio anyhow. This infuriates her brothers, who arrange to have her strangled. The play overtly explores corruption and power, but the instances of gender and the status of women in the play articulate the personal and political most clearly. 

In Elizabethan England, a woman was required to be submissive to male control. While it seems wild today, the Duchess was expected to listen to her brothers. Her disobedience is personal (because she loves Antonio) but it becomes a political act (in that she represents women subverting their expected role in society). There are plenty of examples of the Duchess showing the intersections between the personal and political. The Duchess desires to marry for love, which is a radical idea during the time of Elizabethan England. Romantic love is a fairly new concept in history, and the Duchess' insistence on it is a revolutionary move. Another example of the Duchess performing at the intersection of the personal and political is when she refuses to yield to her brother's requests. Even at her death, the Duchess demands that she is still the Duchess. This is a personal move (since her refusal secures her dignity) but it is also a political move (women were not allowed to deny male requests). While the play eventually obscures all of this through gory and sensational acts, these acts of defiance are radical. 

Most readings of The Duchess of Malfi ignore the gender aspects within the play. Frank Whigham, in "Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi," (1985) wrote that "most readings of The Duchess of Malfi apply two categories of analysis: psychological inquiry (what are Ferdinand's motivates? how should we understand Bosola?) and moral evaluation (what is the status of the duchess's marriage to Antonio? how does he measure up to it?)... Such analysis would... articulate and construe the friction between the dominant social order and the emergent pressures toward social change" (p. 167). However, these evaluations fail to articulate the nuances of gender that best show the personal / political split. 

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The Duchess of Malfi

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