Breakfast illustration of bacon, eggs, and coffee with the silhouetted images of the Duchess' evil brothers, one on each side

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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M. C. Bradbrook (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Bradbrook, M. C. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In John Webster, Citizen and Dramatist, pp. 142-65. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Bradbrook focuses on the contemporary context of The Duchess of Malfi to interpret the drama, including the original Jacobean production and the source story for the play. She also compares the style and structure of the play to a masque in order to illuminate the drama as it would have been perceived by its original audience.]

In the one predominant perturbation; in the other overruling wisdom; in one the body's fervour and fashion of outward fortitude to all height of heroic action; in the other, the mind's inward constant and unconquered empire, unbroken, unalter'd with any most insolent and tyrannous affliction.1

[George Chapman, letter dedicatory to his translation of Homer's Odyssey, 1614]

Chapman's comparison of the Iliad and the Odyssey would serve for Webster's two great tragedies; though each might be subtitled ‘A Woman at Bay’, Vittoria's ‘heroic action’ serves her worldly ambition, whilst the courage of the Aragonian princess gives her fortitude to endure the consequences of her bid for feminine happiness and fulfilment.

The similarities in structure (Duke and Cardinal combining in punitive alliance) should not disguise the differences. Since they have been revived, the superiority of The Duchess of Malfi has ensured half-a-dozen revivals for every one of The White Devil. The play was probably acted in the winter of 1613-14, and certainly before 12 December 1614, for on that day William Osler (who first played Antonio) died. In Webster's own day the play was from the first regarded as his masterpiece and seems to have enjoyed a continuous stage success. It was one of the opening plays for the Cockpit in Court in 1635, a command performance for royalty.

The crowds who thronged to Blackfriars, where the play was put on by the King's Men, were recalled nearly twenty years later by the son of old John Heminges, leader of that group. In a macabre mock-elegy for the amputation of a duelling finger, he sets a procession of poets escorting it to the banks of the Styx:

It had been drawn and we in state approach,
But Webster's brother would not lend a coach,
He swore that all were hired to convey
The Malfi duchess sadly on her way.(2)

Webster, if only temporarily, had transferred himself from the company of his old acting friends, to regain the kind of conditions in which he could succeed. The Blackfriars (opened only three or four years earlier) led as the first indoor theatre for an adult company—one which had held together for nearly twenty years, and which cultivated a long tradition in revenge plays. Burbage, creator of Hamlet, was in the cast. Webster made full use of the intimate setting of this hall for another family tragedy—indeed one family more significantly than before, including the Household.

Throngs of coaches crowding to Blackfriars were a common cause of complaint. Visiting dignitaries, even royalty, had been seen there. What could have brought Webster to the attention of the King's Men? Possibly the printed edition of The White Devil, with its generous tribute to the actors and its lament for conditions at the Red Bull. Possibly the disappearance of some of their playwrights—the retirement of Shakespeare and Beaumont.

When Webster published the tragedy, the names of all the actors (with their parts) were prefixed—the first example of such a tribute.3 John Lowin, as Bosola, was recognized as the leading actor; Burbage played Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and was later succeeded...

(This entire section contains 9832 words.)

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by Taylor; Henry Condell played the Cardinal of Aragon and Richard Sharpe the Duchess; Nicholas Tooley, Burbage's apprentice, doubled some minor parts.

This team included both high and low in their audiences. They were used to playing at Court, but they also kept their old theatre on Bankside, the Globe, and evidently transferred Webster's play there, although some scenes needed darkness and silence. The prison scenes do not demand a small cell, but occupy the whole stage, which implies the Blackfriars.

Webster's dedication offered this play to a grandson of Lord Hundson, who had been the patron of the troupe in Queen Elizabeth's time. Other playwrights gave him commendatory verses; Middleton, Rowley (leader of Prince Charles's Men and a future collaborator), together with young John Ford, from the Middle Temple, united to affirm that the work sealed Webster's immortality, Ford comparing him with the best poets of Greece or Rome. Middleton described the audience as being overcome by pity; pity is indeed a key word towards the end of the play, but almost always used ironically: ‘Thy pity is nothing of kin to thee’ (IV. i. 135).

The story is much simpler and bolder in relief than that of Vittoria. The historic basis was at once more distant and more tenuous; Webster took it from Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567), a context that did not enforce any historic stringency. This narrative source is of minimal significance in itself. The litanies of a protracted rite of royal death are built on great public occasions and draw on many literary forms, especially the two contradictory ones of funeral elegy and wedding masque. (The latter is now extinct.)

Webster developed the inverted religious ritual of the death of Brachiano and added to it complex recall not only of many books and of other literary forms, but of events from life—such great events as the funeral of Prince Henry and the marriage rites of Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine in 1613, such local events as overseeing Robert Dove's charity for the condemned at Newgate. To this he joined an attention to his individual actors, and to the effects which could be achieved in his theatre, which is closer than any other dramatist, except Shakespeare, was prepared to go. He knew what could be asked of a boy who had played Hermione or Queen Katherine. Webster made his theatre into an instrument to play on, but he too had vibrated to performance before fashioning it. His use of plays that were still unpublished (Macbeth, Othello or Antony and Cleopatra) proves his attentiveness. Consequently, he shares with Shakespeare an openness to reinterpretation. This paradoxical result, rising from richness and complexity, allows a great variety of valid interpretation and emphasis. It is the reward of a performer's art. With Shakespeare, Webster attracts new relevances from the experience and cultural concern of modern audiences. For example, the modern view that the Duke of Calabria was incestuously fixated upon his twin sister can satisfactorily compensate for inaccessible Jacobean theological or social moods, just as, in a living organism, one part may take over the function of another. This adjustment is the mark of classic work, always renewable by transformation. Today, unless they have personally faced some extremity of horror and collective wickedness, very few believe in supernatural evil, or personal devils.

In this chapter therefore, first the social, then the psychological, and lastly the contemporary theatrical background are explored to re-establish the missing context—this, not to replace modern reading, but to enrich it.

The Duchess of Malfi is distinguished from The White Devil, which was firmly grounded in recent history, and the distinction produces a different conception of the play—one which was also influenced by the very different playing conditions at Blackfriars.

The story had survived only because it had been recounted by a contemporary, Matheo Bandello, who told it as Antonio's tragedy; this Italian bishop may have been the Delio of the play, as he seems to have known Antonio personally. Tragic ‘shaping’, carried through the French to Painter, had made it legendary in the course of one hundred years, the interval between the murder of Antonio Bologna at Milan in October 1513 and Webster's play. The secret marriage between the young widowed Duchess and the steward of her household, their five years' happiness, their flight, and the vengeance of her brothers were told through long speeches, laments and songs from the two lovers. Painter displayed what historical records fail to supply: the Duchess's imprisonment and death by strangling, together with her faithful maid and two children; he briefly ended with the record of Antonio's assassination later on the orders of the Cardinal.4

Into such a legend Webster was free to insert contemporary colour. The Spanish rulers of the Kingdom of Naples could be interpreted in the light of contemporary Spanish honour and Spanish pride. (Indeed, a few years later Lope de Vega was himself to write a play on the story of the Duchess.) There was freedom also to shape it in terms of the noblest theatrical form, the masque, though in an unusual and paradoxical way, turning the form and the occasion upside down. The old tale and the modern instance, eternity and time, were combined in Webster, and still without any dogmatic fixations. His negative capability, or ‘power of being in doubts, mysteries, fears without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’, was strengthened by contrasts of darkness and light, diamond and mist, so that his perspectives in this piece are larger, and yet his style is softened. The sharp contrasts of the central scene in The White Devil have become the nightmares of the Duchess's prison in Act IV. The total effect is still paradoxical—the epigrams of Bosola and the Duchess giving rise to numinous shudders, the abrupt breaks in speech to the stealthy encroachment of menacing forces, stage figures to the implications they carry. In place of the Ambassadors who represent the political aspect of Vittoria's challenge, perspectives of hell open in the Duchess's prison; since the time of Charles Lamb these scenes have been recognized as being ‘not of this world’. Madness was itself thought of as diabolic possession, and the ‘comic’ masque of madmen prefigures the later madness of Ferdinand.

There is no single ‘source’. Bandello's narrative records his extreme shock, which he dealt with by blaming everybody—Antonio for his presumption, the Duchess for her lust, the brothers for their cruelty; his position is self-contradictory. For Webster's generation, the end of Penelope Rich and Charles Blount's love affair, or the story of Antonio Pérez and the Princess of Eboli, offered possible endorsement. The modern reader is at least better equipped by this analogue from Webster's day, to gain insight into the price for private security amid Court splendour, and also into the psychology of the spy. For Webster's chief method of shaping the story was to create the single character of Bosola out of the Duchess's household servants, her prison tormentors, and the named assassin of Antonio in Milan, a Lombard captain. Bosola's insecurity, his bitter jesting and self-mockery, his constant, unremitting demands for ‘reward’, which is always denied him, and finally his love of disguises as a mode of psychological relief can all be found in Pérez. Better than any other writer of his time, Webster has realized the dark side of political power, the cruel grip of intelligence networks, the shocks of betrayal. In production, Bosola often dominates the play, so that the lives of the Aragonian princelings serve but as background to his self-destruction. This spy, who repents and institutes a counter-vengeance for the murder which he himself had executed on command, reaffirms the tragic fate of the servant. The great lady who ends her days in darkness, close prisoner in her own palace, shares the pride of Penelope Rich and Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli.

Every Jacobean would know that madness was hereditary in the royal blood, which it was the Duchess's crime to have contaminated by a base marriage; they would also know the story of Philip II's heir, Don Carlos, strangled in prison.

The last element of public feeling which Webster incorporated into his play may not have been recognized by his contemporaries. His own mourning for England's heir, Henry, Prince of Wales, who had died in November 1612, had been set down within a few weeks in A Monumental Column, his elegy. Here many of the images, later closely united in The Duchess of Malfi, lie about as disjecta membra. It is not in itself a memorable achievement, but points to one of the sources of the tragedy; this widespread national grief provided some powerful emotional drives which went into the tragedy and were transformed.

It is possible to sustain a reading of the play in terms of contemporary views of social duty or social structure; it is also perfectly possible to read it as a character study of the four leading figures, with religious overtones, or as a subtle variation upon the perspectives of the masque. The story is ‘open’ not so much to the moral alternatives which are powerful in The White Devil as to differences of genre, of interpretative approach, or of emphasis, of light and shade. It has proved attractive in this way to modern poets, who have adapted it in a thoroughly Websterian fashion.

In accordance with the practice of the private theatre, Webster divides the play into five acts, centring on the Court, the bedchamber, the world, the prison and the grave. But these locations are not closely defined. In the prison scene, the waxwork show of mortification, the masque of madmen and the ritual of execution are in themselves theatrical; they belong with the hell-castle of Macbeth, with its porter and its alarm bell, with the shows in the witches' cave. These in turn reflect the ‘great doom's image’ of medieval drama—Heaven and Hell. The King's Men at this time were increasing this element in their productions—with new effects in Macbeth, and with Shakespeare's final plays. Their own experience of the Court masque (where they had enacted the witches for the antimasque of The Masque of Queens) must have affected their general style.5 It was a secular ritual, using religious terms, but without ever introducing religious material.

The legendary, the contemporary, the dramatically ritualistic are laminated, and this inlay increases the dramatic life of the work. What now has to be substituted for Webster's contemporary lamination is something of our own day: both T. S. Eliot and Allen Tate, in their lyrics, added this perspective to the original poetry. Eliot chooses the bedchamber scene, where the Duchess is surprised, partly through Antonio's jest of leaving her, and sees in her mirror not the face of her husband but that of her brother, holding out a poniard. This is adapted so that the two figures become two aspects of one man, who both loves and hates at once. The effect is not pity but terror:

‘You have cause to love me, I did enter you in my heart
Before ever you vouchsafed to call for the keys’
With her back turned, her arms were bare,
Fixed for a question, her hands behind her hair
And the firelight shining where the muscle drew. …
There I suppose they found her
As she turned
To interrogate the silence fixed behind her.(6)

Allen Tate contrasts the tale of the Duchess with the sterility of a modern reading:

The stage is about to be swept bare of corpses.
You have no more chance than an infusorian
Lodged in a hollow molar of an eohippus. …
Now consideration of the void coming after,
Not changed by the ‘strict gesture’ of your death,
Splits the straight line of pessimism
Into two infinities. …
And the katharsis fades in the warm water of a yawn.(7)

If the cynicism of Bosola and Flamineo is to jest about moral values they cannot afford, Tate's persona in this poem fits into the play well enough. Its own comedy starts in the opening scene at Court; then, in Act II, Bosola uses the tone of the Malcontent in his mockery of women's painting; Ferdinand's actions begin with the manic grandeur of forbidding his courtiers to laugh except when he laughs. Later, as he silently confers with his brother, and someone comments, ‘The Lord Ferdinand laughs’, it seems

                                        like a deadly cannon
That lightens ere it smokes.

[III. iii. 54-5]

The Duchess's mirth consists of simple, rather childish bawdy jokes with her maid and her husband, but Ferdinand's entry transfers it into the bitter wit with which she enacts her play of banishing Antonio. She neither employs nor suspects any espionage; her wit serves chiefly to control her own pain and resentment and acts upon herself (as Bosola's also acts upon himself).

Historically, the removal of Antonio Bologna and his Duchess from this world was neatly and expertly carried out; there was no scandal and little comment. It was a family affair; the Duchess simply vanished and was never seen again, her secret marriage matched by her secret death. In this play, uniquely among Webster's works, there is no trial; tyranny is condemned by Ferdinand's self-accusation:

By what authority didst thou execute
This bloody sentence?
By yours—
                                        Mine? Was I her judge?
Did any ceremonial form of law
Doom her to not being? did a complete jury
Deliver her conviction up i' th' court?
Where shalt thou find this judgment registered
Unless in hell … ?

[IV. ii. 298-304]

The only form of sentence we have witnessed was that of her banishment from Ancona, carried out in dumb show, at the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto. This was evidently staged in great splendour, for an Italian visitor to London commented upon it in 1618. During the ceremony the Cardinal violently took her wedding-ring from the Duchess's finger, which constituted an ecclesiastical act of nullity of the contract; punishment by the secular arm (banishment) followed this ecclesiastical judgment. From the comments of the two onlookers one learns also that the Pope has seized the duchy (‘But by what justice?’ ‘Sure, I think by none / Only her brother's instigation’).

In the case of Antonio Pérez and the Princess of Eboli the arbitrary nature of Spanish judicial procedure, with the unscrupulous use of ecclesiastical charges in default of secular evidence, was the whole point of the Relaciones being published in England. It showed to the English (including the English Catholics) the superiority of English justice. There is no form of justice in the family acts of vengeance against the Duchess, who repeatedly calls it tyranny.

If the drama were viewed simply as a family history, as it might have been by one of Webster's young friends from the Inns of Court, it would have been considered that the Aragonian brethren were lacking in a proper sense of duty in counselling the young Duchess to live unmarried, and then going off and leaving her. It was their duty to look round the world at large, find a suitable husband and present him to her. The absolute authority of the head of the family over all members was not disputed, and the natural subjection of sister to brother appears in a number of English plays.8 But imposing on the Duchess the heroic rôle of Virtuous Widow—a rôle which the individual could certainly choose, which was seemly for older women, which could confer extraordinary power on a Catherine de Medici—was tyrannical. Later, indeed, Ferdinand pretends he is planning a marriage with Malateste, and the Cardinal also claims to have a plan for her remarriage. Antonio, as her faithful servant, counsels marriage to her before she makes her declaration of love to him. (In all stage comedy, the remarriage of widows is a central assumption.)

Yet, whatever the value of ‘a contract in a chamber’, the Duchess, by failing to publish her marriage, destroys her own good fame. Antonio is aware that ‘the common rabble do directly say she is a strumpet’. To her brother she claims that ‘my reputation is safe’, but he declares that once it is lost it is irrecoverable (III. ii. 116-35). He explains, as if to a child, that love is found only among shepherds or dowerless orphans. Marriage as a social contract, an affair of the larger family, means that if Antonio was her husband he was not her ‘lord and husband’; he jests at himself as a lord of Misrule, reigning only at night. He simply does not belong with the great ones; his rôle in the marriage is passive, indeed feminine; the Duchess, acting as the masculine half in the partnership, proposes the contract, directs their action, plans their flight, faces her brothers. At the end, Antonio hopes only to ask pardon of his new kinsmen. As a member of the Household, he should have respected its degrees; since he is an upper servant, his life is held as cheap as Bosola's by the brothers.

Imprisonment was the usual penalty for clandestine marriages between a great lady and a servant. The most eminent example is John Donne, secretary to the Lord Keeper, who, after he had married the Keeper's niece, Anne More, in December 1601, was two months later committed to the Fleet Prison for conspiracy to violate the civil and common law. The cleric who performed the ceremony was also jailed, as was even the man who had ‘given’ the bride—a gift he was certainly in no position to bestow. Years of poverty followed. The case of Lady Arbella Stuart is more frequently mentioned in the context of this play; in that instance it was her nearness to the throne which caused her imprisonment.

One of the works that Webster was certainly reading at this time, for there are many ‘bondings’ in this play, was Montaigne's essay ‘Upon some Verses of Virgil’ (Book 3, Chapter 5), which treats of love and marriage. Montaigne assumes, without requiring any examination, the double standard by which men would face almost any crime in their family rather than the infidelity of their wives. The particular passion of the Italians, love (‘Luxury is like a wild beast, first made fierce with tying and then let loose’), is stronger in women than in men. Marriage is another thing: ‘Wedlock hath for his share honour, justice, profit and constancy; a plain but more general delight, Love melts in only pleasure; and truly it hath it more ticklish; more lively, more quaint and more sharp … a pleasure inflamed by difficulty; there must be a kind of tingling, stinging and smarting. It is no longer love, be it once without arrows and without fire.’ Webster laminates Montaigne's cool and occasionally alarming survey of the relation between the sexes with the glowing ardour of Sidney's Arcadia: the perfection of its two heroines in prison, their sufferings for love. In Sidney he found the device of the wax figures used as torture for his Duchess. Florio's translation of Montaigne had been dedicated to, among others, Penelope Rich; the collision between Sidney's burnished examples of Virtue and the sardonic enigmas of Montaigne must have been strengthened by bitter contrasts in the life of a woman who linked these two works.

Penelope's last battle was for the right to call herself Countess of Devonshire; the Duchess of Malfi is never given a personal name. She is always addressed by her title. Her private person is suppressed in her public rôle; we never meet Giovanna d'Aragona. Yet it is the struggle between these two elements which her maid laments in the concluding words of Act I:

Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman
Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows
A fearful madness; I owe her much of pity.

[I. i. 504-6]

Webster was later to use another antithesis, in comparing ‘The Character of a Virtuous Widow’—who never remarried—with ‘An Ordinary Widow’, who remarried again and again: noble and comic, sacred and risible. In this play however he showed the one character in two different rôles, overt and covert. Her public rôle as Duchess gives her no power within the family; she makes her domestic choice with a sense that she is acting like soldiers who

                                                            in some great battles
By apprehending danger have achieved
Almost impossible actions.

[I. i. 344-6]

And to Antonio she suggests that ‘love mixed with fear is sweetest’ (III. ii. 66).

The Duchess of Malfi's life was cleft in two by her secret marriage; her integrity was restored ultimately by the price she was prepared to pay for it. She changes and grows, as few other characters do; and ultimately the language she uses is that of religious experience—there is nothing doctrinal about it. For she is denied the consolation of the Church (which Spaniards were always most punctilious in allowing to the victim); she has to improvise her own ceremonies. The Cardinal and Ferdinand use the ceremonies of Church and State to release their own perversions.

Tragic awakening begins for the Duchess with a pathetic variation on her brother's warning that happiness dwells only with unambitious shepherds or dowerless orphans:

                    The birds that live i' the' field
On the wild benefit of nature, live
Happier than we; for they may choose their mates
And carol their sweet pleasures to the spring.

[III. v. 18-21]

This is pastoral happiness that Webster drew elsewhere in his ‘Character of a fair and happy Milkmaid’.

At parting with Antonio, she hopes that they will not part thus ‘i' th' Eternal Church’ and sees the heavy hand of Heaven in her affliction:

I have seen my little boy oft scourge his top
And compared myself to 't; nought made me e'er
Go right but Heaven's scourge-stick.

[III. v. 81-3]

This is not a sustained attitude, for human pride and even religious cursing at other points contradict it. Her ‘diamond’ quality combats with her fragility: she is no stoic; conflicting passions succeed her initial stunned, somnambulistic calm.

The Hell, or Purgatory, which the Duchess undergoes in prison is defined by its remoteness or detachment. Her first words after Antonio has left her are ‘My laurel is all withered’ (III. v. 93).9 The laurel which protected the Roman Emperors from thunder was also their emblem of good fame. In being removed to her own palace, she enters a realm darker and grander to which she provides her own choric comment:

                                                            I have heard
That Charon's boat serves to convey all o'er
The dismal lake but brings none back again.

[III. v. 107-9]

These Roman comments transcend her own rôle; they give a godlike view.

The silence of the prison scenes is preceded by Bosola's account of her own deep and silent grief. The scene may well be her own bedchamber, where she jested with Antonio, the arms of the Duchy of Malfi still blazoned on the tester. The ‘shows’ of Antonio and the children, following the ‘love token’ of the dead man's hand, bring her to feel that living itself is hell. She invites the ritual punishment for an ill-matched marriage:

If they would bind me to that lifeless trunk
And let me freeze to death.

[IV. i. 68-9]10

A deep sense of unreality has come upon her; a world ‘not just confused but unfathomable’ is created by superimposing two images in a new ‘art’; the magic ring and the dead man's hand are ‘witchcraft’; the ‘show’ is the preparatory stage of her tombmaking. Bosola tries to convert this to penance, rites for the dying. The madmen with their mocking jests (as if from some great court antimasque),11 ‘Woe to the caroche that brought home my wife from the masque at three o'clock in the morning; it had a large feather bed in it’ (IV. ii. 104-6), go on to babble of the Last Judgment. Their comments on sex and violence serve both as prelude to the ‘masque’ of the Duchess's execution and also as a foretaste of the supernatural evil to be let loose at the end, when Ferdinand thinks he is transformed to a wolf and when, in storm, ‘the Devil rocks his own child’. For a tempest marks the final holocaust.

With the inverted three actions of a true masque—the entry of the executioners, their invitation to the Duchess to join them, and their presentation of the gifts that bring ‘Last benefit, last sorrow’—the Duchess finds that the coffin has indeed replaced the nuptial bed; she has ‘welcomed’ ruin before, but her new perception goes deeper:

I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is, they can give or I can take.

[IV. ii. 224-5]

Bosola has stripped her title; if she declared, ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’—perhaps glancing at the scutcheon above her bed, or pointing to it—the audience might remember that the arms of those condemned to die are taken down. When this happened to Mary, Queen of Scots, she replaced her royal arms by a crucifix. Bosola's last disguise also brings him out of history into Webster's world, the parish charity for the poor prisoners of Newgate:

                                                                                          I am the common bellman
That usually is sent to condemned persons
The night before they suffer.

[IV. ii. 173-4]

The ritual has brought her too out of the dream country of the Revels; it is as Giovanna Bologna that she gives instructions for the care of her children and sends a last message to her brothers—‘Go, tell my brothers, when I am laid out, / They then may feed in quiet’ (IV. ii. 236-7)—as she kneels to ‘enter heaven’. There is almost a suggestion of cannibalism latent in the image, which catches up an earlier one.12 When the gruesome comedy of the waiting-maid's death is ended, Bosola sees where he is—‘a perspective that shows us hell’—and he names the deed as ‘murder’.

‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’ had asserted the ‘Mind's empire’ against Ferdinand's ‘tyrannous affliction’; Bosola replies, ‘That makes thy sleep so broken.’ Had she said, ‘I am Giovanna Bologna still,’ she would have more truthfully disclosed the way in which her marriage had severed her public rôle from her private person. She had ‘awakened’ Antonio with the words ‘[I] only do appear to you a young widow / That claims you for her husband’ (I. i. 456-7) and ‘put off all vain ceremony’—though later she had improvised one.

For those who would see the Duchess as love's martyr, the moment of her death is crucial. Critical judgment has placed her at every point on the scale that separates Fair Rosamond or Jane Shore from the Virgin Martyr (a play on St Dorothea had just been acted at the Red Bull). The Duchess's death converts Bosola, the expected miracle. The sight of her face also ‘awakens’ Ferdinand to what he has done: ‘Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young’ (IV. ii. 264). In the darkness of the prison this suggests a halo of glory; sex, violence and religion are fused in nine short words.

Antonio's first portrait of her to his friend had enskied and sainted her; yet when she finally appears to him ‘a face folded in sorrow’ in the graveyard, she seems only a mournful, hovering ghost, still the wife of Antonio, still earthbound.

Giovanna Bologna is buried obscurely in the ruins of an ancient monastery; it is as ‘my wife’ that Antonio recognizes the voice of the Echo. The scene is highly ritualized (perhaps, as in the echo scenes in Monteverdi, Echo was sung), but this truly obscure being has been heard once before—crying out in the pains of childbirth. The unknown self within the Duchess should perhaps be heard as another voice, lacking security, a voice as homeless as the birds that once she envied for their freedom. This voice offers no comfort. He will ‘never see her more’.

Theological security, ‘which some call the suburbs of hell’, had betrayed the Duchess. It is ‘mortal's chiefest enemy’. The conviction that the future is assured, springing from the self, its good deeds or its good intentions, is the vice of the Pharisee, but also rises from that combination of Pride with Generosity that defeats Prudence. Security means an unexamined assumption of safety, privilege and stability; it makes denial or responsibility easy, being basically both self-centred and inattentive.

Antonio knows that faithful counsellors should warn the Prince of ‘what he ought to foresee’ (I. i. 22), but when the Duchess gives him her wedding-ring, ‘to help your eyesight’, he sees ‘a saucy and ambitious devil dancing within the circle’, which the Duchess removes by putting the ring on his finger. She senses his ‘trembling’. They embrace. Her words are stately or fantastic, but her blushes grow deeper, she asks him to lead her to the bride-bed. For a foil to the Duchess, Webster invented Julia, the Cardinal's mistress, who takes a man if she feels the impulse. In a parody of the Duchess's wooing she seizes Bosola by entering with a pair of pistols and asking him what love potion he has put in her drink. Her end is another macabre jest; the Cardinal poisons her by giving her his Bible to kiss.

Had the Duchess been wanton, she would have tried her arts upon her jailers; and, indeed, the nature of Bosola's devotion is very like love when, after he thinks she is killed, he finds her still living:

                                                  She's warm, she breathes.
Upon thy pale lips I will melt my heart
To store them with fresh colour.

[IV. ii. 341-3]

Antonio and Bosola stand almost at the same distance from Aragonian royalty; Ferdinand had thought of using Antonio as his spy, and to him there could not be very much to distinguish between the head of the household servants and ‘some strong-thighed barge-man’ or one of the porters who carried coals up to the Duchess's lodging. From his ducal height, he twice snubs Bosola for attempting to find any explanation of the spying he is set to do, offers his sister his hand to kiss, and even, in madness, deals ruthlessly with the familiarity of the doctor. The Cardinal, whom Antonio at the opening painted as a religious hypocrite, prepares to eliminate Bosola because he will not risk blackmail from one who knows him as a ‘fellow murderer’. The hollowness of the Cardinal's priestly rôle is the latest revelation of the play. In the last scene the Cardinal and the Duke are both in prison; the Cardinal has made his own prison for himself, by locking the doors and ordering his Court not to pay any attention to cries for help. The ‘accidental judgments, casual slaughters’ that finally leave the stage corpse-strewn are in violent contrast to the ritual of the Duchess's ‘last presence chamber’, but they are taking place in a prison, and perhaps some lighting or ‘blocking’, or the Cardinal's scutcheon, might relate the two scenes.

The Cardinal knows already that he is in Hell; looking in his fish-ponds for his own image, he has seen ‘a thing arm'd with a rake’ that seems to strike at him. (It is an echo of the scene where the Duchess sees the face of Ferdinand instead of Antonio's.) The garment of those condemned by the Inquisition was painted all over with devils, to show their state within; so the devil that threatens, as it seems from outside, is really already in possession, and pulling him down. This devil takes away the Cardinal's power to pray; he is in a theological state of despair.

The Cardinal ‘ends in a little point, a kind of nothing’. Bosola sees his killing as an act of justice, and, in his last words, the Cardinal echoes his sister in appealing to her executioner (now his) for ‘Mercy’. Yet he acknowledges the sentence:

                                                                      O Justice!
I suffer now for what hath former bin—
Sorrow is held the eldest child of sin.

[V. v. 53-5]

In a mockery of L'uomo universale, the Renaissance man, he has played many rôles—shed his Cardinal's robes for the sword and armour of the soldier; endured with some boredom the attentions of a mistress for fashion's sake. His cool manipulation of finance—it is the Pope who gets the dukedom of Malfi, not Ferdinand—ruins the Duchess and the experienced Antonio.

Ferdinand has but one overt rôle—the secular head of the family, the soldier—and he plays it with gusto, ostentatiously. His moments of silence, of playing ‘the politic dormouse’, and his outbursts of manic rage, build up to the madness that is demonic and fatal. Burbage, who had created the rôles of Hamlet and Lear, was playing this part.

For a Jacobean, the madness of the Spanish royal house and the Spanish code of honour would have sufficed to explain all this; to a modern audience, the idea that Ferdinand's driving impulse is an incestuous fixation on his twin sister opens up a meaning more readily available today. It explains the ceremonial forms his persecution takes; ritual is an effective way of disguising and controlling repressed desires. He sees himself as a physician administering purges, even whilst he also sees the Duchess's behaviour as Heaven's punishment for some sin in himself or his brother—a punishment through their common flesh:

                                                                      I could kill her now
In you or in myself, for I do think
It is some sin in us, heaven doth revenge
By her.

[II. v. 63-6]

(The pious Marcello had the same idea; see page 129.) The Cardinal replies, ‘Are you stark mad?’ His attempts at control in the scene where he meets her, coupled with his utter refusal to listen to what she has to say, or to see Antonio, are part of the protective design by which Ferdinand seals off the interior chaos that eventually engulfs him.13 The ritual execution of the Duchess restores him to a sense of what he has done to ‘my dearest friend’—before this last insight finally destroys his mental balance. Such an explanation of Ferdinand has been found so serviceable on the modern stage as now to be almost orthodox.

Incest was not a subject about which Jacobean dramatists felt any squeamishness. Tourneur brings it, as a threat, into The Atheist's Tragedy, and Webster allows the noble lover to subscribe to it in The Devil's Law Case. Acting as bawd to one's own kin might be considered ‘a kind of incest’, and, in basing a tragedy upon fraternal incest, Webster's young friend John Ford some dozen years later was to copy themes from this very play.14 The hero and heroine in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore join themselves together in a private ceremony which invokes the very tie that should prevent it:

Sister}                                                  On my knees
Brother                    even by our mother's dust, I charge you
Do not betray me to your mirth or hate;
Love me, or kill me                    {sister.

[I. ii. 249-55]

They are two innocents in a wicked world, and their union has the isolating effect of an addiction, like the homosexuality of Edward II in Marlowe's play. Society is uniformly disgusting, and these people have isolated themselves from it, each with one who appears the mirror of his or her self. The fraternal relation serves Ford, as it served Webster, in more than one play; its stable, immutable quality (which made one French heroine prefer her brother to her husband on the grounds that the second could be replaced, but not the first) is reflected even in the final scene, for, after entering with Annabella's heart upon his dagger, in a parody of the devotional worship of the Sacred Heart, Giovanni dies with a prayer that restores a chaste remoteness, as if he were looking into a mirror:

Where 'er I go, let me enjoy this grace,
Freely to view my Annabella's face.

vi. 107-8

‘Viewing’ undoes Ferdinand.

There is much in the strangling of the Duchess to recall the strangling of Desdemona, not least her momentary revival after she is supposed dead. But the remorse of Ferdinand is shared by Bosola; it is he who sees the great gulf between the ‘sacred innocence that sweetly sleeps on turtle's feathers’ and his inner hell. Ferdinand feels his life bound up with hers; they were twins. Those who are interested to work out such matters for performance might imagine that the twins were united in enmity against their elder brother, the Cardinal; that the hidden animosity between the two men is shewn by the Cardinal's effortless use of Ferdinand as his pawn. He even usurps Ferdinand's part as a soldier, for there is nothing priestly about him except his vestments—themselves of course a sign of diabolic intrusion to the more Puritanically minded members of the English Church.

Ferdinand shares with Bosola, his spy, a capacity for pain; the pain hidden behind an outward façade is the thread of life that runs through scenes of external violence.15 Pain so great that it ‘makes us no pain to feel’ became in Ford ‘the silent griefs that cut the heart strings’; in Ferdinand it emerges in images—sometimes poignant, sometimes bizarre:

                                                  Thou are undone:
And thou hast ta'en that massy sheet of lead
That hid thy husband's bones and folded it
About my heart.

[III. ii. 111-14]

Or ‘The pain's nothing; pain many times is taken away with apprehension of greater, as the toothache with the sight of the barber that comes to pull it out’ (V. v. 59-61). His last words imply that he is one flesh with Giovanna—and one dust:

My sister O my sister! there's the cause on 't.
Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.

[V. v. 71-3]

Sensitive apprehension of pain lies behind his brutality, and sharpens it, but whilst the modern reading of his impulses as incestuous allows a valid presentation, it seems probable that in Webster's day the same effect upon the audience would have been reached by different means.

Bosola, created by fusing three historic figures in a single tragic rôle, is sometimes felt to be unconvincing, but on stage the part becomes capable of dominating the play. Bosola is a professional murderer, prepared to kill a servant to prevent him unbarring a door; he has served as a galley-slave for murders committed at the Cardinal's instigation. Yet he is also a ‘fantastical scholar’, slow in working, much concerned with curious learning. When he defends Antonio, as a faithful servant missing reward, and the Duchess unwarily discloses her marriage, he offers her the powerful tribute of the unbeneficed scholar's prayers. Her choice of virtue above greatness will bring her good fame from ‘neglected’ poets, who will presumably win their own immortality from her story.

Antonio, ‘this trophy of a man / Raised by that curious engine, your white hand’, will also be praised by poets when heralds have exhausted their easily bestowed nobility. Tributes to the Duchess from needy poets in England had in fact been provided by Robert Greene and George Whetstone (see Boklund, pp. 18-19).

But Bosola also counsels their flight should be disguised as a religious pilgrimage to Loreto (transport is his job). This proves the Duchess's undoing, for it is Papal territory. His praise is immediately followed by the sickening drop to his rôle as spy:

                                                            What rests but I reveal
All to my lord? O this base quality
Of intelligencer!

[III. ii. 326-8]

Bosola, the chief instrument in the Duchess's betrayal and subjection, also bears the strongest witness to her virtues. In prison he may hope, in some confused way, to save her soul if not her body from Ferdinand's damnable plan to ‘bring her to despair’; but there is a collusive relation between the two men that makes the servant in some way an emanation of his lord.

Ferdinand, in such utterance—or, again, when Bosola urges the need for her penance—‘Damn her! that body of hers / While that my blood ran pure in 't was more worth / Than that which thou wouldst comfort, call'd a soul’ (IV. i. 121-3)—and in the constant imagery of fire, blood and tempest that surrounds him, may be considered as diabolically possessed even before his madness takes over. This leaves Bosola also the prisoner of dark powers, tempted by devils in human form (as a ‘scholar’, he might have been once in holy orders).

Ferdinand has sworn in the bedchamber scene that he will never see the Duchess more. When Bosola meets her it is always in some form of disguise: ‘vizarded’ at her capture, dressed as an old man (the stage emblem for mortality), then a ‘tomb maker’, then playing ‘the common bellman’. Whether for their effect upon her, or for relief to himself, these disguises enable Bosola to act as a kind of priest, even whilst he conducts the execution. Yet at the end he is still asking for reward from Ferdinand; he expects to be paid the rate for the job—a pension. He is cheated by the two devils who have brought him so low.

Bosola is not the same kind of Protean shape-changer as Flamineo; his melancholy is not assumed, and his ‘antic dispositions’ have more than a touch of Hamlet about them; but he is a Hamlet who cannot unpack his heart with words. However, his death speech is firmly orchestrated (‘One can almost see the conductor's raised baton,’ ejaculates one critic). He begins on a low note, with the unwilling murder of ‘his other self’, his fellow-servant and the lover of the Duchess, Antonio:

Such a mistake as I have often seen
In a play.

[V. v. 95-6]

He recollects ‘the dead walls or vaulted graves’ where the Duchess's voice had echoed, but he hears none:

                                                  O this gloomy world!
In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness
Doth (womanish and fearful) mankind live.

[V. v. 100-102]

He rises to a brave sentiment, but falls away as he too feels ‘Charon's boat’ approach:

Let worthy minds ne'er stagger in distrust
To suffer death or shame for what is just—
Mine is another voyage.

[V. v. 103-5]

Then, ‘staggering in distrust’, he ends on this faint litotes.

He can mock his own degradation wittily—‘I think I shall shortly grow the common bier for churchyards’ (V. ii. 311-12)—yet, with all his many rôles, Bosola is never permitted the luxury of being a self. He is the masquer, in both senses: he comes with ceremony to his captive Duchess; he leads those scenes that have been generally understood as parody or inversion of a Court masque. Additionally, the play, from beginning to end, depends upon varying or enlarging, contracting or inverting the forms of a masque.

The year 1613 had seen a great number of masques, in particular the three given for the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine on St Valentine's Day, 1613. Two of these masques contained antimasques of madmen.16 The Court masque, as developed by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, celebrated the splendours of the royal house by the epiphany or revelation of some great personage (usually the Queen), who carried the image of a divine or heroic being, supposed to be drawn down to inhabit a mortal frame. It was a rite of cosmic harmony, linking the government of the realm with the government of the spheres, or the marriage of some great persons with the unity of the cosmos. It was a secular sacrament. It was magic. The masquers ultimately came down from their stage to join the audience; the ‘revels’, or dances, which ensued, preceded sometimes by the offering of gifts, were the main function of the rites.

It had long ago been a feature of revenge tragedy to end with such a masque, only to have the masquers turn upon their hosts in a bloody act of vengeance. (A masque had historically been used in the reign of King Richard II to kidnap Thomas of Woodstock, who was then murdered.) The play-within-the-play at the end of The Spanish Tragedy, the masques in Marston's Antonio's Revenge and The Malcontent, the double masque in The Revenger's Tragedy would have been known to the King's Men as well as to Webster. Excitement, surprise, the dropping of disguise were features which belonged also to secret revenge.

Webster developed the old rite, which had its own security built in, into a new drama of insecurity and scepticism. Open alternatives are left by him unresolved. His rite is not one of harmony but of disharmony, not of brilliant light but of darkness. As the ghost of the old revenge play has become no more than the active image of a mourner's fancy, so the melancholy of a Prince Hamlet is domiciled not only in the Cardinal, ‘a melancholy churchman’, but in Rosencrantz's successor, Bosola the spy.

At Court, the fable, however slight, must be strongly symbolic; the music, dancing and splendid costumes offered a delicate blend of homage to the King, to the Ambassadors of other kings, to the Court, and to some divine Truth which was being ‘shadowed’ platonically by the action.

The Duchess of Malfi opens with tilting matches and her brother's warning the Duchess to give over her chargeable revels; he characterizes them (as they were often characterized in tragedy) as breeding-places for lust. Her little masquerade with Antonio follows immediately, when she leads through a discussion of accounts and testamentary deposition to the wooing.

Ferdinand's sudden appearance in his sister's bedchamber with his gift of a poniard is a masquerade of the deadliest kind; her own masquerade of dismissing Antonio follows, but he and she cannot resist playing upon their real situation with such quibbles as ‘H'as done that, alas, you would not think of’ and ‘You may see, gentlemen, what 'tis to serve a prince with body and soul’ (III. ii. 183-209).

There follows a dumb show of the Duke and Cardinal receiving the news, whilst Delio and Pescara interpret to the audience the sinister mime:

These are your true pangs of death,
The pangs of life, that struggle with great statesmen.

[III. iii. 56-7]

The second dumb show (of the Cardinal's assuming a soldier's habit, and the banishment of the Duchess and Antonio from Ancona) is conducted before a very rich shrine. It leads directly into the scene of the Duchess's capture, and the inverted rites of the prison scenes, whose masque-like character has already been shewn.

It has already been pointed out also that Webster's elegy for Henry, Prince of Wales, who died on the eve of his sister's wedding, provided material for The Duchess of Malfi (see page 3). Laments for the Prince were often bound up with wedding songs for the Princess. This is powerfully reflected in the elegy by a little fable of how Sorrow is masked in the robe of Pleasure. This fancy of ceremony being used for the opposite purpose to its original one may be taken as a clue to the way in which Webster, in his tragedy, is using the masque—the more masterfully, since a blending of ‘mirth in funeral and dole in marriage’ had actually occurred in the winter of 1612-13.

Webster's A Monumental Column, registered on Christmas Day, 1612, within six weeks of the Prince's death, was bound up with other elegies by Cyril Tourneur and Thomas Heywood. The religious note is here sounded clearly and unequivocally. Webster was to remember Prince Henry again ten years later, in his very latest production (see page 180).

Theories that Henry and his sister had often been reflected in the drama have been put forward of recent years.17 In this play Webster transmuted the sorrow that rose from the failure of national hope in one who, like the Duchess, ‘died young’, into a sorrow that could not be defined, that resisted comfort. He took his elegiac fable from an old play, The Cobbler's Prophecy by Robert Wilson, which means perhaps that it was still performed. Pleasure was sent down to earth by Jupiter, but, recalled in thunder, left behind on her ascent her ‘eye-seeded robe’ (a common dress in masques).18 Next comes Sorrow—who bears a likeness to Bosola:

Sorrow that long had liv'd in banishment,
Tugg'd at the oar in galleys, and had spent
Both money and herself in court delays
And sadly number'd many of her days
By a prison Kalendar.

[ll. 162-6]

Finding the robe, her face painted by an old Court lady, Sorrow is disguised and courted by great statesmen, to whom she gives

                              intelligence that let them see
Themselves and fortune in false perspectives.

[ll. 184-5]

And ‘since this cursed mask, which to our cost / Lasts day and night’ any Pleasure is false; as Robert Wilson had said, ‘'Tis pain that masks disguised in Pleasure's weed.’

Pain is the ‘disguised’ feeling that unites the unsympathetic twins, Ferdinand and his sister; pain, disguised by Bosola under many maskings, emerges at last as welcome:

It may be pain, but no harm to me, to die
In so good a quarrel.

[V. v. 99-100]

And Antonio had suggested at parting from the Duchess (III. v. 61-5) that they are like some delicate, fine instrument, being taken to pieces to be mended; here he echoes the elegy:

Like a dial broke in wheel or screw
That's ta'en in pieces to be made go true.

[A Monumental Column, ll. 241-2]

This hope he cannot sustain; his dying words are

Pleasure of life, what is 't? only the good hours
Of an ague.

[V. iv. 67-8]

If an overarching fable were to be sought for the whole play, it could be a masque of Good Fame. This was a favourite figure in masques, and the central one in Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens;19 good fame is immortality. Antonio pledges care of her good fame to his Duchess, Ferdinand tells her that reputation, once lost, is lost for ever. The very curious fable that she tells Bosola on her capture implies that good fame cannot be discerned till death; only a complete life may be measured, when those who seem to have few claims may be found to have most. Bosola himself had earlier promised the Duchess good fame through the poets who heard of her story; and this was indeed the way in which it was kept alive.

The Cardinal's good fame is destroyed at his death. At the very last, the faithful Delio brings on the eldest son of Antonio and the Duchess, hoping to instate him in ‘his mother's right’. This was not the Duchy of Amalfi but her personal dowry; yet such an action would involve the recognition of a legitimate marriage, for a bastard could not inherit anything. It is Delio who closes the play on the simplest of major harmonies:

Integrity of life is fame's best friend,
Which nobly, beyond death shall crown the end.(20)

From the complexities that negate it, this proverbial flourish may be rescued if it is applied to the play itself. It is in fact Webster asking for his reward, his applause. ‘Crown the end.’ On this occasion he received it.


  1. Addressed to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. Plays with contrasting double moods had been seen ever since the two parts of Tamburlaine; Marston, Dekker and Chapman himself had written such double plays—as Shakespeare did in Henry IV.

  2. William Heminges, ‘Elegy on Randolph's Finger’. Randolph, a minor playwright, had been at Westminster School with Heminges. I think that the allusion may suggest that Webster himself was dead, and his brother now head of the family; but the tragic jests about the Styx in The Duchess of Malfi, and the severed hand, might have caused an association.

  3. Ben Jonson prefixed a list of actors to Every Man out of his Humour in his Folio of 1616, but did not indicate their rôles.

  4. Boklund [The Sources of the White Devil, Uppsala, 1957] deals with the different accounts deriving from Bandello.

  5. Plays of this period acted by the King's Men included The Tempest, King Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the very spectacular The Second Maiden's Tragedy, Fletcher's Valentinian, a lost Twins' Tragedy.

  6. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ed. Valerie Eliot, [London] 1971, pp. 106-7. Eliot has slightly changed his quotation from III. iii. 61-2; and Webster has slightly changed it from Arcadia; see pp. 49-50.

  7. Allen Tate, The Swimmers and Other Selected Poems, Oxford, 1970, p. 75.

  8. E.g. Susan to Sir Charles Mountford in Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness, Evadne to Melantius in Beaumont and Fletcher's A Maid's Tragedy, the Colonel's sister to the Colonel in Middleton and Rowley's A Fair Quarrel, Penthea to Orgilus in Ford's The Broken Heart.

  9. This line is modelled on William Alexander, Julius Caesar; cf. also A Monumental Column, ll. 132-3; ‘We ought not think that his great triumphs need / Our wither'd laurel.’

  10. In The History of Morindos the deceived King of Bohemia placed the body of his wife's scullion lover in a coffin and tied to it the live body of his queen, closing up the coffin.

  11. The Lords' Masque, by Thomas Campion, for the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth, had an antimasque led by Mania with a troop of Frantics.

  12. Compare her earlier words: ‘With such pity men preserve alive / Pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough to be eaten’ (III. v. 110-13) and the fable she tells about preparing fish to be eaten. Her threat to starve herself to death recalls the death by self starvation of the penitent Mistress Frankford in A Woman Killed with Kindness and anticipates that of Penthea in The Broken Heart.

  13. James Calderwood, ‘Styles of Ceremony in The Duchess of Malfi’, Essays in Criticism XII, reprinted in Hunter, John Webster, ‘Penguin Critical Anthologies’, [London] 1969.

  14. The improvised marriage ritual of the Duchess might serve as model for Giovanni and Annabella; Ferdinand has a horrible image of using his sister's heart as a sponge (II. v. 15-16) which is actually seen in the later play as Giovanni enters with Annabella's heart upon his dagger. On the other hand, ‘nuptial twins’ was a term applied to a married pair who were of the same age.

  15. Cf. Antonio's stoic maxim, ‘Through in our miseries Fortune hath a part / Yet in our nobler suff'rings she hath none; / Contempt of pain, that we may call our own’ (V. iii. 56-8), a great improvement on William Alexander, ‘For in our actions Fortune hath a part / But in our sufferings all things are our own’.

  16. Campion, The Lords' Masque, and Beaumont, The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray's Inn. Webster might have been associated with The Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn, by Chapman, as organized by Richard Martin.

  17. See Frances A. Yates, Shakespeare's Last Plays, [London] 1975, and various works by Glynne Wickham.

  18. The ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth, now at Hatfield, shows her in a robe covered with ears, eyes and mouths, signifying Fame. Chapman also depicts a number of such robes in his part of Hero and Leander.

  19. Webster took material from this masque for his dedicatory letter to Lord Berkeley.

  20. ‘Integrity of life’ is denied to Beaumont's and Fletcher's heroes; Philaster, Arbaces, Amintor all have to play rôles that do not fit them. But the crisis of identity for the Duchess is insoluble; Amintor kills himself but the other two are ‘adjusted’.


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The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

The following entry presents criticism of Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (1613). See also John Webster Criticism.

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most frequently revived Jacobean plays other than those of Shakespeare. Indeed, estimations of The Duchess of Malfi, along with Webster's other great tragedy, The White Devil, have led some critics to rank Webster second only to Shakespeare as a writer of tragedy. The source of one of the stage's great female characters, The Duchess of Malfi centers on the character of the Duchess, in whom audiences observe a provocative mixing of sensuality, passion, rage, piety, and virtue. The play as a whole features a complex interweaving of lechery, incest, murder, and torture with nobility, tenderness, and forgiveness. The darkness and horror of The Duchess of Malfi are dramatically compelling, but its unexpected glimpses of light give it a complexity and richness that have maintained the interest of scholars and audiences for centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

A hallmark of Webster's drama is its depiction of strong women characters. In The White Devil Vittoria Corombona is powerful and intelligent, if also wicked; the title character of The Duchess of Malfi is strong, independent, and noble. The heart of the story is the relationship between the widowed Duchess and her steward, Antonio, whom she secretly marries, defying both social convention and the wishes of her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, her twin. The brothers want the Duchess to remain unmarried, appealing to Christian piety; however, as the play later reveals, greed and incestuous lust are their true motivations. Years pass before they discover the truth about her marriage, which is uncovered by the spy Daniel de Bosola. At the behest of Ferdinand, Bosola kills the Duchess, but is then overwhelmed with remorse. Bosola plans to save Antonio, who had escaped, and punish the brothers, but he mistakenly kills Antonio instead. Bosola then attacks the Cardinal, but is himself attacked by Ferdinand. Bosola succeeds in killing both brothers, but is himself killed in the process. The play concludes with the presentation of Antonio's son, who is the sole surviving member of the family. Webster had many sources to draw upon in writing the play, which is based on a true story, though his chief was William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567).

One of Webster's chief contributions to the development of the tale was his characterization of the major figures, particularly the Duchess herself. Ferdinand is the Duke of Calabria, a menacing man who appears obsessed with the repression of sexual impulses. Though he is the twin brother of the Duchess, he is cruel to her from the beginning of the play, and his employment of Bosola as a spy is an indication of his distrustful nature. Ferdinand's brother, the Cardinal, is similarly cruel, but whereas Ferdinand is hot-tempered, the Cardinal is cold and calculating. His affiliation with the church lends him a seemingly supernatural power, but that power is evil; more than once, the Cardinal is affiliated with the devil. In an act symbolic of his diabolic alliance, the Cardinal murders his secret lover, Julia, with a poisoned Bible. The Duchess stands in contrast to her brothers, but she is not flawless. In her scenes with Antonio, she is unabashedly sexual. She is passionate and sometimes haughty, though she is also maternally tender, dignified, and pious. During her torture and death at the hands of Ferdinand and Bosola, she demonstrates a Christian attitude of forgiveness and confidence in her salvation. The ambiguity of her character is crystallized when she says as she dies, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” a line capable of various interpretations. The character of Antonio lacks the complexity of the three siblings; he is more a victim than an actor in the tragedy. He is a worthy man, though of a lower class than the Duchess, and his distaste for lechery stands in contrast to the lustfulness of nearly every other man in the play. His nobility, however, seems naïve in the context of the court. By contrast, the world-weary attitude of Bosola reveals his understanding of the court's intrigues. Bosola begins the play as cynical and self-serving. As he manipulates the Duchess into revealing the truth to him, he appears utterly without scruples or compassion. Yet the transformation of Bosola in the final act of the play leaves his character open to interpretation. He dies as he lived, a murderer; yet his recognition of the Duchess's virtue and his pity for her make him a more sympathetic figure than the brothers who hired him.

Major Themes

Themes central to The Duchess of Malfi include identity, sexuality, and power, which are all closely intertwined in the tragedy. The theme of identity is carried through the play in several ways. The twin relationship between Ferdinand and the Duchess makes the characters mirrors for each other; the frequent presence of mirrors as stage props makes the metaphor explicit. The Duchess also battles with the issue of conflicting public and private identities: her status as an aristocratic lady contests with her love for the lower-born Antonio, and the connection between birth and identity is an open question throughout the play. Her brothers press upon her the identity of the virtuous widow, one that she is unwilling to accept. When she says, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” it is not clear whether she is affirming or lamenting this identity. The theme of sexuality is tied to identity, particularly in regards to Ferdinand and the Duchess; his apparent desire for her is a perversion of socially acceptable sexuality as well as a kind of narcissism. Sexuality is generally linked to danger and violence, as the most explicitly sexual characters are shown to be the most evil. Even the comparatively healthy sexuality of the Duchess is considered suspect, a sign of excess passion, even if it is not, as Ferdinand and the Cardinal would imagine, a mark of depravity. Moreover, although the Duchess has neither Ferdinand's incestuous desires nor the Cardinal's affairs, it is in one sense her sexuality that propels the violence of the play. The desire for power, however, is also a controlling force in the drama; the Duchess's brothers are driven by a desire to control the family fortune. More generally, however, the play opens the question of the bases of power and authority, and who rightfully holds it. The corrupted authority of Ferdinand and the Cardinal casts doubt on the power they wield, while the nobility of the Duchess as she faces her death suggests the possibility of a different sort of authority.

Critical Reception

Initial response to Webster's play was strong. For decades the play was one of those commanded by royalty, and it has been performed throughout the centuries as one of the great tragedies of the English Renaissance. The role of the Duchess continues to be a favorite of leading actresses, including Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Juliet Stevenson. As critic John Russell Brown has suggested, The Duchess of Malfi offers a rich variety of interpretive possibilities for the stage, allowing it to retain its relevance for modern audiences. Literary scholars have focused their attention on both the form and the themes of the play. Webster's talent as a technician has been a matter of some debate. In his study of Webster's dramatic art, Charles R. Forker has described Webster as one of the first playwrights successfully to create distinct psychological portraits of his characters, a claim with which later critics have concurred. But because the Duchess dies in the fourth act, the fifth act is sometimes seen as disconnected from the coherent whole of the first four acts. Early critics considered this a sign of Webster's lesser skill as a playwright, but more recently scholars have suggested that Webster employed a complex structure that is not flawed but rather sophisticated and innovative. Christina Luckyj's study of form in Webster's work proposes a different model for understanding the structure of his plays, suggesting a pattern of repetition and circular movement rather than a linear progression through consecutive acts. Jacqueline Pearson has considered the play in generic terms, maintaining that the difference between the fifth act and the others is the presence of tragicomic elements, setting the final scenes apart from the pure tragedy of the earlier part of the play. As M. C. Bradbrook has pointed out, The Duchess of Malfi also incorporates the dramatic form of the masque, a genre that would have been readily recognized and understood by a Renaissance audience. A trend toward feminist studies of Renaissance drama in the late 1980s and 1990s brought the Duchess to the attention of several scholars. As a strong, sexual woman who nonetheless dies proclaiming Christian piety and forgiveness, the Duchess has resisted definitive interpretation. The model of subversion and containment applied by some critics to much Renaissance drama seems to suit the Duchess, who is severely punished for her private violations of patriarchal order. Yet as Emily Bartles has argued, the Duchess's seeming complicity in her “containment” poses a challenge to that model. The containment of her sexuality has particularly interested critics. Dympna Callaghan and Laura Behling are among those feminist scholars who have included the Duchess in studies of the discourse of sexuality. As Behling has suggested, in the character of the Duchess relations between gender, sexuality, and power are brought to the fore, presenting a challenge to traditional notions of authority that is left unresolved.

Jacqueline Pearson (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Pearson, Jacqueline. “‘To Behold My Tragedy’: Tragedy and Anti-Tragedy in The Duchess of Malfi.” In Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster, pp. 84-95. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980.

[In the essay below, Pearson maintains that while the first four acts of The Duchess of Malfi are clearly a tragedy, the structure of the play fragments in the final act, with notes of satire and tragicomedy. The mixture does not work, she argues, to blend those elements, but rather to distinguish true tragedy from other forms of experience.]

The failure of The White Devil in 1612 seems to have caused Webster to re-evaluate his own view of tragedy and its relationship with other dramatic genres. Certain methods of construction remain, clashing tones, the use of satirical commentary and ironic repetition, but differences between the plays are perhaps more striking. The Duchess of Malfi makes little use of the moral redefinitions of The White Devil: good and evil are more clearly meaningful, and ambiguity less an expression of the real nature of the world than an evasion. The Duchess is a far less ambiguous heroine than Vittoria, a good woman who is forced by the threatening society around her into an equivocal situation, hiding behind ‘masks and curtains’ (III.2.159) when she would prefer frank and open demonstrations of feeling, expressing herself ‘in riddles and in dreams’ (I.1.446) when she would prefer to speak clearly and unambiguously. The White Devil is centred on ambiguous characters, the later play on more obviously tragic figures, a great lady who loves too well and is murdered at the instigation of her brothers. The White Devil from the beginning introduces tragicomic incidents, ironic undermining and the modifying use of laughter. The later play seems at least to begin as a tragedy of passion.

However The Duchess of Malfi has created problems about structure and unity perhaps even more seriously than The White Devil with its ironic repetition and deliberate fragmentation. The first four acts seem to constitute a tragedy of a palpable kind, but Webster allows his heroine to die over an act before the end of the play. The Duchess of Malfi begins as a tragedy and only in the fifth act confronts tragedy with satire, tragicomedy, and a distorted view of the tragic absolutes. This method of construction causes critics much uncertainty about the unity of the play. William Archer found it ‘broken-backed’, and Ian Scott-Kilvert finds this final act an ‘anti-climax’ which is ‘fatal to the unity of the play’.1 However I think this is far from our experience of the play in the theatre, and I want to examine the fifth act and its relationship with what has gone before.

The first four acts of The Duchess of Malfi form a coherent tragedy. Indeed tragedy seems inevitable from very early. As early as the end of the first act, Cariola defines the play as a tragedy: to her, the Duchess's wooing of her steward seems ‘a fearful madness’ which deserves ‘pity’ (I.1.506). The tragic emotions of fear and pity are already implicit in the action. As the play progresses, the tragic emotions become more pressing and inescapable. In Act Four the Duchess's torment and death are posed as a formal ‘tragedy’ (IV.2.8, 36, 288) scripted by Ferdinand, enacted by Bosola, centred on the Duchess, and developing in the Aristotelian combination of ‘pity’ (IV.1.88, 90, 95, 138, IV.2.34, 259, 273, 347) and ‘terror’ (IV.2.189). Where The White Devil uses ‘tragedy’ or ‘tragic’, it usually includes mockery or at least uncertainty of response. The fourth act of The Duchess of Malfi uses such words far more simply and seriously.

The tragic centre of the play is menaced by bitter comedy and by images of fiction which the Duchess must oppose with her own tragic consciousness and her acute understanding of the line dividing truth from falsehood. Bosola's disguises, Ferdinand's equivocating vow, his sinister joke with the dead man's hand, the Masque of Madmen, Cariola's desperate attempt to escape death by improvising fictions, the ‘sad spectacle’ (IV.1.57) of the dead Antonio and his son, which turns out to be only ‘feign'd statues’ (IV.2.351), the ‘tedious theatre’ (IV.1.84), the ‘good actor’ playing a ‘villain's part’ (IV.1.289-90), all these create a pervasive sense of fiction and unreality which can only be defeated by the Duchess's acceptance of tragedy with her eyes open, ‘well awake’ (IV.2.224). Tragedy is surrounded by and tested by unreality and grim comedy. It is also tested by reminders of a happy past which contrasts poignantly with the present horror. The scene, as I have already suggested, is heavy with echoes of the wooing scene. Again, Bosola's view of the Duchess as an ‘unquiet bedfellow’ (IV.2.140) is a poignant reminder of Cariola's banter that her mistress is ‘the sprawling'st bedfellow’ (III.2.13). Under attack from black comedy, from fiction, from reminders of past happiness and illusive promises of a happy future, the Duchess must laboriously salvage the tragic absolutes, insisting upon her own identity and her own clear-sightedness.

Although the Duchess preserves the status of a tragic heroine, she has an ambiguous relationship to some of the absolutes which we might expect tragedy to affirm. She chooses not to ‘pray’ (IV.1.95) but rather to ‘curse the stars’ (IV.1.96), and the world itself into ‘chaos’ (IV.1.99). Throughout the play the Duchess has appeared as spokesman for fruitful disorder by rejecting ‘vain ceremony’ (I.1.456), the traditional rôle of the nobility, and the traditionally passive rôle of women. She is contrasted with Antonio, whose conventional admiration for ‘fixed order’ (I.1.6) is only abandoned as he dies. Here for a moment the Duchess's acceptance of fruitful disorder almost slips over into the will for general destruction, but finally she dies in humility and ‘obedience’ (IV.2.169), kneeling to enter heaven, and insisting upon her own awareness and understanding, ‘well awake’ (IV.2.224).

The most extreme manifestation of anti-tragedy and menacing theatricality with which the Duchess is confronted is the Masque of Madmen. This masque not only attacks the Duchess: it also detaches us from the play-world by presenting a distorted version of it. The discordant music, dialogue in which no communication is made, and the ever more extreme vision of physical and spiritual degeneration reflect and comment on the play itself. The masque and its characters provide a grotesque image of the world of the play, and some of the madmen reflect quite accurately some of the play's central characters. The Third Madmen clearly recalls the Cardinal, the corrupt sensual churchman. The Fourth, the mad doctor, may reflect Ferdinand, who imagines himself as a physician treating the ‘intemperate agues’ (IV.1.142) of the Duchess, who sent her the grim Masque of Madmen as a ‘cure’ (IV.2.43), and who finally needs a doctor to treat his own madness. He himself draws the connection for us: ‘Physicians are like kings’ (V.2.66). The Second Madman—perhaps also the one discussed in lines 103 to 105—is perhaps a distorted version of Bosola, who ‘shows the tombs’ (IV.2.102) and indulges in misogynistic and scurrilous stories of ‘the glass-house’ (IV.2.77, II.2.7). The Masque of Madmen, as well as presenting an attack on the Duchess by the forces of satire, also genuinely helps to keep her in her right wits by asserting her essential sanity in the face of the grotesque madness of her opponents, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola.

This painful confrontation between tragedy and anti-tragedy is further complicated by links drawn between the representatives of the two. Bosola is not only like Antonio: he is also, in this scene, like the Duchess. The Duchess is ‘like a madman’ (IV.2.17), and she believes at first that Bosola is ‘mad too’ (IV.2.114). She compares her suffering with that of ‘the tann'd galley-slave’ (IV.2.28), and we recall that Bosola had served a sentence in the galleys for a murder commissioned by the Cardinal (I.1.71-3). The two are not only enemies but are also almost allies. Bosola's tissue of questions helps the Duchess to arrive at her self-definition, and his pessimism throws into relief her affirmation.

The death of the Duchess, then, is poised as the play's tragic centre, described as a ‘tragedy’, surrounded by ‘pity’ and ‘terror’, fighting off anti-tragedy, and finally leading to a triumphant affirmation of her own identity, ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’ (IV.2.142). The Duchess is both a tragic heroine reaching a tragic affirmation, and the heroine of a tragical comedy, like R. B.'s Virginia, escaping from tragedy into a heavenly afterlife. However this posed tragedy disintegrates into anti-tragedy after the death of the Duchess. Tragedy is parodied in Cariola's high-spirited fight for life. She creates a tissue of fictions, like ‘I am quick with child’ (IV.2.254), which Bosola clear-sightedly recognises as fictions. Cariola is driven into subterfuge, into taking shameful ways to avoid shame. Unlike her mistress, she cannot free herself from fiction even as she dies, and the only kind of love and motherhood she can claim for herself exist in fiction only.

It is not just, then, that in Act Five the play moves away from tragedy: the Duchess' hard-won tragic moment is precarious and collapses as soon as she dies, and the return from tragedy is illustrated in several small inversions or parodies of tragedy. If Cariola parodies the tragic actors, Ferdinand parodies the tragic audience. His reaction to the death of his sister is a perversion of the tragic catharsis experienced by the audience. He first denies (IV.2.259) and then accepts the validity of tragic ‘pity’ (IV.2.273), sees the event as one of ‘horror’ (IV.2.311, 314), and interprets the whole as a ‘tragedy’ (IV.2.288). However for Ferdinand pity and fear are not purged: they are violently awakened, so that he rushes out ‘distracted’ (IV.2.336). This inversion of catharsis also brings Ferdinand to the reverse of a tragic understanding of the situation: he tries to throw all the blame on to Bosola, to imagine a fictional happy ending, and to retreat into obviously false motives and images of fiction.

At this point, with Ferdinand parodying the reactions of tragedy, in another inversion of tragedy the Duchess revives for a moment. It seems momentarily that all that has gone before is only a tragicomedy which wants deaths. For Bosola, this rich confusion of tragedy and tragicomedy poses insoluble problems. Even the tragic emotions are confused, until it seems that ‘pity would destroy pity’ (IV.2.347). Where the Duchess faces and accepts the truth of her situation and Ferdinand recoils from it, Bosola is faced with divided loyalties to fact and fiction, and he presents the dying Duchess with a half-real, half-unreal account of Antonio alive and reconciled to her brothers. Bosola's confrontation with tragedy leaves him still prepared to use fictions, and however kindly his motives this deliberate falsehood suggests that Bosola's dependence on fiction and deception is to shape his actions even now that he has rejected ‘painted honour’ (IV.2.336). Where Ferdinand retreats from tragedy, Bosola accepts it in modified form, throwing off his disguise. This acceptance, though, is complex and ambiguous. His change of direction is achieved only when he is convinced he has lost his chance for reward, so that it has a strong undercurrent of personal spite. Moreover it is a change in attitude which does not seem much to affect the way he acts, but only the people who are his friends and enemies. To see Bosola's move to the Duchess's side only as a new commitment ‘to doing what he knows is morally right’ or even as ‘redemption’2 seems to oversimplify. It is a strange kind of conversion which is only second choice to material advancement, and which produces the same kind of murder and betrayal as his unregenerate self.

Moreover this change in Bosola is not wholly for the good. It expresses itself not only in a discovery of his own ‘guilty conscience’ (IV.2.356), but also in a significant dimming of his clear moral insight. Before this he always showed a clear moral understanding even when this was rigidly excluded from his actions. From this point he no longer stands in a special relationship with the audience, he is less self-critical, and we can accept his evaluations less readily. His vow, for instance, to give the body of the Duchess to ‘some good women’ (IV.2.372) is made apparently without irony, although he has just participated in the murder of the play's two good women. Bosola, as he himself would have been the first to realise earlier in the play, returns as arrant knave as he set forth, because he carried himself always along with him.

The fourth act of The Duchess of Malfi, then, presents a tragedy in which a good woman achieves a tragic self-assertion. This tragic centre, however, emerges from a mass of anti-tragic material: a masque which provides a grotesquely distorted view of the play itself, a parody of the tragic moment as Cariola refuses tragedy and Ferdinand perverts tragic catharsis, and a miniature tragicomedy in which the Duchess briefly revives. The act tries to suggest as richly as possible the variety of human reactions to disaster without compromising the centrality of the Duchess's positive statement. For the strong few there is the possibility of tragedy: for the majority there is only uncertainty, ambiguity, or the rejection of the difficult absolutes of tragedy. There is never any real doubt about the Duchess's courage and her essential innocence: the play's central ambiguities lie rather in the effect of her love and death on those around her. In the final scene the focus shifts from tragedy to inversions and parodies of tragedy, and from the Duchess to Bosola and Antonio. Without the tough integrity of the Duchess, tragedy falls apart into satire, self-deception, despair and madness.

Dorothea Krook sees tragedy as an interlocking sequence of four units, ‘the act of shame or horror’, the ‘suffering’ which this causes, the special ‘knowledge’ generated by this suffering, and the ‘affirmation or reaffirmation of the dignity of the human spirit’ which this new and special knowledge produces.3 If this is a valid scheme for tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi seems to use the tragic framework in a peculiarly sceptical and ironic way. In the fourth act, the death of the Duchess forms a genuine tragic centre. The end of the act, and the fifth act, provide a series of inversions or parodies of the tragic scheme, in which almost all the tragic values are negated. The first three acts present an ambiguous view of the tragic ‘act of shame or horror’: the Duchess's unequal marriage is seen as shameful and horrifying by Ferdinand, though not necessarily by the audience. Act Four juxtaposes an authentic tragic ‘knowledge’ with knowledge of a more dubious kind. Act Five ends the play on an ambiguous view of tragic affirmation.

In many ways in style and in imagery Act Five is very different from the play which has gone before. The play has arranged tragedy as the peak, the highest in artistic form and in moral achievement, from which the final act charts a sharp decline. The language itself changes to emphasise this change of quality. The end of Act Four and Act Five itself are full of negatives, ‘silence’ (IV.2.5, V.4.83), ‘never’ (V.5.90), ‘no’ (V.5.108), ‘not-being’ (IV.2.301), and especially ‘nothing’ (IV.1.138, IV.2.15, V.2.33, 39, 54, 231, 330, 347, V.5.59, 79, 118), which echoes through the last act. After the affirmation of the Duchess's life and death the society she leaves behind her is negative and sterile.

Again in the final act the play's images of comedy and tragicomedy become more extreme and grotesque. Julia's wooing of Bosola begins as an enacted tragicomedy in which she threatens him with a pistol, and ends in tragedy in earnest, rather like Flamineo's death in The White Devil. The ‘fatal judgement’ (V.2.85) which falls on Ferdinand, the play's leading exponent of satirical comedy, is that he becomes frozen into this one posture, a comic madman afraid of his own shadow. The Cardinal too dies surrounded by laughter, doomed by the fictions which he thought he controlled.

Act Five, then, is deliberately separated from the first four acts by a change in vocabulary and by an increase in pressure from comic and tragicomic incidents. It is also separated by a change in focus on certain characters. We become increasingly distanced from the characters, and it becomes less and less easy to accept what they tell us at face value, until we can view even the last words of the play with critical objectivity. Those characters who have stood as delegates of the audience, Bosola, Antonio and the Duchess have either disappeared from the play or had this special relationship shattered. Antonio especially, who began the play by guiding our judgements, has shrunk in stature since the death of his wife. His character has fallen apart. Bosola has taken over his clear-sighted grasp of character and Delio his stubborn integrity. Only his less attractive characteristics remain, his subconscious with for disaster, his helpless indecision, poor judgement, desire for ‘any safety’ (V.1.67). His death at least frees him from fear and from his conventional awe of the ‘fixed order’ (I.1.6) of the courtly life, which he never shakes off and which helps to doom him. Like Ferdinand and the Cardinal, he is destroyed by the death of the Duchess.

Despite Webster's deliberate use of contrasting modes in the final scenes, they are nevertheless tightly connected in theme with what has gone before. The final act might have been a second tragedy arising from the Duchess' murder, an ‘act of shame or horror’ which might have driven her murderers to tragic knowledge and affirmation. However in the final act, tragic structures are suggested only to be negated, inverted, or parodied, or are accepted only in a limited sense. Brooding over this series of anti-tragedies is the strongly contrasting presence of the Duchess. In a significant, almost indeed in a literal, sense the dead Duchess haunts the final act, a constant poignant reminder of a better way of living. After what seems her death she revives momentarily, she ‘haunts’ Bosola, perhaps even appearing as he imagines he can see her, ‘there, there!’ (V.2.346). She is heard again in the echo scene, and again perhaps is seen, ‘a face folded in sorrow’ (V.3.45). Of course she is constantly talked about in the last act, and is metaphorically present in the echoes and summaries of the past with which the ending of the play is permeated. When she appears three times after her apparent death it seems as if she and the life force which she represents are proof against death. Her tragic affirmation confronts the sceptical world left behind her, and the tragicomic discords created by this antithesis modify the effect of the final act.

Act Five contains a rich number of parodies or incomplete versions of tragedy. Deliberately fictional versions of tragedy have replaced the genuine tragedy of the Duchess: the Cardinal's quite baseless story of the ominous haunting of the family by a woman killed by her own kinsmen ‘for her riches’ (V.2.94) is the nearest he can get to understanding tragedy. This fabrication is a parody of the story of the Duchess: we are reminded of Ferdinand's claim that he had hoped to gain ‘infinite mass of treasure by her death’ (IV.2.285). The Cardinal who tries to define tragedy only in these blatantly fictional terms meets an appropriate death. He is the centre of dangerous fiction in this last act, as he uses ‘fair marble colours’ to conceal his ‘rotten purpose’ (V.2.297-8). In order to dispose of the body of Julia safely, he designs an elaborate fiction, and he warns his followers not to disturb it:

When he's asleep, myself will rise, and feign
Some of his mad tricks …
And feign myself in danger.


He is also threatened by black comedy. His courtiers believe that his shouts for help are simply ‘counterfeiting’ (V.5.20), and they imagine how the Cardinal will ‘laugh’ (V.5.33) at them if they mistake his fiction for reality. By his attempt to manipulate fictions the Cardinal dooms himself, and his death provides both an exact judgement upon him and an exact inversion of the tragic process. Suffering is surrounded by comedy, knowledge brings only despair, and instead of affirming his own identity and his human dignity the Cardinal is reduced to ‘a little point, a kind of nothing’ (V.5.79) who only wishes to lose his sense of self and to be ‘laid by, and never thought of’ (V.5.90).

The Cardinal's death forms a clear anti-tragedy in which the precarious tragic moment achieved by the Duchess disintegrates. The death of Ferdinand follows the same pattern, and is also surrounded by fiction and comedy instead of dissipating them in the positives of tragedy. Ferdinand's madness is another opposite of tragic knowledge. Instead of, like the Duchess, asserting his own individuality, he imagines himself a soldier in a battle which turns into a comment on the breakdown of the family. Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal have a momentary flash of self-knowledge, but it allows them no such affirmation as the Duchess's. Ferdinand quotes Giovanni in The White Devil to recognise that ‘Sorrow is held the eldest child of sin’ (V.5.55), but he retains little sense of personal identity or personal involvement. His fate seems to him not to be his own fault, but only to be caused by the nature of the world: ‘Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust’ (V.5.73). The Duchess manages to look to the future as she dies. Ferdinand can only look backwards, and the Cardinal only welcomes oblivion. Their deaths give only negative versions of the Duchess' affirmation.

The Duchess's tragedy is followed by a number of distorted versions of it which become increasingly foreign to the spirit of tragedy. Cariola resists and lies, Julia refuses to evaluate her own life, the Cardinal and Ferdinand invert and parody the achievement of tragic knowledge and affirmation. The death of Antonio is also posed as an anti-tragedy. The scene of the Duchess's murder is carefully prolonged to allow her to make her final affirmation: Antonio is killed casually and accidentally. This painfully ironic scene casts doubts on the whole possibility of just action in a post-tragic world. Bosola, who tries to commit himself to ‘Penitence’ (V.2.348), ‘a most just revenge’ (V.2.343), finds himself inescapably trapped in fictions: the murder of Antonio is seen simply as ‘such a mistake as I have often seen / In a play’ (V.5.95-6). Antonio's death allows the murdered man some knowledge and affirmation: at least in the face of death he finds himself able to ‘appear myself’ (V.4.50). However it is of so subdued a kind that it seems a parody of the Duchess's intensity. He achieves a limited kind of self-definition, but it is a weary kind which consists so largely in regret for his past deeds and the admission that throughout the play his judgement has been faulty. At the beginning of the play he praised the ‘fixed order’ (I.1.6) of the French court. Now he dies with a profound distrust of the ambiguous ‘order’ imposed by great men, wishing that his son should ‘fly the courts of princes’ (V.4.72). Tragedy is replaced by horrifying accident and a disturbing pessimism.

Cariola, Julia, Ferdinand, the Cardinal and Antonio is each the centre of a tiny anti-tragedy in which the values of the Duchess cannot be maintained but are inverted or distorted. The final act, though, centres on Bosola, and his anti-tragedy is the most complex of all. From the beginning of the play, of course, Bosola has been an ambiguous character: ‘very valiant’ but poisoned by ‘want of action’ (I.1.76, 80), he ‘would look up to heaven’ but the devil stands in his light (II.1.94-5). This ambiguity is increased rather than resolved in the final act. Like the Cardinal Bosola becomes enmeshed in fictions, despite his newly good intentions. He uses fiction with the Cardinal and Julia, but also, and this is a new development, with himself. He claims ‘Penitence’ (V.2.348) and uncritically claims to be taking part in a ‘most just revenge’ (V.2.343), apparently without recognising the irony of revenging a crime which he has himself committed. This is underlined by the ironic divergence between his intention of joining with Antonio and his accidental murder of his would-be ally.

In the final act the included incidents move further from the paradoxical calm of formal tragedy. Antonio's death is casual, ironic and muddled, Ferdinand and the Cardinal are destroyed by fiction and comedy. Finally the scene reaches the farthest stage from tragedy in the death of Bosola. Flamineo recognised some ‘goodness’ (WD V.6.269) in his death, the last of the play's many ironic inversions of value terms. Bosola similarly believes it can do him ‘no harm … to die / In so good a quarrel’ (V.5.99-100). His play has not, however, like The White Devil established this kind of moral inversion as a valid way of summing up a perverse and divided world. Bosola's redefinition of the adjective ‘good’ seems less convincing, an uncritical shifting of responsibility which is the opposite of tragic knowledge. This sense of his own rightness is deeply undermined by the accidental murder of Antonio and the casual murder of his servant, by the stress placed on Bosola's grudging sense of being ‘neglected’ (V.5.87) which lingers to the very end of his life, and by images of uncertainty and of fiction, ‘in a mist’ (V.5.94), ‘in a play’ (V.5.96). Bosola's definition of himself as a justified avenger is also cut across by the brutally simple summing up of his career by Malateste, ‘Thou wretched thing of blood’ (V.5.94).

The final irony in this ironic play is the untrustworthy nature of its last words, which we are forced to regard critically and with detachment: the affirmation of the Duchess's death is dissipated in facile pessimism and incomprehension. Flamineo's critical agnosticism in the face of death sums up the whole effect of his agnostic play. Bosola's does not: the affirmative tragic action of the play which precedes undermines his narrow and conventional stoic sentiments. He insists that men are only ‘dead walls or vaulted graves, / That ruin'd yields no echo’ (V.5.97-8). However we are forced to question this reductive view of human life by remembering that we have just heard the Duchess's grave returning an echo in a literal sense. Again, Bosola speaks of the ‘deep pit of darkness’ in which mankind lives, ‘womanish and fearful’ (V.5.101-2). This quotation from Sidney's Arcadia4 seems to have been altered specifically to create ambiguity about the adjective ‘womanish’, when the play's heroine has been anything but ‘fearful’, and has died refusing to see the world as only a ‘pit of darkness’. Bosola's flip pessimism is discredited by our memory of what has gone before: a world that has produced the Duchess and been coloured by her values might seem to be more than simply a pit of darkness. Bosola's two most negative definitions of human life, therefore, are negated by their context, but this ambiguous and indirect affirmation is the only one which the final act of the play has to offer. Finally Bosola urges ‘worthy minds’ not to fear death in the service of ‘what is just’ (V.5.103-4). This final attempt at affirmation, however, is qualified at the last moment by the sudden insight that he himself is not one of these worthy minds whose death will allow tragic affirmation: ‘Mine is another voyage’ (V.5.105).

Bosola's death, like all the other deaths in this final act, provides an ironic inversion of tragedy with ambiguous knowledge and affirmation. The whole scene, too, takes on the shape of these ironic versions of tragedy. Even Delio's last lines, presented to us as a final summary, turn out to be ironically undercut. Delio attempts to redefine greatness and to sum up the play's suggestions that greatness lies not in birth or power but in moral excellence. The play's ‘great men’ (V.5.118) Ferdinand and the Cardinal have lost their identity as completely as footprints melting with melting snow. Men are truly ‘great’ only when they are ‘lords of truth’ (V.5.119). Only ‘integrity of life’, a complete and moral life, leads to immortal ‘fame’ (V.5.120). The Duchess, like the heroine of a tragical comedy, is assured of some kind of immortality because of her intensity and her goodness. However if Webster intended his audience to be aware of the source of his quotation it could only add disquieting ironies to what might seem a conventional summing up. Horace's ode which begins ‘Integer vitae …’ (Odes, 1, xxii) praises the man of perfect purity and innocence. His goodness protects him even from physical danger, for even the savage wolf will not attack the truly virtuous man. In Webster's play, however, even the Duchess's ‘integrity of life’ cannot protect her, her husband or her children, from Ferdinand the wolf. The play's last lines which seem to offer a ‘reaffirmation’ turn out to be complex and ambiguous, and so does the play's vision of the future. Antonio's son is to become Duke ‘in's mother's right’ (V.5.113), and we might think that this is a restoration of political and moral order. However the real heir is, as Webster clearly points out to us earlier in the play (III.3.69-71), the Duchess's son by her first marriage, and this child of Antonio's who seems poised to re-establish order is the child whose horoscope predicted a ‘short life’ and a ‘violent death’ (II.3.63), and whom Antonio wished to ‘fly the courts of princes’ (V.4.73). Even the play's final restoration of order, then, is profoundly ironic. The Duchess's tragedy is posed at the summit of a descending scale, and the play returns from this height to the confusions, ironies and uncertainties of our real life.

The Duchess of Malfi seems to me not to be broken-backed or confused but to establish a significant relationship between tragedy and other kinds of experience. Comic, satiric and tragicomic elements are posed to define tragedy objectively and to place the tragic affirmation of a heroic individual in the perspective of an anti-heroic society. Fletcher's definition of tragicomedy made clear the kind of play he was not writing, that which mixed ‘mirth and killing’ and which included both violence and festivity, ‘laughing together’.5 This is, however, exactly the kind of play that Webster is writing in The Duchess of Malfi, where tragic affirmation defeats comedy and satire but is refused by an unheroic society which rejects the tragic values of the Duchess, wilfully misunderstands them, fails to live up to them, or fatally misinterprets them. Tragedy has learned to tell the Whole Truth. The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi include miniature tragicomedies and ironically qualify tragedy: after this in his career Webster specialised in formal tragicomedy, with The Devil's Law-case (1617) and A Cure for a Cuckold (1625).


  1. William Archer, review of 1919 production of Malfi, Nineteenth Century (vol. 87, no. 515, Jan. 1920): Ian Scott-Kilvert, John Webster (1964), p. 25.

  2. C. G. Thayer, ‘The ambiguity of Bosola’, (Studies in Philology 54, 1957), p. 168, 170.

  3. Dorothea Krook, Elements of Tragedy, (New Haven, 1969), pp. 8-9.

  4. Sidney, Arcadia V (Works II.177): ‘in such a shadow, or rather pit of darkness, the wormish mankind lives …’.

  5. Introduction to The Faithful Shepherdess, Glover and Wallace, (Cambridge 1906), volume II, p. 522.

Principal Works

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*Caesar's Fall; or, The Two Shapes [with Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, Thomas Middleton, and Anthony Munday] (play) 1602

*Christmas Comes But Once a Year [with Henry Chettle, Dekker, and Thomas Heywood] (play) 1602

The Famous History of Sir Thomas Wyat. With the Coronation of Queen Mary, and the coming in of King Philip [with Chettle, Dekker, Heywood, and Wentworth Smith] (play) 1602

*Lady Jane [with Dekker, Chettle, Heywood, and Smith] (play) 1602

West-ward Hoe [with Dekker] (play) 1604

North-ward Hoe [with Dekker] (play) 1605

The White Divel (play) 1612

A Monumental Columne, Erected to the Memory of Henry, Late Prince of Wales (poetry) 1613

The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy (play) 1614

*The Guise [date unknown]

The Devils Law-Case (play) c. 1619-22

*The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother; or, Keep the Widow Waking [with Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley] (play) 1624

Monuments of Honor, Derived from Remarkable Antiquity, and Celebrated in London. At the Confirmation of John Gore (poetry) 1624

A Cure for a Cuckold [with Rowley] (play) c. 1624-25

Appius and Virginia: A Tragedy (play) 1634

The Complete Works of John Webster. 4 vols. [edited by F. L. Lucas] (plays and poetry) 1927

The White Devil [edited by John Russell Brown] (play) 1960

The Duchess of Malfi [edited by John Russell Brown] (play) 1964

The Devil's Law-Case [edited by Elizabeth M. Brennan] (play) 1975

*These works are no longer extant.

Charles R. Forker (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster, pp. 304-28. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

[In this excerpt, Forker takes a psychological approach to character studies of Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and the Duchess. Forker maintains that the ambiguity of Webster's characters is a mark of his skill in developing individuated, strongly drawn figures.]

Again, as in The White Devil, Webster focuses attention on the complex interrelationship of three siblings—two brothers and a sister—probing the inherent ironies and contradictions that their kinship and independence can be made in combination to exhibit. In Bosola he gives us a more fully developed, more richly imagined version of Flamineo the malcontented intellectual. And he returns also to a strong heroine who, despite her different moral orientation, controls the emotional temperature of the play by virtue of her psychic energy, her indomitable spirit, and her daring to confront her own nature under terrifying pressure without cowardice and finally without self-deception. Webster employs several types or roles that he had already utilized in the earlier tragedy—the female servant who functions as dramatic foil to her mistress, the corrupt and worldly cardinal who “should have been Pope” (I.i.163), the criminally deranged nobleman, the libidinous court lady, the supine cuckold, the child-survivor of the carnage, even the grotesques of doctor and lawyer. And, although the Duchess of Malfi dominates her play more consistently than the second Duchess of Bracciano dominates The White Devil, Webster once more constructs his drama upon an intricate system of cross relations that exploits the paradoxes of union and division, of attraction and repulsion, of love and death, of sexuality and murder involving five major characters and several lesser ones.

Beneath his vivid individualizations of personality—and these must be reckoned among his greatest strengths—the dramatist implants the disturbing notion that radical differences may spring from a common source. Commenting on the well-ordered state in the opening scene, Antonio observes that either “Pure silver drops” or poisoned water may flow from the “common fountain” of a “prince's court” (I.i.11-15). Webster stresses the blood relationship of Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and the Duchess not only to heighten contrasts between health and disease or between the natural and the unnatural in a single family (as in King Lear) but to suggest also that the three most powerful representatives of hatred and love in the play share each other's lives by means of strong, though ambivalent, ties that only death can sever. The Duchess and Ferdinand are biological twins while he and the Cardinal are morally allied—twins “In quality” (I.i.172). Like Cain and Abel, the persecutors and the persecuted are primordially linked. Antonio calls them “three fair medals, / Cast in one figure” but “of … different temper” (I.i.188-189). Fascinated by elements of sameness in diversity and by the threat to stable identity that such ambiguities imply, Webster builds the psychology of these relationships into the dynamics of his tragic structure.

A certain indefiniteness or ambiguity of motivation is thus a necessary part of Webster's scheme and may partly explain why commentators have judged the Duchess so harshly in some cases and so sympathetically in others, or why the causes of Ferdinand's bizarre cruelty to his sister have proved so debatable. We may take up the inevitable question of incest first. Although Webster seems to present a Ferdinand who is largely unconscious of his own sexual nature, and, although even Bosola with his characteristic alertness to human seaminess omits to comment on the subject, the language and action of the play persistently suggest incestuous jealousy on the duke's part without quite confirming it. Mulryne is surely right to notice that Webster's refusal to be explicit about this sexual involvement (so unlike Ford's procedure in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore) actually “helps to make the Duchess's tragedy [more] unnerving.”1 When Ferdinand deputes Bosola to spy upon his sister, he first insists (somewhat to the surprise of the spy) that he would not have the “young widow” remarry, then deliberately mystifies his interlocutor: “Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied, / I say I would not” (I.i.255-258). What he conceals from Bosola he would also appear to be concealing from himself. From this point on Ferdinand betrays an obsession with the Duchess's body that neither the strictest, most Mediterranean conception of “attainted” family “honour” (I.i.296; II.v.21-23) nor the desire to inherit an “infinite mass of treasure” (IV.ii.285)—the stated motives for killing her—can possibly account for.2

Webster introduces “the great Calabrian duke” (I.i.87) in a context of bawdy double-entendres, appropriately associating his aggressiveness as a soldier with a marked tendency to quibble pruriently on the drawing and putting up of weapons (I.i.113-114) and a need also to suppress such punning in others, as when he silences his courtiers for laughing at the sexual implications of “reel[ing] from the tilt” (I.i.120). Later in the same scene Ferdinand addresses the Duchess (for the first time in the play) with the ambiguous line, “Sister, I have a suit to you—” (I.i.213). Ostensibly, of course, he is recommending Bosola for the “provisorship of [her] horse” (I.i.217), but the hint of a more personal and subterranean meaning suggests itself, and Webster quickly strengthens these early impressions by having Ferdinand dwell embarrassingly on sex in his tirade against remarriage. As a widow she should “know already what man is,” but she is nevertheless susceptible of having her “high blood” (I.i.294-297) swayed by youth and other male attractions. Those who “wed twice” are “most luxurious,” their “livers … more spotted / Than Laban's sheep,” and potentially “Whores” (I.i.297-301) if, like diamonds, they should pass through more than one pair of hands. The court is “a rank pasture” (note the animalistic implications) in which women who hide their “darkest actions” or even “privat'st thoughts” are like “witches” who “give the devil suck” (I.i.306-315). Ferdinand accuses his sister of craving “lustful pleasures,” observing grossly, as he menaces her with his “father's poniard,” that “women like that part which, like the lamprey, / Hath ne'er a bone in't,” then claiming, when she protests, that he had referred only to “the tongue” (I.i.326-338). His parting epithet is “lusty widow” (I.i.340).

The duke's reaction to the news that his sister has borne a child is compounded of frenzy, horror, and sexual excitement. His imagination fluctuates wildly between exaggerated fantasies of her forbidden sex life and, more extravagantly still, of the fanatic punishments he would like to impose. In his febrile mind she becomes “a notorious strumpet,” “a sister damn'd,” who makes use of “cunning bawds” and other secret “conveyances of lust” (II.v.3-10); he envisions her partner “in the shameful act of sin” (it does not occur to him that at this juncture she might be married) as “some strong thigh'd bargeman,” some athletic woodman who “can quoit the sledge, / Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire / That carries coals up to her privy lodgings” (II.v.41-45). Sexual stimulation is self-evident. And Ferdinand would eradicate these intolerable images with the “sponge” of “her bleeding heart” (II.v.15), by “toss[ing] her palace 'bout her ears,” rooting up her forests, blasting her meads, and laying waste “her general territory” (II.v.18-20). He would “purge” his sister's “infected blood” with “fire” and “cupping-glass” and, after having her “hew'd … to pieces,” bequeath a handkerchief wet with his own tears to her “bastard” from which the child might fashion “lint for his mother's wounds” (II.v.24-31). He would “quench [his] wild-fire” with her “whore's blood” (II.v.47-48).

These ravings reach their climax in his vision of the amorous pair being consumed in the very act of lovemaking:

                                                                                          I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopp'd,
That their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven:
Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in't, and then light them like a match;
Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis,
And giv't his lecherous father, to renew
The sin of his back.


Although the duke is manifestly enraged by the idea of his sister's intercourse with an unknown lover, he can conceive of a revenge that would “renew” rather than extinguish that lover's passion. Act II ends with Ferdinand's admission that his sister's liaison has not only “put [him] / Into a cold sweat” but also engendered a kind of frustrated paralysis:

Till I know who leaps my sister, I'll not stir:
That known, I'll find scorpions to string my whips,
And fix her in a general eclipse.


Meanwhile he “bear[s] himself right dangerously” but is mysteriously “quiet” and “seems to sleep / The tempest out, as dormice do in winter” (III.i.20-22). Clearly, Webster takes pains to underline the sexual component in what Antonio had described earlier as the duke's “most perverse, and turbulent nature” (I.i.169).

Critics have sometimes cited Ferdinand's delay in taking action against the Duchess until after two more children have been born to her as proof positive that Webster was incompetent in dramatic craftsmanship; but, as John Russell Brown points out in his edition (pp. 67-68), the lapse of years may be plausibly understood as further evidence of the deep-rooted nature of the duke's neurotic conflict, and particularly of his wrestling with both guilt and desire. The unfolding pattern of the final three acts would seem to corroborate Brown's insight, for Ferdinand's behavior toward his sister combines sadistic advance with timorous withdrawal. His first speech to the Duchess in Act III consists of two casual and superficially unrelated remarks—that he will go “instantly to bed” and that he is about to “bespeak / A husband” (III.i.38-40) for her. Although this juxtaposition may be fortuitous, it is nevertheless characteristic of Ferdinand's habit of dealing with his own emotions through displacement. Consciously he wishes to make his sister uncomfortable by reminding her that in taking a clandestine lover she has disobeyed him, but at a deeper stratum of his psyche he may be battling his own alarming attraction to her. When the Duchess attempts to defend herself from the “scandalous report … Touching [her] honour,” he insists on remaining “deaf to't” and pretends to reassure her that, being “safe / In [her] own innocency,” she has nothing to fear; but even as he backs off from confronting her openly with her potentially explosive secret, he mentions his “fix'd love,” and “pour[s]” his misleading confidences into her “bosom” (III.i.47-55). Comforted by the mistaken belief that her immediate danger has passed, the Duchess leaves the stage to her brother, who observes, in the briefest of soliloquies, that “Her guilt treds on / Hot-burning coulters—” (III.i.56-57). Ironically, the words reveal more about his own precariousness, morally and psychologically, than about hers.

Having arranged to procure “a false key / Into [the Duchess's] bed-chamber,” Ferdinand now challenges Bosola to “guess” (III.i.80-82) at his purpose, then retreats again into privacy without satisfying him. Meanwhile he has been struggling to reject Bosola's notion of sorcery as a possible cause of amorous attachment: can it be true that “potions” or “charms” can “make us love, whether we will or no?” (III.i.67-68). (Significantly, throughout the drama, Ferdinand associates sexuality with witchcraft.) The scene of the duke's sudden intrusion into his sister's bedroom draws even tauter the strain already established between his sexual revulsion (a manifestation of guilt) and his intense erotic fascination. Once more he produces his poniard—an instrument both lethal and phallic—and, handing the Duchess the naked blade, counters her brave assertion that whether “doom'd to live or die” she can “do both like a prince” with a sexually charged pun: “Die then, quickly!” (III.ii.70-71). His abrupt command that she kill herself (suggested probably by a similar episode in Marlowe's Tamburlaine, Part I [III.ii] in which Agydas is also presented with a dagger for daring to love Zenocrate) shows us a Ferdinand in whom aggression and self-destruction are two faces of the same disturbance.

Although the duke has expected to discover the identity of the Duchess's lover and has possibly hoped to interrupt their very embraces, he suddenly refuses to see Antonio, “now persuaded” that the revelation “would beget such violent effects / As would damn” (III.ii.93-95) brother and sister alike. He therefore charges her unseen partner to “Enjoy [his] lust still, and a wretched life, / On that condition” (III.ii.98-99) but to remain hidden and unidentified. He also announces that he will “never see [the Duchess] more” (III.ii.141), indeed, conducting all further communication with her either through the agency of Bosola or in darkness, as when he gives her the dead hand to kiss. The atmospherically—perhaps literally—darkened stage upon which so much of the central action takes place is obviously symbolic of the blackness that all but eclipses moral order in this tragedy, but the effects of “owl-light” (IV.ii.334) also speak volumes about the semiconscious lust, terror, and sadism that tangle so obscurely in Ferdinand's own psyche. The duke can scarcely bear to look upon his sister even after her strangling (“Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young” [IV.ii.264]), yet at the same time he cannot resist looking (“Let me see her face again—” [IV.ii.272]). And it is precisely at this point that he mentions their twinship and admits that in distraction he has ordered Bosola to “kill my dearest friend” (IV.ii.280). In Renaissance usage the term “friend” sometimes meant lover or paramour, as in Lucio's words about Claudio in Measure for Measure, “He hath got his friend with child” (I.iv.29). Thus does Webster present Ferdinand's self-alienation as an aspect of his claustrophobic involvement—indeed almost of his identification—with the image of his sister. The confused feelings of love-hatred that he expresses toward her are dramatized as a transference, in part, of inadmissible feelings about the self. And, just as the duke imposes a kind of artificial blindness upon his relations between himself and his victims, so he now orders Bosola, the agent of his villainy, “Never [to] look upon [him] more” (IV.ii.317). For Ferdinand, the full light of self-recognition is unendurable, but enough illumination has occurred not only to “dazzle” his eyes with tears but to make mental collapse nearly immediate. He becomes the creature of his own “deed of darkness” (IV.ii.335), a phrase that he himself applies to the murder but that Jacobeans more commonly used for copulation.3

Webster's Calabrian duke is an impressively sophisticated study in the psychology of a sadist, repressed by guilt and horrified to the point of self-delusion by the nature of his own erotic urges. The aristocratic pride and hope of wealth that he invokes to explain his behavior are not so much spurious as inadequate and superficial. It is his sister's secret “marriage” (especially to a social inferior who symbolically disrupts his essential closeness to a more acceptable image of the self) that draws “a stream of gall, quite through [his] heart” (IV.ii.286-287) and that impels him to retaliate in kind by intruding so destructively upon the competing relationship. And the obsession with image carries over logically into the revenge with its grotesque substitution of a dead and alien hand for Ferdinand's own living one and of wax effigies for actual corpses. The Duchess is “plagu'd in art” (IV.i.111) because the objective naturalness of her relationship to an outsider wrecks the indispensable private illusion upon which her brother subsists.

Three speeches in particular reflect the intimate nature of Ferdinand's pain and its rediversion into elaborately choreographed torment. When the trapped Duchess asks her brother why he is so irrationally opposed to her second union, he is incapable of answering directly; he responds instead with a threat and a cry of anguish:

                                                                                                    Thou art undone:
And thou hast ta'en that massy sheet of lead
That hid thy husband's bones, and folded it
About my heart.


The allusion to the burial of her first husband in such a context is revealing, for it shows how instinctively he identifies himself with her deceased sexual partner. The same harsh and impenetrable metal that forever isolates the Duchess's dead lover cuts off the living brother with equal finality, and, in doing so, murders his heart. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Ferdinand responds by inflicting upon his sister so many emblems of death, including, of course, the coffin that is to be her “last presence-chamber” (IV.ii.171) and the noose, which is referred to (at least in Cariola's case) as a “wedding ring” (IV.ii.249). The ritual strangling and burying of his twin becomes a deviate means of self-repression, a way of twisting his need for forbidden intimacy into a kind of danse macabre.

But Webster has already brought out Ferdinand's difficulties with self-image earlier in the play. When first informed by letter of the Duchess's “strumpet[ry]” (II.v.4), the enraged duke, struggling for mastery over his emotions, betrays to his brother how closely he feels that his own identity is bound up with those of both the Cardinal and his sister:

                                                                      I will only study to seem
The thing I am not. I could kill her now,
In you, or in myself, for I do think
It is some sin in us, heaven doth revenge
By her.


In his mechanistic term “thing” and in his fervent attempt to moralize what he cannot understand, we recognize Ferdinand's unsuccessful efforts to confront his deeper feelings. A later outburst—in response to Bosola's pleas for compassion upon the Duchess's “delicate skin”—again manifests the simultaneous feelings of identification and alienation that define the duke's relationship to his sister:

                                                                                Damn her! that body of hers,
While that my blood ran pure in't, was more worth
Than that which thou wouldst comfort, call'd a soul—


The complete disintegration of personality that finally overtakes Ferdinand is the logical result not merely of a murderer's guilt but of a psychic impasse—of his desire to love his twin and to hate himself through her for that same love. The symptoms of this malady, as Webster presents them, are remarkably close to those in certain modern descriptions of schizophrenia. John Vernon remarks that for the typical schizophrenic “areas of the personality are fragmented and mutually exclusive”; experience is characterized by “the simultaneous presence but absolute separation of a fantastic space and a real space.”4 Sufferers are often afflicted by a consciousness that selfhood somehow lies outside or is distinct from their own bodies, a problem for which they try to compensate by retreating into subjective fantasy, which then takes on a horrifying objectivity of its own. Schizophrenics are thus much given to hallucination and role playing as well as to obsessions with dismemberment (symbolic self-amputation or self-disposal) or with the merging of self into other identities. Ferdinand not only presents a ring and severed hand to his sister (his grotesque re-enactment of her betrothal and perverse literalization of giving her his hand in marriage) but also imagines himself to be a wolf, digs up corpses, and is observed at midnight “with the leg of a man / Upon his shoulder” (V.ii.14-15). The lycanthropy seems fittingly to dramatize the principle of Seneca (elaborated in his well-known moral epistle On Wrath) that man is never so near the beasts as when he is angry. But, as Elizabeth Brennan has suggested, Webster also seems to associate it with lovesickness. Treatises by Pierre Boaistuau and Jacques Ferrand both connect the jealousy of lovers with wolf madness,5 and Ferdinand, in a curious anticipation of his own disease, compares his sister's confession of remarriage to “The howling of a wolf” (III.ii.88). He also speaks of her children by Antonio as “young wolves” (IV.ii.259). Subconscious identification with the Duchess and her offspring would appear to color his rejection of them. Webster portrays the crazed duke not only as doomed to relive the horror of his crimes (“Strangling is a very quiet death” [V.iv.34]) and to live in terror of discovery but as experiencing also the schizophrenic's appalling sense of being both inside and outside his own physique. Ferdinand believes he is at once a wolf and not a wolf—strangely “hairy … on the inside”—and he therefore demands to have his sensation verified by being “Rip[ped] up” with “swords” (V.ii.17-19). A moment later we see him falling upon his shadow in a futile attempt to obliterate the dreadful “otherness” that oppresses him, and he would “throttle” it (V.ii.38) just as he has already had his sister throttled.

Otto Rank in his study of the double as a literary and psychological archetype analyzes the obsession with one's twin or shadow as a well-known form of narcissistic self-projection. This motif, rooted in the myths and customs of many cultures, whether primitive or highly developed, became especially popular with the rise of continental romanticism (doubtless because of its applicability to questions of identity and self-consciousness), and Rank therefore draws his examples mainly from nineteenth- and twentieth-century works. His insights of course are equally relevant to earlier literature, even if Renaissance dramatists, for instance, did not formulate such configurations discursively or express them in a post-Freudian vocabulary. In fact, Ferdinand's love-hatred for his twin sister, as Webster dramatizes it, exhibits a pattern surprisingly close to the constellation of actions and feelings that Rank regards as central to the model:

Always … [the] double works at cross-purposes with its prototype; and, as a rule, the catastrophe occurs in the relationship with a woman, predominantly ending in suicide by way of the death intended for the irksome persecutor. In a number of instances this situation is combined with a thoroughgoing persecutory delusion or is even replaced by it [Ferdinand's fear of his own shadow], thus assuming the picture of a total paranoiac system of delusions.6

Ferdinand torments and finally kills in his twin sister a version of himself, a figure who symbolizes—simultaneously but irreconcilably—his infatuation with and revulsion from his own ego. Many of the narratives that Rank adduces involve savage jealousy on the part of the protagonist when his alter ego becomes involved with a rival lover. In addition, a late variant of the Narcissus myth establishes a significant identity of the beautiful youth with his twin sister, after whose death the boy assuages his grief by redirecting his love from her to his own image. In some of the stories, also, the hero's shadow represents his accusing conscience or impending death. It can hardly be coincidental that Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden, 1586), a book that Webster seems to have known, presents the image of a murderer terrified by guilt in the form of his own shadow.7 The tragic constant in Rank's exploration of the Doppelgänger motif is the central character's incapacity to love, a condition that leads to unbearable frustration, fear, self-loathing, and despair and that almost invariably ends in death by violence and some form of displacement and self-depersonalization.

The half-acknowledged suggestions of incestuous passion with which Webster invests the character of Ferdinand are of course inseparable from other elements in his make-up—the painful loneliness, the savage aggression, the extreme volatility, the unhealthy fixation on the contamination of his bloodline, the tyrannical pride, the nightmarish imagination, the simultaneous self-absorption and fear of his own buried nature, the suicidal destructiveness, the almost childlike capacity for tears, the crippling remorse—and critics would perhaps be less inclined to doubt the sexual motive in his behavior if they did not consider it in isolation.8 Every facet of Ferdinand's conduct and, characteristically of course, his discontinuous speech,9 his “deformed silence[s]” (III.iii.58) punctuated by explosive laughter, reflects psychic incoherence and moral chaos. Together they exemplify by negation the quality, discussed in the previous chapter, that Delio praises in the stronger figures of the tragedy—namely, “Integrity of life” (V.v.120).

The passionate embodiment of wickedness in Ferdinand is partly, of course, the result of Webster's need to balance the equally passionate expression of goodness in his heroine. As their physical twinship implies, the two characters are complementary as well as opposed, each being defined primarily by means of intense emotional involvement with another human being. But it is the third member of the family, the Lord Cardinal, who furnishes the tragedy with a different and altogether more mysterious dimension of evil.

Like his sister, the “melancholy churchman” (I.i.157-158) is referred to throughout only by title. In the case of the Duchess, this emphasis on rank seems intended to establish her dramatically as a reigning princess and therefore to enhance her tragic stature; it in no way diminishes or limits her private sensibility, her magnetic individuality. But the anonymity of the Cardinal confers a shadowy remoteness upon him; and Webster seems deliberately to minimize particular traits in order to achieve something like the grandeur of generality. Like Duke Francisco in The White Devil, the prelate of The Duchess of Malfi tends to function behind the scenes and through the agency of subordinates, emerging as the most powerful but least knowable of the major figures—a cold character who in one way approaches the objectivity, even the absoluteness, of allegory yet who also in his opacity generates the fear peculiar to incomprehension. Webster's imagery suggests a man who is not only evil in himself but the source of evil in others. He is negatively creative: “the spring of his face is nothing but the engendering of toads …” (I.i.158-159); “That cardinal hath made more bad faces with his oppression than ever Michael Angelo made good ones …” (III.iii.51-52). The fire-immune “salamander” may live in the duke's violent “eye” (III.iii.49), but, as Bosola observes, the Cardinal “doth breed basilisks” in his, and therefore personifies death: “He's nothing else but murder” (V.ii.146-147). If Ferdinand portrays the chaotic and bestial in a specific individual, the Cardinal represents destruction made scientific, abstract, intellectual, and nihilistic. His allusion to Galileo's “fantastic glass” (II.iv.16) seems perfectly in character. He incarnates an evil rationalized to its first principles, elevated almost to the level of a metaphysical concept. Webster associates both brothers with the diabolical, but, whereas Ferdinand appears to be enthralled sexually by some personal demon, the Cardinal is the very spokesman for hell. Antonio remarks that “oracles / Hang at his lips” through which “the devil speaks” (I.i.184-186). According to Bosola, “Some fellows … are possessed with the devil, but this great fellow were able to possess the greatest devil, and make him worse” (I.i.45-47). At least Webster begins his characterization with some such distinction in mind. But then, typically, he blurs it in the final action, for the Cardinal forfeits his satanic dignity in the murderous scuffle that ends his life, wrecking the carefully wrought facade of icy control and dwindling in a trice to the cravenness of a “leveret” (V.v.45). Bosola speaks Webster's epitaph:

Now it seems thy greatness was only outward;
For thou fall'st faster of thyself, than calamity
Can drive thee.


As befits such a purposely distanced character, the play is all but silent about the Cardinal's motive. Of course the priest shares in his brother's revulsion for mingling “The royal blood of Arragon and Castile” (II.v.22) with that of a commoner, but he expresses no additional reason for implacable cruelty to the Duchess—cruelty that he not only approves but seems to initiate. He does not trouble, for instance, to plead the duke's excuse of desire for greater riches. We see him chiding his partner in revenge for “fly[ing] beyond [his] reason,” for allowing idle “rage” and “intemperate anger” to “deform” his outward behavior; and he shrewdly perceives the incipient dementia of which the rabid emotionalism of his brother is a symptom: “Are you stark mad?” The Cardinal “can be angry / Without this rupture” (II.v.46-58)—that is, without raising his voice—and, with characteristic detachment, can distinguish between his own and the duke's attitude toward vengeance: “though I counsell'd it, / The full of all th' engagement seem'd to grow / From Ferdinand” (V.ii.107-109). This tranquil, slightly enervated villainy, especially in the earlier acts of the tragedy, comes close to denying the Cardinal human status, and we think of Coleridge's idea of “motiveless malignity” as though the churchman were a sophisticated mutant of the conventional Vice—a figure whose function is simply to stand for depravity but from whom the traditional wit, energy, and active control have been drained away. Although this formulation has its attractions, it is oversimple, for the diabolical mystique that the character projects proves to be more illusory than real. The interior feelings, which at length emerge, are all too human and anything but vicelike—tormented conscience and panic in the face of death and damnation. Underneath, the Cardinal is more like Ferdinand than we are led at first to suppose, for both are profoundly terrified of themselves. As the duke cannot rid himself of his alter ego, which pursues him relentlessly in the form of a shadow, so is the Cardinal haunted by his own hostile image, reflected as a threatening shadow in his “fish-ponds”: “Methinks I see a thing, arm'd with a rake / That seems to strike at me:—” (V.v.5-7). The tortured conscience projects itself as a vision of eternal punishment.

Throughout most of the action Webster keeps the Cardinal in the background where, as a malign and inscrutable presence, he can evoke without explaining, the poisoned ethos in which all of the other characters must live. We hear more said about him than he tells us himself, and the churchman is notably absent from the entire fourth act, in which the sufferings of the Duchess mount to their tragic climax and resolution. But his influence is felt even when not seen. Politically, he appears stronger than his brother. Having already tested Bosola in villainous service before the action commences, he overrules Ferdinand's shortsighted inclination to appoint Antonio as intelligencer (“His nature is too honest for such business—”) and easily installs the substitute, although he “would not be seen in't” (I.i.225-230). He is closer in touch with the military and diplomatic affairs of Italy, about which we hear only vaguely, and appears indeed the éminence grise of international intrigue. It is he who asks about naval strategy (“Are the galleys come about?” [I.i.149]) and the emperor's need for his commission (“Must we turn soldier then?” [III.iii.1]). It is also he who “solicit[s] the state of Ancona / To have [the lovers] banish'd” (III.iii.66-67), who persuades the pope to seize the dukedom of Amalfi, and who, by his letter, procures Antonio's confiscated property for Julia. The Cardinal is instantly apprised by Ferdinand of the Duchess's delivery of a son and, though just as guilty of her murder as his brother, wears the camouflage of passivity, pretending even to Bosola to know nothing of her death. Later, but only after Ferdinand has collapsed into guilty madness, we see him take more active charge of events, covering for his brother by inventing the apparition of “an old woman … murder'd … for her riches” (V.ii.92-94), ridding himself of his too inquisitive mistress with the poisoned book, and trying, though now unsuccessfully, to manipulate Bosola. It is ironic that Antonio naively places his hope for reconciliation in an appeal to the Cardinal and that the churchman prepares the stage for his own death by instructing the courtiers to ignore both the duke's and his own “mad tricks” (V.iv.15) or cries for help. But both ironies depend in large measure on a perception of the prelate as the chief source of Machiavellian power in the play.

Except in the final movement, then, when the mask falls from his face, the Cardinal contributes to the play's atmosphere of peril and uncertainty. Webster brings him into the foreground infrequently, and only then to fulfill one of two purposes, neither of which reveals the inner man. The first is to join Ferdinand in an antiphonal browbeating of the Duchess, to foist upon her the “terrible good counsel” (I.i.312) not to remarry that she herself recognizes as stagy and artificial: “I think this speech between you both was studied, / It came so roundly off” (I.i.329-330). Here the Aragonian brothers speak, so to say, with a single voice, and the doubling is intended to create, as a chorus might, the effect of the same evil multiplied. As in Pinter's The Birthday Party, in which Goldberg and McCann similarly assault Stanley, Webster gives us a phalanx of oppression that cannot help but garner sympathy for the victim and underscore the isolation of her plight. But nothing of the Cardinal's individuality emerges here.

The second variation from pattern is, of course, the by-plot with Julia. The scenes that present the churchman with his mistress do provide a kind of close-up on the character, and these—especially the poisoning by means of a Bible—have sometimes been regarded as a melodramatic excrescence, a sensationalist departure from naturalism, that is part of the regrettable “caotica carneficina” of which Baldini speaks.10 It is true that voluptuary and murderous prelates belong more to the conventional theatrics and anti-Catholicism of blood tragedy than to psychological verisimilitude, but Webster's rather gothic sideplay is not without structural and moral relevance. The entirely mechanical sexuality of the Cardinal's relationship to Julia shows us the thematic conjunction of love and death in yet another aspect—the seriocomic. Possessing neither the human warmth of the Duchess's commitment to Antonio nor the polymorphous perversity of Ferdinand's suppressed passion, the Cardinal's almost farcical entanglement with Julia is dramatized as merely a cynical and finally tedious experiment in physical gratification, an essentially casual and hypocritical affair devoid of passion and even of pleasure. She pretends affection only to secure privilege and to extract information. He loves her “wisely” (that is, “jealously”) at first (II.iv.24-25), keeping her docile through dependency, then wearying of the encumbrance, regards her as his “ling'ring consumption” of whom he would “by any means … be quit” (V.ii.228-230). Total egotism and the absence of genuine attachment make the moral point and make it appropriately in the spirit of grim parody akin to the self-seeking automatons of The Revenger's Tragedy. Sexuality, whether fruitful and normative as with the Duchess or stifled and violent as with Ferdinand or cynically routine as with the Cardinal, is seen always to eventuate in murder, and the common dust to which the tragedy reduces such disparities suggests yet again that, in Webster's universe, physical death is the inexorable concomitant of erotic relationships irrespective of their psychological or ethical health.

Webster may have invented the Cardinal's lubricity as a polar contrast to the Duchess's “divine … continence,” which, in the words of her most devoted admirer, “cuts off all lascivious, and vain hope” (I.i.199-200). Nevertheless, he treats these episodes with calculated superficiality as though to show us how desiccated and emotionally hollow the churchman fundamentally is. His keeping of a mistress accords with his other public accomplishments—playing tennis on wager, dancing, courting ladies, and fighting single combats—all of them “flashes” that “superficially hang on him, for form” and bear no significant relation to his “melancholy” and “inward character” (I.i.154-157). Webster's emblem of this space between the inner and outer selves is the ceremony at Loretto at which the Cardinal divests himself of his ecclesiastical regalia, puts on military armor, and banishes the Duchess and her family from Ancona.

This formal spectacle, presented in dumbshow but accompanied by the “solemn music” of “divers Churchmen” (III.iv.7) and the commentary of pilgrims, enacts the Cardinal's self-depersonalization as well as the Duchess's expulsion from a city state. The silence of the protagonists lends them, as in a tableau vivant, a special objectivity. The scene not only interposes maximal aesthetic distance between us and its focal character but also serves as a parallel of sorts to Ferdinand's ritual punishing of the Duchess. Both brothers make their violence ceremonial, imposing a masquelike artifice upon actions that stem from and encapsulate moral disorder. The Cardinal, for instance, symbolically annuls his sister's marriage by removing her ring; later, Ferdinand presents the Duchess with a wedding ring of his own but attaches a dead hand to the gift. The Cardinal's rite is intended, among other things, to deprive the Duchess of her true legitimacy as wife, mother, and ruler. As such, it must stress the disjunction between the poignant feelings of individuals and the harsh impersonality of officialdom as embodied in municipal pageantry. Public metamorphosis from priest to soldier institutionalizes the subversion of human and religious values in the play. As the sword replaces the pectoral cross and the accouterments of bellicosity those of pastoral concern, so mercy yields to retribution and love to death. One recalls Prince John's rebuke to the rebellious Archbishop of York in Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV, who, in donning armor at Gaultree Forest, has become “an iron man … Turning the word to sword and life to death” (IV.ii.8-10).11 Webster's Cardinal thus gives shape to the darkest of cynicisms. He can condemn his sister for feigning a pilgrimage, for using religion as strategy (a “riding-hood / To keep her from the sun and tempest” [III.iii.60-61]), yet encourage Bosola to violate the seal of the confessional by bribing a priest for purposes of gathering intelligence (V.ii.135-137). In the public ceremony, at least emblematically, he abandons even the pretense of his sacerdotal office.

Although Webster obviously took pains to individualize the “Arragonian brethren” (V.v.82), he also insisted upon their complementarity. Bosola characterizes them as a pair—two “plum-trees, that grow crooked over standing pools,” that, although richly “o'erladen with fruit,” feed only “crows, pies, and caterpillars” (I.i.49-51); their twin “hearts are hollow graves, / Rotten, and rotting others,” and their “vengeance, / Like two chain'd bullets, … goes arm in arm” (IV.ii.319-321). This imagery, of course, emphasizes their moral stagnancy, their mutual corruption and association with decay and death. Both brothers, being wifeless and childless, represent sterility in different guises and so contrast starkly with the natural fecundity and homemaking instincts of their sister. She produces children; they foster only “flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters” (I.i.161-163). The shared destructiveness of the brothers is suitably embodied in their common commitments to soldiery. Both threaten enemies at moments of high anger with having them “hew'd … to pieces.” Ferdinand, as noted earlier, applies the phrase to his sister (II.v.31); the Cardinal, late in the play, applies it to Bosola: “I'll have thee hew'd in pieces” (V.ii.292). The play would seem to bear out Castruchio's precept (though in an altered sense) that a “realm is never long in quiet, where the ruler is a soldier” (I.i.103-104). Ironically, Webster also makes the Duchess a soldier at one point—but, of course, metaphorically in order to stress not her malignant force but her quasi-masculine daring:

                                                                                as men in some great battles,
By apprehending danger, have achiev'd
Almost impossible actions—I have heard soldiers say so—
So I, through frights, and threat'nings, will assay
This dangerous venture. …


Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal practice their corruptions in an ambience of secrecy and intrigue, a fact to which Webster calls attention by putting them both in possession of “master-keys” for gaining entry to private apartments: the duke obtains such a key from Bosola to enter the Duchess's chamber (III.i.80), and the Cardinal gives a similar one to Bosola so that he may secretly dispose of Julia's corpse (V.ii.327). The sexual suggestiveness of keys being inserted covertly into palace locks is disturbingly relevant to both contexts. Both brothers, of course, are practiced self-disguisers. As the Cardinal veils his interior gloom under an array of social or sporting activities, so Ferdinand “speaks with others' tongues” and “hears … With others' ears” (I.i.173-174).

The most important point in common is of course the remorse of conscience that both brothers suffer for their collaborative murder, although, like the protagonists of Macbeth, they suffer it in psychic isolation from each other. Also as in Shakespeare's tragedy, their doom is despair. Ferdinand goes to pieces before our eyes, actually becoming like the madmen whom he had set upon his sister and experiencing himself the agony of hopelessness to which he had sought to drive her. The Cardinal, although he too changes inwardly, maintains an uncanny reserve, “Bears up in blood” and “seems fearless” (V.ii.336), almost to the end. After the strangling, however, Bosola notices that the cleric has “grown wondrous melancholy” (V.ii.202), and Julia, observing that he is “much alter'd,” tries (with results fatal to herself) to “remove / This lead from off [his] bosom” (V.ii.231-233). Both figures acknowledge the reality of their own damnation, which amounts to a kind of negative identity achieved in defeat. Ferdinand babbles wildly about carrying “a bribe” “to hell” (V.ii.41-42); his brother credits “the devil” with taking away all “confidence in prayer” (V.iv.27-28), is “puzzled” about the “one material fire” (V.v.1-2) that is said to burn the damned in distinct ways, and finally wishes only to “Be laid by, and never thought of” (V.v.90). Ferdinand moralizes his own death in a couplet that clearly includes his ecclesiastical accomplice:

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,
Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.


All-powerful in life, both brothers end as cyphers of their own fashioning, and Webster reinforces the irony of self-destruction by having the Cardinal cry out for assistance (“Help me, I am your brother”), only to be dealt his death-wound by a lunatic Ferdinand who thinks he is on a battlefield and facing his betrayer: “The devil! / My brother fight upon the adverse party?” (V.v.51-52). As one evil sister eliminates the other in King Lear, so with the wicked brothers of The Duchess of Malfi. But, oddly, Webster complicates the relationship at the very last moment. Having consistently built up the Cardinal as the less human and more unfeeling of the pair, he imparts a touch of fraternal concern to the churchman in his dying utterance of which Ferdinand, even sane, would be incapable:

                                                                                                    Look to my brother:
He gave us these large wounds, as we were struggling
Here i' th' rushes. …


This confirms Antonio's earlier hint that the churchman has done “Some good” (I.i.167). In addition, it may be worth noting that Webster suggests a link between the deaths of the prelate and his sister by having him echo her final word, “Mercy!” (IV.ii.353), just before Bosola runs him through: “O, mercy!” (V.v.41). But the verbal parallel only reinforces an ironic contrast, for whereas the Duchess had directed her final appeal to God, the churchman seems to address his to a human being, the threatening Bosola. The impenetrable mystery of the Cardinal's emotion is never wholly dispelled.

Webster seems to have conceived the vengeful siblings of The Duchess of Malfi in a way that, while intelligible in social and moral terms familiar to the Renaissance, also anticipated some insights of twentieth-century pathology. In his Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm distinguishes two kinds of necrophilia: (a) an overt type that involves erotic or quasi-erotic attraction to dead bodies and often an obsession with graves, physical decay, the dismemberment of corpses, and the like; and (b) a more generalized type, sometimes manifested in political or military figures (Adolf Hitler is the principal example), that may be described simply as a deep-seated hatred of life, a desire to transform what is alive into its opposite, a love of destruction for its own sake, and an “exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical.”12 Both types of necrophiliac personality may evince a considerable degree of sadism, but, in the second type, the cruelties tend to become bureaucratized and impersonal. Hitler, the murderer of millions, is said, for instance, to have evaded personal visits to the front during World War II because he was squeamish about seeing dead or wounded soldiers.13 The typical necrophile is quintessentially self-destructive and often has strong impulses toward suicide. He also tends to overvalue the past as this is symbolically embodied in established institutions, rules, laws, castes, traditions, and family property. In his thinking, whether personal, philosophical, or political, “the past is sacred, nothing new is valuable, drastic change is a crime against the ‘natural’ [that is, the rigidly conservative] order.”14 Fromm derives his conception of necrophilia from Freud's dualistic opposition of the life and death instincts, even going so far as to hypothesize a causal link between the child's incestuous or Oedipal attraction to the mother and the transformation of this magnetism in certain autistic or narcissistic individuals into a desire for burial. The child symbolically converts his mother, the life-giver and sustainer, into the smothering annihilator and bringer of death; the womb becomes the tomb.

Of course, we need accept neither Fromm's theories nor his assumptions to recognize in his clinical data a number of the symptoms or traits that Webster either invented or observed from experience in order to characterize his two savage antagonists. Obviously, Ferdinand with his incestuous fixation and his compulsive interest in artificial corpses, severed limbs, coffins, nooses, and the ritual details of execution, corresponds to Fromm's first model. The Cardinal, with his chillier, efficient, remote-control commitment to death, approximates the second type more closely. From Fromm's point of view such behavioral differences are less significant than examining the common sources from which they originate. What is clearest about the Aragonian brothers to a modern reader or theatregoer is their equally virulent hatred of natural vitality, of emotional freedom, of social flexibility, and of spiritual growth—the values with which their sister chooses to identify herself.

In characterizing the Duchess, Webster faced several related difficulties. First, he had to idealize her sufficiently to serve as a worthy counterweight to her depraved brothers without sacrificing the vulnerability—indeed, the fallibility—that would make her credibly human. He needed also to emphasize the private nature of a public woman, to show the personal charm and individuality that would not only explain but make emotionally acceptable the unusual relationship with her lover. At the same time, he could not compromise the dignity essential to an authentically royal and tragic, as opposed to bourgeois or merely pathetic and sentimental, heroine. Finally, since the facts of the Duchess's story cast her so prominently in the role of sufferer and victim, it was important to devise a means for avoiding the impression of abject helplessness and passivity and for making the character dramatically compelling. Obviously, no simple solution to such problems was available, but in adjusting a fundamentally strong, free, and commanding personality to a situation of extreme restraint, Webster had to suggest untapped reserves of stamina in the character and rely heavily on psychic conflict within her. By defying her brothers' wishes, the Duchess enters a pathless “wilderness” without “friendly clew” or “guide” (I.i.359-361). The tragic journey on which she embarks is largely solitary in both the physical and spiritual senses, and, ironically, this is true despite her romantic motivation. Her husband cannot protect her nor even be at her side in the crisis—a crisis that Webster dramatizes as a wrenching ordeal of self-discovery.

In addition, the playwright structured his drama so as to prevent, or at least to minimize, the damaging effect of resolute evil in simple black and white or melodramatic conflict with unexamined and untested virtue. The lady's marriage and its consummation constitute the primary events of the first act.15 Here we are introduced to the Duchess in both her public and private spheres, the dramatist carefully establishing both her regal self-possession under pressure and her strength of will. The second act centers on her pregnancy and lying-in with its ominous aftermath—the brothers' nasty reaction to the news of the childbirth. Webster cleverly delays the face-to-face confrontation between the duke and his sister until Act III, the birth of additional children and Ferdinand's curious stasis having intervened. The duke's shocking intrusion then leads naturally to the flight of the lovers and the forced return of the Duchess to Amalfi. Such an arrangement allows the dramatist to devote the whole of the fourth act to the imprisonment, torture, and climactic death of his heroine, nevertheless keeping her atmospherically present in Act V by means of the echo scene and memorially so in Ferdinand's madness and in the rapid accumulation of deaths that directly or indirectly stem from her murder. By compressing the tragic career of his title figure into four acts and thereby placing the emotional catharsis early, Webster risked a letdown after her disappearance from the stage, but he knew the even greater risk of trying to prolong dramatic tension in a character who is the receiver rather than the initiator of the action.

Although Webster intends his audience to respond positively to the Duchess, he does not rob her behavior, particularly at the beginning, of a certain ambiguity. In this, of course, he shows her kinship not only to her brothers but also to the other major figures of the tragedy. She herself verbalizes the idea during her proposal to Antonio:

                              as a tyrant doubles with his words,
And fearfully equivocates, so we
Are forc'd to express our violent passions
In riddles, and in dreams, and leave the path
Of simple virtue, which was never made
To seem the thing it is not.


Her point, of course, is that in a world of inequality—a world in which social station and political power govern human behavior more forcibly than romantic feeling—honest emotion and therefore the actions and language employed to express it must to some extent take on the protective coloring of the alien moral environment. Indeed, the Duchess employs some of the same “politic equivocation” in her own affairs that she later scorns in a Ferdinand who wants Antonio's “head in a business” (III.v.28-29). Forbidden love, however commendable by some higher standard, may involve a conscious deviation from “the path / Of simple virtue” as ordinarily or conventionally understood. Webster opens the play with Antonio's eloquent report of the French court, a court where the king is “judicious” and his council “provident,” where nobility of character, genuine merit, and the pursuit of justice, truth, and other enlightened or humanistic ideals promote “a fix'd order” and “blessed government” (I.i.6-17). Strategically placed as it is, this passage defines by contrast the corruptions that the Duchess courageously opposes and by which she is also touched.

When the Cardinal alludes with some hostility to his sister's “high blood” (I.i.297), he himself enforces the double meaning of the phrase, correctly perceiving that aristocratic rank and sexual passion are correlative ingredients of her personality. Webster leaves us in no doubt about the sincerity of the Duchess's romantic feeling for her steward, but the play does raise questions about her prudence in selecting him, about her single-minded refusal even to consider the objections of her brothers, and about her devious means both of prosecuting her suit and of concealing it from the world. In his “character” of the lady, Antonio prepares the audience for her initial entrance by underlining her social graces—her “discourse,” which is “full of rapture” yet not overvoluble, and the characteristic “look” that she “throws upon a man” causing him “to dote” upon her “sweet countenance.” He quickly adds that these smiles, far from being flirtatious, bespeak “divine … continence” and “such noble virtue” as extends even to her “very sleeps.” But his summary encomium, that she is the mirror of perfection in whom all other ladies should “dress themselves,” elicits a skeptical laugh from Delio: “Fie Antonio, / You play the wire-drawer with her commendations” (I.i.190-206). The steward's praise is winning enough and wholly plausible in a future lover, but it is also hyperbolical. We think of Browning's injudiciously cordial Duchess of Ferrara, whose “looks went everywhere.” When Cariola ponders in soliloquy “Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman” (I.i.504) predominates in her mistress, she speaks not only for herself but for us, for Webster insists strongly on the double-sidedness of the character and makes drama out of the tension.

The tenacious will with which Webster so often endows his major figures is evident in the Duchess from the start. Young, self-confident, and beautiful, she has already decided to take a second husband before the action begins, and we learn of her unshakable determination at an important dramatic moment—just after her brothers have pummeled her with sinister warnings and she has promised, or at least seemed to them to promise, “I'll never marry—” (I.i.302):

Shall this move me? If all my royal kindred
Lay in my way unto this marriage,
I'd make them my low footsteps. …


These are brave but rash words. Although not unaware that she is inviting danger, the Duchess does betray signs of overconfidence, if not of naiveté. When Antonio during the betrothal asks in bewilderment about the ferocity of her brothers, she can answer,

                                                                      Do not think of them—
All discord, without this circumference,
Is only to be pitied, and not fear'd:
Yet, should they know it, time will easily
Scatter the tempest.


If Ferdinand and the Cardinal do not realize of what stuff their sister is made, she, equally, misestimates them. Bosola's praise of Antonio gains her trust too easily, and she worsens her plight disastrously by volunteering her husband's identity and by allowing her false confidant to determine the strategy of her escape to Loretto. She also exacerbates Ferdinand's rage needlessly by the glib tone in which she defends second marriages: “Diamonds are of most value / They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers' hands” (I.i.299-300).

Webster implants a few hints that in spite of her admirable resistance to tyranny, the Duchess is less than totally honest with herself. She may give her heart without restraint to Antonio, but she is willing to “let old wives report” that she “wink'd” (I.i.348-349) in choosing him; if this verb does not carry some slight feeling of guilt (as Brown's gloss suggests), it surely conveys a capacity for shutting her eyes to unwelcome realities. Nor does she consider that damaged reputation should be the price of her romantic unconventionality. In making Cariola witness to her legal contract “Per verba de presenti,” she stresses that concealment is everything: “To thy known secrecy I have given up / More than my life, my fame:—” (I.i.350-351). For all her courage and intelligence, the Duchess is unpracticed in court intrigue. Failing to foresee or provide in advance for emergencies, she is driven to improvise defensive measures that arouse more suspicion than they allay—wearing unfashionable gowns to disguise pregnancy, locking the palace guard into their chambers on a pretext of theft, arranging Antonio's departure for Ancona under color of his having mismanaged household accounts. Without detracting from her generosity and essential goodness, Webster manages to give the impression that danger heightens the Duchess's passion and lends it spice. Words that she puts into her husband's mouth at the tense moment when her brother has silently entered behind her back reflect an aspect of her own psychology: “Love mix'd with fear is sweetest” (III.ii.66).

The powerful effect that The Duchess of Malfi can make in the theatre results largely from the vitality of its heroine in the midst of so macabre and deadly a setting. What everyone remembers about the character apart from her impressive fortitude is her appetite for life. Webster of course associates her with nature and natural processes. She contrasts herself with those happy “birds that live i' th' field” that “may choose their mates” freely and “carol their sweet pleasures to the spring” (III.v.18-21); later in her prison she pursues the bird metaphor by observing darkly that “The robin-redbreast, and the nightingale, / Never live long in cages” (IV.ii.13-14). The Duchess is a free spirit in a world of stifling constriction. Strangling is the appropriate symbol of her doom, and her momentary revival, Desdemona-like, suggests the tenacity of her grip on survival. The play underlines her beauty but only as an aspect of moral character and humaneness. Bosola mentions the “shape of loveliness” more perfectly discernible “in her tears, than in her smiles” (IV.i.7-8), a winsome presence that Webster sets in obvious antithesis to the repulsive cosmetic deformities of the grotesque Old Lady.

Royal bearing in no way undercuts the Duchess's healthy physicality. The drama does not spare us the clinical details of her pregnancy, allowing us actually to witness her “most vulturous eating of the apricocks” that Bosola offers both to confirm his suspicions that she is “breeding” (II.ii.1-3) and to degrade her with fruit ripened in “horse-dung” (II.i.140).16 A by-product of this episode is the perception that her ready enjoyment of nature's “dainties” (II.i.143) overrides any fear of poison. The delightful scene in which she and Antonio prepare for bed shows us her lighthearted domesticity, combining it with both a sense of exalted rank and the verbal equivalent of erotic foreplay:

I must lie here.
                                                            Must? you are a lord of mis-rule.
Indeed, my rule is only in the night.
To what use will you put me?
                                                                                                    We'll sleep together:—
Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?


Such warm and relaxed merriment provides the perfect context for Ferdinand's chilling invasion of her privacy, but the sense of humor thus revealed is all-important to Webster's effect of three-dimensional humanity. So, too, is the evidence of the Duchess's maternal instinct:

I pray thee, look thou giv'st my little boy
Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl
Say her prayers, ere she sleep.


One of the ways in which Webster successfully conveys the impression of dual role in his title figure, insisting equally on her public image as regnant princess and on her private personality as wife and mother, is to define her internal struggle in terms of a dialectic between heroic self-assertion and religious humility. The Duchess never abandons her Christian faith in toto, but, in attempting to reduce her to despair, her persecutors bring her very close to the abyss into which they themselves have fallen. Her spiritual welfare requires the patience of a saint and martyr, but her role as tragic protagonist demands a more egoistic, less passive display of energy. Again, Webster does full justice to both emphases, mixing and alternating them fluidly enough to produce that mysterious amalgam of sympathy, sentiment, and awe essential to major tragedy.

Fundamentally Christian values inform both the attitudes and actions of the Duchess. She regards her secret union, despite its irregularity, as “a sacrament o' th' church” (IV.i.39) and clearly intends to have it publicly solemnized as soon as this should become feasible: “We are now man and wife, and 'tis the church / That must but echo this …” (I.i.492-493). Her belief in the afterlife is strong. She parts from her husband in the hope of rejoining him “in the eternal church” (III.v.71), she speaks of the “excellent company / In th' other world” that a condemned person “Know[s]” she will “meet” (IV.ii.211-212), and she greets death on her knees, confident of entering “heaven-gates” (IV.ii.232). Bosola is impressed by her willingness to die and by a quiet composure under duress that implies spiritual depth. He speaks of her “noble” behavior, of the “majesty” she lends “to adversity,” and of “her silence” that “expresseth more than if she spake” (IV.i.5-10). She can ask pardon of her brother at one point (IV.i.31) and, with becoming piety, forgive her executioners. Webster suggests that her retention of sanity in the midst of howling madmen is “a miracle” and adds to the imagery of divine judgment (“molten brass” and “flaming sulphur”) a distant echo from Isaiah that perhaps associates the Duchess with messianic sacrifice:

I am acquainted with sad misery,
As the tann'd galley-slave is with his oar;
Necessity makes me suffer constantly,
And custom makes it easy. …


But, of course, the religion of the Duchess is not free of conflict or inconsistency. Feigning a pilgrimage, what Cariola calls “jesting with religion,” gives her conscience no pause, and she is impatient with her servant for objecting to the ruse: “Thou art a superstitious fool— / Prepare us instantly for our departure” (III.ii.317-320). She is torn between repudiating the tendency of her baser-born spouse to accept injustice too supinely (“Must I, like to a slave-born Russian, / Account it praise to suffer tyranny?”) and the orthodox notion that earthly chastisement may be a necessary form of divine guidance:

And yet, O Heaven, thy heavy hand is in't.
I have seen my little boy oft scourge his top
And compar'd myself to't: naught made me e'er
Go right but heaven's scourge-stick.


She questions whether identity, as human beings know it, continues after death (“Dost thou think we shall know one another, / In th'other world?” [IV.ii.18-19]), and her pessimism at its lowest ebb takes on a tone close to nihilism: “I could curse the stars … nay the world / To its first chaos” (IV.i.96-99). She threatens to teach her children to curse before they can prattle “since they were born accurs'd” (III.v.115), and she begs “heaven” to “cease crowning martyrs” long enough to “punish” her brothers (IV.i.107-108). At one juncture she seems ready to pervert penitence into suicide: “The church enjoins fasting: / I'll starve myself to death” (IV.i.75-76). She moves from a savage hostility toward Bosola (“Were I a man / I'd beat that counterfeit face into thy other” [III.v.117-118]) to an embrace of the death wish: “I long to bleed” (IV.i.109).

The dynamics of the fourth act—what might be called the “passion” of the Duchess—are built upon her psychic progression from outward control through frustration, rage, and near-despair to a deeper kind of serenity rooted in self-recognition, the tragic acceptance of evil, and quickened religious faith. As Sir Walter Raleigh, another great prisoner, wrote at about the same time that Webster was composing his play, “It is … Death alone that can suddenly make man to know himselfe.”18 First we hear of her sorrow in terms of its external manifestations—of her majestic bearing, of her tears, silences, and “melancholy … fortify'd / With a strange disdain”; but Bosola observes that this very “restraint” causes her to “apprehend / Those pleasures she's kept from” (IV.i.11-15) with emotional intensity. After the gift of the dead hand and her exposure to the wax corpses, the Duchess desires only to escape from life, to join her husband in death. Informed that she must continue to live, she begins to suffer mental “daggers,” describing herself as having forfeited even her sentience, as “a thing so wretch'd / As cannot pity itself” (IV.i.89-90). At this point she comes near to losing her self-possession, and Webster marks her transition to a more precarious state of soul by her abandonment of prayer: “I'll go pray: no, / I'll go curse:—” (IV.i.95-96). Impotent anger follows as she thrashes out at the hostile stars, the seasons, the very universe, and as Bosola reminds her tauntingly that “the stars shine still” (IV.i.100). Ironically, his underlining of her cosmic helplessness also asserts a remote and mysterious order, suggests that, even in so black a world as Webster's Italy, light is not wholly extinguishable. In trying to loosen her hold upon coherence, Bosola unwittingly affirms that, in some sort, it exists.

The battery of torments to which the Duchess is subjected seems to shift emphasis from physical shock to mental disturbance—from mortuary and Grand Guignol horrors to the rout of madmen, conceived of as a means of forcing disintegration of the mind upon her. The protracted antimasque, made up of music, dance, lyric verse, and satiric prose, is an orderly representation of chaos, a grotesque ballet of rational collapse that not only puts the lady's psychic strength to its severest test but that, in doing so, also nerves her to combat fear in its most existential form, the threat to her very selfhood. Out of the proliferating references to physical dissolution in the tradition of contemptus mundi, out of the wild confusion of Bedlam identities and Bosola's protean disguises, the Duchess somehow plucks the fierceness to overpower despair and to recapture the sense of who and what she is. Her torturers try to shatter her inner core by surrounding her with a kaleidoscopic swirl of frenzied movement, sepulchral chatter, and macabre ritual, and so attempting to erase the boundaries that separate her from her enforced context. But in a person of the Duchess's independence the barrier between sanity and insanity is not so easily breached. They succeed only in prompting her to more resilient self-definition: “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.142).19 She stands for a moment against staggering external and internal forces like a female Coriolanus, “As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin” (Coriolanus, V.iii.36-37).

This reaffirmation is more than a simple assertion of the self as dramatized earlier in the lady's defiance of marital conventions. It implies spiritual enlargement and growth, deepened perception, indeed a fundamental readjustment of values. Certainly it includes the readiness to face execution in an expanded frame of reference, for the Duchess no longer seeks merely to escape further suffering:

                                                                                                    tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give, or I can take.


Regal calm becomes the outward expression both of protest against injustice and of tragic acceptance of the inevitable. Perhaps some such ambivalence is to be inferred from her puzzling image of death's doors as double-hinged and opening “both ways” (IV.ii.222). At any rate, authority and dignified submission in about equal measure define the Duchess's voice as she approaches her end, and the two tones blend movingly in her death speech:

Pull, and pull strongly, for your able strength
Must pull down heaven upon me:—
Yet stay; heaven-gates are not so highly arch'd
As princes' palaces, they that enter there
Must go upon their knees.—[Kneels.] Come violent death,
Serve for mandragora to make me sleep!
Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out,
They then may feed in quiet.


The Duchess does not go gentle into her good night, but in addition to the aristocratic poise there is a feeling of appropriate release from long struggle and a satisfying sense of tragic closure.

Like Gloucester in King Lear, Webster's heroine moves from limited awareness (with perhaps a touch of self-deception and complacency) through torture and despondency to a deeper comprehension of evil and to a more accepting and transcendent vision of reality. But Webster makes her seem sturdier than Gloucester by virtue of her vulnerability as a woman and by adding the stimulus to mental breakdown to which even Lear succumbs and to which she proves miraculously impervious. The sanity that the Duchess preserves even at the heart of her long nightmare lends her a special quality of heroism. It nullifies in a sense Cariola's earlier comment about the “fearful madness” (I.i.506) of marrying Antonio, and it also prepares the theatrical contrast to Ferdinand's lunacy after her exemplary life has been blotted out. The whole spectacle of the Duchess's suffering and death represents a dramatic verification in a profounder sense than Antonio could know of his distilled praise of his future wife: “She stains the time past, lights the time to come” (I.i.209). Indeed, the tragedy does characterize its title figure as a source of effulgence enclosed temporally and spatially by darkness. And Webster works this symbolism almost surrealistically into the tenebrous staging of the echo scene where Antonio, musing significantly on ruins, suddenly glimpses the image of his murdered wife as “a face folded in sorrow” illuminated by “a clear light” (V.iii.44-45).

Our complexity of response to the Duchess as a personality in whom egoism and religious submission are somehow coordinated would seem to be related, as so often in Webster, to her own consciousness of self as a tragic protagonist. This reflexiveness, like that of Shakespeare's Richard II (whom Webster might have recalled), may imply a tendency to solipsism. Somewhat indulgently, perhaps, she can regard herself—or enjoy being regarded—as an appropriate subject for the painter, the sculptor, or the tragedian:

                                                                                          who do I look like now?
Like to your picture in the gallery,
A deal of life in show, but none in practice;
Or rather like some reverend monument
Whose ruins are even pitied.
                                                                                                                        Very proper:
And Fortune seems only to have her eyesight
To behold my tragedy. …


But the Duchess's response to or use of these artistic and theatrical allusions also reflects an attempt (as is traditional in revenge tragedy) to objectify and therefore to understand and place her own experience. Silence is more threatening to her than noise because it throws her back upon the formless terrors of her own worst imaginings. Like Richard, she needs to hear sad stories of the death of kings as a way of enlarging and, in one sense, depersonalizing her situation:

                                                                                                                                                      sit down;
Discourse to me some dismal tragedy.
O, 'twill increase your melancholy.
                                                                                                    Thou art deceiv'd
To hear of greater grief would lessen mine—. …


In spite of the obvious analogue to Shakespeare, this is a far cry from the sentimentalism of Richard's “Tell thou the lamentable tale of me / And send the hearers weeping to their beds” (Richard II, V.i.44-45).20

As a royal and necessarily ceremonial figure, the Duchess is by definition a player of roles; her acceptance of the tragic role forced upon her by her cruel brothers and by her own desire for emotional fulfillment is more a means of self-confrontation than a mawkish escape from reality: “I account this world a tedious theatre, / For I do play a part in't 'gainst my will” (IV.i.84-85). She has earlier complained of the topsy-turvydom of a state in which decency and genuineness must disguise themselves to the forces of corrupt power: “O misery! methinks unjust actions / Should wear these masks and curtains, and not we:—” (III.ii.158-159). By seeing herself as one of the numerous tragic “princes” with which “Fortune's wheel is overcharg'd” (III.v.96), the Duchess connects herself psychologically with a whole pattern of history and literature, at once establishing a traditional context for her fall and serving, for the moment, as her own chorus. Nor does Webster invoke the Mirror for Magistrates concept lazily or as a mere cliché. Antonio introduces the image of the looking glass, as noted earlier, when he suggests in his “character” of the Duchess that she is the model for lesser ladies (I.i.204-205). The familiar metaphor then comes alive in an unexpectedly dramatic way when “the glass” (III.ii.1) is imported as a stage property. We mark the downward acceleration of her ill fortune from the ironic moment that the Duchess, looking into her glass as she undresses, observes that her “hair tangles” and begins to “wax gray” (III.ii.53-59). It is this same glass, apparently, that a few seconds later reflects not only her own changing image but the freezing presence of her twin. A perception about identity is wedded to the sudden awareness of external danger, a link with which the tragedy in other respects is much concerned. (Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal, as we have noted, also have to contend with alien terrors in the form of self-images—shadows or reflections in water.) The Duchess of Malfi not only appropriates some of Richard II's tragic self-consciousness; she also has a “mirror scene” of her own—one as fully theatrical and thematically suggestive as his.


  1. J. R. Mulryne, “The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi,” in Jacobean Theatre, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 1 (London: Edward Arnold, 1960), p. 222.

  2. Various critics have pointed out that Ferdinand could scarcely hope to profit materially from his sister's murder inasmuch as her son by her first husband would logically inherit the duchy. John Russell Brown in his note on this passage suggests (rightly, it seems to me) that the duke's words represent “an instinctive attempt to ‘cover up’ … deep feeling” (The Duchess of Malfi, p. 132).

  3. The Bawd in Shakespeare's Pericles, for instance, employs the term in its sexual meaning: “she'd do the deeds of darkness …” ( See also King Lear: “A servingman … serv'd the lust of my mistress' heart, and did the act of darkness with her …” (III.iv.84-87). Jonson uses the phrase in The Devil Is an Ass ( Emilia puns on the expression in answer to Desdemona's question, “Woulds't thou do such a deed for all the world?”: “I might do 't as well i' th' dark” (Othello, IV.iii.66-69).

  4. Vernon, The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), pp. 23-24.

  5. Brennan, “The Relationship between Brother and Sister in the Plays of John Webster,” Modern Language Review, 58 (1963), 493-494.

  6. Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, trans. and ed. Harry Tucker, Jr. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971), p. 33.

  7. See R. E. R. Madelaine, “The Duchess of Malfi and Two Emblems in Whitney and Peacham,” Notes & Queries, 29 (1982), 146-147.

  8. F. L. Lucas, although he notices the hint of incest in The Fair Maid of the Inn, regards this element in The Duchess as “merely a suggestion, and an inessential one” (Works, II, 24). To Gunnar Boklund the motive of incest “seems … improbable” because “the tenor of the decisive passages” is so like that of Painter (“The Duchess of Malfi”: Sources, Themes, Characters, p. 99). Muriel Bradbrook, while granting that “the modern reading of [Ferdinand's] impulses as incestuous allows a valid presentation,” believes that “in Webster's day the same effect upon the audience would have been reached by different means” (Bradbrook, John Webster, Citizen and Dramatist [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980], p. 159).

  9. In the first scene, Webster establishes Ferdinand's disturbing habit of abruptly changing the subject of discourse.

  10. See Gabriele Baldini, John Webster e il linguaggio della tragedia (Rome: Edizioni dell' Ateneo, 1953), p. 169.

  11. Conceivably Webster also remembered Shakespeare's haughty Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, whom the Earl of Salisbury describes in 2 Henry VI as being “More like a soldier than a man o' th' church …” (I.i.184).

  12. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett Publications, 1975), p. 369.

  13. Ibid., p. 450.

  14. Ibid., p. 377.

  15. The first edition of The Duchess (1623), unlike that of The White Devil (1612), specifies divisions by act. Since Webster carefully supervised the publication of his own tragedy, these divisions would appear to be authorial or at least to possess authorial sanction.

  16. The apricock episode does not appear in Painter. R. W. Dent cites a passage, based on an incident in Livy, from Guevara's Diall of Princes (a book from which the dramatist drew other matter) as a conceivable source; Dent, John Webster's Borrowing (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960), p. 193. Webster may also have taken a hint from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (ed. John D. Jump [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962]) in which the title figure, with the aid of Mephistopheles, produces grapes out of season for the pregnant Duchess of Vanholt. Webster's “dainties” could be an echo of Marlowe's “rare and dainty” morsels (xvii.12-13). Also Bosola's role as betrayer of the Duchess has its Mephistophelean aspect, for Webster identifies the cynic closely with devil imagery: Antonio says, for instance, that Bosola “would look up to heaven” but “The devil … stands in [his] light” (II.i.94-95). And Bosola earlier refers to himself as a “familiar” and “a very quaint invisible devil, in flesh” (I.i.259-260).

  17. The Duchess's reference to “molten brass” derives, at least indirectly, from the threatened punishment of God as referred to in Deuteronomy 28:23. The comparison of her sufferings to those of a “galley-slave” is appropriated from a passage in Grimestone's General Inventorie of the History of France (p. 817) in which the author quotes Jacqueline d'Entremont (widow of the Protestant martyr Admiral Coligny), who was also persecuted for her religion and, like the Duchess of Malfi, imprisoned and tortured in Italy. Dent documents both sources (John Webster's Borrowing, pp. 234-235). But Webster's phrase, “acquainted with sad misery,” is curiously reminiscent, whether fortuitously or not, of the King James rendering of Isaiah's prophecy of Christ's Passion: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

  18. Raleigh, The History of the World (1614), Book V; see the abridged edition by C. A. Patrides (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971), p. 396.

  19. Eugene M. Waith suggests that for the Duchess's most famous line Webster may be indebted to Seneca's Medea, who asserts “Medea superest” (Medea, l. 166) at a point when all help has deserted her; Waith, Ideas of Greatness: Heroic Drama in England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 145. John Studley, the sixteenth-century translator of Medea, renders the statement “Medea yet is left”; see Thomas Newton, ed., Seneca His Tenne Tragedies, 1581 (London: Constable and Co., 1927; rept., 2 vols. in 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), II, 62.

  20. The execution scene may contain one further reminiscence of Richard II, although the echo (if it is one) is rather faint. The Duchess's exasperated phrase directed to Bosola and her other persecutors, “any way, for heaven-sake, / So I were out of your whispering” (IV.ii.222-223), sounds suspiciously similar to Richard's impatience with Bolingbroke at the end of the deposition scene: “Whither you will, so I were from your sights” (IV.i.316).

Further Reading

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Bliss, Lee. “The Duchess of Malfi.” In his World's Perspective: John Webster and the Jacobean Drama, pp. 137-70. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

Considers the tragedy from the perspective of Webster's development as an author, with comparisons to The White Devil; also focuses on Webster's view of human nature.

Cole, David W. “Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.Explicator 59, no. 1 (2000): 7.

Analyzes Ferdinand's dying speech and its use of equine metaphors.

Enterline, Lynn. “‘Hairy on the In-side’: The Duchess of Malfi and the Body of Lycanthropy.” Yale Journal of Criticism 7, no. 2 (1994): 85-129.

Takes a psychoanalytic approach to interpreting melancholy in The Duchess of Malfi, focusing on themes of mirroring and vision.

Kahan, Jeffrey. “Tree or Trellis? Jacobean Displays of Death in The Duchess of Malfi.English Language Notes 37, no. 3 (2000): 35-6.

Speculates on the manner of staging deaths in the play, noting the different effects achieved by using different kinds of props.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. John Webster. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989, 149 p.

Examines Webster's career as a whole, with attention to his female characters and villains, and his collaborations; features a brief biography.

Stockholder, Kay. “The Aristocratic Woman as Scapegoat: Romantic Love and Class Antagonism in The Spanish Tragedy,The Duchess of Malfi, and The Changeling.Elizabethan Theatre 14 (1991): 127-51.

Discusses the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio from a class perspective, comparing it to relationships depicted in other Jacobean tragedies.

Thomson, Leslie. “Fortune and Virtue in The Duchess of Malfi.Comparative Drama 33, no. 4 (1999): 474-94.

Compares the Duchess's portrayal of herself as Fortune with contemporary visual images of the goddess, to illuminate how a Jacobean audience might have perceived the character.

Further coverage of Webster's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography: Before 1660; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British Edition; Discovering Authors: Canadian Edition; Discovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, and Most-studied Authors; Drama Criticism, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 58; International Dictionary of Theatre: Playwrights; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 33; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; World Literature Criticism; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3.

Dena Goldberg (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Goldberg, Dena. “The Duchess of Malfi, the Royal Prerogative, and the Puritan Conscience.” In Between Worlds: A Study of the Plays of John Webster, pp. 100-12. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987.

[In the essay below, Goldberg discusses the political and intellectual context of The Duchess of Malfi, noting contemporary discussions of absolutism, the rule of James I, and individualism. Goldberg suggests that Webster was writing in opposition to the dominant worldview of the period.]

Webster's challenge to the rationalistic, hierarchic view of humanity that was a keystone of orthodox Renaissance philosophy is even more trenchant in The Duchess of Malfi than it had been in The White Devil. As I have pointed out, the “reason” the Cardinal talks about is only a tool of statecraft. And Ferdinand's assumption that people are better than other animals—or that they should be—makes him a destructive force, whereas his sister's passionate pursuit of her own fulfilment is graced by an essential humility and gentleness. In effect, Webster has reversed the traditional hierarchy so that the rational faculty lies lower in the scale of values than the sensory and emotive faculties that people possess in common with other creatures. The devastating effects of the myth of reason are explored simultaneously on two related planes: the human microcosm and the macrocosm of political society.

The idea that people alone among the creatures of the universe had been endowed with reason had always had hierarchical political corollaries. From Plato on, the conception of the human being as a creature whose “inferior” faculties (sensory, emotive) are controlled by the superior faculty of reason implied a social stratification in which the thinkers rule over the doers. In a well-ordered state, as in a well-ordered personality, everything is in its proper place in the hierarchy, performing its appropriate function. Since the best society is one in which reason reigns supreme, ideal rulers are the people who have most completely subordinated their other faculties to their reason. It would be as absurd for passionate individuals (or workers) to rule the state as it would be for the human heart (or hand) to rule the human head.

In the tradition of Aquinas and Hooker, this classical concept was supported by a further analogy to God as the supreme intellectual force, ruling the universe through immutable laws of “Eternal Reason.” The “operations of nature,” says Aquinas, “are seen to proceed in an orderly manner even as the operations of a wise man.”1 Good rulers are analogous to God in that their dominating intelligence creates order and harmony in their realm just as the eternal intelligence has created order and harmony throughout the universe.

For Aquinas and Hooker, this implied the rule of law. Just as God could never violate the immutable laws of reason and nature that he had created, good rulers would never disobey the positive law that had been made in the image of the divine law.2 In its original and orthodox form, the comparison between the king and God did not imply that the king was free to exercise absolute power according to his whims. In the seventeenth century, however, the traditional analogies became useful to those who, by shifting the emphases, could incorporate them into a justification of absolutism. In the writings of Richelieu and James, the traditional association of reason with the ruling class becomes a total identification of law with the king. People should be reasonable, but in fact most are not. Therefore, it is the function of the king to impose law and reason upon his subjects. Reason can only reign supreme if the sovereign power is absolute:

Common sense leads each one of us to understand that man, having been endowed with reason, should do nothing except that which is reasonable, since otherwise he would be acting contrary to his nature, and by consequence contrary to Him Who is its Creator. It further teaches us that the more a man is great and conspicuous, the more he ought to be conscious of this principle and the less he ought to abuse the rational process which constitutes his being, because the ascendancy he has over other men requires him to preserve that part of his nature and his purpose which was specifically given to him by Him Who Chose him for elevation.

To this point in the passage Richelieu is faithfully echoing the orthodox commonplaces of natural law philosophy. This is the “given” part of the argument, easily available to the “common sense” of the reader. What he is really aiming at is revealed in the next few lines:

This precept is the source of another, which teaches us that since we should never want the accomplishment of anything not reasonable and just, neither should we ever want the accomplishment of anything without having it carried out and our commands followed by complete obedience, because otherwise reason would not really reign sovereign.3

It is a short step further to James' assertion that “that which concerns the mystery of the King's power is not lawful to be disputed.”4

We can now grasp the full significance of the Duchess' impatience with outward form. It is relevant that she is reprehensible, according to traditional concepts of order, on both political and sexual grounds, for Webster has her stand for total antagonism to the supposedly natural system of hierarchies that, with considerable historical justification, he has come to associate with tyranny. Thus, she violates her subordinate position as a woman by wooing Antonio; she rejects the idea that her position as a ruler necessitates stricter repression of her animal nature; and she disregards the class structure of her society in marrying her social inferior. Her rebellion on the macrocosmic (social) level is enmeshed with her rebellion on the microcosmic (personal) level. And the “wilderness” that she deliberately enters is the chaotic, undefined abundance of life once the artificial limitations imposed by a hierarchical ideology have been discarded.

The Duchess of Malfi does not believe in a universal harmony resting upon obedience, order, and rational limitation. Rather, she acts on the assumption that personal harmony with the universe depends upon the acceptance of the real laws of human nature, which, when the vain pretension to reason has been abandoned, appear to be much the same as those governing the rest of creation. If the Duchess is wrong, it is only in her failure to perceive that her isolated act cannot stand against all of society. As Calderwood puts it, she “displays a disrespect for external realities which is … dangerously naive.”5 This she learns as her earlier optimism gives way to a recognition of the vulnerability of her family. But in cosmic terms she is vindicated. Her harmony with nature leads to a harmony within herself that is not shaken by torment. And the echo that Webster sets up between the Duchess' affirmation that she is the Duchess of Malfi still and Bosola's affirmation that the stars shine still perhaps suggests a unity of personality with universal law—a triumph over the mutability that normally governs the sublunary world—which defeats the traditionalists on their own grounds.

The Duchess is Webster's highest tribute to human nature. Among the challengers of natural law philosophy, there were those, like Luther and Machiavelli, who found human nature to be essentially bad. Haydn makes the very good point that, after centuries of theological conditioning, it was inevitable that a naturalistic view of human beings would, to most people, mean a downgrading of humanity.6 The naturalistic image would be juxtaposed with the traditional ideal image and people would react either by violently rejecting the former as a heretical slander or by reluctantly accepting it as a harsh reality. It is remarkable, then, that there were those who, finding people to be irrational, did not consider this a cause for lament. Montaigne is at one with Machiavelli in rejecting the concepts of the “guiding role of reason, the hierarchical composition of the soul, the traditional linking of happiness and virtue under right reason.” But he differs in that he “still proclaims (with qualifications) the essential goodness of man's nature.”7 For Montaigne, however, this goodness does not reside in the development of a faculty that distinguishes human beings from animals; on the contrary, their goodness lies precisely in the instinctive qualities that they share with other creatures. In the Apology, as I pointed out earlier, Montaigne bitterly attacks reason as an interference in the smooth functioning of the universal laws of nature. Animals, he says, are kind to their young, ignorant of the art of war, and, in many cases, faithful to their mates, whereas human beings, with their supposed reason, are incapable of these natural virtues.8 In the Essays, this negative emphasis tends to give way to a positive one, an affirmation of the potential of human beings for true integration with natural goodness once they are liberated from the bonds of rationalistic philosophy.

Webster, retracing Montaigne's route, moves from the iconoclasm of The White Devil to the affirmation of The Duchess of Malfi. Haydn writes of Montaigne's Nature:

She is the indifferent mother of an infinite diversity and mutability, and her works are all equally good, all the children of her fertility in a world innocent of comprehensive systematizing and universal regulative principles of degree, vocation, etc. She is, if you will, Venus Genetrix, mother of instincts and senses, of biological motivation and uninhibited fertility.9

It is to this nature, rather than to the ghostly ideal of the philosophers, that people must conform their own behaviour, and in The Duchess of Malfi Webster creates such a human being, an intellectual creature who is possessed of the simple virtue and dignity that, in the Apology, Montaigne had reserved for animals. In creating this character, whose natural element is peace and love, and whose last thoughts, as she is about to die a violent death, have to do with cough medicine for her children, Webster seems to be asserting that it is possible for human beings to escape the curse of reason. In making her a member of the ruling class, he suggests the extension of this ideal to the level of the macrocosm.

It is odd that Webster critics have not made much of the very striking fact that both of his great tragedies have women as heroes.10 Shakespeare did not write a single tragedy in which the hero is a woman (Cleopatra shares the honours with Antony). Nor do Webster's heroines conform to the type of long-suffering female that was becoming increasingly popular with patrons of the private theatres. In fact Webster's heroines conform to no type, which is in itself a challenge to an audience accustomed to seeing stage females as saints or sinners.

Other challenges are implicit in these characterizations. In the introduction, I mentioned what I conceive to be the most important fact about Webster's heroines: that they combine assertiveness with what was taken to be femininity. Without in any way implying that there is such a thing as femininity, I would like to suggest that for Webster and his audience, femininity had to do with an affinity with nature. The notions of fertility as essential to a woman's role, of the Earth as feminine, of women as creatures of passion and impulse rather than reason—these were parts of the mentality of the period. For that very reason, women were not suitable heroes: the hero of a tragedy must possess (even if he fails to use it) the highest of human faculties, which is reason. That Webster chose to centre his tragedies around women is one of the most significant manifestations of his rejection of the hierarchic ideology of his time.11 What Webster's protagonists possess in the highest degree is not the ability to reason, but the impulse to live in harmony with nature.

The psychological opposite of the Duchess is represented, as we have seen, by her brothers. Perhaps the most intellectually innovative aspect of The Duchess of Malfi is its close examination of the psychological implications of traditional hierarchical thought. The final evidence of the superiority of the Duchess' concept of natural law—and the major irony of the play—is the degeneration of Ferdinand to a subhuman level as he suffers from lycanthropy. But the fact that Ferdinand is dangerously out of harmony with the real laws of nature has been symbolically evident all along, for it is he, not the Duchess, who is associated throughout the play with the storms and earthquakes that traditionally symbolized disruption of the universal order. For all her violation of social order, the Duchess is incapable of cursing the world “to its first Chaos” (IV, i, 119), whereas Ferdinand's very existence calls forth the corresponding tempests and whirlwinds that reflect, on a cosmic level, his inner disquiet.12

On the individual psychological level, then, the myth of reason is a barrier to true self-knowledge and self-fulfilment. On the political level, those who act in the name of reason and order are brutal and tyrannical. The Cardinal, like Richelieu, finds it convenient to use the word “reason” when what he is talking about is reason of state. Ferdinand is more complex, because, whereas the Cardinal's ideology is purely secular, Ferdinand's hierarchical convictions are fortified by a very literal rendering of the traditional analogy between ruler and God. In this respect, Ferdinand bears an intriguing resemblance to James I, the crux of whose political philosophy was an image of the union of judge, king, and God in one personality. The people, said James, must acknowledge the king to be “a Judge set by God, over them, having power to judge them, but to be judged onely by God.”13 And he told his son that God had made the king a “little God, to sit on his Throne, and rule over other men.”14 One could find no better words to describe Ferdinand's image of himself, an image that I have already discussed from a less political point of view. In his characterization of Ferdinand, Webster has fleshed out the doctrine of divine right, connecting the political theory with its psychological counterpart in self-worship. He had not far to go. James' speech to Parliament in 1609 would have been sufficient in itself to provide the raw materials for the portrait of Ferdinand:

Kings are justly called Gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power upon earth … they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting downe; of life, and of death. … They have power to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the Chesse; a pawne to take a Bishop or a knight.15

It is a similar breathtaking egotism that we sense in Ferdinand as he goes about destroying the Duchess in his god-like way, an egotism that finds satisfaction in the possession of absolute power over another life.

Although Ferdinand worships a hidden God, it would be a mistake to conclude that Webster is implying in this a criticism of Puritanism, for strict Calvinism was only one stream in a very various movement. And in his view of the relationship between the individual and the state-church establishment, Webster had much in common with the Puritans. The secular power of the church, manifest in the structure of its hierarchy and in the continued power of the ecclesiastical courts, was a major issue to Jacobean Puritans. In opposition to clerical control of matters of faith and morality, the Puritans stressed the personal nature of religion and denied the right of the church courts to punish deviations. A corollary of the conviction that religion cannot be imposed by law was a rejection of penance and a corresponding emphasis on the penitence of individuals who felt they had violated their covenant with God.16 A similar emphasis on the primacy of the individual covenant led to a rejection of the anti-divorce position of the established church. Many Puritans seem to have felt, as Milton was to put it, that “it is not the outward continuing of marriage that keeps whole that covenant.”17 Although remarriage after divorce was forbidden by law, Puritan ministers repeatedly performed such marriages.18

This set of interconnected ideas is echoed in both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. The treatment of marriage in both plays might be summed up by the Puritan thesis that “to command love and sympathy, to forbid dislike against the guiltles instinct of nature, is not within the province of any law to reach.”19 This is a major theme—perhaps the major theme—of both plays. Another major theme is the perniciousness of the alliance of state and church. In The White Devil the secular power of the church is attacked in Webster's portrayal of the Cardinal as judge and avenger. In The Duchess of Malfi, where the fusion of church and state is symbolically represented by the fraternal relationship of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, clerical control of personal morality is shown in the most devastating light. Both plays plainly demonstrate that the secular power of the church, far from making the state holy, only facilitates tyranny.

But the most striking echo of Puritan doctrine in The Duchess of Malfi is the dramatized opposition between penance and penitence incorporated in the conflict between Ferdinand and the Duchess. Ferdinand's desire to inflict penance on his sister's “delicate” body does not stem from a real desire to make her penitent, but from his own perverse needs. She, on the other hand, converses with God in her own way, in spite of her casualness about the outward forms of religion. In this respect (as in the partnership-marriage of the Duchess and Antonio), The Duchess of Malfi comes much closer to Puritan ideology than does The White Devil; for while the earlier play shares Puritan criticism, The Duchess of Malfi expresses, in the character of its heroine, the Puritan ideal of the individual conscience. Talking about Clarissa Harlowe, Christopher Hill says:

Clarissa's attitude is a logical application of the Protestant theory of justification by faith, with its emphasis on the inner intention of the believer rather than on his external actions. Purity of motive, chastity of mind, is more important than formal rectitude of behaviour.20

I believe that the Duchess embodies this doctrine with a fervour and a heroic grandeur that was no longer possible in the time of Richardson. Confident in her own election, impatient with ritual and superstition, humble when alone in the presence of God, and strenuously devoted to the Puritan ideal of marriage, the Duchess is a perfect Puritan heroine.

We can begin to sense the power of this play in its own time. Major causes of declining deference towards the aristocracy in pre-revolutionary England were, in Stone's words,

the pervasive influence of the rise of individualism, the Calvinist belief in a spiritual hierarchy of the Elect, and the Puritan exaltation of the private conscience, which affected attitudes towards hierarchy and obedience in secular society.21

The spiritual hierarchy of which the Duchess is a part is pitted against the hierarchy of power represented by her brothers. As their earthly power crumbles, the Duchess' spiritual strength prevails. Nor is this an otherworldly message, for Bosola is fired by her example to fight for what is right in this world.22

But if The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi express a revolutionary individualism akin to the Puritan emphasis on the individual conscience, they do not share Puritan faith in the potential regenerative power of a purified common law. Whereas the Puritan party in Webster's time looked to the common law as the basis of resistance to established power, both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi depict the futility of appealing to any law when law is synonymous with power. Vittoria appeals to the law upon her trial—and the demands she makes anticipate legal reforms that were to take place during the revolutionary period—but it is useless to appeal to law in Monticelso's court. In The White Devil, destruction of the individual is a tragic inevitability.

In The Duchess of Malfi, too, the only kind of law that exists is the law that Bacon was talking about when he admitted that there is a “kind of force which pretends law, and a kind of law which savours of force rather than equity.”23 In a fit of remorse, Ferdinand denounces Bosola for having executed the Duchess without legal warrant:

By what authority did'st thou execute
This bloody sentence?
                                                                      By yours—
Mine? was I her Judge?
Did any ceremoniall forme of Law,
Doombe her to not-Being? did a compleat Jury
Deliver her conviction up i'th' court?

(IV, ii, 320-325)

On the face of it, Ferdinand's statement would seem to imply that there is some difference between law and force in the world of The Duchess of Malfi. In reality, this difference is as shadowy and elusive as it was in the real world of Jacobean England. The realities of the Jacobean legal system—or lack of system—are reflected in the world of The Duchess of Malfi. Ferdinand may momentarily regret his disdain of the forms of common law, but the fact is that he lives in a world in which such disdain is possible for those in power. As the ruler of his little kingdom, and a judge, he wields the legal machinery of the state. That he is unaccustomed to concern himself about whether or not he is acting according to the rules of law is revealed when he ends his little speech about the ceremonies of law by threatening to judge and execute Bosola as peremptorily as he had the Duchess. In essence, Ferdinand, like James I, believes himself to be above the law. And in a very real sense, he is.

In such a world of lions and foxes, the Duchess cannot survive. The beauty she embodies is a real potential for humanity (Antonio says that she “lights the time to come” [I, i, 213]), but she is destroyed by a world in which goodness appears to be incompatible with power. And yet there is a strong suggestion at the end of the play that goodness could—and should—be stronger than it is. For the world has changed, albeit in small ways, as a result of the life and death of the Duchess. A piece of the hierarchy has crumbled away, revealing its internal weaknesses. And one man has learned that it is necessary to act according to the dictates of conscience, for there is no greater defeat than a life spent in cynical obedience to a corrupt master.

Criticism has been very divergent on the question of Bosola's role in the play. While some have seen in the fifth act a conversion that implies some sort of hope for the future, others have contended that Bosola does little or nothing to dispel the sense of a “meaningless universe”24 that we are left with at the end of the play. Clifford Leech, for example, concludes that “hope cannot go very deep” at the end of the play because Bosola is such a sorry excuse for a hero:

For the dominant strain in the play's ending, the key is in the presentation of Bosola. In this last act we have seen him drawn into sympathy with Antonio and his dead wife, yet slaying an innocent servant without compunction, mistakenly killing Antonio, complaining always of being neglected. As an instrument of justice he is pitifully imperfect, while he had shown address as tormentor and executioner.25

In a recent variant of this view, Jacqueline Pearson argues that as the focus shifts at the end of the play from the Duchess to Bosola and Antonio, the generic focus “shifts from tragedy to inversions and parodies of tragedy.” According to Pearson, Webster's aim is to “define tragedy objectively and to place the tragic affirmation of a heroic individual in the perspective of an anti-heroic society.”26

While I agree with critics who refuse to orchestrate Bosola's fifth act changes into a heroic symphony, I would also contend that it is precisely because Bosola has not suddenly, miraculously metamorphosed into a tragic hero that we can believe in his change. And because we are able to believe that his change is not just a literary convention—that it could really occur in life—the play should not leave us despairing.

Webster seems to be saying that, although the Duchess embodies an ideal, it is the Bosolas of the world, “pitifully imperfect” as they are, who determine to what extent such ideals affect events. That Bosola is crucial is such a disquieting point that Webster devotes an entire act of the play to impressing it upon the audience. Leech's dissatisfaction with Bosola as “an instrument of justice” is understandable. Fortinbras would make a cleaner job of it. Not only is Bosola ethically imperfect, capable of total coldness in the face of human suffering, and almost incurably opportunistic, but he is also (I know no better word for it) creepy. I think it is this—the decay he seems to exude like bad breath—that makes it so hard for us to accept him as the avenger of the Duchess.

And yet the Duchess herself sees so much goodness in Bosola that she makes the fatal error of trusting him in what I conceive to be the moment of climax and peripety in the play. The Duchess' tragic flaw (to use another old-fashioned term) has been, all along, that she is too trusting.27 At a moment when she crucially needs friends, Bosola delivers a lengthy defence of Antonio, whom the Duchess has pretended to find guilty of dishonest management. There is nothing in it for Bosola. Opportunist that he is, his move would be to support her denunciation, hoping to raise himself in her eyes. But he does the opposite. He commits himself totally to the position that she is wrong, that Antonio is incapable of dishonesty. The Duchess concludes that Bosola is a good man and she fatally entrusts him with her secrets: that she is married to Antonio and that they are about to flee. Bosola lengthily expresses his amazement that virtue (Antonio) has been so recognized and rewarded by authority (the Duchess). As the scene ends, with the Duchess employing Bosola to help her and her family, we wonder what Bosola will do. I think we really know.

Bosola will return to his boss and report what he knows. He detests himself for it. His defence of Antonio, his praise of the Duchess for marrying Antonio, are sincere; but he cannot act upon his ethical premises because basically Bosola is a slave, with the mind and will of a slave who simultaneously detests and grovels before his master.

A controlling image of the play, stated in the very first scene, is a comparison between a virtuous court and a clean water-source, as opposed to a defiled court, or fountain, contaminating everything as it descends. The play bears out the image: the Duchess is a pure source; Ferdinand, the more powerful stream, carries infection. Bosola, a mass of contradictory impulses, is infected by the force of Ferdinand's disease. Called upon to utilize his worst impulses, he complies, although the love of goodness is always there, in one form or another. I do not believe that he is really much of a tormentor. As I read the fourth act, I see Bosola as curious, probing, testing the Duchess' apparently boundless gift of sanity. He is Ferdinand's tool, with all that that implies, and as such he cannot help but act out Ferdinand's wishes. Yet he pleads with Ferdinand to end the torture. He would like to see the Duchess fall because that would justify his cynicism. But he would like to see her win because he loves her.

It is the nature of tragedy that, if the characters had known at the outset what they know at the end, the tragedy would never have happened. If the Duchess had not trusted Bosola, she and her family might have escaped. If Bosola had had the courage to cease being Ferdinand's cesspool, her trust would have been justified. When Bosola finally reverses the course of the stream, something very important has taken place. In giving us Bosola rather than, say, Antonio as avenger, Webster makes the profoundly disquieting suggestion that it is up to just such bumbling sinners as ourselves to resist the infection of corrupt authority.


  1. Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Scribners, 1950), p. 132.

  2. Ibid., p. 133.

  3. The Political Testament of Cardinal Richelieu, ed. and trans. Henry Bertram Hill (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp. 71-72.

  4. See above, Chapter 3, p. 103.

  5. James L. Calderwood, “The Duchess of Malfi: Styles of Ceremony,” in Norman Rabkin, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Duchess of Malfi (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 79.

  6. Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, p. 382.

  7. Ibid., p. 405.

  8. The Complete Essays of Montaigne, ed. and trans. Donald Frame (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), pp. 130-160.

  9. Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, p. 465.

  10. Muriel Bradbrook takes note of Webster's general concern with women's problems (John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist [New York: Columbia University Press, 1980], pp. 119, 142, 430, and elsewhere), but by and large it has been in more general works on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama that Webster's sympathy with women has been noted (see above, introduction, note 31). Simon Shepherd does not deal with The White Devil, but he does note that the fact that the Duchess is in the centre of her play distinguishes The Duchess of Malfi from other plays ca. 1612 that have active and sexual female characters (Amazons and Warrior Women [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981], pp. 116-118).

  11. There has been an unfortunate tendency in some feminist criticism of Shakespeare to accept without protest the Bard's refusal to put women at the centre of his tragedies. Thus Linda Bamber is content to find women at the centre of comedies: “The feminine other … is Shakespeare's natural ally in the mode of festive comedy. Precisely because she is Other, precisely because her inner life is obscure to her author, she seems gifted with precisely the qualities that make for comedy: a continuous, reliable identity, self-acceptance, a talent for ordinary pleasures” (Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare [Standford: Stanford University Press, 1982], p. 41). A similar line of thought is pursued by Paula S. Berggren in “The Woman's Part: Female Sexuality as Power in Shakespeare's Plays” (in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Lenz, et al. [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980]). Berggren says: “The comic world requires childbearers to perpetuate the race, to ensure community and continuity; the tragic world, which abhors such reassurance, consequently shrinks from a female protagonist. Such women as exist in tragedy must make their mark by rejecting their womanliness, by sublime sacrifice, or as midwives to the passion of the hero” (pp. 18-19). Berggren does refer to The Duchess of Malfi in a footnote, but her generalizations still stand.

    The Duchess, of course, possesses in abundance “the qualities that make for comedy” according to these critics. Webster's play demonstrates that these qualities can also make for tragedy. Shakespeare did not write The Duchess of Malfi because he was more committed than Webster to the rationalist ideology, with its built-in hierarchical and sexist implications.

    Shakespeare is an imposing figure, of course, but we must resist what a recent critic has referred to as “the domination of the patriarchal Bard” if it leads us to entertain seriously a view of women as good for laughs. (See Kathleen McLuskie, “The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985]).

  12. On tempests, etc., see E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York: Macmillan, 1944), p. 86.

  13. The Political Works of James I, ed. Charles McIlwain (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918), p. xliii.

  14. Ibid., p. xxxv.

  15. “A Speech to the Lords and Commons of the Parliament at Whitehall,” in Political Works, p. 308.

  16. Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (London: Nelson, 1961), pp. 79-80.

  17. The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in Complete Prose Works, gen. ed., Don Wolfe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), vol. II, p. 258.

  18. Ernest Sirluck, ed., vol. II of Milton, Complete Prose Works, p. 146. The relations between Puritan ideology with respect to marriage and women's roles, on the one hand, and the English Renaissance drama, on the other, is one of the prime concerns of Juliet Dusinberre in Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975).

  19. Doctrine and Discipline, p. 345.

  20. Christopher Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (London: Secker and Warburg, 1958), p. 385.

  21. Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 351.

  22. It is illuminating to consider the Duchess in the light of Simon Shepherd's discussion of Spencer's Britomart, the type of his warrior woman (Amazons and Warrior Women [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981]): “Britomart's lover is the knight who represents justice; she herself represents chastity. True justice can only be saved and re-established when chastity defeats its opposite, lust” (p. 5); “It is in pursuit not only of her own destiny but of her historical obligation to Britain that Britomart fights her way towards Artegall” (p. 27); “The true warrior woman will challenge men to greater bravery and their true militancy” (p. 28). Shepherd makes us aware that Webster was working within a tradition that associated female virtue with political rejuvenation.

  23. Quoted by William Holdsworth, A History of English Law (London: Methuen, 1922), vol. V, p. 249.

  24. Normand Berlin, “The Duchess of Malfi: Act V and Genre,” Genre 3 (1970), p. 360).

  25. Clifford Leech, Webster: The Duchess of Malfi (London: Arnold, 1963), p. 27.

  26. Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980), pp. 89-95. Her chapter on The Duchess of Malfi essentially restates the position expressed by Berlin in the article cited above.

  27. Compare Leonora Leet Brodwin: “Her tragic error lies not in choosing to love but in overestimating the ability of a hostile world to accept her vision of moral health” (Elizabethan Love Tragedy 1587-1625 [New York: New York University Press, 1971], p. 286). My perception of this play coincides with Brodwin's at several points, especially where she says that the “Duchess' ‘feareful madnes’ lies in her desire to fulfill both the claims of her greatness and of her femininity” (p. 284).

Christina Luckyj (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Luckyj, Christina. “Concentric Design: The Duchess of Malfi.” In A Winter's Snake: Dramatic Form in the Tragedies of John Webster, pp. 126-47. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

[In this excerpt, Luckyj applies her model of Webster's use of repetition and juxtaposition to the structure of The Duchess of Malfi. Luckyj's analysis attempts to incorporate the fifth act into the structure of the play, responding to the frequent argument that the act fails to conform to the coherent pattern of the first four.]

Even more frequently than in The White Devil, Webster organizes scenes in The Duchess of Malfi concentrically, creating a strong, central dramatic focus framed by significantly opposed sequences of action. One of the most obvious examples of this kind of scenic construction is III.ii. The scene is important to the plot, tracing as it does the rapid fall of the Duchess and Antonio, from the intimacy of their bedroom exchange that opens the scene, to their separation and, finally, to the Duchess's unwitting betrayal of Antonio to Bosola. This is the clear linear movement of the lengthy scene. Yet the scene's internal organization complicates this simple linearity by establishing significant contrasts and emphases. The scene is clearly divided into five dramatic sequences; the first two are juxtaposed, as are the last two, while the central sequence links the two main parts. Finally, the last sequence of the scene recalls the first one; the Duchess's virtue remains constant even as her fortunes fail.

The first part of the scene is composed of two clearly juxtaposed dramatic episodes. The loving, domestic interview between Antonio and the Duchess as they prepare for bed is placed in sharp contrast to the highly charged interview between Ferdinand and the Duchess that follows. Between the two interviews, after Antonio and Cariola have left the stage and before Ferdinand has entered, the Duchess sits alone before her mirror. She talks aloud with warmth and confidence to an Antonio who is no longer there.

Doth not the colour of my hair 'gin to change?
When I wax gray, I shall have all the court
Powder their hair with arras, to be like me:—
You have cause to love me; I enter'd you into my heart
Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys.


This is the still center of the episode, and it emphasizes visually both the Duchess's strength and her vulnerability. Her strength is conveyed by her confident pose, even as she is at her most vulnerable physically (almost certainly clad only in a nightdress). While her vulnerability emerges as she looks anxiously for signs of aging, her confidence is clear in her gay response to her own question. The movement of thought in the Duchess's soliloquy is characteristic. From an anxious sense of her own mortality, she moves to a confident reconciliation with it, and finally to a self-assured declaration of her own courage. She will display the same characteristic ways of thinking and speaking at the moment of death. Yet even as she speaks, Ferdinand enters. While she speaks of the keys to her heart, her brother uses the keys to her bedchamber (a property to which attention has been drawn in the preceding scene), to gain entrance (Forker 350). The lines crystallize perfectly the contrast between the two worlds—the lovers' emotional world is set against the crude, literal world of Ferdinand. The stage property of the key draws attention to the ironic contrast. Yet the moment, even as it juxtaposes Ferdinand and Antonio, also implicitly compares them in their relation to the Duchess. As Ferdinand creeps into her bedchamber, the Duchess appears to be directing the lines to him. The bonds of family are as ineluctable as the bonds of love. The central point of the first half of III.ii places equal emphasis on the Duchess's strength and vulnerability. The Duchess is framed by the love of Antonio and by the fury of Ferdinand, both of which render her vulnerable, yet confirm her strength.

The dramatic encounters that frame this powerful central moment exhibit parallels as well as contrasts. In the first one, Antonio answers a question posed by Cariola regarding a choice between wisdom, riches, and beauty. His light-hearted response implies that judgment itself is confounded when faced with love and beauty. By going on to cite the case of Paris, Antonio introduces a range of mythological associations that become significant in the context of the scene. Of course Paris, like Antonio, chose Beauty, and the result was the Trojan war, undertaken by Helen's family for revenge. In the second encounter, Ferdinand makes reference to another triumvirate—this time of Love, Death, and Reputation. His identification of himself with Reputation is especially clear in performance, when he relates the parable in direct speech.

                                                            “Stay,” quoth Reputation,
“Do not forsake me; for it is my nature
If once I part from any man I meet
I am never found again.” And so, for you:
You have shook hands with Reputation,
And made him invisible:—so fare you well.
I will never see you more.


If, in the first segment, love and beauty are clearly chosen by the Duchess and Antonio at the expense of wisdom and riches, here Reputation, in the self-appointed image of Ferdinand, deserts them. The design clearly restates in emblematic form the Duchess's choice in favor of Beauty at the expense of Reputation. Yet the emblematic level is at odds with the dramatic level of meaning. In fact, Ferdinand only imagines himself as his sister's reputation; Antonio is merely playing at being Paris. The formal, emblematic identifications point up the contradictions and ironies of the dramatic texture. Though in one sense the Duchess has indeed sacrificed her reputation for love, in another sense she has been absurdly punished for doing the right thing. The formal symmetry of the design not only allows a startling change of focus, but also invites comparison of the meaning of the clearly opposed episodes.

At the center of the entire scene, following Ferdinand's assault on the Duchess, there is a brief recapitulation and anticipation of its action. Antonio and Cariola reappear; in a replay of Ferdinand's attack on the Duchess, Antonio threatens Cariola with a pistol, and brandishes Ferdinand's poniard at an imaginary Ferdinand. The simultaneous exit of Antonio and entrance of Bosola at line 160 restages the preceding incident with new fear and urgency. The Duchess is again seen wheeling from her lover to her enemy—a stage image of the reversal of her fortunes. The choreography of this moment is replayed later, in III.v, when once again Antonio leaves the stage at the same time that Bosola enters with a guard. Again, a dramatic crisis, the reversal of the Duchess's fortunes, is evoked visually. She turns from bidding farewell to her family to heralding the arrival of a troop of men. Whether or not Bosola and his officers wear vizards, they are given impersonal significance by the Duchess when she says,

When Fortune's wheel is overcharg'd with princes,
The weight makes it move swift.


While she calls attention to herself as a victim of Fortune, she at the same time retains control of the stage, firing a series of questions at Bosola. Her deliberate allegorizing of her enemies as agents of Fortune also minimizes their hold over her as Ferdinand's henchmen. In both scenes she controls the exits and entrances of the other characters, ordering them on and off the stage and standing firmly at the center.

The second part of III.ii is, like the first, constructed as a pair of contrasting segments with parallel features. In the first segment, the “feigned crime” (III.ii.179) of Antonio is played out by the Duchess and Antonio before an onstage audience composed of Bosola and the officers; in the second segment, the feigned defense of Antonio is played out by Bosola before the Duchess and Cariola. In both cases, of course, the pretense is clear to the audience in the theatre, though it is accepted by the onstage audience. The officers believe the Duchess's account of Antonio and despise him, while the Duchess believes Bosola's account of Antonio and confides in him. In both sequences, pretense becomes entangled with reality. In the Duchess's confrontation with Antonio, she both rejects him and declares her love for him in a series of double entendres. Bosola's speech about Antonio is likewise both a pretense (as he is an intelligencer), and a clear repetition of his usual reflections on the abuse of good men like himself. The onstage audience in both cases selects the version of the “play” that they are disposed to hear and accept, though the offstage audience remains conscious of the ambiguity. The juxtaposition of the two episodes serves to illuminate, at a crisis in the narrative, the opposed perspectives that are at work in the play as a whole. There are those—like the officers—who are always prepared to believe the worst of someone else, while there are also those—like the Duchess—who are always prepared to believe the best. The scene is constructed to emphasize the opposition between them.

In the final segment of the scene, the staging is concentric, visually recalling that of the morality play. The Duchess stands at the center, attended on the one hand by Bosola, who coaxes her to reveal her secret marriage with his words of praise for Antonio, and on the other hand by Cariola, who silently tries to prevent her mistress from making any such revelations. Cariola's role during this scene is not immediately apparent from the text, but emerges chiefly in performance; she cannot remain simply a bystander while the Duchess betrays the secret she was so earnestly enjoined to keep. The Duchess finally listens to Bosola and ignores Cariola. The scene gathers its impact from its morality-play staging; its meaning, however, is rather more complex. The Duchess gives in to Bosola, her demonic tempter, and precipitates her downfall as a result, but the trustful openness of her confession is a sign of her virtue rather than her weakness. The final segment brings the scene full circle, dramatically reasserting the Duchess's virtue even as her enemies gain the upper hand in the plot.

The second scene of the third act is long and filled with action. Its formal design must have greatly simplified the construction of lengthy scenes like this one. Webster constructs the scene to emphasize important oppositions while advancing the narrative. At the center of the scene, the hurried exits and entrances of Antonio and Bosola clarify both the Duchess's firm centrality and the decisive turn in her fortunes. The parallelism between the segments that form each half of the scene, framing its center, is too deliberate to be coincidental. In the first half of the scene, Antonio's playful banter is juxtaposed with Ferdinand's psychotic rage; in the second half, the Duchess's account of Antonio's “crimes” is followed by Bosola's account of his virtues, the officers' meanness by the Duchess's trustfulness. In both the first and second parts of the scene, Webster sets the episodes side by side for maximum dramatic shock. Both the sudden fury of Ferdinand and the sudden warmth of Bosola come as dramatic surprises. Both characters prey on the Duchess's vulnerability as they find her virtually alone (in the first case, after the exit of Antonio and Cariola; in the second case, after the mass exit of the officers). The split structure of the scene allows an important concept to be emphasized through repetition and variation. Over and over the Duchess's choice of love is challenged by different forms of hatred. The crazed fury of Ferdinand and the coolly divided nature of Bosola are in fact built on an entire world of banal evil, represented in the officers. The scene begins and ends, however, with the Duchess's clear choice in favor of love and trust. As the centerpiece that links the two parts shows, the Duchess retains control even as her fortunes collapse.

Not all of Webster's scenes in The Duchess of Malfi are constructed according to this concentric plan. This scene does reveal, however, that Webster was a careful dramatic craftsman, and a master of what he himself calls “the ingenious structure of the scene” (Shirley 4). Different parts of the scene explore different aspects of Webster's main theme, contributing not only to the linear progression of the plot, but also to the elaboration of the dramatist's vision. The analogical relation between different segments of the scene, like that between different scenes or groups of scenes, binds Webster's “discontinuities” into a coherent whole that is nonetheless richly varied.

The same playwright who devoted laborious attention to the individual scene has been accused of carelessness in the whole play. Webster has frequently been criticized for his alleged failure to combine the parts of his play into a total vision. The chief target of this criticism is The Duchess of Malfi's final act. In this chapter, it will be considered as the second of a two-part structure which, like that of The White Devil, allows for a significant reversal in the overall pattern. Like the trial scene of The White Devil, the death scene of The Duchess of Malfi is a climactic set-piece that brings to a close the play's first part. Antagonists and protagonists change places at the midpoint of both plays. In the earlier play, the central scene only hints at a vision of universal suffering, in Giovanni's lament; in the later play, this vision is fully realized in the Duchess's death scene. The dramatist, who clearly understood the importance of scenic construction, applied the same formal principles to each play as a whole.

There is no doubt that The Duchess of Malfi shows evidence of the “split structure” that has been identified in many of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.1 Plays like Richard II, with its inversion of the characters and fortunes of Richard and Bolingbroke, or The Winter's Tale, with Polixenes in the second part assuming Leontes' former role as a jealous tyrant, are designed in two parts which mirror one another. And, as Emrys Jones points out, “Most of Shakespeare's other histories and tragedies gain in clarity if they are considered as plays conceived in two unequal movements” (81).2 The total form of The Duchess of Malfi is probably closest to that of Hamlet. It has been suggested that Shakespeare's play, like Webster's, can be divided into a lengthy first part (ending at IV.iv), and a shorter second part. In the first part, Hamlet is the avenger of his father's murder; in the second part, Laertes assumes this role, while Hamlet becomes the object of his vengeance. Emrys Jones notes that the play's two-part structure clarifies their exchange of roles: “The second part of the play opens with a new situation, an ironical reversal of the first. Laertes is now the injured son, whose father has been murdered; Hamlet is now, from this point of view, the murderer who must be put to death” (80). In the second part of The Duchess of Malfi, the villainous revengers become the objects of revenge. As, in Hamlet, Shakespeare complicates our view of the hero by casting him as a murderer in the second part, so, in The Duchess of Malfi, Webster changes our perspective of the villains by presenting them as victims in the final act.

The two parts of The Duchess of Malfi are clearly defined. The play proceeds in one direction, culminating in the death of the Duchess, and then changes direction for the final act. The Duchess is present in the first part, absent in the second part. There are clear differences in tone and characterization between the two parts; the Arragonian brothers are cruel monsters in the first part, pathetic victims in the second.3 Critics have frequently noted the shift from a strong, unified world of order and value in the first part to a fragmented world of disorder and chaos in the second. As important as the differences between the two parts, however, are the parallels. In the first part, the Arragonian brothers carry out their “revenge” against the Duchess for marrying beneath her station; in the second part, Bosola perpetrates his revenge against the brothers for their murder of the Duchess. In both parts, the revenge accomplishes its desired end, while at the same time it is revealed to be futile; the victims of revenge cling to their “crimes” and evade simple formulations of necessity or justice. The actions of Bosola in particular serve to emphasize the symmetry of the play's two parts. Before and after the Duchess's death, Bosola appears a curiously muddled figure in whom blatant self-interest always masks a strong sense of loyalty and virtue. In the first part, he murders the Duchess in order to appear a “true servant” (IV.ii.333) to Ferdinand, and in pursuit of his “reward” (IV.ii.294); in the second part, he turns against the Arragonian brothers not only for their murder of the Duchess, but also for their neglect of his services to them. In the first part, Bosola incriminates the Duchess and delivers her up to her brothers; in the second part, he repeats the action by putting Julia at the Cardinal's mercy and thus becoming an unwitting accomplice in her murder. In both parts, Bosola's treachery is emphasized by stage action; twice he accepts a key from one of the Arragonian brothers (I.i.280; V.ii.327). In the first part, Ferdinand sets Bosola to spy on the Duchess; in the second part, the Cardinal sets Bosola to spy on Antonio. Bosola kills the Duchess almost unwillingly in the first part, and murders Antonio accidentally in the second part. The dignified deaths of both protagonists are followed by the desperate struggles for life of Cariola in the first part, and the Cardinal in the second, both of whom are finally murdered by Bosola.

The repeated actions that link the first part with the second clearly undercut Bosola's revenge and call into question the ethic of revenge itself. But more important is the readjustment of perspective on the villains that such parallels make clear. In a sense, the victim and the perpetrator of revenge have merely changed places in the final act, if Bosola can in the second part be considered the Duchess's self-appointed representative. When the antagonists are put into the same position as the protagonist, as victims of a driving and relentless revenge action, the audience's view of them must change. Bosola, despite his apparently radical reformation at the end of Act IV, remains consistent in both parts of the play; Ferdinand and the Cardinal change as the world of the play changes. The inhuman monsters of the play's first part become desperate, self-questioning men, struggling to sustain their inhumanity through their defenses of violence or madness, yet ultimately failing to do so. Tomlinson notes that, in his speech at the beginning of V.v, “the Cardinal is alive here, in a sense in which he wasn't earlier. He speaks personally, not merely with depersonalized brilliance, and he really is puzzled in a question about hell … so, indeed, is everyone else, including, notably, the mad Ferdinand: ‘Strangling is a very quiet death …’ Included in the beautifully Jacobean horror of this, there is a grimly striking note of genuine feeling” (153). The “genuine feeling” that suddenly emerges in the play's villains in the final act links them with the Duchess earlier in the play. The symmetry of the two-part structure of The Duchess of Malfi includes both protagonists and antagonists in a common tragic vision. And in Webster's tragic vision, as in Shakespeare's, human greatness is intimately linked to human weakness.

Webster strengthens the links between the opposed forces of his tragedy, and connects the two parts of the play, with his structural use of the recurring idea of madness. In the first part, Webster shows that the love and the hatred that are the driving forces of his play are rooted in the same mysterious, irrational impulses, while they have different effects. In the second part, Ferdinand's conscience-stricken madness connects him with the Duchess's tender humanity in the first part.

Madness first appears prominently in the tender wooing-scene between the Duchess and Antonio. In response to the Duchess's proposal of marriage, Antonio says fearfully,

Ambition, madam, is a great man's madness,
That is not kept in chains, and close-pent rooms,
But in fair lightsome lodgings, and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants,
Which makes it lunatic, beyond all cure.


This is what Maynard Mack has called an “umbrella speech” (26)—one which allows a wider consciousness than that of its speaker to shelter beneath it. It allows all the dramatic possibilities connected with madness to emerge early in the play, while it avoids associating these only with the villains. The speech of course anticipates the prison scenes, but in its immediate context it introduces the idea of madness into a love scene that is otherwise “fair” and “lightsome.” Love is its own madness, Webster seems to imply; this is further emphasized by Cariola at the end of the scene when she accuses the Duchess of “a fearful madness” (I.i.506). Though the Duchess acts in accordance with desire in choosing to marry Antonio, her desire is neither logical nor rational, but “mad” in its own way. In Painter's version of the Duchess's story, Webster's chief source, the madness of the lovers is repeatedly invoked. In one of his frequent moralizing digressions, Painter exhorts, “But let us consider the force of Lovers rage, which so soone as it hath seased upon the minds of men, we see how marvellous be the effects thereof, and with what straint and puissaunce that madnesse subdueth the wise and strongest worldlings” (195). Although Webster deviates from Painter in treating the lovers far more sympathetically, he nonetheless retains suggestions of the madness of love. On the stage, Webster chooses to introduce his audience to the irrational not only through Bosola and Ferdinand, but also through the lovers themselves. Throughout the early part of the play, other characters continually draw attention to Antonio's irregular behavior. “You do tremble” (I.i.450), the Duchess remarks to him during the first scene. “Methinks 'tis very cold, and yet you sweat: / You look wildly” (II.iii.19-20), Bosola says to Antonio later. While the lovers remain guiltless, the “madness” of their love, rather than the “madness” of Ferdinand's hatred, appears to propel the action forward, so that they seem less its victims. By the end of the second act, when Ferdinand screams that he has “grown mad” (II.v.2), the lovers have already established the idiom in the play.

Scenic juxtaposition illuminates the different, but equally irrational, perspectives of love and hatred at the beginning of the third act. At the end of III.i, Ferdinand and Bosola exchange views on the nature of love. From their diseased perspective, love is “sorcery” (III.i.63) and “witchcraft” (III.i.78). At the beginning of the next scene, an apparently aimless discussion between Antonio and Cariola centers on the futility of judgment in matters of love. From Antonio's perspective as a lover, love is a magical force which transforms lovers “into the olive, pomegranate, mulberry … flow'rs, precious stones, or eminent stars” (III.ii.31-32). Bosola's and Ferdinand's view of love as a demonic force of astrological origin is juxtaposed with Antonio's view of love's mysterious mythological powers of transfiguration. Both perspectives, though firmly opposed to one another, see love as founded on irrationality and mystery. Similarly, the virtuous love of Antonio and the Duchess and the motiveless hatred of their enemies are both ultimately mysterious and unaccountable. Neither of these interchanges has any apparent plot function, but their juxtaposition illuminates the nature of the play's central opposition, and links all the play's characters with some form of madness.

Webster of course makes distinctions between different kinds of madness in his play. Unlike Painter, who places the blame sometimes on the lovers' passion, sometimes on their enemies, Webster clearly presents the lovers' “madness” as a form of sanity. Their decision to marry, however risky and irrational, brings them a new courage and clarity of vision. Throughout the first part of the play, Webster contrasts their sanity with Ferdinand's psychotic rage. In the second part of the play, however, after the death scene, Ferdinand plunges into real madness. While in the first part Ferdinand suffers from delusions fostered by his own diseased “imagination” (II.v.40), in the second part those delusions have become images of his own actions and of his horror at those actions. As the lovers' “madness” is in the first part a sane response to a mad world, so is Ferdinand's madness in the final act a “sane” reaction that the world considers mad. Before her death, the Duchess cries,

Th'heaven o'er my head seems made of molten brass,
The earth of flaming sulphur, yet I am not mad.


Her hallucinations are an appropriate response to the chaos engulfing her, and attest to her sanity. After the death scene, Ferdinand's lycanthropia and “cruel sore eyes” (V.ii.64) are an appropriate recognition of his own savagery. The structural repetition of madness in the play allows Webster both to distinguish between his opposed groups, and to suggest their common experience. The play's split structure emphasizes the links between the lovers and their enemies; Ferdinand's madness in the final act connects him with the Duchess and Antonio as much as it recalls his earlier bouts of fury.4 In the 1985 National Theatre production, in fact, the connection between Ferdinand and the Duchess was reinforced visually. In the first part, the Duchess was the only figure wearing white among a cast clad entirely in black, while in the final act Ferdinand alone changed into white. His tattered garment looked a good deal like a ravaged version of the Duchess's white nightgown, and further emphasized Ferdinand's own admission that they “were twins” (IV.ii.267). “As their physical twinship implies,” Forker observes, “the two characters are complementary as well as opposed” (312).

At the structural center of the play, in the death scene, the masque of madmen functions as a rich and complex dramatic focus for the madness throughout the play. Many critics have noted that “the masque and its characters provide a grotesque image of the world of the play, and some of the madmen reflect quite accurately some of the play's central characters” (Pearson 86). Ferdinand's furious jealousy, the Cardinal's misogyny, and Bosola's decayed cynicism are all quite obviously suggested by the madmen's ravings. The first speech of the second madman, for example, conjures up all three male characters:

Hell is a mere glass-house, where the devils are continually blowing up women's souls, on hollow irons, and the fire never goes out.


The speech recalls by association Bosola's and the Cardinal's images of glass manufacture for female sexuality, as well as Ferdinand's violent fantasy of having the lovers “burnt in a coal-pit” (II.v.67). Yet at the same time the speech describes the Duchess's experience in the play; her enemies are intent on destroying her “soul” by inflicting on her “the greatest torture souls feel in hell— / In hell: that they must live, and cannot die” (IV.i.70-71). The speech conflates the vision of the torturer and the experience of the tortured. The first madman's speech is similarly ambiguous:

Doomsday not come yet? I'll draw it nearer by a perspective, or make a glass that shall set all the world on fire upon an instant: I cannot sleep; my pillow is stuffed with a litter of porcupines.


The mad astrologer's desire to hasten doomsday recalls Ferdinand's impatience to have the Duchess murdered and the Duchess's own urgent wish for death. The apocalyptic imagery echoes both the Duchess's vision of the earth engulfed in “flaming sulphur” and Ferdinand's frequent use of the imagery of fire to describe his revenge (II.v.24,47). The madmen's speeches are sufficiently general to suggest all the play's main characters. The song that opens the masque suggestively conflates Ferdinand's image of the Duchess as a “screech-owl” (III.ii.89) with the Duchess's tenacity in remaining “Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.142) and anticipates her serenity at her death:

As ravens, screech-owls, bulls, and bears,
We'll bill and bawl our parts,
Till irksome noise have cloy'd your ears
And corrosiv'd your hearts.
At last when as our choir wants breath,
Our bodies being blest,
We'll sing like swans, to welcome death,
And die in love and rest.


The masque breaks down the distinctions between the Duchess and her enemies; each is deeply affected by the other, and both crave relief from their suffering.

In many productions of the play the Duchess herself becomes physically involved in the masque. In her review of the 1980 Royal Exchange production, Pearson wrote, “Hunched and angular, her hair clipped, she goes among the madmen, immersing herself in the destructive element in order to master it.” Though the Duchess herself declares that she is “not mad” (IV.ii.26), the masque replays and releases her deep involvement in the chaos around her. It is a displaced image of both the psychotic frenzy of Ferdinand and the horror and despair of the Duchess herself. As Joan Lord comments, the masque is “a violent exacerbation and release of one side of her nature (the undisciplined squads of emotion) before her sense of ceremony takes over and allows her to create the form of her death” (314). Throughout the fourth act, the play's “climactic plateau” (Beckerman 42), the Duchess is inextricably linked with her murderers. The masque of madmen is a concentrated dramatic image that illuminates the universal chaos in which all are involved, and thus encapsulates the connections explored through repetition and juxtaposition in the two-part structure of the play.

Like the individual scenes examined above, The Duchess of Malfi as a whole is concentrically organized. Every other scene either anticipates or recalls the play's “central referent” (Beckerman 61), the long death scene at the end of Act IV, which marks the end of the first part and the beginning of the second. The Duchess's death scene is the focal point of virtually every theatrical review and critical study. Ewbank writes: “It is a part of the play to which no critic of Webster has been indifferent; it stirred Lamb's and Swinburne's most prostrate praise and Archer's most nauseated denunciation, and later critics have only less ardently condemned or lauded it. Its complexity has been sensed, but hardly satisfactorily analysed” (“Impure Art” 204). The complexity of the death scene is reflected in the diversity of stage interpretations of the Duchess. The Times's review of Poel's 1892 production found that Mary Rorke aroused “a certain amount of sympathy for the hapless Duchess” (“Independent Theatre”). Peggy Ashcroft's first performance of the Duchess in 1945 brought praise from the Times's reviewer on her ability “to communicate the horror of the tortures and to reveal the resistant spirit of the doomed woman” (“Haymarket Theatre”). The conception of the Duchess as a defiant woman challenges and complicates the pathetic interpretation. Peggy Ashcroft's second version of the Duchess fifteen years later seems to have emphasized a slightly different quality. According to the Times's critic, she displayed a serene transcendence over her tortures, as “the only one of his characters to see, or think she sees, beyond the mist” (Review, “Webster's Play Well Handled”). Similarly, of the 1971 Royal Court production, Wardle noted that “Judy Parfitt plays the Duchess on a steady note of quietly masterful resignation. … In the death scene she seems quite untouched by the surrounding events” (Review, “Uninhabited Nightmare”). From the pathetic to the rebellious; from the merely stoical to the serenely transcendent—the richness of the scene is reflected in the diversity of its possible interpretations. That all of these are possible dramatic choices for an actress playing the Duchess in the death scene implies complexity in the scene itself. And, though an individual actress must choose to emphasize one interpretation over another, it is the job of the critic to explore the richness of a text which allows for such choices.

During the death scene, Ferdinand is absent. Bosola, the otherwise morally ambivalent instrument of Ferdinand's revenge, has taken on the disguise of an old man who reminds the Duchess of her mortality and delivers her up to death. In his disguise, he seems to have shed his dramatic function in the play to take on a purely symbolic one, as Death or Time itself.5 As Ewbank notes, Bosola “turns the mock wedding-masque into what reminds us of a Dance of Death” (“Impure Art” 215). The progressive stages of the death scene unfold as a foreordained ritual rather than as a successive series of shocks. The atmosphere is one of hushed expectation rather than of ghastly surprise. Bradbrook points out that “the scene is not laid in a definite place: it is, as it were, in a different dimension; there is a curious stillness and hush about the scene, a static quality and a sense of timelessness” (Themes 197). In this atmosphere even the hubbub of the madmen that precedes Bosola's entrance seems part of the ritual—the feverish futility of life's chaos that must be followed by the calm, inevitable release of death. Bosola's reminder to the Duchess that “this flesh” is no more than “a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste” (IV.ii.125-26) gives expression to the scene's air of heavy fatalism. In his speeches to her, Bosola transforms the death scene from a murderous outrage against an innocent young woman to an inevitable and universal act of fate. Bosola's message, vividly rephrasing the deeply ingrained medieval notions of contemptus mundi, becomes even more powerful when it is embraced by the Duchess herself as a means of maintaining her dignity and mastering her fear. While at some points she challenges Bosola, at others she colludes with him, calmly discussing the folly of “fashion in the grave” (IV.ii.155), and taking her final cue from his conceit of the soul imprisoned in the body.

The powerful atmosphere that is created in the death scene, of life as “a slow but irreversible process of decay” (Alexander 95), with death as its inevitable end, is at odds with the dramatic situation itself, however. The audience's knowledge that the Duchess is a vital young woman, “more sinned against than sinning,” unjustly brought to a premature death, works strongly to counter the scene's fatalism. The scene derives much of its power from this vital tension. The Duchess's famous assertion, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.142), is richly ambiguous. On the one hand, the Duchess bravely and rebelliously asserts her individual identity against villainy and death itself. On the other, youth and beauty confront mortality, a familiar emblem of vanitas. The Duchess's cry is both a strong, valid self-assertion, and the lost wail of Everyman confronted with his necessary end. Alexander comments, “It is one expression of that continual declaration of human independence which proclaims the unique value of a particular human existence in the face of the inevitable and eternal triumph of death. This self-assertion is both necessary and vain” (95).

The tension between the dramatic and symbolic interpretations of the scene reaches its highest pitch at the moment of execution. The Duchess kneels to meet her death:

Yet stay; heaven-gates are not so highly arch'd
As princes' palaces, they that enter there
Must go upon their knees.


This recalls her kneeling during the wooing scene, a gesture which there suggested her voluntary submission of herself to her lover. Here, her willing gesture of love and humility heightens by contrast the cruelty of her imposed sentence. Her executioners, whether they are the agents of Death or her brothers, are carrying out an atrocity against the Duchess. Her kneeling posture, while it allows her to retain her dignity, silently recalls the love for which she is to be put to death. Just before the Duchess kneels, the executioners may also kneel, as was conventional, to ask her forgiveness. Her words “I forgive them” (IV.ii.207) may well be a response to the executioners' kneeling. In The White Devil, Vittoria admonishes Lodovico:

                                                                                do thy office in right form;
Fall down upon thy knees and ask forgiveness.


Visually, the executioners' kneeling is a ghastly parody of Antonio's earlier prostration to receive the Duchess's wedding ring. By imitating these movements of mutual affection, the death scene becomes a grotesque reenactment of the wooing scene. Rather than suggesting that the Duchess's “need for love [is] the force which dooms her” (Pearson 61), the echoes of the wooing scene simply heighten the death scene's brutality. The Duchess's kneeling is powerfully ambiguous. She is both a humble Christian, quietly kneeling to meet her inevitable fate, and a controlling, assertive individual, still the rebellious victim of a terrible injustice. The kneeling itself is an aggressive, as well as a humble gesture, for it forces the executioners to stoop uncomfortably in order to pull the noose tight around her neck.6 Visually, the moment is a significant emblem of the play's total action—the Duchess, by “stooping” to marry her inferior in an act of love and humility, has actually exposed the degradation of those around her. The Duchess herself forces the scene's underlying tension to the surface. By appearing humbly to concede the inevitable justice of death, she in fact calls attention to the injustice of Death's ministers. “Regal calm becomes the outward expression both of protest against injustice and of tragic acceptance of the inevitable,” Forker observes (326). At the moment of death, she both refutes and colludes with the scene's symbolic dimension. Her final defense is to complete the interpretation that has been forced upon her, crying, “Come, violent death, / Serve for mandragora to make me sleep!” (IV.ii.234-35). In this way she can ignore her illegitimate human executioners and summon up her courage to die. But her final, bitter words to Bosola emphasize again the cruel injustice of the dramatic situation:

Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out,
They then may feed in quiet.


The Duchess is a consummate actress in the death scene. She gains dramatic control over her assassins and maintains her dignity by colluding with Death, who ultimately controls even her brothers. By supporting the scene's symbolic dimension, the Duchess avoids becoming, like Cariola, merely a pathetic victim. Yet her demeanor at the same time exposes the contradictions inherent in the scene, between the assassins' pose as impersonal ministers of death and their brutal, murderous action. The highly formal, ritualistic structure of the death scene allows the Duchess to be both mistress and victim of the occasion, to control a situation over which she has no control. The richness and complexity of the scene are illuminated by the tendency of different actresses to exploit its different aspects; the Duchess is both resistant and pathetic, defiant and humble, as she goes to her death. And this complexity is derived from the “impurity” of Webster's art—from the interplay of allegory and narrative, convention and realism. Ewbank notes that “in this scene he holds the tension between the two and draws strength from both sides—the kind of strength which tempts one to suggest that Webster's art is most ‘impure’ at the centres of meaning in his plays; that his peculiar skill, not only as a dramatic poet but as a poetic dramatist, lay in the ability to utilize the very impurity of his art” (“Impure Art” 220).

The formal complexity, or “impurity,” of the death scene, has a number of important consequences for the play as a whole. First, because the scene's symbolic dimension complicates the audience's response to the Duchess's immediate plight as the innocent victim of her brothers, its pathos and melodrama are attenuated. The scene hints that the play is to transcend mere catastrophe, the destruction of a good character by villains, and will offer some larger vision. In the death scene itself, the play hovers between melodrama and fatalism, injustice and inevitability, but settles on neither. Because the tone and the situation of the death scene are at odds with one another, each tends to neutralize the other's single impact, while at the same time combining to enrich and intensify the scene's meaning. Second, because the death scene also distances the audience from the villains—the brothers are absent, Bosola is in disguise—their crimes are mitigated. Throughout the third act, the brothers are distanced by means of commentary (III.iii) and dumb show (III.iv), while Bosola becomes increasingly depersonalized.7 As a result, the humanity of the villains in the final act is more credible because it does not sharply contradict their outright villainy. The distance from both the Duchess and her enemies that results from the death scene's ceremony helps to ease the transition from the first part of the play to the second. Finally, at the structural center of the play, Webster deliberately creates a powerful image of the ineluctable universality of death, which, superimposed on the Duchess's individual fate, prepares us for the collective tragedy of the fifth act. Bosola's dirge, for example, reaches beyond the immediate situation to anticipate the universal experience of mortality:

Of what is't fools make such vain keeping?
Sin their conception, their birth weeping;
Their life a general mist of error,
Their death a hideous storm of terror.


Both the Duchess's courageous virtue and her enemies' struggles of conscience are set against this nihilistic vision of life made meaningless by death. The death scene transcends the personal calamity of the Duchess's destruction at the hands of her brothers to suggest, in its tone and its language, a general struggle for meaning in the face of the inevitable death that embraces all the characters in the play.

The trial scene of The White Devil and the death scene of The Duchess of Malfi both achieve the “rich florescence that makes the center of a Shakespearean play such an overwhelming dramatic experience” (Beckerman 45). Both scenes gather into themselves various strands of meaning, and powerfully synthesize and transform them into a resonant dramatic experience. The death scene of The Duchess of Malfi suggests that the death and the chaos that appear to divide the different groups actually in some sense unite them. The play's two-part structure, with its major role reversal reinforced through repetition, confirms this vision. Thus the death scene marks not only the play's dramatic and symbolic center, but also the shift in direction from the first part to the second. At the end of the fourth act, “we have reached a point of partial fulfilment and rest (a provisional ending), but the situation is rich in unrealized potentialities (a provisional beginning)” (Emrys Jones 73). In The White Devil, the same point is reached, as in many of Shakespeare's plays, at the end of the third act. In each of Webster's major tragedies, the major shift in tone and characterization at the end of the first part is marked by a change in the role of the tool-villain. Like Flamineo in The White Devil, Bosola abandons his satiric pose and changes his perspective on the main action. As the characters who stand in closest relation to the audience, Flamineo's and Bosola's adjusted view of the play in turn has a significant effect on the audience's response.

Webster makes use of repeated stage action in the death scene in order to clarify the play's change of direction, while at the same time emphasizing the links between different characters. The death scene opens with the Duchess and Cariola alone together on the stage. The Duchess is clearly in despair and suffering deeply. From Cariola's plea, “Pray dry your eyes” (IV.ii.14), it is obvious that the Duchess weeps. She describes her suffering in terms of an apocalyptic vision:

Th'heaven o'er my head seems made of molten brass,
The earth of flaming sulphur, yet I am not mad.


Her pain comes from her double vision; she can see simultaneously the perspective of madness, as it is forced upon her, and the perspective of her own sanity. The long scene ends with another pair of characters alone on the stage together. This time Bosola crouches over the corpse of the Duchess, recalling Cariola as he attempts to minister to her needs and call for help. But in his final soliloquy Bosola recalls the Duchess herself. While the Duchess wept at the beginning of the scene, here Bosola weeps.

These tears, I am very certain, never grew
In my mother's milk.


Like the Duchess, Bosola suffers deeply at the divided perspective he sees, this time one of innocence and guilt.

O sacred innocence, that sweetly sleeps
On turtles' feathers, whilst a guilty conscience
Is a black register, wherein is writ
All our good deeds and bad, a perspective
That shows us hell!


The “hell” that Bosola sees and the “flaming sulphur” that the Duchess sees are aspects of the same vision, seen from opposite points of view. The Duchess sees a possible hell of madness even as she remains sane and virtuous in her misery; Bosola's vision of hell emerges from his simultaneous consciousness of the possibility of innocence and goodness. At the center of the same scene, Ferdinand suddenly sees a vision of reality superimposed on his own madness;8 when he sees his sister's corpse, he suddenly realizes that “she died young,” and his eyes “dazzle” (IV.ii.264), starting with tears. The tears shed by the Duchess, Ferdinand and Bosola in the course of the scene unite them. The scene's design allows victim and murderers to share a common human vision, so that the play's meaning deepens into tragedy. Moreover, the shift from the Duchess to Bosola as a moral focus for the action anticipates the play's overall change in direction for the final act.

Bosola's moral regeneration at the end of Act IV depends primarily on his vision of the play as pure melodrama, of the Duchess as “sacred innocence” put to death by a “cruel tyrant” (IV.ii.372). His voice rings with the certainty and purpose of this simplified vision at the end of the death scene:

I'll bear thee hence:
And execute thy last will; that's deliver
Thy body to the reverent dispose
Of some good women: that the cruel tyrant
Shall not deny me. Then I'll post to Milan
Where somewhat I will speedily enact
Worth my dejection.


Yet his confident tone is undercut, both by his awkward action, as he drags the Duchess's body off the stage, and by his own more complex vision of hell, in which good and bad deeds seem to confound each other in a hopelessly futile struggle. This underlying tension at the end of the first part is repeated at the close of the play.9 At the end of the final act, Bosola gives a reductive summary of the play's action, and his own part in it:

Revenge, for the Duchess of Malfi, murdered
By th'Arragonian brethren; for Antonio,
Slain by this hand; for lustful Julia,
Poison'd by this man; and lastly, for myself,
That was an actor in the main of all.


Bosola's self-righteous tone is undercut, however, by both the debacle surrounding him on the stage and his implied dual role as perpetrator and object of his own revenge.10 A few lines later, he turns from this apparent moral certainty to cry despairingly,

We are only like dead walls, or vaulted graves,
That ruin'd, yields no echo:—Fare you well.


Bosola's final speeches move back and forth between stoical aphorisms and a deep vision of futility, which casts doubt on the efficacy of his own actions. The underlying tension in Bosola that rises to the surface at the end of both parts lies at the heart of the play itself. On the one hand, like Bosola's neat summary, The Duchess of Malfi traces the actions willfully imposed on some characters by others in a clear linear chain of events. On the other hand, it presents all the characters as victims, caught in a tragic universe of “good deeds and bad” (IV.ii.358). This tragic vision is articulated, not primarily through the linear narrative, but through the web of repeated themes and actions that find their most intense expression at the structural center of the play.

Comparison of the overall structures of Webster's major tragedies illuminates his use of similar formal strategies to achieve different ends in the two plays. In The White Devil, Brachiano and Francisco are designed as analogues for the purpose of clearly distinguishing one from the other; in The Duchess of Malfi, the villains' position as objects of revenge mirrors that of the Duchess, and all find themselves victims grappling with their fear and their humanity. In the earlier play, Webster's tragic vision is focused primarily on the protagonists, while in the later play both protagonists and antagonists share a similar vision of human suffering. Thus repetition, while obviously central to the bipartite structure of both plays, works mainly to achieve contrast in The White Devil, and parallelism in The Duchess of Malfi. In both plays, moreover, the ends achieved through repetition are fulfilled in the central emblem. In The White Devil the contrast between antagonists and protagonists conveyed through the mirroring of the first half in the second is encapsulated in the famous trial scene. In The Duchess of Malfi, the affinities between heroes and villains suggested by the play's two-part structure are concentrated in the climactic death scene of the fourth act. And, at the dramatic center of each play, Webster emphasizes the complexity of his play's world: the Duchess is both victor and victim in her death scene; her death itself is both cruel and inevitable. Brachiano and Vittoria, too, are shown in their trial scene as both innocent and guilty, mired in a similar, morally complex world.


  1. The term is Beckerman's (43), but see also Emrys Jones 66-88 and Rose 20-21.

  2. Emrys Jones also points out (85) that the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists expanded, but did not invent, the bipartite structure which is evident in many morality plays.

  3. An interval after the first part may have facilitated this major shift. See Emrys Jones 66-88.

  4. Of course many commentators emphasize the differences between the Duchess and her enemies. John Selzer, for example, remarks, “Where the Duchess died with silent dignity, with acts of virtue, Ferdinand acts and howls like a beast; while Ferdinand had hoped to drive the Duchess mad, it is he who actually goes mad” (95).

  5. Death and Time were linked in conventional iconography, and both were generally represented by an old man. See Panofsky's chapter on “Father Time” (69-93). See also Ewbank, “Impure Art” 214-15 and Forker 339.

  6. I am grateful to Professor A. M. Leggatt for this suggestion.

  7. Bosola may already be wearing a disguise when he comes to apprehend the Duchess in III.v. See John Russell Brown, Duchess 103n.

  8. For a lengthy discussion of this, and other aspects of Webster's “perspective” technique, see Ewbank, “Webster's Realism.”

  9. Emrys Jones identifies this kind of repetition in Shakespeare's plays as “structural rhyming”: “the two parts of the play having like endings” (77).

  10. Whigham makes a similar point about Bosola, who “casts himself finally and summarily as an agent, a vicarious actor on behalf of all the victims, not least for himself, murderer and murdered at once. … The supposed restorative of revenge has littered the stage, but the body count, though lavish, is sterile” (181).

The methodology for this chapter was suggested to me chiefly by Rose's Shakespearean Design, although Emrys Jones's Scenic Form in Shakespeare, Hirsch's The Structure of Shakespearean Scenes, and Beckerman's Shakespeare at the Globe were all extremely helpful. For an account of the work done by critics on spatial form in classical and Renaissance poetry, see Rose's first chapter, “Contexts of Design.”

Works Cited

Books and Articles

Alexander, Nigel. “Intelligence in The Duchess of Malfi.” Morris 95-112.

Beckerman, Bernard. Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

Bradbrook, Muriel Clara. John Webster: Citizen and Dramatist. London: Weidenfeld, 1980.

———. Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1957.

Brown, John Russell. Introduction. The Duchess of Malfi. By John Webster. Ed. John Russell Brown. London: Methuen, 1964.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina [Ekeblad]. “The ‘Impure Art’ of John Webster.” Review of English Studies 9 (1958): 235-67. Rpt. in Hunter 202-21.

———. “Webster's Realism; or, ‘A Cunning Piece Wrought Perspective.’” Morris 159-78.

Forker, Charles R. Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1986.

Hirsch, James E. The Structure of Shakespearean Scenes. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Jones, Emrys. Scenic Form in Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Lord, Joan M. “The Duchess of Malfi: The Spirit ‘of Greatness’ and ‘of Woman.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 16 (1976): 305-17.

Mack, Maynard. “The Jacobean Shakespeare: some observations on the construction of the Tragedies.” Jacobean Theatre. Ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris. Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 1. London: Edward Arnold, 1965. 11-41.

Morris, Brian, ed. John Webster. London: Ernest Benn, 1970.

Painter, William. The Palace of Pleasure. Rpt. in John Russell Brown, ed., The Duchess of Malfi 175-209.

Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Pearson, Jacqueline. Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1980.

Rose, Mark. Shakespearean Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1972.

Selzer, John L. “Merit and Degree in Webster's Duchess of Malfi.English Literary Renaissance 11.1 (1981).

Shirley, Frances, ed. The Devil's Law-Case. By John Webster. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1972.

Tomlinson, Thomas Brian. A Study of Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964.

Whigham, Frank. “Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi.PMLA 100 (1985): 167-82.

Theatrical Reviews

“Haymarket Theatre.” Rev. Haymarket Theatre, London, 18 April 1945. Dir. George Rylands. Times 19 April 1945.

“Independent Theatre.” Rev. Independent Theatre Society, Opera Comique, London, 21 Oct. 1892. Dir. William Poel. Times 22 Oct. 1892.

Pearson, Jacqueline. “Man Bites Man.” Rev. Royal Exchange, Manchester, 16 Sept. 1980. Dir. Adrian Noble. Times Literary Supplement 26 Sept. 1980: 1064.

Wardle, Irving. “An Uninhabited Nightmare.” Rev. Royal Court, London, 18 Jan. 1971. Dir. Peter Gill. Times 19 Jan. 1971.

“Webster's Play Well Handled.” Rev. Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, Aldwych, London, 15 Dec. 1960. Dir. Donald McWhinnie. Times 16 Dec. 1960.

Dympna Callaghan (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Callaghan, Dympna. “A Monstrous Desire.” In Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil, pp. 140-47. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989.

[In the following essay, Callaghan argues that female sexual desire, and perhaps even femininity, is always depicted as monstrous in Renaissance tragedy. In addition to the Duchess, Callaghan discusses Desdemona from Othello, Cordelia from King Lear, and Vittoria from Webster's The White Devil.]

Desire is inscribed at every level (social, economic, political, sexual) as the motivation for change, upheaval, disruption, and crucially, for female tragic transgression. It is a force of disorder in terms of both conceptual and social systems. Importantly, defining the category of woman in terms of desire is a Renaissance preoccupation, and yet, paradoxically it is one which ultimately threatens to unfix the categories of gender difference because, as we shall see, this is precisely the point where differential markers themselves become problematic.

Voracious female sexual desire was posited as the most conspicuous sign of gender difference, and was treated both as a disease and as a monstrous abnormality. A contemporary medical text proposes a remarkable cure for this peculiarly female malady:

We must conclude that if they be young … they have a spirit of falacity, and feel within themselves of frequent titilation, their seed being hot and purient, doth irritate and inflame them to venery; neither is this concupiscence allaid and quallified, but by provoking the ejaculation of the seed, as Galen propounds the advice in the example of the widow who was affected with intolerable symptoms, till the abundance of the spermatik humour was diminished by the hand of the skillful midwife. …1

The hand of a skilful midwife becomes the tool to divert desire from what would be its otherwise destructive course. Such advice is part of that body of medical discourse which defines female sexuality, much of which is predicated on an admixture of the ‘botched male’ theory, derived from Aristotle (and echoed in the main source for The Duchess of Malfi, William Painter's Palace of Pleasure, 1567),2 which held that women were intended by nature, but that in each individual procreative instance, nature strove for perfection and therefore strove to produce males and Galenist beliefs in female semen.3 Women were defined as both physically inferior and medically unique.4 Such ‘mapping down’. That is, the charting of ideological boundaries constitutes a form of containment, delineating the category of woman in terms of wombs, fecundity, frailty, etc., in a remarkable fusion of the ideological and the physiological.

Like the medical discourse of the time, Othello's diagnosis of Desdemona is conditioned by pre-given expectations of female lust and can be seen to have a similar ideological function:

Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty: fasting, and prayer,
Much castigation, exercise devout,
For here's a young and sweating devil here
That commonly rebels. 'Tis a good hand,
A frank one.

(Othello, III. iv. 39-44)

In the simple act of taking Desdemona's hand, a whole body of knowledge is utilised about the physical symptoms of physiological and moral predisposition. Cold and moist humours were thought to dominate in the female sex, but heat and moisture were strongly associated with lecherousness. The cure Othello recommends for this supposed physical ailment is a moral one. Desdemona's hand is ‘frank’ and thus open, to Othello, but also open to anyone. Moreover, Othello seems to think that he can simply read off symptoms, already knowing their cause. An anatomy of woman thus creates a semiology (in both the linguistic and pathological sense) of the feminine.

Importantly, this passage cannot be dismissed as mere evidence of how jealousy has impaired the balance of Othello's mind. This scene echoes an earlier one where Desdemona reduced an eloquent Othello to broken phrases about the death of ‘young affects’ by expressing her explicitly sexual desire, a wish to accompany him to Cyprus for the consummation of their marriage, ‘The rites for why I love him’ (I. iii. 257). This wish might well be read as demonstrating all the ‘venery’ to be expected in a young woman. Such a display of apparently insatiable female sexual appetite severely problematises Desdemona's characterisation as a virtuous woman. Equally, the Duchess's hasty departure with Antonio to their bed might be thought typical of a wanton widow displaying the symptom of ‘high blood’. Female characters in Renaissance tragedy are rarely identified with sexual passivity.

Notably, in The White Devil, unlike the other tragedies under consideration here, there is no discourse which counters the construction of female desire as a monstrosity. In this, however, it does not legitimate female desire, but rather presents it in terms which betray a certain sexual curiosity. Desire, particularly female sexual initiative, is shown to be a comic aspect of deviance in the play's racist discourse:

Methought sir, you came stealing to my bed.
Wilt thou believe me sweeting? by this light
I was a-dreamt on thee too: for methought
I saw thee naked.
                                                                                          Fie sir! as I told you,
Methought you lay down by me.
                                                                                                    So dreamt I;
And lest thou shouldst take cold, I cover'd thee
With this Irish mantle.
                                                                                          Verily, I did dream
You were somewhat bold with me; …

(V. iii. 227-34)

The sexual desire of the black serving-woman shows as clearly as the colour of her skin. Karen Newman has brilliantly demonstrated that in Othello femininity is not constructed as the antithesis of blackness, but rather aligned with it because both categories are culturally aligned with sexual monstrosity.5 But in The White Devil blackness and femininity are conjoined not just in Zanche, but in the way she mirrors Vittoria. Zanche's function is to embody a lust that is unmediated by race or class privilege. The iconic import of the juxtaposition of black maid and white mistress is to posit blackness as a monstrous characteristic of femininity. As the title of the play implies, femininity can function as an antonym for blackness, as an alternate figure for the monstrosity it invokes. Similarly, racially marked as the devil of the play (devils were traditionally represented as black) Zanche functions as an embodiment of the female desire unleashed upon the world of the play for the purposes of tragic containment.

In fact, allusions to desire and restraint are central to The White Devil since it is untamed sexual desire that leads to Vittoria's imprisonment and finally causes her to flee with Bracciano. The desire/restraint motif appears early in the play when Flamineo delivers Vittoria to Bracciano:

Come sister, darkness hides your blush,—women are like curst dogs, civility, keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight, then they do most good or most mischief …

(I. ii. 198-201)

Similarly, in The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola posits that female desire must always be countered by restraint:

                                        this restraint
(Like English mastiffs, that grow fierce with tying)
Makes her too passionately apprehend
Those pleasures she's kept from.

(IV. i. 12-15)

Indeed, rather than defiantly affirming her sexuality, Vittoria confesses that this has been her ruin, ‘O my greatest sin lay in my blood’ (V. vi. 240).

Female sexual initiative is regarded as a kind of ‘natural’ deviance, simultaneously feared and expected, both aberrant and typical, and regarded as synonymous with the desire to control men. Thus female sexual and political power are completely interchangeable, so that female sexual initiative is read as a political threat, and female sovereignty is treated as sexual domination. Female sexual initiative, like female government is regarded as grotesque: ‘It is monstrous if the head stand where the feet should be. …’6 Social and anatomical confusions are imaged here as monstrous inversion because sexual or social power in the hands of women immediately threatens the phallic order and thus threatens the process of producing and reproducing the boundaries which are the content of gender differentiation. These confusions arise from a logical contradiction in patriarchal thinking which constructs sexual difference only to use that difference as evidence of the aberrant nature of femininity. Thus femininity, goes the conundrum, is monstrous because it refracts from the male norm.

It is precisely the most indisputable markers of gender difference that are read as most abnormal, particularly female generativity, the logical consequence of female desire as well as the most gender specific of biological functions. Pregnancy in particular becomes evidence of monstrous desire, and was, as Peter Stallybrass points out, punished as criminal deviance:

‘inappropriate elements’ were concepts applied to the actual women, constituting them as sinners and criminals to be purified or exterminated. The godly mother is opposed to the witch who gives suck to a satanic familiar. The pelican who pecks her breast to feed her young on her own blood has as her demonized opposite the woman who kills her child.

Stallybrass goes on to note the vast number of executions for what was previously the rare crime of infanticide.7 Also, a large body of medical discourse devoted itself to the womb, an object of mystery and fear, a wandering organ which is the cause of hysteria, another uniquely female ailment. The author of A Woman's Doctor says: ‘… the matrix [i.e., the womb] is the cause of all those diseases which happen to women.’ The moon and the imagination cause the womb to move about the body, giving rise to hysteria and irrationality.8 In this there is an interesting alignment of the notion of physical inferiority with the idea of monstrosity whereby deficiency and excess become aspects of one another.

Bosola alludes to the way in which a woman's belly is blown up like glass:

There was a young waiting-woman had a monstrous desire to see the glass-house. …
And it was only to know what strange instrument it was should swell up a glass to the fashion of a woman's belly.

(II. ii. 6-10 ff.)

It is not pregnancy itself which is thought of as monstrous here, but rather, female curiosity about the male sexual organ. This allusion is later repeated in the scene with the madmen:

Hell is a mere glass-house, where the devils are continually blowing up women's souls, on hollow irons, and the fire never goes out.

(IV. ii. 77-9)

Devils are the ones here who are responsible for the male part of procreation in a displacement that is a common feature of misogynistic vilification. For example, the Malleus Maleficarum claims: ‘All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.’9 In defining women as monsters whose great bellies mark them as social and conceptual (in both senses of the word) excess, the concept of succubus comes to the rescue. The burden of desire is usually placed on women since they are regarded as lustful and sexually incontinent.

Bosola's description of the pregnant Duchess voices disgust at the very idea of being with child:

          I observe our duchess
Is sick o'days, she pukes, her stomach seethes,
The fins of her eyelids look most teeming blue,
She wanes i'th' cheek, and waxes fat i'th' flank;
And, (contrary to our Italian fashion)
Wears a loose-body'd gown—there's somewhat in't!

(II. i. 64-8)

White, blue, vomiting, and in an unfashionable dress to boot, the pregnant Duchess has become a monstrosity. Not only is the Duchess regarded by Bosola as grotesque in pregnancy, but the foetus she carries is apparently equally subhuman: ‘The young springal cutting a caper in her belly’ (II. i. 151) is, at the very least, a precocious sprite. Monstrosity becomes the category against which to define the very nature of being human itself. The pregnant woman is implicitly set against the norm, man, and only later redeemed as the good mother in order to sentimentalise the Duchess's death.

Evil can be reified as the peculiarly feminine monstrosity of pregnancy. For example, Iago's: ‘It is engend'red: Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light’ (I. iii. 403-4).10 Interestingly, Luther, in arguing that women were no less perfect creations than men, decried those who thought otherwise by calling them, ‘monsters and the sons of monsters’.11 He defends women by none the less alluding to the idea of the monstrous mother.

Similarly Othello cries, ‘O monstrous, monstrous’ (III. iii. 427) when Desdemona becomes, ‘a cestern for foul toads / To knot and gender in’ (IV. ii. 61-2). If there is any sort of natural process going on in such an apparently unnatural woman as Othello regards his whore/wife to be, then it is of the foulest kind that nature can devise. Twisting, procreating toads are to be the only progeny of Othello's union with Desdemona. She has become the befouled object of his desire, instead of the fantasised location of complete fulfilment:

                              where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life;
The fountain from which my current runs
Or else dries up: to be discarded thence!

(IV. ii. 57-60)

As the repository of Othello's desire and his seed, Desdemona becomes responsible for inflicting spiritual aridity and physical impotence upon him. Therefore he can ‘bear no life’ from what he takes to be Desdemona's rancid womb. She has killed every aspect of his potential for procreation.

Lear's curse upon Goneril is that she will be infertile, but if she is ever to bear a child, it is to be a monster:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear Goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur'd torment to her.

(I. iv. 275-83)

This speech is interesting because it produces the idea of the good mother against which to compare Goneril's derogate femininity. But even this positive notion of motherhood against which sterility is to be compared is qualified by the word ‘teem’. It is in contrast to the use of ‘fruitful’ only four lines previously. Once Goneril becomes a monster (at least in the course of this passage), she can no longer conceive or be fruitful, she can only ‘teem’. This word is interesting because it means not only to bear offspring and to be prolific, but also to empty, discharge or pour out. Any reproduction in Goneril would be excretion, emission of waste matter: a monstrous birth.

Pregnant or potentially pregnant women are often defined as monstrous mothers, as possessors of the foul and fetid womb/tomb, breeding death rather than giving life. Defined primarily by their insatiable desire, intimately connected with their capacity to reproduce, women, like idiots and lunatics are regarded as incapable of reason and deprived of legal and economic autonomy and responsibility. Moreover, those without reason stray out of the human sphere altogether. Such people according to Thomas Wright: ‘… are guided by an internal imagination, following nothing else but that [which] pleaseth their sense, even after the same manner as brute beasts do’.12 However, even if woman is placed as the most ‘serviceable’ of animals, the analogy, taken to its logical conclusion, makes human copulation bestiality.

Construction of sexual difference, then, is also the production of feminine monstrosity. Thus the category of woman in tragedy continually threatens to explode.


  1. Quoted by Hilda Smith, ‘Gynecology and ideology in seventeenth century England’, in Bernice Carroll (ed.) Liberating Women's History: Theoretical and Critical Perspectives (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1976), p. 104.

  2. William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure, quoted in John Russell Brown (ed.) The Duchess of Malfi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977), p. 65.

  3. See Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Women: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life, pp. 31-8; and Smith, p. 103.

  4. Smith, 104.

  5. Karen Newman, ‘“And wash the Ethiop white”: femininity and the monstrous in Othello’, in Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (eds) Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 142-62.

  6. John Robinson, Wks IV, quoted in George, p. 279.

  7. Peter Stallybrass, ‘Patriarchal territories: the body enclosed’, in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy Vickers (eds) Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, p. 131.

  8. Smith, p. 100.

  9. Kramer and Spengler, repr., J. O'Faolain and L. Martines (eds), Not in God's Image (London: Temple Smith, 1973), pp. 208-9.

  10. See Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare's Image of Pregnancy (London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980) on Iago's impregnation of Othello, pp. 68-73.

  11. Quoted by Maclean, p. 9.

  12. Quoted by Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 81.

Laura L. Behling (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Behling, Laura L. “‘S/he Scandles Our Proceedings’: The Anxiety of Alternative Sexualities in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi.English Language Notes 33, no. 4 (June 1996): 24-43.

[In this essay, Behling examines how the transgression of gender boundaries is conflated with transgressive sexuality in Webster's plays. The masculinity of his heroines in their political actions, she notes, makes any sexual activity or desire centered on them appear unnatural.]

Historians and literary critics, upon studying the popular and court rhetoric of the Jacobean period conclude that, with the exception of anti-theatrical literature, English Renaissance culture did not display a “morbid fear of homosexuality.”1 They acknowledge, however, that Renaissance society was intensely concerned with sex and gender roles, representation and desire, and political authority. Moreover, when the rules of Renaissance theater mandated men to play women's stage parts, and medical treatises failed to define two separate and unique sexes, anxiety about transgressing the boundaries of sex and gender suggests that though homosexuality may not have been “morbidly” feared, it was, at the very least, anxiety-provoking in a society seeking its political and sexual identities.

Two Renaissance plays by John Webster, The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613), both capture this anxiety of alternative sexualities.2 In The White Devil, Vittoria defends her adulterous actions with the claim “My modesty / And womanhood I tender; but withall / So intangled in a cursed accusation / That any defense of force like Perseus / Must personate masculine vertue” (IV, ii, 136-40). One year later, in 1613, Webster recreates the anxiety of Vittoria's masculine female self in his uncomfortably ambiguous tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi.

We know, of course, that neither The White Devil nor The Duchess of Malfi ends happily. The bloody violence that begins with the killing of Camillo and Isabella sets up the deaths of Brachiano, Vittoria and Flamineo. Then, the bloodshed continues as the Duchess of Malfi is killed, along with Antonio, her children, and her brother, Ferdinand. At the end, all we have left is what the faithful Delio understatedly observes: “a great ruin” of which there is only an attempt to “make noble use.” Delio establishes the Duchess's young son in the hopes of reordering that which is chaotic. Such an act, however, does not vindicate the Duchess. Rather, we are left with the disconcerting idea of political power authorized matrilineally through a son astrologically-destined to die young, and open-ended ambiguity as to what this ending portends.

The entire play, actually, is problematic, particularly since The Duchess of Malfi follows so closely after The White Devil. With figures of women whose behavior is politically and sexually masculine, incestuous relations, corrupt men of God, cold-blooded murders, and the blurring of reality and fiction, the ambiguities of the Duchess's matrilineal authority seem to be a logically illogical conclusion to two extremely complex and dis-ordered plays. But what causes the most anxious moments in Webster's stagecraft are challenges to sexual authority, and the dis-ordering of traditional sex and gender relations and hence, political power bases.


And although by the first face and view some of these may seem to intreat unlawful love and the foul practises of the same, yet, being thoroughly read and well considered, both old and young may learn how to avoid the ruin, overthrow, inconvenience, and displeasure that lascivious desire and wanton will doth bring to their suitors and pursuers. All which may render good examples, the best to be followed and the worst to be avoided.

William Painter, The Palace of Pleasure3

The appearance of Mary Tudor and later, her half-sister, Elizabeth, on the English throne caused the topic of women's sovereignty to be widely debated in early modern political theory. According to Constance Jordan, “the literature on women's rule features two principal lines of argument: the conservative position holds that woman is created inferior by God and therefore has no authority with regard to any man”; the more liberal position posits “that woman is capable of behaving in a virile manner and therefore of governing men.”4 Provisions were made for Mary and Elizabeth I that led to “political androgyny,” thereby transforming the political arena into a special world in which the queen regnant can act only as men have acted previously. Politically, she is a man.”5

After the long and barren rule of unmarried Elizabeth I, anxiety of authority and masculine identity was exacerbated. James I's succession to the English throne could not have been more discomfiting, particularly since his accession was not without its own controversy and anxiety. This embodiment of a threatened royal bloodline and the socially and politically confusing reign of James I provide the uneasy background for The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, both of which speak directly about the anxieties of sexual relations, particularly alternative sexualities.

Implicit in this anxiety surrounding expressed sexuality is the particular issue of homosexuality. The court appearance of “favorites” Robert Carr and later George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, could not have been more troubling or troublesome; homosexuality becomes indecent only when it intersects with some other behavior that is dangerous or anti-social.6 Not only did some of James's subjects find the public displays distasteful, but many were deeply concerned about the power these favorites exercised in the court. William Drummond sharply criticizes Buckingham for this very reason: “A ganemed / Quhoose hourische breath hath power to lead / His Maiestie such way he list.”7 The actual act of sodomy is not as threatening as the disturbance of the social order it causes.8

In this male homosocial structure, women's sexuality is simultaneously both present and absent as the center of patrilineal power,9 as evident in the paradoxical reproduction of the bloodline. Reproduction and the resulting patriarchal lineage dictates that the bloodline cannot be transgressed and must be transgressed (by the introduction of the woman's bloodline) in order to keep the lineage pure—reproduction is both encouraged and discouraged; women are a necessary evil. When reality infringes upon the seemingly isolated, sealed tenets of precept, anxiety develops and sexual confusion arises. In the textual portrayals of sexual characteristics, Vittoria and the Duchess are powerful sexual women infused with political, hence masculine authority, and Brachiano and Ferdinand are zealously passionate men. In them, the anxiety over alternative sexualities, most specifically homosexuality, in the seventeenth century is expressed.

Brachiano and Ferdinand exhibit much of the behavior found so disturbing in the Renaissance. According to Stephen Orgel:

lust effeminates, makes men incapable of manly pursuits. … Women are dangerous to men because sexual passion for women renders men effeminate: this is an age in which sexuality itself is misogynistic, as the love of women threatens the integrity of the perilously achieved male identity. The fear of effeminization is a central element in all discussions of what constitutes a “real man.”10

Brachiano's “unnatural” passion for Vittoria and Ferdinand's incestuous desire for the Duchess, and in addition, their relationship with cuckoldry, place them squarely in the realm of alternative sexualities and lead them both to the same fate as the women.

The relations between men and women, then, become paradoxical structures in Webster's plays. On the one hand, the power is passed patrilineally, and the sexual authority is grounded, however much it is transgressed, in the male. But the male homosocial bonds are disrupted, and in a peculiar way: they deviate from the male-female-male exchange to a re-configuration of the men and women that make up the competition. The disruption arises either from a male-figured woman or a female-figured man, changing not only the object of desire but the subject who desires. The women's assumption of masculine behavior and the men's submission disrupt the homosocial bonds of male order. And here an intriguing distinction arises between heterosexual and “heterogendered,” and homosexual and “homogendered.” The assumption that heterosexuality implies “heterogenderedness” and homosexual implies “homogenderedness” is too simplistic. Rather, as evidenced in both The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, heterosexual and homosexual relationships may exist between two people of the same gender, or the relationship may occur between two people who act contrary to their sex, that is, they cross genders (i.e. the male acts feminine and vice versa).

The strange case exists, then, with only masculine-gendered figures involved in the sexual-economic exchange. The object of exchange is no longer a woman, but a masculine female. Traditional authorizing structures must necessarily break down, as the “traffic” in women has now become, in a rather explicit reference, a “political economy” of homogenderedness and an inference of homosexuality. This double-layered source of anxiety can be seen at one level as the anxiety of masculine women, political women who defy traditional patriarchal power. But the deeper anxiety lies in the practice of homosexuality, particularly when the object of a man's desire is figured as masculine. Webster's carefully drawn Vittoria and Duchess embody an implicit male homosexuality, and their violent deaths signal Webster's, and perhaps early seventeenth century English society's, verdict on such “unnatural” behavior and alternative sexualities.


If woman do breed man,
She ought to teach him manhood. Fare thee well.
Know, many glorious women that are famed
For masculine virtue have been vicious,
Only a happier silence did betide them.
She hath no faults as who hath the art to hide them.

The White Devil, 5.6.243-48

The White Devil offers a foretaste of the homosocial and homosexual bonds apparent in The Duchess of Malfi. Specifically, Vittoria foreshadows the political masculine authority of the Duchess, and therefore serves as the precursor to the Duchess as the embodiment of homosexual anxiety.11 She is portrayed in “conventional relationships—of wife, adulteress, mistress, and then wife again—but she does not derive her strength, the mettle she displays under duress, from relationships,” Gayle Greene explains. “Rather, her heroism represents the very antithesis of the Renaissance ideal of woman: disobedient, defiant of convention, sexual, subversive, she displays the assertion rather than the subordination of self.”12

The economic role of women in relations between men is immediately established in the opening lines of The White Devil, with the reference to Fortune as being a “right whore” (1.1.4). Not only is Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune, implicit in this reference, but the economic provisions of material wealth and gain, of commodities, is explicitly denoted. As the conversation continues between Count Lodovico and his friends, Antonelli and Gasparo, the idea of chance takes another turn when Lodovico remarks that Brachiano has the good fortune to “scape / This banishment, ther's Paulo Giordano Orsini, / The Duke of Brachiano, now lives in Rome, / And by close pandarisme seekes to prostitute / The honour of Vittoria Corombona” (1.1.38-42). Two remarkable unions are made in these short lines. The first is that Vittoria, the subject of Brachiano's pandering, is likened to the whore Fortune. Second, the implicit and explicit commodification involved in prostitution, subjects her to the trade of the male culture.

We learn that Camillo, Vittoria's husband, and Brachiano, her lover, are the players of the culture in which Vittoria is exchanged. Curiously, the terms of the relationship are not sexually equal. Camillo is not only a “jealous husband” but he is “so unable to please a woman that like a dutch doublet all his backe is shrunke into his breeches” (1.2.31-2). Complete impotence is suggested when Flamineo questions Camillo about his sexual relations with his wife. Camillo assures Flamineo that “my voyage lyes / More northerlie, in a farre colder clime, / I do not well remember I protest / When I last lay with her” (1.2.50-53). Not only does this confession signal that he no longer does or can have intercourse with his wife, but there also is the suggestion that he is a cuckold, a fact we find out later.

Maus notes that anxiety about sexual betrayal runs throughout the drama of the English Renaissance, and may reflect “in a particularly telling way the instabilities and tensions of a patriarchal social order.”13 The repeated and stark references to impotence and cuckoldry, in particular, are highly significant. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in Between Men that to “cuckold” is by definition a sexual act, performed on a man by another man.14 Though cuckoldry is not a true homosexual act, the male bonding behavior reasserts the societal bonds of masculinity, as transferred through the objectified woman.15 The threat of cuckoldry infuses the homosocial culture with sexuality and establishes a masculine homosexual culture developing from a masculine homosocial culture.

As the play proceeds, Vittoria's impotent husband, Camillo, is murdered so that she may be free to marry the Duke, Brachiano. However, the punishment for the murders of Camillo and Brachiano's wife, Isabella, falls squarely on Vittoria, who is tried for both murder and adultery. Her more serious offenses, however, are her deliberate and masculine sexual disruption of her own patrilineal possessor [the murder of her husband] and her adulteration of Brachiano's bloodline. This rupture of the bloodline and its cause—that is, Vittoria's choice of a sexual relationship over a sterile marriage or widowhood—is the anxiety-provoking disturbance that requires the trial and her violent and necessary death. “Webster purposely problematized the questions of Vittoria's guilt and forces us to judge her in relation to the other characters,” Laura Bromley suggests. “What it means to be a woman is a central issue in the play, highlighted by the extreme examples of Isabella and Zamele, the fulminations of Flamineo on the subject, the subtler assertions of Brachiano, Francisco, and Monticelso, and the counter assertions of Vittoria.”16

I would like to suggest that the central issue in The White Devil is something more than initially “what it means to be a woman,” or as Woodbridge suggests, the exploration of “female sexuality.”17 The differences in women lie not in their sex, but in their gradations of gender, as expressed through sexuality. Vittoria, in particular, “combines masculine traits and feminine in a way which blatantly violates the distinctions demanded between the sexes.”18 The issue, then, is to extend Bromley's question and ask: what does it mean to be a woman who is gendered as masculine, and to further specify, how does this gendered masculine female threaten the patriarchal culture?19

Vittoria obviously and most aggressively transgresses society's preestablished feminine boundaries in her active sexuality. Her behavior, refusing to be subordinate or passive, mimics that of the masculine order. She has, in effect, played the masculine role in sexual relations—and for her courageous actions, receives the attention of her brother Flamineo. “What a damn'd impostume is a woman's will / Can nothing breake it?” Then, in an important, if not comical aside to Brachiano, Flamineo makes a comparison: “Women are caught as you take Tortoises, / She must bee turn'd on her backe” (4.2.152-54). This comparison had existed since classical times, but Vincenzo Cartari's Imagini (1571) emphasizes the danger of sexual intercourse for the female tortoise and applies the tale to the dangers that face women in their sexual relationships with men.

And in reading about the nature of that animal in Pliny (and in Elianus as well) I find that the ancient sculptors gave a lovely and holy admonition to women, by placing the tortoise beneath the feet of Venus. For the tortoise knows the danger that she faces when she joins herself with the male; she must turn herself upside down with her belly on top and the male, after completing the sex act, goes his own way and leaves her there. She cannot turn herself upright by herself, and is left a prey for other animals, the eagle in particular. That is why, with a consummate degree of continence, she abstains from the sex act, and fleeing from the male, puts her health before lustful pleasure. But she is later constrained to consent to it all the same, after being affected by a herb, which fires her up completely to lust, so that she doesn't fear a thing after that. In the same way, women also have to think about the danger they put themselves into when they lose their chastity; thus they ought to flee libidinous appetites, unless they are forced into those by the debt of matrimony, to insure the succession of offspring.20

Flamineo's crude comparison becomes strikingly apt as the play comes to its bloody conclusion. Vittoria would have served herself better (at least according to Cartari's formulation) had she suppressed her sexual appetites much as the tortoise flees from a lusty male. Instead, Vittoria initiates, or at least willingly participates in her sexual relationship with Brachiano, and comes to the predicted fate female tortoises face when turned on their backs. “Know many glorious women that are fam'd / For masculine vertue, have bin vitious” (5.6.243-44), Flamineo explains as he characterizes Vittoria's fatal flaw. It is not, we are told, that Vittoria “displayed manly virtues, but that she insisted on them, demanded their recognition. Whatever her vices, had she been silent—self-effacing rather than self-asserting—she might have escaped,” Bromley concludes.21

More than her refusal to play the feminine role is Vittoria's usurpation of the masculine role, particularly in sexual relationships.22 Her assumption of masculine sexual behavior—in a patriarchal culture that was having its masculine identity and lineage severely tested and attacked—was too much to bear, even in fictional space. That Vittoria's greatest sinne lay in my blood” (5.6.240) is appropriate when her place in the erotic exchange is established. “Blood” is the guarantee of the patriarchy, the transmission and continuation of the bloodline, and ultimately the transmission of power. That blood was her greatest sin suggests that her fault lay in the usurpation of the masculine identity, and hence the power to continue or rupture bloodlines. The sin is that Vittoria had blood, in the metaphorical masculine authority and identification of blood, hence masculine identity.

Vittoria's last words seem rather ironic in this reading where homosexuality is at issue. Just before she dies, she lamentedly advises: “O happy they that never saw the Court, / Nor ever knew great Men but my report” (5.6.261-62). The ambiguous pronoun “they” invites the confusion between who, or which sex, it signals: men or women, or perhaps both. When this ambiguity is considered with the alternative, and Biblical, meaning of “know,” the lament becomes curiously suggestive. Regardless of whether Vittoria is figured as masculine or feminine, her vague comment suggests that neither women nor men should “know” the great men of court as she did, only learn of them through her actions. This appears to be a caution against both heterosexuality and homosexuality, based on the possibility for political disaster.

When sexual relations infringe upon and subsume traditional male homosocial bonds, it is clear that destruction of the confusion itself and the source of confusion must occur in order to reestablish the proper gender roles and sexual relationships. Vittoria's inability to flee from her sexual desires and restrict them to a proper feminine role of matrimony, mandates her death. Not only has she transgressed her sex, but she has actively confused male homosociality and introduced the threat of homosexuality into the Court's culture.


Wish me good speed,
For I am going into a wilderness
Where I shall find nor path nor friendly clue
To be my guide.

Duchess of Malfi, 1.2.264-67

The “wilderness” of sexual depravity is taken with utmost seriousness in The Duchess of Malfi. The main action of the play, Boklund succinctly states, “is based on the consequences of a deliberate flouting of the laws guarding sexual decorum.”23 By the end of Webster's 1613 play, the Duchess and the Duke have been murdered, indicating that some great anxiety existed in the play around their characters. Jankowski suggests that it is the “double position of wife and ruler” that makes the Duchess “an uneasy and threatening figure”; she was both her body natural and her body politic. “Webster's Duchess of Malfi establishes a system of rules in which she fails to consider her body's potential, either as a means to power or as a means by which she can lose power.”24 There is, however, more to the anxiety the Duchess causes than this. By seeing her as the embodiment of the body natural and the body politic, Jankowski avers that she still remains two separate spheres. More intriguing, though, is the intersection of the Duchess's two bodies, when her female body natural takes on the male body politic—“that is, the monarch has a second, and wholly functional body politic.”25 When this conflation occurs, she then becomes much like Vittoria, a masculine gendered female in a male homosocial society. But what is the impact when the sexual exchange is figured as relations between all masculine characters? The answer, to use the Duchess's own terminology, is a “wilderness” of gender and sexual exchange, the likes of which have not been trespassed.

The presence of this wilderness makes us immediately suspicious of the play's society, and hence, traditional expectations. Antonio begins Act I by describing the French court as a “blessed government” that he admires. This ideal court is built on homosocial political bonds between men and is governed by a “most provident council; who dare freely / Inform him the corruption of the times” (1.1.17-18). The Amalfian court to which Antonio returns, however, is in disorder, even before the Duchess marries her steward.

The ruling family, Ferdinand and his brother, the Cardinal, “are like plum trees that grew crooked over standing pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them” (1.1.48-50). Ferdinand is sexually obsessive and incestuous; the Cardinal has broken his vow of chastity and carries on with Julia.26 This overt display of sexual passion makes them effeminate. Sexual energy and aggressiveness pervade the court, as well as sycophancy on the part of servants like Bosola. And patriarchal lineage, we see, is the rule of succession that offers “places in the court … like beds in the hospital, where this man's head lies at that man's foot, and so lower and lower” (1.1.63-65).

The sexual games that transpire between the men of court suggest that their common masculine potency is more important than their rank, an important leveling of social authority that occurs early in the play. As Ferdinand enters the Court for the first time he asks his servants, with certainly a wink in his eye, “Who took the ring oftenest” (1.2.6) drawing reference to sexual intercourse and the act of penetration. When Antonio is declared the winner, Ferdinand commands to “give him the jewel,” one of the countless references to jewels, signifying the female genitalia.27 The game between men is set up as a sexual quiting to prove masculinity, not a social struggle or competition to prove social rank. This leveling of the masculine figures rejects the hierarchy of social standing, making the erotic exchange depend solely on sexuality. As a masculine female ruler, the Duchess may move into this erotic competition far deeper than in her capacity as a woman.

The Duchess's identification as a political figure invokes a masculine authority that is understood to be of greater importance than her feminine character. Her political position is, like Elizabeth's, figured as masculine. With the Duchess's portrayal as a political equal, therefore masculine, her place in the homosocial relationship between Ferdinand and Antonio, and Ferdinand and the male homosocial society in general, becomes as dangerous as the position of her predecessor, Vittoria. Christy Desmet writes:

In The Duchess of Malfi, potential paradoxes—the female ruler, the widowed bride, and the princely mother—dissolve into incoherence. The Duchess, in the end, has not many identities but none. … Ferdinand destroys the sister whose marriage threatens the integrity of his identity as an aristocrat … yet reducing the Duchess to the occasion for her brother's fantasies and her husband's ambition does not falsify her character, since reading the play from the perspective of the controversy over women underscores the fact that a patriarchal culture seeks to define the female ruler out of existence.28

Desmet's recognition of “potential paradoxes”—the “female ruler” in the Renaissance—is central to understanding that ruler's implicit homosexuality. What I would like to argue is that the “female” part of the equation is not what causes anxiety. Rather, the possibility of another ruler, necessarily masculine by virtue of the authority conferred by the title, is forced into the already-established relations of masculine power. In other words, the society is not seeking to eliminate a female ruler, but any ruler who is threatens the order, regardless of biological sex. The danger is posed by anyone, whether male or female, who is gendered masculine by virtue of her/his power and who threatens the patriarchy through sexuality and an unnatural disruption of the bloodline.

Initially, the sexuality of the Duchess is ambiguous. Physically, she is female, described with constant jewel imagery. Attention is focused on her genitals specifically, her sexuality in general. She is figured as a “lusty widow” with a knowledge of sex and “what man is,” knowledge that is threatening to her brothers. For her, sexual experience is valuable: “Diamonds are of most value,” the Duchess remarks, “that have passed through most jewelers' hands” (1.2.207). As Greene states, “what is on trial is not the Duchess's chastity. In fact, she is guilty of what her brothers' fulsome imaginations accuse her: sexuality, breeding.”29 But the phallic sword imagery associated with the Duchess complicates this definition. Ferdinand says to the Cardinal (2.5): “Read there—a sister damn'd; she's loose i' th' hilts; / Grown a notorious strumpet.” “Loose i' th' hilts” is unchaste or promiscuous—but the metaphor used to name such sexual promiscuity, “hilt,” alludes to the handle of a sword or dagger. That the Duchess is figured as having both this phallic sword and the characteristics of a “strumpet,” a term used to describe women, further complicates her sexual identity.

Ferdinand's behavior toward his sister is disturbing, not only because of his desire to use the Duchess as a marriage pawn in state affairs, but also for his ambiguous feelings for her. He wants to violate his sister by having her “darkest actions, nay, your privatest thoughts, / … come to light” (1.2.222-23). The double meaning of “private” as both secret and as the private parts or the genitals is certainly infused in Ferdinand's ominous prediction. His desire to delve into her sexual behavior reaches a fever pitch when he exposes “his father's poinard” to her (something that has been passed patrilineally from father to son, male to male politically and sexually) and notes, in the same piece of dialogue, that “women like that part which, like the lamprey, / Hath never a bone in ‘t” (1.2.242-43). Ferdinand's blatant interest in sex, while maybe indicative of the male libido, emphasizes this passion, precisely the characteristic that Renaissance scholars feared would make men effeminate.

This desire, then, in addition to being incestuous, figures him as an effeminized male, the same term used to describe homosexual men. Ferdinand's extreme interest in his sister's sexuality has less to do with political ambitions than with fear that he is losing (or already has lost) his own masculine identity. In other words, Ferdinand's fear is to be cuckolded. “The fear of losing control of women's chastity, a very valuable possession that guaranteed the legitimacy of one's heirs, and especially valuable for fathers as a piece of disposable property,” Orgel states, “is a logical consequence of a patriarchal structure.”30

Ferdinand's role as Duke, therefore as a patriarch to the state, further accentuates his own insecurity about impotence and demonstrates his lack of control over his affections. That this impotence—politically, economically, and sexually—should occur at the hand of another man, is even more threatening to his masculine and virile identity. He is, of course, cuckolded by Antonio, both sexually and also economically, since Antonio robs him of the Duchess, the Duke's method of securing economic or political bounty. But the Duke also is threatened by the Duchess, who he feels is capable of castrating his power, or subsuming his power, by re-establishing the bloodline. Though perhaps paranoid, the Duke would certainly have perceived that the Duchess was capable of disrupting his authority: her political identity would necessarily have to be perceived by him and the Cardinal as genuinely masculine.

In a curious moment Ferdinand reacts to his sister's pregnancy with a strange comparison: “Methinks I see her laughing— / Excellent hyena!—talk to me somewhat quickly, / Or my imagination will carry me / To see her, in the shameful act of sin” (2.5.38-41). His reference to the hyena is as telling as the tortoise-Vittoria connection in The White Devil. According to lore, the laughing hyena was considered to be hermaphroditic, due to the particular appearance of the genitals. This idea, though originally discredited by Aristotle, appears in medieval bestiaries and in Renaissance works of natural history, such as Edward Topsell's popular History of Four-Footed Beasts (1607). Lois Bueler comments: “The sexual ambivalence, changeability, and parthenogenic capacity of the hyena presumably account for the two characteristics chiefly ascribed to the animal: its capacity for dissimulation and trickery, and its magical powers.”31

Ferdinand's connection between the pregnant Duchess, a seemingly magical condition since she is assumed unmarried, and a hyena, capable in myth of being both male and female, implies at least two conclusions: first, Ferdinand's imaginative, even fantastical account of his sister's pregnancy signals a further decline into effeminacy. MacLean writes that “imagination is thought to be stronger in the woman because cold and moist objects are subject to metamorphosis … [a form of which] is found in mental changeability … such as inventiveness.”32 Secondly, the Duchess seems to have impregnated herself (since her husband is publicly unknown), an act that would require both female and male sex organs. But Ferdinand's curiosity is surpassed by his fear. The Duchess's rather intangible political authority assumes the much more physical characteristics of masculinity, leaving little doubt that she has joined (or hyena-like, been magically transformed into) the ranks of maleness.

Furthermore, the rules of the game have changed. Earlier, Ferdinand and his male subjects could joke about sexual conquest because there was an objectified woman at the center of the verbal and physical contest. The same behavior in this scene with Ferdinand now is sheer paranoia due to the recognition that the objectified feminine in the traditional exchange has been replaced by a masculine-figured Duchess. The paranoia on the part of Ferdinand and the Cardinal is caused by the possibility of male homosexuality, and the fear that they have been cuckolded.

There is, however, another reading to this reformulation of the traditional male competition that leads to the same conclusion. If the formulation remains as two males sexually competing for the object of their affection, a woman; and if the object of their affection is masculinized, then the male desires a masculine object. This reading, of course, assumes that a masculine figure can be an object, and not as suggested above, only a subject. But the stress Ferdinand places on ocular proof when dealing with the Duchess upholds this schema of a male gaze directed toward another male figure. Maus concurs in a general reading of English dramatists who “differ from their contemporaries … in the extraordinary emphasis they place on the jealous husband's desire for a specifically visual corroboration of his suspicions.”33 In other words, a male figure desires another male figure thus creating a homosexual attraction. Ferdinand's desire for the Duchess, then, is a homosexual desire, since the Duchess has been suggested to be both politically and physically male.

Throughout the play, the Duchess assumes this masculine role, whether it be purposefully seized because “I account this world a tedious theater, / For I do my part in ‘t ‘gainst my will” (2.1.82-83) or whether we believe her when she says “Why might not I marry? / I have not gone about in this to create / Any new world or custom” (3.2.107-08). Her intent is not nearly so important as the disruption she causes in the Court's order of male identity. Jankowski offers some insight on the severity of the Duchess's isolation: “The nature of Renaissance dynastic marriage seemed almost totally to objectify the woman. She became an object of commerce who—passed from father to husband—sealed a bargain of greater or lesser economic significance. As her body was seen as an object of trade to be owned by either father or husband, the products of her body her children were also seen as objects of commerce to be used to solidify further trade agreements between her [husband's] and other families.”34 When the Duchess becomes a subjective authority, she then becomes just like the two masculine traders who have traditionally benefited from her commodification. As Greene succinctly states: “As [the Duchess] is tortured and killed she displays a heroism and nobility associated imagistically with the light of diamonds. Her magnificent assertions—‘For know, / Whether I am doomed to live, or die, / I can do both like a prince’ (3.2.70-71); and ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ (4.2.142)—imply a masculine strength like Vittoria's and a conception of selfhood which is autonomous rather than relational.”35

Her death, then, is inevitable, since she has defied the Renaissance ideal of the feminine and disrupted the patriarchal traffic of women by becoming both a subject and the object of the male gaze by appearing as the source of male homosexual anxiety. Ferdinand offers the Duchess a poinard to kill herself. Early in the play, after warning the Duchess not to marry, Ferdinand gives her advice: “You are my sister— / This was my father's poinard: do you see?” The repetition of “poinard” and the symbolic gesture of offering or transferring the patrilineal phallus to the Duchess completes her masculine sexuality. But Ferdinand's offer of the poinard further emasculates him. Though the “poinard” would be used to kill the threat of sexual disruption, the sacrifice of a male's own masculinity would be an act of self-castration. Furthermore, Ferdinand's offer of the phallus to the already-figured masculine Duchess suggests a hint of homosexuality. That the homosexual offer is inseparable from death—should the Duchess accept Ferdinand's “poinard” not only will she commit incest, but it will be same-sex sexuality—suggests an indictment of the forbidden act. There is no choice but for both Ferdinand and the Duchess to die since they have both transgressed the acceptable sexual order. Ferdinand suggests this discomfiting idea to the Cardinal as they plot the Duchess's death, yet both are made uncomfortable by a sense of guilt: “I could kill her now, / In you, or in myself, for I do think / It is some sin in us, heaven doth revenge / By her” (2.5.63-65).

At the conclusion of the play Delio thinks he is re-establishing order when he appoints the Duchess's young son to the throne after the bloodshed. Critics have noticed the ambiguity this leaves in place, an ambiguity further complicated by his astrologically-destined early death. Order is not restored because power transmission has been matriarchal. But there is a further complication. Perhaps the ending is to be the final sign in affirming the Duchess as masculine. That is, her offspring becomes the authority in a world where authority is derived patrilineally—so her authority assumes the guise of patriarchy.36 Not only has the Duchess been the recipient of a thoroughly unnatural kind of lust—incest turned into homosexuality—she also retains her maleness until the end, passing her masculinely-figured body politic onto a son, just as a traditional and patriarchal lineage would occur. In her death, not only is she the twin of (a male) Ferdinand, but she releases all of her remaining womanhood: “I would fain put off my last woman's fault, / I'd not be tedious to you” (1.1.215).

The tragedy of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi is that the social patrilineal order is disrupted, and masculine women and feminine men rule the courts. The complexities of gender and sexuality, objects and subjects of desire, and their necessary relationship with political authority, ravage The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. In The White Devil, male homosocial order is permitted to return after it has been transgressed. But the Amalfian court holds no such promise. Despite the deaths of the Duchess and Ferdinand, the responsibility to continue the government is given to her son, a physical embodiment of the alternative sexualities that ruled not only that play, but permeated Webster's previous stagecraft and the Jacobean era.


  1. Stephen Orgel, “Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?” The South Atlantic Quarterly 88.1 (Winter, 1989): 18.

  2. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, The Norton Anthology of English Literature 1, 5th edition (New York: Norton, 1986) and The White Devil, ed. F. L. Lucas, The Complete Works of John Webster. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1927). All further references to The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Painter's Palace of Pleasure is generally recognized to be one of the sources for The Duchess of Malfi, along with the sensational French and Italian sources.

  4. For a thorough discussion of the key writers and their arguments about the sovereignty of women during the sixteenth century, see Constance Jordan's “Woman's Rule in British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40.3 (Autumn, 1987): 421-51, particularly 426ff.

  5. Constance Jordan, “Representing Political Androgyny,” The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Couterbalancing the Canon eds. Anne M. Haselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky, (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1990) 157-58.

  6. James's letters to Carr are particularly indicative of the feelings he had toward his favorites: written “from the infinite grief of a deeply wounded heart,” James urges Carr to seek his favors through “my mere love, and not … by fear … I told you twice or thrice that ye might lead me by the heart and not by the nose … God is my judge my love hath been infinite towards you; and the only strength of my affection towards you hath made me bear with these things in you and bridle my passions to the uttermost of my ability. Let me be met then with your entire heart, but softened with humility.” Letter 159 as found in G. P. V. Akrigg, Letters of James VI and I (Berkeley: U of California P, 1984).

  7. William Drummond, The Poetical Works of William Drummond of Hawthornden. ed. L. E. Kastner, (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1913) 57.

  8. Alan Bray, in Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: The Gay Men's Press, 1982), makes a further distinction that “sodomy is not so much a set of forbidden acts as the performance—by those who threatened social stability—heretics, spies, traitors, Catholics.” This list of “threats” may have particular resonance for the treatment of the Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi. Webster's story of the Duchess of Amalfi's marriage remains true to the Italian setting, thereby introducing into English drama the “disturbance” or “threat” of Catholicism, much as Catholicism was a perceived threat to English society.

  9. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick offers similar explanations in her enormously influential study of nineteenth-century British literature and the homosocial relationships that operate between men in those novels. She posits that social power is passed from man to man. Women function as necessary objects of exchange between men, but have no real power by themselves. The real bond, consequently, is between the two men who “trade” the woman as a commodity: “[M]ale-male love, like the love of the Greeks, is set firmly within a structure of institutionalized social relations that are carried out via women: marriage, name, family, loyalty to progenitors and to posterity.” Furthermore, the threat of homosexuality constantly exists in this male homosocial order because of the anxiety produced between male bonding and male desire. The result of this “double bind,” according to Sedgwick, is “first, the acute manipulability through the fear of one's own ‘homosexuality,’ … and second, a reservoir of potential for violence caused by the self-ignorance that this regime constitutively enforces.” For Sedgwick's formulations, see Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Cornell UP, 1985), particularly 35ff and “The Beast in the Closet,” Sex, Politics and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (The English Language Institute, 1987): 148-86, particularly 152.

  10. Orgel 18.

  11. Even before Vittoria is recognized as a disruption in the patriarchal order, Webster attempts to solidify the patriarchal transmission of authority, through the authorizing of his text. In the Prologue addressed to the reader, Webster humbles his own talents merely including his play in the company “of other mens worthy Labours, especially of that full and haightned stile of Maister Chapman: The labor'd and understanding workes of Maister Johnson: The no lesse worthy composures of the both worthily excellent Maister Beamont & Maister Fletcher: And lastly (without wrong last to named) the right happy and copious industry of M. Shake-speare, M. Decker, & M. Heywood, wishing that I may read by their light.” Tracing his lineage and his brotherhood to other great male writers, Webster authorizes himself and his play with a male-to-male bond of language, much the same way Spenser in The Faerie Queene called upon the English literary “father,” Chaucer, to bless the latest productive work of the patrilineage. Before the action of the play has even begun, Vittoria, the self-authorizing woman, is set in opposition to the pre-established, traditional order of society.

  12. Gayle Greene, “Women on Trial in Shakespeare and Webster: ‘The Mettle of [their] Sex,’” Topics: A Journal of Liberal Arts 36 (1982): 15.

  13. Katherine Maus, “Horns of a Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama,” ELH 54 (Fall, 1987): 561.

  14. Sedgwick, Between Men 49.

  15. Sedgwick further explains (in Between Men) that the bond of cuckoldry differs from at least some social conformations of homosexuality because it is necessarily hierarchical in structure, with an “active” participant who is clearly in ascendancy over the “passive” one. What I would like to glean from Sedgwick's argument is the necessarily sexual aspect of cuckoldry, and the direction of that sexual activity from man to man. This is, I think, where The White Devil serves as a prototype of homosexual relationships between men, acknowledging a year earlier that which is to be fully expressed in The Duchess of Malfi.

  16. Laura Bromley, “The Rhetoric of Feminine Identity in The White Devil,” eds. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama. (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1991) 51.

  17. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984) 259.

  18. D. C. Gunby, Webster: The White Devil (London: Edward Arnold, 1971) 14.

  19. Constance Jordan notes that “the difference and relation between sex and gender had already been represented allusively in the philosophical literature of antiquity and in Renaissance epic (Sidney's Arcadia, specifically). The virile woman tended to reaffirm patriarchal values and it was not until the feminists began to consider the values of feminine qualities in a positive light that the worth of woman was introduced.” See Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1990) particularly 134-247.

  20. John Mulryan, “The Tortoise and the Lady in Vincenzo Cartari's Imagini and John Webster's The White Devil,Notes and Queries 38.1 (March, 1991): 78-9.

  21. Bromley 68.

  22. Vittoria masterfully assumes the self-authorizing act of language, particularly in her trial. Greene writes: “In an age when women were counseled against learning rhetoric by educators as sympathetic as Bruni and Vives (rhetoric was a means of power in the public sphere,) Vittoria triumphs over her judges … by her command of language” (36).

  23. Gunner Boklund, The Duchess of Malfi: Sources, Themes, Characters Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962) 78.

  24. Theodora A. Jankowski, “Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi,Studies in Philology 87.2 (Spring, 1990): 222.

  25. Constance Jordan, “Women's Rule in British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly XL.3 (Autumn, 1987): 428.

  26. The Cardinal is an intriguing character sexually. By virtue of his costume, the Cardinal (like all men in a similar position) remains in the asexual child-like realm of “unbreeched.” Up until the age of about seven, boys and girls were dressed in the same type of clothes, long gowns. The “unbreeching” of boys was a significant milestone in their lives and commanded a festive ceremony. Girls, of course, did not have such a ceremony and remained be-gowned. The Cardinals' clothing, and its similarity with women's dress, then is another indication of his ambiguous sexuality.

  27. It is significant that Ferdinand and Antonio play the verbal game. The woman who functions as the object of the masculine jest (who provides the “ring”) is the same woman who functions as the object in their lives—the Duchess. This competition also further accentuates Ferdinand's sexual desire for her sister.

  28. Christy Desmet, “Neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife: Rhetoric of the Woman Controversy in Measure for Measure and The Duchess of Malfi.” eds. Dorothea Kehler and Susan Baker, In Another Country: Feminist Perspectives on Renaissance Drama (Metuchan, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1991) 85-6 (italics added).

  29. Greene 36.

  30. Orgel 18.

  31. Lois E. Bueler, “Webster's Excellent Hyena,” Philological Quarterly 59.1 (Winter, 1980): 108.

  32. Ian MacLean, The Renaissance Notion of Women (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980) 42.

  33. Maus 546.

  34. Jankowski 228.

  35. Greene 17.

  36. Coincidentally, the establishment of the Duchess's son on the bloody throne is strangely similar to James's own accession to the English throne, through his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, when no direct heirs existed.

Emily C. Bartels (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire.” Studies in English Literature 36, no. 3 (1996): 417-33.

[In the following essay, Bartels suggests that Shakespeare and Webster give their female characters real voices by making their speech acceptable through a cover of submissiveness or compliance. Contrasting the seeming meekness of Desdemona with the assertiveness of the Duchess, Bartels maintains that the characters share in representing on stage the possibility of female self-assertion.]

Chaste, silent, shamefast, and obedient—these have become the buzz words in feminist discussions of early modern women: the dictates of an anxious patriarchal network, intent on regulating inevitably unruly female voices and bodies; the signs that women, continually accosted by sermons, marriage tracts, conduct books, communal rituals, and laws espousing these terms, really could not have had a renaissance.1 Renaissance women seem to have known it too. Why is it that Queen Elizabeth, visibly the most powerful woman in England from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth century, “speak[s] a discourse of apparent abjection,” alternately abjuring her femaleness and acknowledging its weaknesses?2 Why is it that “Jane Anger” (probably a pseudonym for an English gentlewoman) begins her proto-feminist “Protection for Women” (1589) with a letter to “the Gentlewomen of England” “crav[ing] pardon” for speaking out “rashly”?3 Why is it that Aemilia Lanyer introduces her bold poetic defense of women, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), by critiquing the “powers of ill speaking” exhibited “unadvisedly” by “some women”?4 Why is it, that is, that even the most outspoken women of the early modern period reiterate the terms that would prevent women from “inhabiting their own subjectivity”?5

The easy—and recently, automatic—answer is, of course, containment, brought into currency not only by New Historicists, whose preoccupation with power marginalized the subject of women, but also by feminists themselves. The necessary project of exposing the long-ignored but long-standing oppression of women has almost destined us, when we focus on women, to focus on their circumscription. Couple that to a tradition of representation in which rebellious, outspoken, or desiring women habitually end up married, muted, or dead, and there seems to be no escape, even for those subjects who show remarkable autonomy before they go. Yet women such as Lanyer and Anger (literally) were making names for themselves. And if we continue to read their acts of compliance as signs of limitation, we ourselves put serious limits on their agency, subjectivity, and voice.

Part of the problem is our hesitancy to think of early modern women—who, after all, had no place on the stage—as actors. Recent work has begun to uncover multiplicity and conflict within established positions of those in and out of power, but we still tend to take women's voices, whether represented or real, at face value.6 Men get to play all the parts, to fashion states, society, selves, and even femininity.7 Since, in this period, self-making is an activity of the public sphere, we do not expect women (other than the queen) to do it—at least not with the same self-consciousness, manipulativeness, and control. They fill, rather than construct, roles. By and large, we recognize only the most exceptional or “unruly” figures as exceptions—figures such as As You Like It's Rosalind (1599-1600) or Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's “roaring girl” (1608-10?), who mastermind strategic, self-serving if not self-affirming, fictions, albeit through male voices and bodies and sometimes in male drag.8 Even then, we allow more license to fictive characters than to “real” disorderly women, and we privilege punishments over “crimes” which sometimes evidence impressive autonomy.9 In any case, these stories predestine us to see female agency only in and as resistance, itself delimited (whether contained or not) by the challenged terms.

Indeed, when these or other women play by the rules, into obedience, chastity, shamefastness, and silence, we routinely assume them either constrained or restrained, despite histories that suggest otherwise.10 When aggressively outspoken women such as Jane Anger apologize for their rashness, we have read their gestures as a sign that they “accepted silence as a feminine ideal” or, at best, “felt constrained” to comply with it.11 Less consistently aggressive figures fare even worse. Although Desdemona has the audacity to elope with a Moor and follow him to Cyprus, that she is “so good a wife” (V.ii.234) makes us lose faith in her daring.12 She becomes “the perfect wife,” who “remains perfectly submissive to the end” and whose “very self consists in not being a self, not being even a body, but a bodiless obedient silence.”13

Wives, like Desdemona, are particularly susceptible to this kind of critical circumscription, perhaps because they were among the most (if they were not themselves the most) vigorously regulated of early modern women. Yet, as historians have shown, across the classes they had substantial power within their households.14 Consider, for example, the case of Margaret Ferneseede, a one-time prostitute and bawd, who apparently “‘barred’” her husband “‘of the possession and command’” of their (legally his) home, who lived prosperously (probably with her lover) on her own, and who, upon her husband's death, openly mocked him, saying she scarcely expected to “hear so well of him.”15 Margaret was ultimately condemned for murdering her husband, largely on the grounds that she showed such “slight regard” for him in life and such “careless sorrow” at his death (p. 355). As her case suggests, what wives lacked was not power, but authority, terms which Constance Jordan has usefully separated.16 At home wives could take charge, make decisions, and act on them. But in the world at large, that power gave them no authority, no means to legitimate their capacities or agendas outside those compatible with a patriarchal scheme. With power and not authority, Margaret Ferneseede was surely doomed.

According to Jordan, contemporary defenses of women (most authored by men) offered a wife only two strategies for validating her worth: either she could “reaffirm the value of her duties as her husband's subordinate,” or she could “reject the grounds upon which she ha[d] been assigned her role and discover others that provide[d] her with greater scope.”17 The cost in each case is self-sacrifice: either the wife remains fully subordinate (though she elevates the value of her subordinate part), or she risks incrimination (as a scold or worse) for options that, if legal, may have been only theoretically available.

There is, however, a middle ground that proffers the safety of the first option with the radicality of the second and allows women to be actors: to speak out through, rather than against, established postures and make room for self-expression within self-suppressing roles. Under the cover of male authority, women could modify its terms and sanction their moves without direct resistance. They could be good wives and desiring subjects, obedient and self-assertive, silent and outspoken. In Julius Caesar (1599), Portia is unable to gain her husband's confidence by appealing to “the right and virtue of [her] place” (II.i.269) as wife and trying to give that place a “greater scope.” But when she recasts herself as subordinate—when she kneels before Brutus, “grant[s]” that she is an implicitly inferior “woman” (II.i.292), and gives herself value in terms of men, as a woman nobly “father'd” and “husbanded” (II.i.297)—she gets what she wants, Brutus's promise to disclose to her “the secrets of [his] heart” (II.i.306).

Portia's role and desires become subordinated as the action moves back to its hyper-male spheres, but elsewhere on the stage, where only men had the chance to act out modes of self-presentation, women's capacity to perform and construct strategic selves emerges as a central subject. Importantly, what figures there as a key device for radical self-expression is the posture of obedience. I want to look here at two examples, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and William Shakespeare's Othello, whose female leads seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of behavior: the one (the duchess) a willful and defiant actor, and the other (Desdemona) a self-effacing and compliant victim. Yet the stories they tell are similar. For in each, gestures of submission paradoxically enable the expression of desire, showing female figures who inhabit their subjectivities, who are able to seem as well as be and, consequently, be as well as seem.

The Duchess of Malfi is ostensibly a story of resistance of a willful widow who actively defies her brothers' wishes and refuses to be constrained by (male) authority. While her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, “would not have her marry again” (I.i.265), she immediately sets out to do so, declaring: “If all my royal kindred / Lay in my way unto this marriage, / I'ld make them my low foot-steps” (I.i.348-50).18 When she does marry (soon after), she not only marries in secret, she also marries out of class, choosing Antonio Bologna, her household steward. Before we know it, she has also had several children—provocative signs to her brothers (who have little room to talk) of a sexuality gone wild. Her actions peg her as a woman willing and eager to fight back, to prevent anyone (even her new husband, who is already her subordinate) from taking charge of her body and desires.19 She does have grounds for asserting such authority. She is, after all, an aristocratic widow with claims on a duchy and with autonomy so legitimate that her brothers must use clandestine means to restrain her.20 Yet at stake in the play is not merely the question (or problem) of a widow's unique rights, independence, and power and how they can or cannot be contained by male authority. At issue too is the prospect of female self-fashioning and the kind of voice and agency it carries. Though in part The Duchess of Malfi dramatizes what men can do to women, at its core is rather what women can do to men.

That the duchess will act on her will comes as no surprise, given her initial asides. What is puzzling, and revealing, however (especially since she seems to have married as much to exhibit her autonomy as to satisfy herself), is that she does so through submission. On the one hand, she dares “old wives” to report that she “winked, and chose a husband” (I.i.355-6). On the other, she keeps her move into marriage and sexuality under close cover. When the “deadly air” (III.i.56) of a “scandalous report” (III.i.47) actually approaches her, her honor, and her brothers, she proclaims her innocence. In the face of the suspecting Ferdinand, she denies the truth and assures him that she will marry only “for [his] honor” (III.i.44). Pretending to be deeply troubled by rumors “touching [her] honor” (III.i.48) and helpless to intervene, she leaves the remedy in his hands. It is only later, when he overhears her speaking of her closeted sex life (she thinks to Antonio), that she confesses to her marriage. Yet when she does, she strategically hides her husband's identity and his problematic social standing and underplays the implications of all her secrecy, insisting: “I have not gone about, in this, to create / Any new world, or custom” (III.ii.111-2).

To some degree, the duchess's posture of “innocency” (III.i.55) is a matter of survival, forced upon her by a family and society intent on keeping the widow under wraps. At the end of the play, when her secret is out, her time to live is up. Importantly, however, hers is not a simple case of co-optation, a forced relinquishing of her desires. Instead, her ostensible compliance marks a move into will and desire, giving her significant leverage to do as she pleases, to have her cake and eat it too in a society that would have no more cakes and ale.21

Her gains are truly extraordinary, at least for a female character on the early modern stage, and the play amplifies their significance by underscoring the pressures that surround her. By the end of act II, the duchess's reputation is under siege and her life threatened. Ferdinand, an early modern Wolfman, vilifies her as “a notorious strumpet” and is ready to “purge” her “infected blood” (II.iv.26) and, even to the Cardinal's horror, “[hew] her to pieces” (II.iv.31). At the beginning of act III, her infamy has spread to the “common rabble,” who, according to Antonio, “do directly say / She is a strumpet” (III.i.25-6). Yet in the meantime, during a leap of two children and several years, this “excellent / Feeder of pedigrees” (III.i.5-6) is living and producing heirs at liberty. And her brothers, the representatives of church and state, have not said a word, at least not one that stops her. To some degree, the play smooths over this gap in time and plot, unprecedented in Jacobean tragedy, by having characters talk about it, about how time and children fly. Nonetheless, it remains so jarring that critics have questioned the text's authority and coherence. But whatever its textual origins, the break works dramatically to underscore the duchess's unprecedented freedom, to highlight the remarkable, though invisible, license that comes with visible compliance. Secretly autonomous, she is overtly submissive to her brothers' constraints; overtly submissive, she seems at once untouched and untouchable. Under the cover of patriarchal authority, she can act on her will.

In the end, of course, the duchess is caught, confined, tormented by madmen, and turned into “a box of worm seed” (IV.ii.124) at the murderous hands of Bosola, Ferdinand's right-hand man. Yet tellingly, when her subjugation becomes reality, a matter of force rather than choice, she no longer complies. When there is nothing left to gain from submission, she asserts her will directly, making clear the uncompromised and uncompromising nature of her voice. As long as there is hope for release, as long as Ferdinand (as Bosola pretends) will entertain reconciliation, the duchess displays “a behavior so noble / As gives a majesty to adversity” (IV.i.5-6), and asks for her brother's pardon, still (if Bosola is right) “passionately apprehend[ing] / Those pleasures she's kept from” (IV.i.14-5). But once Ferdinand himself gives up his guise of innocence and betrays his undaunted aggression, so also does she. When he brings her the hand of (he pretends) Antonio and denounces her children as “bastards” (IV.i.36), she lambastes him for denying the legitimacy of her marriage and “violat[ing] a sacrament o' th' Church” (IV.i.39)—once again invoking a patriarchal authority to authorize herself, but this time openly against him. It is then that she “account[s] this world a tedious theater” where she “play[s] a part … 'gainst [her] will” (IV.i.83-4), and then that she refuses to play it. It is also then that she resists Bosola's efforts to dominate and destroy her, and then that she declares herself “Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.142).

In locating this, her signal moment of self-assertion, in the midst of her confinement and immediately before her death, Webster may be underscoring the vacuity of such expression in an era only beginning to come to terms with interiority, as some have argued.22 But he may also be dramatizing what he has been showing throughout—the possibility of self-assertion within circumscription. Even if the self in question is not yet fully interiorized, articulated, or defined, the duchess's claim is neither vacuous nor defeating. For it is she who ultimately gets the last word.23 After her death, her voice reverberates from the grave, echoing warnings to Antonio that could (if this were not Jacobean tragedy) save his life. And at the end of the play, we hear that one of her and Antonio's sons will inherit the duchy—importantly, through his “mother's right” (V.v.113). She is “Duchess of Malfi still.”

Significantly, it is from a position as wife and not widow, the ruled rather than the unruly, that the duchess has established her “right”; through marriage and not widowhood that she has acted on her desires. In Elizabethan drama, when marriage figures as a means to power, it is predominantly as a means to male power—a means for men to safeguard (male) society from oversexed and overactive women, to manipulate, appropriate, traffic in, and otherwise dominate women. Yet in The Duchess of Malfi and plays emerging in the surrounding decades, when the debate about women is also in full and vigorous swing, the illusion (probably always an illusion) that women could be contained through marriage is seriously challenged.24 Indeed, in Middleton's Women Beware Women (ca. 1620), Isabella (who has pledged herself to the doltish Ward in order to have an incestuous affair with her uncle) celebrates marriage as “the only veil wit can devise / To keep our [illicit] acts hid from sin-piercing eyes” (II.i.237-8)—a veil for her use, protection, and pleasure.25

In the cases of Isabella and the duchess of Malfi, of female figures who let us in on their secrets and come out fighting from the start, it is easier to see compliance for the strategy that it, in these cases, is. But what about wives or would-be wives who do not talk to us? who are less transgressive at the beginning and less assertive at the end? What about “so good a wife” as Desdemona?

Although Desdemona seems much less a player than the duchess of Malfi, she is, in some ways, more—so much so that she has continually eluded our critical grasp. Desdemona gives us, in effect, two selves to choose from: the one, a fully sexual “woman capable of ‘downright violence’” (I.iii.249); and the other, “‘A maiden, never bold’” (I.iii.94), as Peter Stallybrass has argued.26 The first escapes her father's “guardage” (I.ii.70) to elope with a Moor and insists on accompanying her husband to Cyprus—a military outpost in the play and the locus of Venus and “very wanton” women in classical and other contemporary accounts—a dangerous place for a new wife to be on both counts.27 Too, this first self notices, while undressing, that “Lodovico is a proper man” (IV.iii.35). The second, that “perfect wife” and “bodiless obedient silence” mentioned above, emerges primarily in the play's second half and stands passively by as her husband destroys her reputation and her life. She then takes responsibility for the deed and clears his name.

When Hamlet, the prince of players, moves in and out of madness, inertia, and love, we readily entertain the possibility that he indeed knows “seems,” that he is a man of many masks (if not of all mask and no interior). When Desdemona, the good wife, shows two ostensibly incompatible sides, our tendency has been to treat them as a dramatic or characterological disruption, as something that impedes rather than enables her emergence as a subject. Attempting to resolve the problem of these dueling personas, critics have either argued for one at the expense of the other or located a gap within the characterization, a moment (in the middle of act III) when type A Desdemona becomes type B.28 Or they have displaced the conflict onto culture: Desdemona becomes a site of ideological production and supports the normative “sex/race system” even as she “deviate[s]” from its “norms,” or unwittingly threatens it just by being sexual and female.29 As astute as many of these readings are, what they occlude is the possibility that Shakespeare creates a Desdemona who, like her male or more rebellious female counterparts, stages different selves.

It is clear from the start that Desdemona is an actor, as adept as Iago, Othello's second wife, at manipulating the system from within. When Othello wants to exonerate himself from charges of bewitching Desdemona, he writes her into his narrative of exoticism, portraying her as a vicarious adventurer, hungry to hear of his “disastrous chances” (I.iii.134) and frustrated by “house affairs” (I.iii.147). When Desdemona herself testifies, she—to the contrary and better advantage of both—stresses her conventionality and cloaks her unprecedented marital choices in social and familial precedent. Paying due respect to her “noble father” (I.iii.180), she acknowledges that she is “bound” to him “for life and education” (I.iii.182), that he is “the lord of duty” (I.iii.184), and that she is “hitherto [his] daughter” (I.iii.185). She then insists that her marriage fulfills her “duty” to turn from father to husband, as daughters must and as her mother did, “preferring [Brabantio] before her father” (I.iii.187). Significantly, in aligning herself with her mother, she strategically glosses over two factors that make her own marriage radically different and socially taboo: that she has eloped and eloped with a Moor. She further deflects attention from the incriminating specifics of her case by finding fault with society for assigning women an impossible “divided duty” (I.iii.181) to both fathers and husbands. In her hands, acts of filial disobedience and miscegenation (brilliantly) become not only acceptable but also expected behavior. Brabantio, the one protesting against those acts, has no choice but to give up and in, as indeed he does.

Similarly, when Desdemona seeks permission from the duke to go to Cyprus rather than, as he suggests, stay with Brabantio, she presents her plan as better for her father, whom she would otherwise put “in impatient thoughts / By being in his eye” (I.iii.242-3), and then humbly begs assistance for her “simpleness” (I.iii.246). Not surprisingly, one scene later, she is in Cyprus, welcoming her “dear Othello” to the shore (II.i.182).30

In these instances, Desdemona's interventions do not markedly disturb the political system, since what she wants (to be in Cyprus as Othello's wife) does not alter what the Venetian court wants (to have Othello there, wife or no wife). Yet on the domestic front, as critics have argued, her desires do go beyond Othello's, who is determined to keep Cupid's “light-wing'd toys” from blunting his “speculative and offic'd [instruments]” (I.iii.268, 270) and housewives from making “a skillet of [his] helm” (I.iii.272). When she acts on those desires, albeit to enhance rather than subvert her marital relations, she, in effect, counters the terms of those relations. In these cases, the stakes in her staging of submission are higher. For through it she not only gets what she wants; she also challenges the very system that makes what she wants taboo.31

Desdemona's most blatant expression of her desires comes as she mediates for Cassio, under the patriarchally sanctioned authority of his voice.32 She (and Shakespeare) make clear from the outset that, while the agenda is Cassio's, at issue is her will and her right to voice it. When agreeing to intercede, she promises (in the space of less than thirty lines):

Be thou assur'd, good Cassio, I will do
All my abilities in thy behalf.


Do not doubt, Cassio,
But I will have my lord and you again
As friendly as you were.


Do not doubt …
I give thee warrant of thy place. Assure thee,
If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it
To the last article.


And perform she does, in ways that license her self-expression and desire at the expense of male authority.

Her performance exploits and collapses the two male fantasies that most define early modern wives: the one, negative, of the shrew, and the other, the ideal of the submissive subordinate. Lest we believe the stereotypes and think Desdemona truly shrewish, she announces that she will play the shrew—that she will “talk [Othello] out of patience” (III.iii.23), “intermingle every thing he does / With Cassio's suit” (III.iii.25-6), make his bed “a school” and “his board a shrift” (III.iii.24), and assault him verbally at every turn until he again embraces the lieutenant. True and alert to form she does so, hounding Othello to meet with Cassio “shortly,” “to-night at supper,” “To-morrow dinner,” “to-morrow night,” and so on (III.iii.56-60). Othello responds as if she were indeed a shrew, overstepping the proper bounds of female speech. Although he insists “I will deny thee nothing” (III.iii.76), his acquiescence serves to cut her off at the pass. In response, Desdemona outdoes his own illusory submission and rewrites her outspokenness as part of, and not subversive to, her duty as wife, as a gesture that neither threatens his position nor advances hers. “Why, this is not a boon,” she tells him:

'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm,
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person.


When Othello misses the point, again asserts “I will deny thee nothing” (III.iii.83), and asks to be left “but a little to myself” (III.iii.85), Desdemona reiterates the submissiveness of her pose. “Shall I deny you?” she asks, echoing Othello's own denial of denial, and answers with a firm “No” (III.iii.86). She then assures him, “Be as your fancies teach you; / What e'er you be, I am obedient” (III.iii.88-9)—presenting an assertive “I am” boldly in line with obedience.

In merging the postures of good wife and shrew, Desdemona indirectly challenges the presumption of their difference enforced in marriage handbooks, homilies, church courts, misogynist pamphlets, and the like. Her performance highlights what that discourse masks: that to be a shrew is, in fact, to follow the rules, to be obediently disobedient, to fill a role created by (male) authorities who needed shrews in order to contain, by criminalizing, female speech. Conversely, Desdemona also places outspokenness within the perimeters of appropriate wifely behavior, insisting that to speak out against her husband (and his refusal to see Cassio) is to “do a peculiar profit to” him.

While Othello uses acquiescence to repress, Desdemona uses it to assert herself, to sanction the expression of her own desires.33 After declaring that what she seeks is “not a boon,” she warns Othello that someday she may seek one:

                                                                                          when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficult weight,
And fearful to be granted.


Although she only promises here to make “fearful” and “difficult” personal demands in the future (notably a “when” and not an “if”), she claims the right to do so now, to be a desiring subject, to command Othello's love, and to “mean.” It is no wonder that Othello tries to curtail their interchange or that, immediately after (and not before), he begins to pick up on Iago's incriminating hints that Desdemona has been untrue. For Desdemona's message comes through loudly and clearly; her “meaning has a meaning” that is decidedly her own.34

What then are we to do in the play's second half when, as the going gets rough, Desdemona seems to fall apart at the seams and slide into a fatal passivity, the woman capable of “downright violence” subsumed by the “maiden never bold” whom she has staged? What happens to the space Desdemona and Shakespeare have opened for her voice? We still see hints that Desdemona will stand her ground under the cover of obedience. When Othello strikes her in public, for example, she both protests that she has “not deserv'd this” (IV.i.241) and then withdraws, as Lodovico notes, like an “obedient lady” (IV.i.248). Later, in the face of Othello's mistrust, she declares that she is “honest” (IV.ii.65) while addressing herself to his “will” and “pleasure” (IV.ii.24-5). Like the duchess of Malfi, she also calls on heaven—on the fact that she is a Christian and “shall be sav'd” (IV.ii.86)—to support her stance, using male authority to dispute Othello's. Yet by and large, in the last acts of the play, Desdemona's interactions with her husband show her to be increasingly silent and submissive and her desires increasingly at bay. Although she promises to mediate further for Cassio, she gives up speaking for herself, admitting that, for his case, “What I can do, I will; and more I will / Than for myself I dare” (III.iv.130-1). Presenting herself as “a child to chiding” (IV.ii.114) who cannot negotiate for herself, who “cannot tell” how it is with her (IV.ii.111) or whether or not she is “that name,” whore, that Othello has called her (IV.ii.118), she enlists Iago to help her “win my lord again” (IV.ii.149).

Yet in her case as in the duchess's, what has changed is not Desdemona but the circumstances which surround her—circumstances that force her, not to give up her voice, but to redirect it. Once Othello decides that she is a whore, her gestures of obedience cease to have any meaning and any power to safeguard her speech. Desdemona, of course, does not know the whole story, does not know, that is, what drives Othello's “strange unquietness” (III.iv.133). Even after he has accused her repeatedly of being false, she continues to ask “What's the matter?” (V.ii.47). But she is aware that she has a husband she “nev'r saw … before” (III.iv.100), one whose erratic responses give her no readable text to play into. And two things more are clear: outspokenness may hurt her and obedience will not help her. In the face of Othello's distraction, Desdemona senses that her “advocation is not now in tune” (III.iv.123) and admits for the first time that she has “stood within the blank of [Othello's] displeasure / For [her] free speech” (III.iv.128-9). She twice evokes the possibility that she could be “beshrewed”—telling Emilia, at one point, to “beshrew me much” (III.iv.150) for “arraigning [Othello's] unkindness with my soul” (III.iv.152) and, at another, to “beshrew” her if she were ever to be unfaithful (IV.iii.78)—as if she now understands speech as dangerous. Othello also makes all too clear to her that submissiveness is no antidote. After Lodovico has praised her obedience, Othello harshly mocks it, retorting (to Lodovico):

Ay, you did wish that I would make her turn.
Sir, she can turn, and turn; and yet go on
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient;
Very obedient.—Proceed you in your tears.—
Concerning this, sir—O well-painted passion!—


Obedience, the very thing that has made her self-assertions safe, now leaves them and her defenseless, blurring into her tears as a “well-painted passion.”

Importantly, though, while Desdemona does become less willing to assert her desires in Othello's presence, she continues to define herself as a desiring subject and to set the terms in which she is to mean. While she seems, to feminists' dismay, to defend Othello to the end (and even after) at her own expense, she actually exonerates herself and implicates him. She presents herself as a loyal wife, willing to sacrifice herself for love. But registered within her narrative of self-sacrifice is what we have been waiting desperately for her to produce—testimony of her fidelity and Othello's error. She vows in front of Emilia and Iago: “Unkindness may do much, / And his [Othello's] unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love” (IV.ii.159-61). She uses the story of her love to render his “unkindness” questionable. As she prepares herself for the bed that (as she too anticipates) will be her deathbed, she recounts the tragedy of her mother's maid Barbary and, through it, sets herself in the context of other women who suffered or died wrongly at the hands of their lovers. Recent interest in issues of race has brought the seemingly digressive tale into currency for its evocation of Africa. As significant as that context is in a play about a Moor, that Barbary is a woman, and a woman wronged in love, is, I think, more significant still, at least as far as the representation of Desdemona is concerned. For Barbary's story and song provide a crucial model for Desdemona's own self-fashioning and a critical key for our interpretation of it.35

The story itself is simple: Barbary “was in love” with one who “prov'd mad / And did forsake her”; as a result, she died, singing “a song of ‘Willow,’” “an old thing” that “express'd her fortune” (IV.iii.27-9). That song (which Desdemona admittedly cannot get out of her mind and so sings) tells of a woman, “I,” who “sat [sighing] by a sycamore tree” (IV.iii.40), mourning a lover, and declaring: “‘Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve’” (IV.iii.52). Her approval, however, seems more strategic than sincere. When Desdemona reaches this final line, she notices that “that's not next” (IV.iii.53) and inserts what should have preceded, what explains the speaker's acquiescence—the possibility that she herself will be slandered:

I call'd my love false love; but what said he then?
                    Sing willow, willow, willow;
If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men.—


In refusing to blame her lover, the speaker (followed by Barbary) keeps blame from herself. For as the male voice within the ballad threatens, her incriminations of him will only lead to his recriminations against her: if she accuses him for courting more women, then he will accuse her of “couching” with more men. Admittedly, by loyally “approving” his scorn, she seems to be subdued by her husband. But by exposing the circumstances that surround her submission, she exposes also the falseness and vacuity of his position.

And so it is with Desdemona. When direct attempts to modify the system promise only recrimination, she turns to indirection and tells, rather than acts out, her story. Yet even though at the end she is forced to play defense rather than offense, she continues to play, to creative a submissive counter-narrative that challenges and changes the order of things. In the final act, when she speaks after death, she breaks through the code of silence expected of the dead as of women and not only declares her death “guiltless” (V.ii.122) and herself “Oh falsely, falsely murder'd” (V.ii.117), but also, enigmatically, insists that “Nobody; I myself” (V.ii.124) killed her. Her “nobody” points suggestively back to the Willow Song, to the speaker's directive that “nobody” blame her lover, and reiterates the loyalty that has defined the speaker, Barbary, and Desdemona. Although critics have routinely heard the “nobody” rather than the “I” and turned her into a “bodiless obedient silence,” Desdemona has both voice and body here. Given the dramatic context surrounding her assertion, and her characterization throughout, the real enigma here is that we take her answer, literally the lie direct, at face value, her performance as passivity.

In fact, the onstage audience hears her. And her dying voice destabilizes the master narrative that has defamed her and puts incriminating words in Othello's mouth. Ironically, in order to prove her a liar (which is, to him, a whore) and to usurp the claim to truth, Othello confesses to the crime, insisting “'Twas I that kill'd her” (V.ii.130), undoing himself in order to undo her. Her voice also licenses Emilia's revolt against Iago. It is only after Desdemona has spoken that Emilia questions her husband's honesty, vows to “ne'er go home” (V.ii.197), and dies testifying against him. Tellingly, as Emilia “speak[s] as liberal as the north” (V.ii.220) before she too dies at her husband's hand, she reinvokes the Willow Song and, as she says, “die[s] in music” (V.ii.248) like her lady—music that is the food not just of love but also of female affirmation.

Desdemona, Emilia, Barbary, and the ballad's anonymous speaker all submit and die, but not before speaking out through a male-authored narrative that would otherwise occlude their voices. Each, in effect, tells her own story, registering desires not suitable for women through postures of obedience that are. Singing “willow” under a sycamore tree, they turn “nobody” into “I.” There are reasons that lead Othello to cry whore and Ferdinand to cry wolf—reasons that caution us against taking conventional postures, in general, and conventional female postures, in particular, as authentic rather than posed. Shakespeare, Webster, Jane Anger, and Aemilia Lanyer may have different reasons for staging female compliance. But however their representations promote, remodel, resist, or otherwise respond to the possibility of such performance, together they testify to a prominent cultural awareness that all the world was indeed a stage, and its men and women players.36


  1. The signal essay is Joan Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”, in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 137-64. Other important studies include: Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990); Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984); the introductory material in Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 3-130; and Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent, and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640 (San Marino CA: Huntington Library, 1982), pp. 1-143. See also Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993).

  2. Barbara Hodgdon, “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes, and Doubled Presences in All's Well that Ends Well,PQ 66, 1 (Winter 1987): 47-71, 66. For full discussion of Elizabeth's self-representations, see Mary Thomas Crane, “‘Video et Taceo’: Elizabeth I and the Rhetoric of Counsel,” SEL 28, 1 (Winter 1988): 1-15, and John M. King, “Queen Elizabeth I: Representations of the Virgin Queen,” RenQ 43, 1 (Spring 1990): 30-74.

  3. “Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women” (London, 1589), in Henderson and McManus, pp. 172-88, 173.

  4. From Aemelia Lanyer's letter “To the Vertuous Reader” prefacing Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (London, 1611). See also Hull, pp. 98-9.

  5. Maureen Quilligan, “Staging Gender: William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Cary,” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, Texts, Images, ed. James Grantham Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p. 208. Quilligan is discussing Gayle Rubin's important essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), pp. 156-210.

  6. See, for example, The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991).

  7. Ironically, Karen Newman's interesting study Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991) focuses primarily on the ways men “fashion femininity.”

  8. Unruly women were also doing remarkable things in the street literature of the period. For a useful survey of it, see Joy Wiltenburg, Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1992).

  9. See the case of Margaret Ferneseede, discussed below.

  10. One notable exception is Michael C. Schoenfeldt's intriguing essay on “Gender and Conduct in Paradise Lost,” in Turner, pp. 310-38. Schoenfeldt sees in Eve's “artful expression of blind obedience,” not “the intellectual and ontological inferiority it ostensibly declares,” but “impressive verbal dexterity” (p. 325). “Gestures of submission in Milton,” he argues, “are at once static and dynamic, unquestioned declarations of one's place in a hierarchy and the necessary condition for rising,” and Paradise Lost “uses the constrictions of courtesy literature to construct a space—albeit limited, and only sporadically inhabited—for the conception of active female virtue” (p. 336).

  11. Henderson and McManus, p. 54.

  12. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  13. Michael D. Bristol, “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 75-97, 92; Quilligan, p. 229.

  14. Two central studies are Susan D. Amussen, “Gender, Family, and the Social Order, 1560-1725,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 196-217; and Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1982), esp. pp. 89-104.

  15. “The Arraignment and Burning of Margaret Ferneseede” (1608), in Henderson and MacManus, pp. 351-9, 358, 354. Subsequent page references appear in the text.

  16. Jordan, pp. 3-5.

  17. Jordan, p. 13.

  18. All quotations from the play come from Drama of the English Renaissance II: The Stuart Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York: Macmillan, 1976).

  19. Compare Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 206-7, who reads the marriage as an expression of romantic love.

  20. See Lisa Jardine on how the duchess's widowhood affects her place (Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare [1983; rprt. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989], pp. 78-93).

  21. Compare Jardine, who sees the duchess as a flagrant “strong woman,” who “must be systematically taught the error of her ways” (pp. 68-102, 98).

  22. See, for example, Belsey, pp. 35-41.

  23. Compare Kathleen McLuskie, Renaissance Dramatists (Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, 1989), p. 145, who argues that the duchess is overcome by her brothers' power. See also McLuskie, “Drama and sexual politics: the case of Webster's Duchess,” in Drama and Sexual Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 77-91.

  24. Because of the prominence of this challenge, I would argue against the assumption that “misogyny is generally on the rise in the drama of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean years,” reiterated most recently in Steven Mullaney, “Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600-1607,” SQ 45, 2 (Summer 1994): 139-62, 144.

  25. Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women, in Jacobean and Caroline Tragedies, ed. Robert G. Lawrence (London: J. M. Dent, 1974).

  26. Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 123-42, 141.

  27. The information about Cyprus comes from James F. Gaines and Josephine A. Roberts, “The geography of love in seventeenth-century women's fiction,” in Turner, p. 292.

  28. See Bristol, Quilligan, and Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories.” For an excellent alternative, see also Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,SQ 40, 4 (Winter 1989): 383-412.

  29. Karen Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean F. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 142-62, 153; see also Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 222-54.

  30. See also II.i., where Desdemona points to her role-playing, her plan to “beguile / The thing [she is] by seeming otherwise” (II.i.122-3).

  31. For a powerful essay on the discourses that surround Desdemona, see Valerie Wayne, “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello,” in The Matter of Difference, ed. Wayne, pp. 153-79.

  32. I have sketched out the beginnings of this argument in “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” SQ 41, 4 (Winter 1990): 433-54, esp. 452-4.

  33. Related is the instance of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, which, if Quilligan is right, seems “to grant Kate the exercise of her own biologically gendered sexual desire at the moment of her most freely chosen obedience” (p. 223).

  34. The Jew of Malta, IV.iv.106, from Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (London: Penguin Books, 1969).

  35. Compare Stallybrass, who argues that as a “single” but doubly resonant “signifier,” Barbary “slides between male and female” (“Transvestism and the ‘body beneath’: Speculating on the Boy Actor,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman [New York: Routledge, 1992], pp. 64-83, 73).

  36. I have presented versions of this paper at the Shakespeare Association of America Convention, Kansas City, April 1992, and to the Columbia Shakespeare Seminar, Columbia University, October 1992, and am indebted to the participants in both, especially to Rob Watson, Maurice Charney, and Jean Howard, as well as to the reader at SEL. Finally, very special thanks to Jim Siemon, whose comments and encouragement have been vital.

William Kerwin (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Kerwin, William. “‘Physicians are like Kings’: Medical Politics and The Duchess of Malfi.English Literary Renaissance 28, no. 1 (1998): 95-117.

[In this essay, Kerwin places the medical theme of The Duchess of Malfi in its historical context to illuminate Webster's critique of authority in general, and monarchical authority in particular. Drawing from a substantial study of contemporary sources on medicine, Kerwin compares the medical “performances” of Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola to Jacobean medical discourse.]

In the fourth act of The Duchess of Malfi, as the Duchess struggles to preserve her sanity, her brother Ferdinand produces a masque of madmen—a procession of eight characters representing types of desire gone astray. One of them sings:

As ravens, screech-owls, bulls, and bears,
          We'll bill and bawl our parts,
Till irksome noise have cloy'd your ears
          And corrosiv'd your hearts.(1)

Whether Webster's art follows this “corrosive” aesthetic, or whether it offers a spiritual alternative to such bleakness, seems at the center of debate about The Duchess of Malfi. Interpreting this scene, critics have often praised the masque, finding it central to varied interpretations of the play. M. C. Bradbrook approvingly quotes Charles Lamb's verdict that this scene is “not of this world,” and herself continues: “Madness was itself thought of as diabolic possession, and the ‘comic’ masque of madmen prefigures the later madness of Ferdinand.”2 Other critics have emphasized that Webster takes part in the vital Jacobean masque genre, with this anti-masque anticipating the Duchess' assassination.3 But while this scene certainly has spiritual echoes, structural elements common to the masque tradition, and formal analogues within the text, I would like to read it, and the play as a whole, from a different perspective. The masque of madmen is introduced as an ostensible ritual of healing, one of several parts of the play in which a nightmarish medicine appears in a theatrical form. The play's medical theater displays how claims to ancient and disinterested tradition can cover up base interests; here, the masque is connected not only to the dark forms of nature—“ravens, screech-owls, bulls, and bears”—but also to the court of Malfi, the “common fountain” (1.1.14) which has become poisoned. Webster's play can help us understand how medical power legitimates itself—the pose of timelessness, similar to some late twentieth-century claims of scientific objectivity, masks the connections between medicine and society. Webster's representations of medicine point toward the configuration in early modern culture of theatrical, political, and medical discourses, and toward the tenuous demonstrations of power upon which the “professions” often depend. I find unsatisfying the label “medical satire” because it implies a separation of medicine into an independent sphere of culture; Webster's play undermines that very act of specialization by aligning physicians with the most unstable sources of Jacobean authority.

The Duchess of Malfi has an explicitly medical frame, not only in its characters and language, but also in the historical context of Jacobean medical politics. The play's use of medical theater—the representation of healing as a performance—repeatedly connects the authority of educated physicians and the attenuated legitimacy of the court at Malfi.4 In connecting the problems of doctors and royalty Webster was echoing in very directed ways historical parallels in his own city. The numerous challenges to their authority which London physicians faced were inseparable from—although certainly not identical to—their culture's challenges to king and bishop. The period was as divided about medicine as it was about political and church government, and the various definitions of the good doctor competing in the first half of the seventeenth century were shaped not only by the growth of a scientific worldview but also by narratives of political and religious orthodoxy or revolution. The traditional elements of the College of Physicians were engaged in a defense of a monopoly, and that defense relied upon ritual demonstrations of authority. The debate about theatricality linked medical discourse with broader debates about performance, as physicians, like others in power, responded to heightened fluidity in social boundaries by accusing rivals of seditious independence. But the privilege of medical specialization could not be based on traditional authority alone: Galenic medicine, in both its technical knowledge and its organizational structures, was incapable of meeting the needs facing a country of new social problems and arrangements. Most healers were non-physicians who did not aspire to “professional” status, and the physicians' attempts to create such a status involved a radical centralization of power, and with it a new representation of their own role. Physicians themselves had to rely upon staging, even as the category of the stage became for them a means of distinguishing true healers from those who only act.

This essay analyzes discussions of medical performance for their connections to other narratives about Jacobean authority. It first examines medical discourse about physicians' legitimacy, highlighting how the discussions of a healer's performance incorporate other Jacobean struggles between traditional and innovating authorities. Then it reads the ways John Webster incorporates medical performances into his critique of a “sick” monarchy in The Duchess of Malfi. Webster connects political injustice with a particular style of medical professionalism, asking a viewer or reader to consider connections between rituals of physic and aristocratic misrule. The connection between bad medicine and bad government is one made explicitly by the playwright, but it is my contention that this parallel was also part of the period's competing definitions of the official physician. To different people, what defined the physician was either his noble and specialized wisdom or his oppressive regimen of misrule. Webster's play makes meaning within that debate, taking the anti-professional position by showing an autocratic medicine futilely attempting to perpetuate a received ideology dependent upon rituals that ultimately are not medical at all. For Webster's play—and for the period as a whole—stories of politics, literature, and medicine are mutually constitutive, as rulers, players, and physicians shape each other.

Tudor-Stuart medicine's attention to performance was part of a culture-wide phenomenon in which theatricality was redefined and decentered. Masques, as Stephen Orgel has persuasively demonstrated, served distinctly social functions; they rarely fell into Bradbrook's realm of being “not of this world.” Orgel argues that Caroline court masques reaffirm the official visions of power: “The masque presents the triumph of an aristocratic community; at its center is a belief in the hierarchy and a faith in the power of idealization.”5 But The Duchess of Malfi employs medical masques for quite different purposes: they expose the cruelty of both medical and political authority. In his discussion of Shakespeare's staging of exorcism, Stephen Greenblatt has argued that theater can “empty out” a ritual that had power in another realm; Webster's play also restages ritual, with the effect of connecting illegitimate healing not with unlicensed “mountebanks” but with the most credentialed practitioners, physicians.6 The profession that was claiming to be above theater by virtue of its specialized knowledge is charged in this play with sharing the same self-staging as a stifling nobility. By focusing on the connections between physicians' power and the meaning of this play, I hope to demonstrate that Webster not only mocks medical claims of professional objectivity, but more crucially displays how those claims depend upon a particular political culture, one in which inherited power struggles to contain newer claims to authority. His attacks upon official medicine are best seen not as universal satire of the hubris of the doctor, but as a thoughtful reflection upon Stuart society; the meaning of medicine in this play can only be discovered when we consider it as a social form. Webster's treatment of medicine actively participated in a critique of Stuart autocracy, both medical and monarchical.


Doctors have always performed, and Jacobean physicians had an ancient tradition upon which to draw. The medieval physician often performed before an audience in a public consultation. Although some have imagined the dominance of a pre-hospital, patient-centered “bedside medicine,” doctors in this period were not usually alone with their patients; visits were usually done with large numbers of friends or family present.7 Traditionally doctors attempted to impress their patients with their sophisticated technical language, even to the point of intentionally employing jargon to improve their status: the medieval text De cautelis medicorum, ascribed to Arnau de Villanova, suggests that an unsure diagnostician should use the phrase opilationem in epate (that is, “obstruction in the liver”) “and particularly use the word, opilatio, because they do not understand what it means, and it helps greatly that a term is not understood by the people.”8 While the use of jargon may sound similar to practices of today, customs by which doctors were hired and paid in the late medieval and early modern times were quite different from our own, and helped shape the dynamics of performance. Those contractual procedures involved testing and bargaining, and made doctors dependent upon patients and their families. Doctors were often paid only a fraction of their fee until a cure was effected; if the therapy did not succeed, they received little pay. In addition, patients tested physicians, often pitting one against another before deciding which was more effective and hiring him. In this “buyers' market” a physician's power was radically different from that of his twentieth-century counterpart, for whom the patient's visit usually implies his or her acquiescence to the knowledge of the superior professional. Consultation involved persuasion, and an audience beyond the patient. It required a performance.

But physicians in England by the close of the sixteenth century, when participating in public debates about appropriate medical behavior, described these consultations as the antithesis of acting, and contrasted the illegitimate self-staging of “mountebanks” and “quacks” with “true physicians'” adherence to professional standards. A substantial increase in medical competition caused physicians to assume a less flexible stance. Rooting their authority in Latin texts, especially Galen, they claimed that the physician was free of rhetorical performance by virtue of his professional identity. The attempt to create a sense of a profession depended upon specialization, even though the majority of medical services were performed by part-time healers.9 The claim was made, and made repeatedly, that the physician is the only legitimate healer because he does not act.

The Jacobean crisis of medicine was a culmination of long-standing challenges to physicians' authority, reflected in legal traditions and sharpened by changes in England's social fabric. England's sixteenth-century laws regarding medicine were notable in their inconsistency: where the 1517 law establishing the College of Physicians gave it regulatory authority, a 1542-1543 Act, sometimes called the Quacks' Charter, pushed in the opposite direction by defending the rights of individual unlearned practitioners.10 That charter voiced a populist health care ethos:

At all time henceforth it shall be lawful to any person being the King's subject, Having Knowledge and experience of the Nature of Herbs, Roots and Waters, or of the operation of the same, by Speculation or Practice, within any part of the Realm of England, or within any other of the King's Dominions, to practise, use, and minister in to any outward Sore, Uncome, Wound, Apostemations, outward Swelling or Disease, any herb or Herbs, Ointments, Baths, Pultes's and Emplaisters, according to their Cunning, Experience, and Knowledge … without Suit, Vexation, Penalty or Loss of their Goods.11

With the chartering of the College and the protection of popular medical practice, centralization and decentralization were occurring simultaneously. These two narratives—growth in the number of non-physician practitioners, and increased attempts by physicians to assert a legal monopoly—continued for the next hundred years. For most of the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth, the College attempted to establish a legal province for the professional physician by expending a huge proportion of its energies trying, often unsuccessfully, to gain a monopoly, and to police transgressors of its strict London regulations against practitioners who were not physicians.12 Attempts at prosecution accelerated after James I assumed the throne, with 435 individuals prosecuted between 1601 and 1640 (p. 5). William Harvey held the post of College censor for the years 1613-1614, before his famous research placed him in the forefront of English medical science. During his term, meetings of the College were held almost weekly regarding persecution of unlicensed physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, women healers or other empirics; the College spent considerable time trying to maintain a profession of elite physicians.

Despite the prosecutions, however, the Crown often sheltered unlicensed “empirics” and people continued to employ them. A series of social disruptions produced what Bylebyl has called “the crisis of medicine in Jacobean England” (p. 4). The two most important demographic changes were the growth of London, which grew to a population of 200,000 in 1600, and the persistence of the plague, always present but occasionally devastating. The years 1603 and 1625 were especially catastrophic, with deaths in London alone totalling 80,000 for the two years combined (p. 2). The plague was only the most serious cause in producing change; other causes were the persistence of syphilis—the “New Disease” for which there were no Galenic discussions—and London public health problems brought about by rapid urbanization. That this was a crisis of “medicine” and not just of “health” is evident in the failure of the College of Physicians to retain public and royal support.

There were additional incentives for the public to ignore the College's self-proclaimed monopoly. Unlicensed practitioners were willing to employ a wide range of therapies, from traditional ones (herbs, astronomy, spells) to those most advanced (chemical medicine). Medical texts in English were increasingly available to the public, and this availability encouraged the practice of self-diagnosis and treatment. The growing public independence from orthodox medical practitioners was analogous to the Protestant rebellion against church authority and the post-Gutenberg explosion of individual reading and writing. Challenges to old textual authority were voiced across all spheres of culture, and in medicine the ancient traditions of Galenic theory and its text-based practice were met not only by Paracelsus (“the Luther of Medicine”) and Vesalius (whose anatomies helped produce a host of changes in physiology and anatomy) but by a native wave of opposition to the received medical epistemology. Popular medical culture encouraged people to treat themselves, their family members, or their neighbors without struggling over the ancient texts providing the theory for a given Galenic therapy.13

And the rebellion was not merely from economic competition; natural philosophers were criticizing the medical establishment for an epistemology which left little room for new ideas. Francis Bacon criticized conventional medicine for its reliance upon a medical canon which supposedly contained a complete body of knowledge: “medicine is a science which has been more professed than laboured, and yet more laboured than advanced; the labour having been in my judgment rather in circle than in progression. I find much iteration but small addition.”14 His desire for “addition” rather than “iteration,” and his sneer at what had been “professed” as opposed to “laboured,” are representative of wider dissatisfaction with the ways in which older medieval models of medicine were failing to meet the demands of the post-reformation, urbanizing world of Jacobean London. The construction of medical knowledge in scholastic medicine allowed for the discovery of new facts or therapies only within tight constraints. “New” cures were presented as rediscovered cures; the presupposition was that the combination of the physical degeneration of humanity and the loss or corruption of classical texts had hidden previously discovered knowledge from the western world. Medical historian Chiara Crisciani discusses this “problematic attitude toward the ‘new’ and toward the progressive growth of knowledge.”15 After Hippocrates, medical “history seems to end. … Hippocrates closes the series of author-discoverers; Galen begins that of the author-commentators” (p. 125). New knowledge was presented as clarifying commentary upon older knowledge, so that authority could be corrected without ever being radically challenged. The result was a split authority, in which a researcher maintained a strong dependence. Chrisciani calls this a “conscious ambivalence in which respect is intertwined with interpretative force,” and in which “change is perceived as occurring within a closed system” (pp. 126, 130). In the late sixteenth century, the still-influential epistemology of medieval science was preventing physicians from achieving new authority from their medical knowledge, because innovation was regarded as betrayal or heresy.

So perhaps it is not surprising that in attacking their competitors physicians used the metaphor of theater, because fictional role-playing presented an alternative way of knowing to that of traditional medicine, and to scholastic philosophy and hereditary politics as well. Franco Moretti discusses theater's power to demystify political power through representing it; rather than working to secure consent for reigning social structures, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, he argues, worked to undermine “the values of absolute monarchy” (p. 27). Tragedy helped get the public ready for regicide by “deconsecrating” royalty. In medicine as well, tragedy can work to challenge absolutism, and hence was particularly dangerous to physicians.

Two sustained articulations of physicians' attacks against the theatricality of their innovating competitors can be found in a London pamphlet of 1602: a translation of a tract by the German doctor Johann Oberndorff, Englished as The Anatomyse of the True Physition, and the Counterfeit Mounte-bank. Wherein both of them, are graphically described and set out in the Right and Orient Colours. The translator is “F. H.,” Francis Herring, a fellow of the College of Physicians, who followed his translation with his own essay of almost equal length, entitled “A discovery of certain Strategems, wherby our English Empirickes have been observed strongly to oppugne, and oft times to expugne their poore Patients Purses.”

Oberndorff specifically contrasts the consultation practices of quack and doctor as being like two types of acting, constituting a false and true theater. The false healer, “like a Diogenes or Timon, who desires to be alone and singular,” shuns communal assent for his diagnosis. But the true healer is the obedient actor, who “doth not refuse to joyne with learned Phisitions, when they visit their Patients, and conferre together about the curatio[n] of Diseases: but doth heedfully observe those learned Colloquies, and Consultations, and carefully commit them to memory: putting likewise his owne hand little by little unto the worke, and in Cases of difficultie and danger, is nothing ashamed to follow the Advise and Direction of skilfull and well-practised Physitions” (p. 3). Like a player learning his lines, a doctor puts on his role, which for Oberndorff is internalized academic learning. The true physician is “polished and adorned with Pallas golden chaine: I mean throughly Furnished, with those Arts and Tongues, which are most requisite and necessary in a Phisition” (p. 1). The ethics of this praised medical practice are based in communal identity—the good doctor puts “his owne hand little by little” into a group consensus. He grounds himself as well in “those learned Colloquies, and Consultation,” even to the point of memorizing them. Oberndorff continues his definition of the doctor's role by praising “the true Philosopher or Phisition (for those two in our Age make one)” (sig. C1). The equation of scholar and physician conveys doctors' faith that the classical tradition combines specialized training with a stabilizing eloquence.

When Oberndorff and his editor Herring turn their gaze toward their competition, they define them using two criteria which merge gradually together: lack of learning, and social instability. The first-stated source of the offenders' evil is that they are not university trained—Herring says their titles are “not attained in Schooles, but imposed by the Common people” (sig. A3v), and Oberndorff continues, “[T]hey are such as cannot abide to take any paines or travell in studie: they reject incomparable Galens learned commentaries, as tedious and frivolous Discourses, having found thorow Paracelsus Vulcanian shop, a more compendious and short way to the wood” (p. 4). Finding legitimation in popular choice rather than university or guild testing, they anger the physicians because their claim to practice lacks official validation. But even more than their ignorance, their rivals' independence disturbs physicians. They are not professionals because they do more than heal. Oberndorff writes that mountebanks

for the most part are the abject and sordidous scumme, and refuse of the people, who having runne away from their Trades and Occupations, learne in a corner, to get their livings, by killing of men. And if we pluck off the vizards wherein these disguised Maskers do march, and bring them to the Light which (like Owles) they cannot abide, they will appeare to be runnagate Jewes, the cut-throats and robbers of Christians, slowbellyed Monkes, who have made escape from their Cloysters, Simoniacall and perjured shavelings, busie Sir John lacklatines, Thrasonicall, and unlettered Chymists, shifting & outcast Pettifoggers, light-headed, and triviall Druggers, and Apothecaries, Sun-shunning night birds, and corner creepers, dull-pated, and base Mechanickes, Stage players, Juglers, Pedlers, prittle-pratling Barbers, filthie Grasiers, curious Bath-keepers, common shifters, & cogging Caveliers, bragging Soldiers, Bankerupt marcha[n]ts, lazy Clowns, one-eyed or lamed Fencers, toothlesse and tattling old wives, chattering Char-women, and Nurskeepers, long tongued Midwives, scape-Tibornes, Dog-leeches, and such like baggage, and earth dung.

(pp. 2-3)

Oberndorff and Herring reserve for even stronger criticism a worse rank of offenders, the intentionally malicious “wizards, witches, and poisoners.” But the energetic catalogue of the unapproved quoted here provides an angry tour through the Elizabethan underworld (Herring has translated loosely: “Caveliers” and “scape-Tibornes” point to a distinctly English landscape). Underneath the appealing surface lies irreligion, laziness, and violence; masterless men, the runaways of trade and army, combine with the theological nightmares of Catholicism and Judaism or with the dangers of female slovenliness. All of the doctors' competitors enter the list: surgeons, barbers, grocers, apothecaries, alchemists, and women healers. Actors are a part of the roll call—the “stage players” in the indictment—but more significantly, they are Oberndorff's metaphor for the entire problem, since all of the offenders are described as “disguised Maskers.”

Herring blames the rise of these impostors on disturbing new social mobility: “It cannot be sufficiently lamented, that the most auncient, worthy, and honourable Profession of Physicke, which hath been in preceding Ages, a Colledge of learned, grave, and profound Philosophers, is now become a Common Inne, Receptacle, and Sanctuarie of Makeshifts, Bankerupts, and Impostors” (p. 24). Oberndorff wishes that his rivals would “containe themselves within their Shops and Ware-houses,” and he shifts finally to direct address to these impudent upstarts: “Know thy self. … Dwell within their Selfe, and break not thy Ranke” (p. 21). Unreliable acting is revealed to be caused by new social arrangements, the “Common Inne” of the marketplace.

Oberndorff's attacks are part of a culture-wide assault upon the theater, which has been related to anxieties and changes in economic, gender, and religious practices. Jean-Christopher Agnew has sketched out a connection between market culture and theatrical culture, in fact defining the rise of the market from 1550 to 1650—the supposed “long sixteenth century”—as a period of fluidity which often described itself in theatrical metaphors. He notes “a newly discovered, Protean social world, one in which the conventional signposts of social and individual identity had become mobile and manipulable reference points.”16 Agnew sees the age as one of a “peculiarly shape-shifting character” (p. 9), and argues that the image of the life as a stage takes on a new set of meanings, less religiously didactic and more socially reflective: “the deepened resonance between commerciality and theatricality transformed the ancient Stoic and Christian metaphor of the theatrum mundi from a simple, otherworldly statement on human vanity into a complex, secular commentary on the commodity world” (p. 12). Of course many historians and literary critics have discussed the idea of theatricality in the age; Agnew's distinction lies in his projection of that idea onto the marketplace.17 I contend that the social consequences of a more self-consciously theatrical culture extend into medical practice, and take a particular form there. Physicians who made charges of medical malpractice often did so in terms conflating social fluidity and theatricality, accusing their rivals of being economic actors.

Oberndorff demonstrates a medical version of antitheatricality as he describes the improper form of consultation, not the colloquies of the learned but the independence of the individual:

And according to the divers Dispositions and Humours of Men, that hee may fit and Please all, he layeth aside the Behaviour and Gravitie of a Phisition, and putteth upon Him the Person of a Sycophant, and Parasite, making account as the World goeth, to thrive better thereby, then by his profession: refusing no Servitude or Drudgery, how base so ever, that hee may creepe into Favour with his Good Maisters, and Mistresses, and get into that Great Lord, or Rich Ladies Bookes. One while he playeth the Apothecarie, an other while the Cooke, an other while the Serving Man: other while serving in stead of Mother Midnight, and sometime hee is content to carrie the Pisse pot, abasing Himself to every Servile and Slavish Office. Nay by your leave, Sometimes (which is of all other most unworthy, and unbefitting) hee playeth the Foole and Jester, and now and then (which is worst of all) the Bawd and Pandore.

(p. 11)

The language of acting here serves to define illegitimacy, as playing a role is equated with dishonesty, in direct contrast to the reliable role of a physician's “profession.” Historically, non-physician medical practitioners of the period often combined specialized medical work with other labor,18 and that versatility meets Oberndorff's scorn here. Apothecary, Cook, Serving Man, Midwife (“Mother Midnight”), Urinal-carrier, Fool-Jester, and Bawd-Pander—like Jacques' Everyman in As You Like It, Oberndorff's mountebank plays seven parts while on his stage, unlike the putatively singular physician.

Part of the actor's power comes from appearance, and Oberndorff attacks mountebanks for their control of gesture and their violations of sumptuary decorum:

But that nothing may be wanting … hee laboureth in his Gate, Gesture, and Attire, to resemble the right Aesculapian: but so, that he is like an Ape clad in Purple, with a whole rable of Toyes and Trinkets, that by Garish, Outlandish, and uncouth Apparell, his great Gold Chaine, and glistering Rings upon every finger, he may draw to him the Concourse, and Admiration of the People, and more readily utter his Cart-load of Leasings.

Now as this Stage like Bravery requireth no small cost: so doeth it greatly further our Magnifico in many Prettie and Cunning Shifts and Tricks of Gaining.

(p. 14)

As the Elizabethan actor could represent officers of state, bringing churchmen or nobility to life in ways which might challenge their authority, so an Elizabethan citizen could represent a physician, and threaten the preserve of his practice.19 Herring's tract casts rival practitioners as illegitimate actors, as medical cony-catchers whom he is bound to expose. He narrates the work of two particular deceivers: “Thus these two Veterators, or Couzening Copsemates act their Parts, as it were on a Stage, circumventing and insnaring simple Men and Women, altogether unacquainted with these quaint Devises” (p. 32). After they succeeded in selling their wares, “each of them [was] vaunting that he played his Part best” (p. 33). Again and again, Oberndorff and Herring dismiss their medical rivals as actors, in contrast to the “True Physitian,” who “carrieth not two faces under one Hood, but his Heart and Tongue, his words and actions agree and goe hand in hand together” (p. 7). Although the learned physicians in their consultations performed their own self-staging, they were creating a public persona ostensibly free from such rhetorical involvement. Even more than lack of education, role-playing draws the physicians' attack: the professional is defined against the protean.

The birth of the medical professional was clearly a difficult one. Before the more flexible epistemology developed in the scientific revolution, physicians depended upon an inherited and ostensibly closed system of knowledge, and attempted to maintain authority by command. Harold Cook has traced the College of Physicians' reinvention of itself in the latter half of the seventeenth century, after the disciples of William Harvey developed a conception of knowledge as produced in experiments rather than handed down from antiquity. Cook writes: “they promoted a new kind of ‘scientific’ medical learning that incidentally maintained their place at the top of the medical hierarchy as learned men, something the College of Physicians could now do only as a learned society, not as a regulatory body.”20 But in Jacobean England this transformation was only beginning. Physicians' claims to absolute authority depended upon inherited privilege, and allowed for no role but the command performance.


John Webster's most famous tragedy blurs the distinctions between political and medical performances, as physic in The Duchess of Malfi supplies ritual and language for the perpetuation of a tyrannical regime. Nobles and the play's two physicians—a mad doctor in Act 4 and a comic one in Act 5—all try to rule, or cure, by hierarchical fiat. Far from mere farce, the doctors' scenes display dynamics which are interwoven with the ruling politics of the play, making doctors part of what Jonathon Dollimore calls “the legitimation of the power structure” and “the ideological imperatives of order”21: the ineffectual physicians in the play mirror and help produce the command structure of the evil nobility. The Cardinal, Ferdinand, and Bosola all assume the language of the doctor, especially in their treatment of the Duchess. Webster places the medical performance in the context of a corrupt autocracy, and makes the two mutually dependent.

The play's doctors, and the doctor-like actions of the rulers, often take the Jacobean dramatic form most closely linked to the celebration of power, the masque. The most unambiguously successful healing therapy in the play is reported by a servant:

A great physician, when the Pope was sick
Of a deep melancholy, presented him
With several sorts of madmen, which wild object,
Being full of change and sport, forc'd him to laugh,
And so th'imposthume broke.


The servant announces that Ferdinand intends “the self-same cure” (43) for his sister, in the form of the masque of eight madmen. But while the cure may have worked in Rome, it is far less potent in Malfi, where Ferdinand replaces the “great physician” as the director of the healing show. Nowhere in this play does anyone create a successful performance; the good physician is as absent as the virtuous prince.

Ferdinand's masque includes a doctor “that hath forfeited his wits / By jealousy.”22 This doctor's characterization points both to the actions of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and Bosola and to the market concerns of Jacobean London physicians. In a fusion of categories typical of Webster's poetic style, the doctor's delusions connect a variety of contradictions: psychological, spiritual, and social. His anxieties first connect control over his wife with control over his profession: “Shall my pothecary outgo me, because I am a cuckhold? I have found out his roguery: he makes alum of his wife's urine, and sells it to puritans that have sore throats with overstraining” (4.2.82-85). The fear of the apothecary (in England apothecaries successfully won their own company in 1617, after a long struggle with physicians) combines medical and sexual rivalry, making the doctor a figure of double powerlessness.23 He next switches psychological directions and boasts of his powers—his abilities “to make all the women here call me mad doctor” (ll. 98-99), and his mystical cures: “I have pared the devil's nails forty times, roasted them in raven's eggs, and cured agues with them” (ll. 106-09). Sexual and spiritual fantasies of control are followed and exceeded by his supposed crowning medical triumph: “All the college may throw their caps at me, I have made a soap-boiler costive—it was my masterpiece” (ll. 112-14). The technical significance of the cure is that diarrhea was an occupational hazard for soap-makers24; the cure provides another sign of a man obsessed with his ability to control things—his business, his wife, and bowel movements. Like Ferdinand, the mad doctor has a passionate urge to work out anxieties about bodies. In The Elizabethan Stage Doctor as a Dramatic Convention, Philip Kolin notes the technical significance of the “masterpiece,” but sees in it a sign of the ridiculous: “the insane doctor and Ferdinand dabble in impossibly grotesque cures. Uncovering the absurdity of his medicine, the insane physician boasts of a remedy whose folly lies in its contradictory nature. Equally contradictory is Ferdinand's use of madness as a cure for his sister's lust” (p. 171). But a cure for diarrhea is in no way inherently contradictory. The mad doctor's signal trait, and his similarity to Ferdinand, is his anxiety about control and release, and his mixing of the sources of that anxiety. These anxieties can be read as more than “contradictory,” an “absurdity,” or “madness”; they draw strength from a network of extra-textual analogues in the medical culture, in the College's attempts to restrict innovating non-professionals. The mad doctor longs to have his peers applaud him for his performance, and to conquer a technical problem with new knowledge. Such a wish, however, was too independent for a doctor to fulfill within the reigning conventions of his profession. The scene's historical echoes suggest that London's medical marketplace is producing a new stage, and that physicians must find a new role.

The male characters have rhetorical similarities with this mad doctor and with the spokesmen for the College of Physicians, emphasizing the contradictions in their social roles as well. The madman's monomania about control is parallel to the way the Cardinal and Ferdinand, and their agent Bosola, respond to the Duchess' attempts at independence, as well as to Jacobean physicians' anxieties about the dangers of other and uncontrollable medical actors. He is a middle term connecting historical struggles to the formal patterns of the play's textured imagery, as voiced by its ruling troika. The three characters together are an amalgam not only of a ruling elite, but also of the medical profession and of a theatrical company.

The Cardinal's role-playing often involves feigning illness or healing, but acting is both his tool and his downfall. Financing plots in the background like a producer, he shows his medical expertise as a knowledgeable poisoner and as a diagnostic specialist. His area of expertise is diagnosis of sick internal organs, a subject he uses even in courtship. Julia recalls: “You told me of a piteous wound i'th'heart, / And a sick liver, when you woo'd me first, / And spoke like one in physic” (2.4.37-39). Always a diagnostician, in his moralizing condemnation of his sister he is also “like one in physic” when he ascribes what he perceives as evil to be rooted in her heart's placement: “So far upon the left side!” (2.5.33). After poisoning Julia, he creates an alibi which draws on his doctor-like prestige: “I'll give out she died o'th' plague; 'twill breed the less inquiry after her death” (5.2.321-22). But this duplicitous doctor-figure ends up dying because of the private stage he publicly demands after Ferdinand's madness, when he commands his servants to ignore any calls they might hear from his chambers:

It may be to make trial of your promise
When he's asleep, myself will rave, and feign
Some of his mad tricks, and cry out for help,
And feign myself in danger.


Echoing the Cardinal's own twice-used word “feign,” one of his supporters says “Fie upon his counterfeiting” (5.5.20) as he hears the screaming man. The Cardinal's theater fails him; instead of consciously playing the “mad tricks” of his brother, the Cardinal is now more like the madmen of the masque, who “bill and bawl [their] parts” from genuine terror. The manipulation of theater has proven impossible.

Similarly destroyed by his art is Ferdinand, the trio's surgeon and director, who plagues his sister in an art of medical theater which destroys both its patient/audience and its practitioner/stager. His imagination runs less to diagnoses than to therapies, and they are usually violently purgative. Also similar to the mad doctor in the masque, Ferdinand seeks complete control. He sometimes treats others, sometimes himself: he wants “to purge this choller” which he feels inside (2.5.13), and of his sister he advises:

          Apply desperate physic:
We must not now use balsamum, but fire,
The smarting cupping-glass, for that's the mean
To purge infected blood, such blood as hers!


The breakdown of the unstable bonds between himself, his twin sister, and his family as a whole reveals an identification with those he hates, both his sister and the doctor in the final act.25 Ferdinand's attempts to control his sister as a means of ordering his own life are represented in medical terms, and part of his treatment for her involves staging healing masques, of the sort reputedly effective for the pope. Act 4 includes three masques Ferdinand stages for the Duchess: the kissing of the dead hand, the wax effigies of Antonio and the couple's children, and the masque of madmen already discussed. But the theological justification given for those cures—“to bring her to despair” (4.1.116)—does not account for Ferdinand's physical obsessions: “Damn her! That body of hers / While that my blood ran pure in't, was more worth / Than that which thou wouldst comfort, call'd a soul” (121-23, my emphasis). He covers self-interest with a rhetoric of salvation; like many masques, Ferdinand's is at heart self-gratifying. Ferdinand envisions even more pageantry: “masques of common courtesans,” and “bawds and ruffians” serving her food (124, 125). His goal is a perverse theater: “she's plagued in art” and takes the counterfeit “for true substantial bodies” (111, 115). Ferdinand's dramaturgy simultaneously aspires to blood transfusion, in the purifying of the Duchess' blood, and to exorcism, in the reformation of an imagined physical degradation that is figured as sin.

Bosola is the actor in the company, taking on disguises and giving set speeches, playing roles alternatively of insider and outsider. While he presents himself masked, as a grave-maker and as a figure of passing time, his occupational diversity extends to galley slave, soldier, master of horses, and executioner. In theatrical terms he is a Revenger and a Vice, and has the fluctuation in representational qualities often found in those characters: he can be the most blunt as well as the most protean.26 Like the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand, Bosola's healing roles are emphatically attempts to manipulate through theatrical illusion. The most violent occupations are combined with wide-ranging medical skills. Like the diagnosing doctor, Bosola gives medicaments to the Duchess to prove her pregnancy; like a theologian, he dons the mantle of a spiritual healer (“black deeds must be cured with death” [5.4.45]); and like a surgeon, he calls for blood-letting:

Physicians that apply horse-leeches to any rank swelling use to cut off their tails, that the blood may run through them the faster; let me have no train when I go to shed blood, lest it make me have a greater when I ride to the gallows.


Always for Bosola playing the medical role means violence. He has been perhaps the most attractive of the three men to a romantic strain of critics because he shows the ability to distance himself temporarily from dominant ideology and its attendant workings, eventually killing the Cardinal. He fulfills the railing function often associated with both satirists and surgeons.27 But any self-knowledge he attains about the regime's violence and authoritarianism does not help him avoid those evils, as his independence is never permanent.

Bosola echoes Oberndorff's and Herring's claims to be completely non-theatrical and claims a similar rhetoric-free status:

I will not imitate things glorious
No more than base: I'll be mine own example.—
On, on, and look thou represent, for silence,
The thing thou bear'st.


But he continually imitates things, “glorious” and “base.” Speaking as he dies, he confesses to being “an actor in the main of all” (5.5.82), and calls his murdering of Antonio “Such a mistake as I have often seen / In a play” (95-96). His rhetoric of independence from role-playing, like that of the College of Physicians (whose self-staging also aspires to be its “own example”), is thoroughly inconsistent with his actions. In fact all three conspirators play in a medical theater more semiotically complex than the model proposed by the College. These three men all succeed or fail on their ability to take up new roles and to improvise—not to be above role-playing by virtue of inherited power or knowledge.

Bosola's ultimate alliance with the power centers he occasionally attacks is evident in his treatment of women. He provides the play's most medically centered demonstration of misogyny in his satirical attack on the “Old Lady” in Act 2. This particular professional example is just one case of the ruling regime's apparent raison d'etre: the control of the feminine, an impulse perhaps most fully expressed in the dying Ferdinand's history of the play's actions, “My sister! O! my sister! there's the cause on't” (5.5.71). Jacobean physicians spent large amounts of energy attempting to eradicate women healers as rivals, excoriating them as quacks or witches.28 The Old Lady first appears in Act 2 scene 1, and Bosola attacks her for her face-painting and her store of folk remedies. His catalogue of abuses touches off one of the longest speeches in the play, swelling from prose to verse, on the monstrosity of women's face-painting and diseased humanity (35-71). The same midwife returns later in the scene, immediately after Bosola has himself employed on the Duchess a form of folk medicine similar to that used by women healers—he muses, “there's no question but her tetchiness and most vulturous eating of the apricocks are apparent signs of breeding” (2.2.1-3). But despite (or perhaps because of) his similarity with this supposedly female craft, upon her second appearance on stage he interrogates the midwife harshly; in his words, he must “mention your frailties” (14), in hers, “you are still abusing women!” (11-12). Most doctor-like, Bosola discredits her as a witch. Critics have regarded his speech as more of Webster's satire on the medical profession, but I think they have been too quick to universalize about medicine, and to align Bosola's views with Webster's. For example, Kolin writes: “In the figure of this decayed matron, Webster offers us one of the most stinging ironies in the play. It is this maquerelle figure, in appearance like one of the hags of hell, who ushers future generations into life with her hands still fresh with the stench of her odious closet. The progeny of Malfi are tainted emerging from the womb” (p. 167). But Kolin has assumed Bosola's characterization is accurate; there is no textual evidence that the midwife's closet is hellish, or any more unsanitary than a physician's bag. It would be possible to stage this scene as a part of the play's long attack on women. Such a staging would be consistent with both internal and external patterns—the play's theme of controlling women, and the Jacobean physicians' attempts to control other medical practitioners.

The appearance in Act 5 of a real doctor to attempt to heal the mad Ferdinand can be seen in the context of all the medical scenes which have preceded it: it is the last in a series of staged and cruel therapies, masques in which official will is forced on a resistant patient. Although strikingly comic, the doctor in many ways reflects historical realities, and epitomizes the play's satire of medical professionalism. He combines treatment of the body—with his Hippocratic rhetoric about controlling “the air” (5.2.3)—and of the mind, with his therapeutic masque. He diagnoses Ferdinand with a rare form of melancholy known as lycanthropia, which he defines for his listeners. While he considers Ferdinand cured, he fears a relapse, and it is in his method of cure that his practice becomes much more than farce, by virtue of its similarity with both other parts of the play and actual professional debates. He will employ force:

If he grow to his fit again
I'll go a nearer way to work with him
Than ever Paracelsus dream'd of: if
They'll give me leave I'll buffet his madness out of him.


No new authorities here, only tradition and brute force. When Ferdinand arrives on the scene, still conversing madly and attacking his own shadow, the doctor moves in to “cure.” He asks directly: “are you mad, my lord, are you out of your princely wits?” (55-56). Upon being largely ignored, he resolves “to do mad tricks with him” (61).

In beginning this performance, the doctor comes even closer to the previous actions of the nobleman he now treats. Ferdinand himself draws the parallel: “Hide me from him; physicians are like kings, / They brook no contradiction” (67-68). The doctor incorrectly thinks his patient fears him, and undresses for action; the quarto version of the play says that he “puts off his four Cloaks one after another” (Brown, p. 144). To this ceremonial uncloaking and the accompanying loss of status Ferdinand replies with the threat of a more radical undressing: “I will stamp him into a cullis, flay off his skin, to cover one of the anatomies this rogue hath set i'th' cold yonder, in Barber-Chirurgeons' Hall” (77-80).29 Although the doctor's proposed therapy of pelting his patient with urinals of rosewater is a less savage form of treatment than most of the other images of the play, its inefficacy and intended bullying recall much that has gone before.

This scene is the nightmare of an early modern physician: trying to get patients to obey him, he is physically assaulted. The topsy-turvy nature of things is not a foil but an example; medical chaos is another form of traditional authority's moral disorder. Webster creates a portrait of the profession of physicians, and it is an unflattering picture both of them and of the noblemen who adopt their rhetoric. The play is a parody of medicine—it certainly should not be read as an attempt at “realism” of medical portrayal. The outline of its medical plot is not a universal medical farce but one appropriate to a particular moment, an historically situated medical satire which enacts a story of professional medicine at a time of anxiety over its assumed independence and regulatory authority, and also the legitimacy of monarchical absolutism. In ways that parallel but subvert official medical discourse, the play imagines a doctor's identity as a reflection of noble attempts at self-promotion and self-protection. The Duchess of Malfi is a protest play, condemning the ways the professional doctor, like the nobleman, combines theatrically and authority; both Webster's doctors and his tyrants attempt to enforce absolute control but create absolute chaos.

Of course the attempt to read drama historically is the great interpretive shift of our era. In her reading of the play, Catherine Belsey locates its central subject as a tension between two modes of theatrical semiotics: “The Duchess of Malfi, I want to suggest, is a play poised, formally as well as historically, between the emblematic tradition of the medieval stage and the increasing commitment to realism of the post-Restoration theater.”30 In her attempts to study the tension between two sources of signification, traceable in the structural elements of “realism” and “formality” (p. 117), Belsey's shift in emphasis opens the door for the inclusion of historical change. My rereading of the significance of the medical elements of the play emphasizes the depiction of local discontents; in its concern about the theatrical in the Jacobean medical world, The Duchess of Malfi participates in the representation of cultural combat often ascribed to the genre of city comedy. Local political issues are at the heart of the play's medical performances: attempts to cure are figured as attempts to rule, and in a particularly authoritarian fashion, one which shares the most extreme claims of monopoly voiced by James I and the College of Physicians.

Theater in The Duchess of Malfi becomes a stage for oppression, in which changing one's part initiates tragedy, and in which the pose of timelessness usually serves to justify convention. Surely the appeal to a better world is not always part of the corruption, however, as the moving case of the Duchess has suggested to countless readers. After Ferdinand discovers the Duchess is married, she replies, “Why might not I marry? / I have not gone about, in this, to create / Any new world, or custom” (3.1.109-11). But perhaps she has created a new world, as the role of remarried widow is too independent a part for her brother to accept. Shown the “sad spectacle” of her family as dead, the Duchess abandons the attempt at worldly independence and places the language of life-as-a-play within a spiritual context: “I account this world a tedious theater, / For I do play a part in't 'gainst my will” (4.1.84-85). The Duchess' rejection of the world suggests that the only goodness is spiritual, as do the play's closing lines, spoken by Delio: “Integrity of life is fame's best friend, / Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end” (italics Webster's). But although the play gestures toward a better world “beyond death,” it also shows villains using the rhetoric of antiquity to further their corruption. Professional medicine provides a language for their tyranny, and Webster's continued employment of it demonstrates that appeals to transhistorical power very rarely have the benignity they do in Delio's and the Duchess' valedictions to integrity. The language of professional medicine provides other, more secularly powerful claims to timelessness, and by fusing them with the language of the play's noblemen, Webster connects the absurdity of the play's medical failures to Malfi's governors. I think that is why the medicine is there; like the ridiculous doctor of the fifth act, it acts as a shadow of royalty. Webster blurs the boundaries of medical and political representation, creating in the play-world of drama a heightened attentiveness to the forms and rituals claimed by both the medical professional and the nobleman.


  1. 4.2.65-68. All quotations from the play are from The Duchess of Malfi, ed. John Russell Brown (London, 1964).

  2. “Renaissance Contexts for The Duchess of Malfi,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: John Webster's “The Duchess of Malfi,” ed. Harold Bloom (New York, 1987), p. 44.

  3. See Brown's introduction, p. xxxvi, and Inga-Stina Ekeblad, “The ‘Impure Art’ of John Webster,” Review of English Studies n.s., 9 (1958), 253-67. Ekeblad notes other plays with similar anti-masques, and the folk tradition of the charivarium or wedding-night masque (261).

  4. Questions of “integrity” in The Duchess of Malfi usually pertain to the title character, and the play's final, stirring lines (to be discussed below), but they also support misreadings of the play's medical characters by overemphasizing the amount of consensus within the Jacobean medical culture. Critics have often emphasized the prevalence of medicine in Webster's work, but rarely have they gone beyond “internalist” history, whether that history be medical or literary. (Internalist and externalist medical histories refer to an emphasis upon, respectively, science as a separate discipline and science as a product of non-scientific social forces.) See Macleod Yearsley, Doctors in Elizabethan Drama (London, 1933); Herbert Silvette, The Doctor on the Stage (Knoxville, 1967); Maurice Hunt, “Webster and Jacobean Medicine: The Case of The Duchess of Malfi,Essays in Literature 16.1 (Spring, 1989), 33-49; and Caroline Di Miceli, “Sickness and Physic in Some Plays by Middleton and Webster,” Cahiers Elisabethains 26 (Oct. 1984), 41-78. Robert Simpson's study Shakespeare and Medicine (Edinburgh, 1959) notes Webster as Shakespeare's numerical equal in his medical imagery, with The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi each including “about 25 major medical references” (p. 33).

    Medically-oriented readers have traced medicine within texts, but do not pressure medicine's dependence as a category of practice and theory. Literary critics have been largely concerned with connecting medicine to form; by far the best work is Philip Kolin's impressive 1975 The Elizabethan Stage Doctor as a Dramatic Convention (Salzburg, 1975). Kolin draws on the work of Madelaine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison, 1954). Absent from the critical discourse has been attention to medicine itself as both subject and socially multivalent metaphor, an historical reality that is in flux, malleable, and part of the changes of the age, and also a force helping to shape the drama's structure.

  5. Stephen Orgel, The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley, 1975), p. 40.

  6. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford, 1987). The power of theater to destabilize authority by representing it in another venue has received considerable attention recently. See also Franco Moretti's “The Great Eclipse: Tragic Form as the Deconsecration of Sovereignty,” in Signs Taken for Wonders (London, 1983).

  7. I am referring to Norman Jewson's influential division of medical history into three periods: bedside, hospital, and laboratory medicine. “The Disappearance of the Sick-Man from Medical Cosmology, 1770-1810,” Sociology (1976), 225-44. In many cases medieval physicians might not even have seen their patients; inspection of urines could be done without a visit, although that practice came under increasing attacks in the late sixteenth century. Like Foucault, Jewson sees the rise of clinical medicine as reducing the patient's centrality in the diagnostic process. For details on historical doctor-patient relationships, see Nancy Siraisi, Medieval and Renaissance Medicine (Chicago, 1990); Pelling, “Medical Practice in Early Modern England: Trade or Profession,” in The Professions in Early Modern England, ed. Wilfrid Prest (London, 1987), pp. 90-128; Michael McVaugh, Medicine Before the Plague: Practitioners and their Patients in the Crown of Aragon 1285-1345 (Cambridge, Eng., 1993).

  8. Quoted and translated by McVaugh, p. 139.

  9. Vern L. Bullough, in The Development of Medicine as a Profession (New York, 1966), places the period of professionalization of physicians in the sixteenth century. Margaret Pelling sounds quite a different note by demonstrating the part-time status of most healers in “Medical Practice.” Pelling's argument is that professionalization was the norm only for physicians, and that the majority of healers defined themselves as having multiple roles.

  10. Margaret Pelling, “Appearance and reality: barber-surgeons, the body and disease,” p. 96, in London 1500-1700: The Making of the Metropolis, ed. A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay, (London: Longman, 1986).

  11. Quoted in the 1543 entry of the Statutes at Large, Vol. II, 1763, p. 337.

  12. Charles Webster gives an overall evaluation: “The task that the College set itself was formidable, and ultimately almost all-engrossing. Between 1600 and 1640 the official records of the College are preoccupied with interminable disputes with sister medical organizations, and with the diverse classes of unorganized practitioners labeled by the College as illiterate ‘empirics.’ Very little of the business transacted by the College was unrelated to the above disputes.” “William Harvey and the Crisis of Medicine in Jacobean England,” p. 4; in William Harvey and His Age: The Professional and Social Contexts of the Discovery of the Circulation, ed. Jerome J. Bylebyl (Baltimore, 1978), pp. 1-27.

  13. See Paul Slack, “Mirrors of health and treasures of poor men: the uses of vernacular medical literature of Tudor England.” In Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Charles Webster (Cambridge, Eng., 1979).

  14. Quoted by K. Charlton, “The Professions in Sixteenth-Century England,” University of Birmingham Historical Journal, 12.1 (1969), 29.

  15. Chiara Chisciani, “History, Novelty, and Progress in Scholastic Medicine,” Osiris 6 (1990), 118.

  16. Jean-Christophe Agnew, Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750, (Cambridge, Eng., 1986), p. 7. The phrase “long sixteenth century” is Immanuel Wallerstein's.

  17. Exemplary treatments of this theme from a more traditionally literary perspective are Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981); and Margot Heinemann, Puritanism and Theater: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama Under the Early Stuarts (Cambridge, Eng., 1980). For a discussion of the ways theatricality, both as a value-laden image and as a way of imagining, helped to shape the discourse of “nonconformist” theological writers, see Ritchie D. Kendall, The Drama of Dissent: The Radical Poetics of Nonconformity, 1380-1590 (Chapel Hill, 1986).

  18. See Pelling, “Medical Practice,” pp. 93ff. She calls definitions of medical practice which exclude “combinant guilds” such as barber-surgeons and grocer-apothecaries “a trivial and unrealistically narrow conception of legitimate medical practice” (p. 100). She continues, “Medicine was very often practiced either simultaneously or alternately with other employments, by, for example, blacksmiths. Both the clergy and the gentry were likely to be involved in medicine.”

  19. Greenblat discusses the example of a bishop's vestments and other transgressive role-playing in Shakespearean Negotiations.

  20. The Decline of the Old Medical Regime in Stuart London (Ithaca, 1986), p. 109.

  21. Radical Tragedy (Chicago, 1986), pp. 27, 58.

  22. I follow Kolin (pp. 168-70) in assigning lines to speakers in this scene.

  23. Douglas Bruster has argued that much Jacobean imagery of cuckoldry is rooted in changes in market exchanges. Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge, Eng., 1992). This scene in Webster's play provides a medical example of Bruster's thesis.

  24. Bruster, p. 122.

  25. He tells his brother the Cardinal: “I could kill her now, / In you, or in myself, for I do think / It is some sin in us, heaven doth revenge / By her” (2.5.63-66). This confession of his imaginative fusion with his sister provokes his brother to ask, “Are you stark mad?”

  26. For the representational versatility of the Vice character see Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function (Baltimore, 1978). Bosola shares this privileged stage power with another satirized stage physician, Alcon in Samuel Daniel's The Queene's Arcadia, in Three Renaissance Pastorals: Tasso, Guarini, Daniel, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (Binghamton, 1992).

  27. See M. C. Randolph, “The Medical Concept in English Renaissance Satiric Theory,” Studies in Philology 38.2 (April, 1941), 125-57.

  28. An introduction to this issue can be found in Margaret Pelling's and Charles Webster's “Medical Practitioners.” In Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Charles Webster (Cambridge, Eng., 1979).

  29. Kolin (pp. 171ff.) interestingly interprets Ferdinand's attack on the doctor as an attack upon himself, as he recognizes himself in the doctor's behavior and language, “for his [the Doctor's] particular treatment grotesquely sums up the nature of perverted medicine in the play” (p. 174). Kolin notes that briefly before this scene Ferdinand had attacked his own shadow, increasing the parallels with his attack on the Doctor. I would add that the Doctor's questioning is similar to the Cardinal's of his brother in an earlier scene (2.5.63-66), so that Ferdinand's attack is also a displaced assault on his brother.

  30. “Emblem and Antithesis in The Duchess of Malfi,Renaissance Drama 11 (1980), 115. This essay highlights the psychological as a contrast to the emblematic; I stress the social.

John Russell Brown (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Brown, John Russell. “Techniques of Restoration: The Case of The Duchess of Malfi.” In Shakespearean Illuminations: Essays in Honor of Marvin Rosenberg, edited by Jay L. Halio and Hugh Richmond, pp. 317-35. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

[In the essay below, Brown discusses two modern stagings of Webster's play, stressing the role of actors' and directors' interpretations in making the difficult scenes of the play work theatrically. Brown suggests that the modern stagings in some crucial ways may have approximated the performance conditions in Webster's own theater.]

In country after country, people have told us how clever we were to choose such a timely play. But that's because a very rich stew builds up. It's about the supernatural. It's about sex. It's about politics. It's about redemption. It's about spirituality. Webster's characters are everywhere.1

This is the report that Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, director and designer, respectively, of Cheek by Jowl's production of John Webster's Duchess of Malfi, gave to the press, just before this touring theater company's production reached the West End of London at Wyndhams Theatre early in 1996. They had taken the show to towns around England, to Blackpool, Cheltenham, Coventry, Oxford, and around the world, to Rome, Melbourne, Dublin, New York (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music); and everywhere the production had been acclaimed. After a month in London, it would go Valletta, Budapest, Ljubljana, Vienna, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Bogota. Never has Webster's work had such an airing; never have so many and so diverse people had opportunity to judge the worth of his duchess “lively body'd” on the stage, as the actor-dramatist William Rowley wrote of his experience at an early performance.2 Moreover, it was coming to a theater that in the same season had been home to another production of The Duchess that had originated at the Greenwich Theatre on the outskirts of London and had, similarly, reached town after a provincial tour. This earlier production had had nowhere else to go but stayed in the West End well beyond a hundred performances, until its leading actors were contracted elsewhere.

It might seem that the time had come for Webster's tragedy to reach a newly receptive audience. Seldom is a play by Shakespeare available in two productions so close in time to each other in a single city; still less frequently does the work of one of his contemporaries enjoy such popularity. Welcoming the production, John Peter wrote in The Sunday Times (London, 7 January 1996) as if The Duchess of Malfi had achieved top-of-the-line status:

There are few things in the English classical theatre to equal the scene in which the proud duchess woos her steward, or the portrayal of Bosola the mercenary whose soul is torn apart by respect and pity for his victim.

But other critics were not so sure of the play's virtues: most held that the triumph belonged to the director and actors, and they took Webster to task for the most obvious faults of stagecraft, as he has been ever since the start of the eighteenth century. The success of the two productions in 1995-96 does not prove that this Jacobean tragedy is once more safe material for commercial producers: the general opinion is that it needs a very special restoration job before it is playable. Only a couple of years earlier, John Peter had found that a strongly cast Duchess at the Bristol Old Vic was “impressively presented but doggedly under-acted”:

This is an efficient production, which is obviously better than a bad one; it is only that with this majestically poetic text, the gap between efficiency and greatness happens to be unusually wide.3

When Richard Allen Cave chose two productions to feature in his book on Webster in the series Text and Performance (1988), neither one had enjoyed a generally acknowledged success. This scholar rated Peter Gill's direction at the Royal Court in 1971 to be more successful than many journalist critics had done, but his praise of the acting was reserved for the Duchess and Antonio: only they had established “the psychological dimensions of Webster's tragedy.” The intimate focus that the director brought to the play had made his actors “particularly vulnerable and not all [the] cast could stand up to such rigorous scrutiny of their technique” (63). Of his other exemplary production, which Philip Prowse had directed for the National Theatre in 1985, Cave wrote that

By trying visually to realise the atmosphere of the play [the director had] drastically simplified or undermined Webster's meaning … and robbed the action of Webster's compassionate concern with the intricate, enigmatic impulses that shape his characters' moral natures.


Although Webster's art had not been entirely vindicated, the success and longevity of the two touring productions of 1995-96 have given an opportunity to inquire how this “poetic text” can be “restored” to find favor with a modern audiences and provide, perhaps, such a deeply moving experience as Thomas Middleton recalled in 1623:

For who e'er saw this duchess live, and die,
That could get off under a bleeding eye?(4)

They may also illuminate more than Webster's art. As modern directors, designers, and actors stage this text, with its history of misdirection and disappointment, they are tested more stringently than when working on the more familiar territory of a play by Shakespeare; they are likely to reveal more of their working methods and interpretative predilections than when they feel reassuringly at home. An observer may therefore learn something about the ways in which Shakespeare's plays are turned to modern advantage and a clearer view of what may be the costs of this treatment. Webster and Shakespeare have enough in common for success with the less accessible author to suggest ways in which the more congenial might be brought to fuller life on the modern stage.

Wyndhams is a small theater with a small proscenium stage; the Greenwich Theatre has no proscenium but a still more intimate auditorium. Not surprisingly, therefore, Duncan C. Weldon's Triumph Proscenium Productions, Ltd., in association with the subsidized Greenwich Theatre, had kept everything small in scale. The set was a wall of doors and panels, capable of variations to suggest a change of location rather than differences of wealth, power, or intimacy. The actors numbered only twelve, together with one young boy. The show was not to be sold on its spectacle or on the strength of its company, but on the presence in its cast of Juliet Stevenson and Simon Russell Beale; the former had won many awards on stage and in film, and the latter had recently been made an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company after four seasons in which his roles had become progressively more challenging and more successful. The producers had made sure that the Duchess and Ferdinand, her twin brother, were in hands as safe as any to be found in British theater. Philip Franks, actor turned director, was comparatively inexperienced, although among his credits was a performance as Hamlet with the RSC; he also had recently edited an anthology with his leading lady, Shall I See You Again? for Pavillion Books.

From its two star actors, handled with care and respect rather than with interpretative or technical authority, the production took life. Among the consequences of this strategy were extensive cuts and rearrangements that brought the play within the grasp of the small company and reduced its playing-time to what was comfortable for its audiences. Out went the scene at the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto (3.4), Julia's wooing of Bosola in 5.2, and much else besides. These cuts inevitably damaged the context in which Webster had placed his leading characters so that their story was told as if they were persons who lived only in private. Individual courtiers were doubled or merged together, with the result that Castruchio, Silvio, and Delio were the only ones to remain in the list of characters. Ferdinand offers Malateste to the Duchess for a husband, but he is never seen on stage. As the program has it, “Courtiers / Armed Men / Madmen / Executioners [are] played by members of the Company.” Actors and actresses did what they could with the pomp and circumstance of the formal scenes and with the activity and turbulence needed for the emergencies at court in the wake of the birth of the Duchess's first child and Ferdinand's visit to her bedchamber (3.2); almost inevitably, however, with few actors on a small stage, these scenes were too awkward and ineffectual to suggest the tensions that go with the exercise of power or realization of danger. Little attempt was made to stage the interlude of the madmen in 4.2: it was played behind a grill with only hands and faces visible; its text was greatly cut and replaced with rhythmically repeated words, as in a students' acting improvisation.

Many incidental similes, illustrations, and elaborations were also cut. The naturalistic pulse of Webster's dialogue, which gives an impression of thoughts developing as if of their own accord, is the very characteristic that makes incidental verbal cuts easy to accomplish; it is like removing a few heartbeats from among many. Not surprisingly, Bosola suffered most. His trenchant irony and seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, and the energy driving his restless mind, had little chance of making the mark that the stage-history of this play shows to be one of its most constant attractions in the theater as well as on the page. His inward journey from cynicism and candor, through amazement and, perhaps, terror, and certainly through apprehension and pity, toward something like devotion and nobility (though cut through with despair and a still powerful cynicism) takes more time and many more words to be expressed than were allowable in this production.

How then did the play hold its audience? One answer was obvious: however much the text had been cut, time was taken to realize both the physical and the mental changes that lie behind the words that are spoken. The principal actors were given their heads so that they could think through everything they had to say, instead of allowing the words to take their own course. The actors set themselves to work so that, whether in pauses and silences or in collusion of thought and action, every antecedent and consequence of their words would be palpably present on stage in bodily and mental enactment. The Duchess was, indeed, “lively body'd” in the performance—that this phrase was William Rowley's for describing early performances suggests that something similar to this technique was practiced among the play's original actors.5

Following the advice of Stanislavski and many others, modern actors often believe that they must use their own emotional memories to bring reality to what they act and that they must discover and subsequently enact an appropriate “physical action” to create and release emotion. By these two processes they are to make their performances both “true” and “alive.”6 Instructions such as these stem from Chekhovian and later naturalism, but they offer such assurance to actors that they and their mentors and directors are apt to apply the same methods to any text that needs special care in production. Here it brought the thrill of actuality to many moments in Webster's tragedy: and the strangeness of the dramatic situation was able to make that immediacy grip attention, while the sensitivity of the dialogue made it revelatory of inmost experience. However, all was not always to the advantage of the play. Often the text suffered and the play's characters with it: physicality can be a heavy or dull virtue, and the mental processes of making a part one's own can hold back dramatic drive and interfere with the speaking of dialogue.

Phrasing, rhythm, and meter all suffered, and that sense of inspired and intuitive feeling that a silent reading of the play will often bring was too often missing. So the Cardinal speaks of seeing “a thing, arm'd with a rake” in his fish-ponds and then stops, as if still not fully realizing what he is seeing; after a pause he adds: “That seems to strike at me” (5.5.6-7). He has moved slowly and stubbornly toward apprehension, whereas the text seems to demand a union of thought and feeling, a flash of recognition that flows through two and half lines of verse with no hindrance—as appropriate for a man who is said to fall faster of himself than calamity can drive him (5.5.42-44). Speaking during her last minutes to Cariola, the Duchess says “Give my little boy …” and then pauses before adding “Some syrup for his cold” (4.2.203-4), as if she, or the actress, needed time to think about what is the correct medicine or what might be available in a prison; or as if she needed time to invent something to say, or found herself wanting to say something dangerous or rebellious, and then deciding not to at the last moment. Something within the actress's mind had broken the phrasing of the text. Perhaps the line-ending after “boy” had seemed to invite some change of thought and this took over from the duty of saying only what Webster had written.

These moments, and many like them, showed the actors taking time to re-create the thought processes implied by the words they had to speak, rather than speeding up or deepening their thoughts and feelings to keep pace with the aroused and exceptional mental activity that the play's action provokes in its characters. A broken and slow delivery changed the effect of Bosola's last lines:

Let worthy minds ne'er stagger in distrust
To suffer death, or shame for what is just—
Mine is another voyage.


To say “Mine [long pause] is another [short pause] voyage” is to make the process of his death into something quite different, emotionally and, perhaps, intellectually. These actors seemed ready to assume that the sound and syntax of their text, the shape and weight of each sentence, were not an intrinsic part of the play's message—of what it does for an audience in performance.

Ferdinand's treatment of one famous line shows how willfully this liberty was sometimes taken when stage business was added to explicate the verbal facts of speech. “Cover her face, my eyes dazzle” (5.2.264) is spoken as one phrase, as though Ferdinand is giving Bosola a single order; here the actor had decided to manage these words by running the two thoughts together, instead of negotiating and giving reality to the syntactical break. Then Ferdinand goes closer to his sister, bending down to her very face and scrutinizing it minutely; and then speaks only as he is rising, adding: “she died young.” The actor's determination to be sure of what he was doing in a way that “worked” in his own mind had caused this Ferdinand to sound like a doctor replacing an expected diagnosis with an irrelevant observation.

But the play as a whole worked for its audience and won over the critics, and by using these very same means. Not only could moments become thrillingly alive, when thought, feeling, speech, and action fused all into one impression, but some whole episodes were played in this way so that the audience sensed a deep and subtle involvement, in happiness, terror, joy, wonder, suffering, sexual desire, and guilt. The characters' fully realized responses to the more personal issues proved sufficient to carry the audience with them and restore the play to enthusiastic acceptance. Most remarkable were the opening sequences of 2.2 for which the Duchess and Antonio lay at ease on cushions, right downstage and close to the audience. He is almost naked, ready to take her to bed; she takes delight in provocation and delay. The jokes about naked goddesses and ugly faces, about labor and keeping an eye on the time, were accompanied by physical contact and playfulness. Cariola is drawn into their game because all barriers seem to be down between these lovers who are used to intimacy and satisfaction. The center of this scene is secure and calm—until the mood is wrenched aside by Ferdinand's entry, and violence and shouting take over.

Juliet Stevenson gave to the Duchess a cool, thoughtful sexual awareness, both yielding to desire and remaining in command of herself and others. When control slips, the underlying passion is seen, hard and narrow with frustration. In act 1, when she woos her steward, the mood is more mercurial, excited and nervous:

                                                                      and if you please,
Like the old tale, in ‘Alexander and Lodowick’,
Lay a naked sword between us, keep us chaste:—


is said in jest, mocking her own eagerness and taunting him for silence. The next two lines, her last in the scene, acknowledge deeper necessity and vulnerability:

O, let me shroud my blushes in your bosom,
Since 'tis the treasury of all my secrets—

There is no more text and thereby Webster has insisted that physical performance should take over in a silent exit, an opportunity that these two actors were very able to take. The presence of the Duchess was often most impressive in silence, as the text often requires and notably in act 4:

She will muse four hours together, and her silence,
Methinks, expresseth more than if she spoke.


Although she knows that “reason / And silence make me stark mad” (4.2.6-7), she accepts this risk:

—What think you of, madam?
—                                                                                Of nothing:
When I muse thus, I sleep. …


In this production, the actress could take the audience into that almost desperate musing, her performance even more subtle and commanding than in speech. When Bosola, as the Common Bellman, tells her to “don clean linen, bathe your feet,” she does just this, preparing her body solemnly and gently for death. This scene was often played very quietly but this was sufficient in the intimate theater to hold the focus of attention.

With Simon Russell Beale's Ferdinand the production's determination to provide physical realization of inward experience magnified the hints in the text of an incestuous obsession with his sister. He paws her longingly in the very first scene. In 2.4, when he imagines himself digging up a mandrake, he sweats visibly; as he visualizes the “strong thigh'd bargeman” who enjoys his sister, he shudders with frustrated desire. By act 3, he is torn with pain and rendered physically incapable of confronting Antonio or even looking at his sister. In act 4, when she is dead, he presses against her and attempts to slake his passion; he grasps her discarded clothes against his groin and smells them ravenously. In act 5, no doctor attends this Ferdinand, so he chastizes himself; the gown to which he refers is his sister's, which he carries wherever he goes.

Repeatedly this production staged the physical actualities implied by “this majestically poetic text” and often went beyond its suggestions. The Cardinal takes Julia onto the floor and assaults her from behind. Not only does the Duchess return to the stage for the echo scene (5.3), but she is also there is the last scene: as Delio says his concluding lines, cradling his friend Antonio, the Duchess enters and joins her husband. Toward the end of the play, as death, cunning, and complication begin to dominate its action, this practice accentuated what was fortuitous and grotesque. The audience might well have greeted the strange antics and inadequate speech with incredulous laughter, assuming that something had gone absurdly wrong, or that the author had set all at odds, destroying the subtlety previously present and making a mockery of whatever any character could achieve. At first the actors and their director must have been troubled by such a response and, not surprisingly, they tried to preempt the audience's laughter by giving their characters outbursts of cynical and hopeless laughter that showed they recognized the shift into desperate or futile expediences.7 By doing so they had, perhaps, discovered a way of responding to another strand of the text: the characters' instinct to withdraw from brutality and from both “reason and silence” into recognition of their helplessness or the onset of madness. Consequently the tragedy could awaken wider issues at its close by emphasizing the debasement that is the consequence of a pursuit of “ambition, blood, and lust” (5.5.72). That laughter which denies good sense and silence had become a necessity at a time when tears and sensitivity were no longer possible.

Webster has often been criticized for writing a muddled and ineffectual last act, for keeping the play going long after the death of the Duchess who alone could hold all together. Perhaps that is because critics have failed to acknowledge a crucial change in how the play is meant to work in performance. Experimentally these actors, who had insisted on realizing the text's suggestion of inner tensions and physical activity, found that to retain control over the audience during the last scenes they had to resort to strained or compulsive laughter. If the author had foreseen this, he might have been working against the audience's earlier empathy with his characters and establishing a new distance from them. In this way the tragedy would provoke questions about the worth of men and women who spend their lives aspiring to “greatness.” The characters sometimes express this view of their author's purpose, as in Delio's concluding speech:

                                                  These wretched eminent things
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.


Earlier, Antonio's dying words had expressed the same idea, making ambition sound still more ridiculous and defeatist:

                                        In all our quest of greatness,
Like wanton boys whose pastime is their care,
We follow after bubbles, blown in th'air.


Still earlier, in a moment of stillness after he has confronted his sister in the bedchamber, Ferdinand had conjured up an image of the peaceful and loving life that is possible without ambition:

                                                                                Love gives them counsel
To inquire for him 'mongst unambitious shepherds,
Where dowries were not talk'd of, and sometimes
'Mongst quiet kindred that had nothing left
By their dead parents.


While bitter and self-generated laughter can make the audience remain attentive to the desperate happenings at the conclusion of this tragedy, it may also help to shape the kind of response that its author envisaged. In his earlier White Devil, Flamineo's false death and his puns and mockery up to the very last moments are unmistakable clues that Webster saw the value of this kind of laughter and worked to arouse it.

The Greenwich production of The Duchess of Malfi showed that when staging Elizabethan and Jacobean plays actors can find good use for those techniques that have helped them realize the subtextual life of modern plays that deal more obviously with reflections of actual lived experience. Sometimes this leads to the adoption of strange stage business and idiosyncratic interpretation or phrasing of the text but, equally and more importantly, it can hold attention and carry the action forward strongly; it may also discover qualities in the play that would not have been recognized in other ways.

Similar reflections arise from Declan Donnellan's modern dress production for the Cheek by Jowl Theatre Company, only here a further modern acting technique was given greater scope: the use of improvisation as a means of involving the actors' own instinctive reactions in performances and making their own individualities more adventurously and strongly present.8 Journals and newspapers hardly knew what to make of the result, variously calling the production “startling, revelatory, jolting, arresting, dynamic, tough, rich, smart,” and “ponderous”;9 spurred on by these comments, audiences had filled the London theater daily. This company had forced a new appraisal of the text and, in keeping with its usual way of working, the production changed during its tour, from day-to-day reflecting the concerns of both actors and audiences, finding still further nuances and excitements. Performances were altogether more bold, outgoing, outrageous, and playful than those of the Greenwich Duchess. This production was often like the other in calling for close and quiet attention, and yet it also had a stronger and more obvious energy running throughout. A sense of committal and competition between the actors brought it closer to a style that might have been appropriate to the outdoor conditions of the original performances at the Globe Theatre and to the improvisation required by the large and daily-changing repertoire of the King's Men, whether at the Globe or at the more intimate Blackfriars.

The strength of the acting was in the company, rather than in two star actors, and in its way of rehearsing and playing. Still more of the minor characters had disappeared, to be replaced by a group of actors who took on a number of functions, as nameless courtiers, soldiers, acolytes, madmen, executioners, and doctors. They were given some of the functions of a Chorus in that their positions on stage around the protagonists acted as a kind of set, restricting space or opening it out, and defining the occasion. They gather tightly around the Duchess as she is slowly strangled, only her hands visible to express the agony. They line up as acolytes to take communion at Mass, so providing the ordered submission of a religious setting in which the Duchess and her husband are refused the sacrament. They follow the mad Ferdinand as doctors, multiplying the confident impertinence of the single one named in the text. In the mad scene, instead of using Webster's dialogue, they invent and play a childish game with a crown and an infant at the moment of birth. They are also used with the named characters to stand stone-still and unresponsive at the beginning of the play as dialogue between one or two characters sets the action going. At the end of the play the whole cast again assembles still and silent on stage, the principals posed in a group as if for a family photograph. The effect of all this was to place the tragedy in a simplified and well-drilled world. The stage set was nothing more than tall, dark green curtains along the back and a few scattered chairs, so that little besides this variable human context for action was there to distract attention from the performances of the principal actors. Yet the handling of these supernumerary actors was so incessantly inventive that it drew attention to the theatricality of the production, giving the audience a sense that all was being put on stage with the help of a mastermind that did not hesitate to act on its own account without any text in support.

The production as a whole was a demonstration of how actors can “play” with a text. Those who took the main roles had discovered in improvisational rehearsals a wealth of business that could subvert meaning or thrust a new interpretation into sudden prominence, or force a readjustment between one character and another, or contrive shock or absurdity in a moment. Over the years, actors in Cheek by Jowl have described how Declan Donnellan achieves this kind of performance in rehearsal:

PETER Needham:
He creates an environment where all sorts of things can and mostly do happen, and then we go in that direction collectively. … one of Declan's great strengths is that he can respond to the individual actor. What Peter Needham wants is what Peter Needham wants; my needs are my needs; somehow Declan is intuitive enough to realise those needs in each of his individual actors.
ANNE White:
Declan allows the actor to bring what they have to a part. … He brings things out of you that you didn't know you had. He has a favourite phrase which is “Turning on a sixpence.” In other words, the quickfire of emotions rather than getting stuck into one.
He doesn't insist on analysing the text. It's very much an on-your-feet experience.(10)

Nothing is permanently fixed; the director and designer accompany the actors on their extensive tours giving fresh notes and calling more rehearsals as they went. “Performances would grow and change, and then grow and change more because of their constant input.”11

The costumes gave the actors freedom for large movements, being almost as simple as the physical setting. In place of elaborate Renaissance dress were items of modern clothing, many of them in the styles of the first decades of the twentieth century. The bodies of the actors were more visible than they would have been if conforming to the outlines of broad gowns, corsets, and doublets, or if hidden by the many layers that were then in use. They were also unencumbered by period manners. The production was free to take on the appearance of a parade of uniform figures, or a high-strung dance of wooing, taunting, or intimidation, or of variable oppositions in contest, or of persons locked in close physical contact. Although its visual means were spare with mostly muted colors, the action had flamboyance, daring, and sustained energy; and kept providing a sequence of arresting images dominated by the presence of the principal characters.

The physicality of this production was often realistically conveyed, as in the Greenwich production—for example, Bosola actually measures the Duchess for her coffin with a pocket tape measure, and Cariola has a portable crucifix so that she can kneel and pray even in public—but it often surpassed realism with exaggeration, sudden surprise, and lack of restraint. The Duchess of Anastasia Hille is restless, easily aggressive or dismissive, laughing harshly or nervously, switching suddenly to simple and sustained silence, or simple speaking a few affecting words. The Ferdinand of Scott Handy is a badly behaved doglike boy-man, given to fighting or hugging his sister. The Cardinal of Paul Brennen employs a slow and sardonic delivery and has a brutal relationship with Julia, who has to take the sexual initiative. George Anton's Bosola (as at Greenwich, losing about half his lines) has assumed a dour Scottish accent and plays against the dominant style of the production by standing coldly apart and seeming to lack a personal instinct toward action. The play became a doomed entanglement, a game-playing in which each character strives by all means to out-do the others. So absorbed are the actors that each character seems impelled to do what he does: when Ferdinand says his sister's “guilt treads on / Hot-burning coulters” (3.1.56-57), or when she declares herself to be “full of daggers” (4.1.90), they seem to speak no less than truth. Moreover, as the narrative unfolds from one crisis to another, a shared energy and restless invention drive the action forward more strongly than a more sober and well-mannered production could ever manage.

The more extravagant inventions of the actors and their director forced the audience to be aware of impulses that go beyond any obvious meaning of the words their characters speak. When early in the play Ferdinand says “You are my sister” (1.1.330), she has been lighting a cigarette but now turns suddenly and gives him a slap across the face. When on parting he calls her “lusty widow” (1.1.340), he lunges toward her and she laughs harshly. When in 3.2 she confesses, “I pray sir, hear me: I am married” (82), she takes him off guard, brings him to the floor, gets astride him, and brandishes the dagger at him. During his subsequent rant, she goes on drinking whiskey. When he touches a deeper note of pain:

For thou has ta'en that massy sheet of lead
That hid thy husband's bones, and folded it
About my heart,

she replies loudly and sarcastically, “Mine bleeds for it” (3.2.112-14), and breaks off into coarse laughter. By the time Ferdinand starts to tell the story of “Reputation, Love, and Death” (119-35), both are near exhaustion and are sitting side by side on the floor, like children after too rough a game. He then gathers his strength again and, crying out “I will never see you more,” clasps his hands over his eyes, rushes from the stage, and trips over a chair as he exits.

Above all, it would seem, the director had encouraged his actors to be as dynamic and as varied as possible. At the beginning of 4.1, in the prison, Ferdinand and the Duchess are again fighting each other on floor, but they also embrace and feverishly exchange greetings. In contrast, the business of the dead man's hand is taken slowly: she is blindfolded and Bosola has plenty of time to bring the hand onstage and deliver it to Ferdinand. The audience sees the whole deception as it is being arranged, not with the sudden surprise of the Duchess as she experiences its effect, but in deliberate slow-motion in the half-light. Her scream on realizing the trick is horrible, as the text demands, but soon the tempo and pitch of performance drop again. “There is not between heaven and earth one wish / I stay for after this” (61-62) is one of the Duchess's most quiet and simple moments—only to be back at high power to express anger and frustration. More fully aware of her situation, she rejects the wish for a long life and vows “I'll go pray” (95), as if preparing herself for death, and then she stops; this is not the end of a verse line, but from this point a very long silence is maintained during which the audience and the Duchess have time to notice that Cariola is kneeling apart and already praying. Eventually this near silence and stillness are shattered by a dangerously angry, “No, / I'll go curse,” shortly to be followed by “and say I long to bleed,” at which point, “turning on a sixpence,” she suddenly breaks down in terror and gives way to loud weeping.

Sometimes it seemed as if these actors could never be satisfied with what they had discovered to do with any line of text and had gone on adding to it. When death is very close and Bosola has announced that he is her tombmaker, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.142) is said as if the Duchess is tired of the very thought; and then, wearing a toy crown left by the madmen, she gives a dismissive and harsh laugh. After “What death?” (206), which is as controlled as its sparse language, she adds another reaction by taking a long drag on her cigarette. When the text calls for violent reactions, the actors would often take the instruction to extreme lengths. When the eating of apricots causes the pregnant Duchess to go into labor, she has to be carried offstage struggling and screaming with pain. When Ferdinand enters in the grip of Lycanthropia, he does so nearly naked, crawling along the floor, howling and slobbering like the wolf he thinks he is. In the first act, when offering herself to Antonio as his wife, the Duchess slips off her dress to bare her breasts; coming as this does in a scene where contact between mistress and servant is hedged around with protocol and danger, the gesture forces the scene forward, grabs attention, and provides a coup de thèâtre, which The Daily Telegraph called “the most erotic on the London stage” (4 January 1996).

A degree of wilfulness in all this elaboration was plain to see, but it served the play better than might have been expected. While the production was chiefly memorable for its many moments of shock, disrespect, harsh feeling, physical brutishness, and sexual activity, and for its contrasting moments of hushed simplicity and softer feeling (often seeming too contrived to carry full conviction), that was not all: the play as a whole also had an undeniable narrative power because the director had heeded Webster's use of varied stage images to alert the audience to narrative development. A silent reading of its text can give little idea of the succession of events that are called into being. As these follow each other, a slowly maturing sense is given that these characters are striving restlessly to reach an end that was predicated long before they could have foreseen it. However strongly the elaboration of certain episodes threatens to confuse the narrative line, the main story of the Duchess, her brothers, her husband, and Bosola continually reasserts its pole position. The imposed and silent groupings used by the director in setting the first and last scenes enhanced the sense of a foreseen conclusion that is latent in the text itself in its repeated setting of key scenes in a “presence chamber.” The large demands made on the actors' physical resources also contributed to the sense of a story moving to completion, the action becoming like a game played ruthlessly—the actors seldom made it easy for each other—until everyone is played out. Perhaps Webster planned something like this, because the ordered groupings, sustained encounters, and deliberate watchfulness required in performance of the earlier acts are followed by slow and painful concentration in the prison scenes of act 4 and then by the dispersed and individual movements, extreme attitudes, stubborn but failing energies, and accelerating and rending dissolutions that make up the last act. Exhausted and now only briefly assertive, the actors present their characters stumbling toward disintegration and the audience watches spellbound, even by the mere spectacle.

For experienced playgoers, the Cheek by Jowl production also held attention through a tension between what was expected and what was provided. The character of the Duchess was at the center of this interest, for Antonio's description of her “sweet countenance,” “continence,” and “noble virtue” (1.1.187-205) was clearly contradicted by a nervous, taut, and potentially violent woman. An ability to inspire Bosola with a vision of heaven and hope of mercy (4.2.347-49) was a most unlikely attribute for such a protagonist. The new interpretation would have found little justification in a reading of the text—as if the director had not bothered to analyze it for meanings and instructions—yet at certain times the text itself emerged with entirely new force and conviction, as if responding to the mistreatment, as if the wrenching of meaning and sudden shifts of attention and mood were appropriate to Webster's way of writing for performance. Improvisation, boldness, and violence appeared as more suitable than sober calculation as a way of reacting to the often confusing messages of the play's dialogue.

Both productions were driven by their actors' invention and realization of individual character. Both were performed in a theater whose overall dimensions are not much larger than those of the Globe Theatre and allow a similarly close focus. The play had immediacy and seemed both timely and vital. It was nervously, sensuously, and sexually alive in ways that caught the audience's attention for its strange and dated fictions. Duchess, Duke, Cardinal, and Steward could not be confused with persons in contemporary society, but nevertheless they seemed to belong there: as Declan Donnellan said, “Webster's characters are everywhere”—if given the chance, it may be added, to leap out of the past into present consciousness and actuality. However, both productions were stronger in private moments than in sustained and public scenes; and in both Bosola failed to make a strong impression.

One reason for these shared characteristics and shared success was the small scale of each enterprise. Elaborate stage effects did not detract attention from the actors or slow up the play's progress while elaborate stage images were assembled. This suggests that the expensive and eye-catching set designs and stage management preferred by more established theater companies across the world are not necessarily advantages when staging English Renaissance plays: a close focus and actors actively and freshly engaged are to be valued more highly.

However, the limited budgets did have disadvantages. Had they wished to show the allure of great wealth and self-esteem, these productions did not have the funds to do so. Nor did they have the manpower to stage a full court in which the power-game is played with quiet watchfulness and where public ceremony is the occasion for careful manipulation and covert exchanges. Neither of them succeeded in showing how the “consort of madmen” could terrify the Duchess by expressing repetitive and destructive sexual fantasies. Neither could show the confinement caused by the exercise of power contrasted with the precarious freedom of escape and isolation. These are all qualities in English Renaissance plays that are expensive to stage in modern conditions because of the number of actors required. (In time, perhaps, new technology will find a quick and reasonably priced way to give these scenes a virtual reality in the theater.)

Another reason for underplaying the political implications of Webster's text and others from the same period is the prevalent emphasis on moments of truth in both rehearsal and actor-training: actors do not give the same level of attention to the development of an argument or a consistent point of view. This failing is encouraged by Webster's dialogue that is particularly concerned to represent fragmented thought and thus can be cut easily; in doing so, however, a director can lose the shaping power of the writing, its often concealed but tenacious hold over the development of ideas, through all its repetitions, hesitations, and digressions. With his speeches pruned of any farfetched or not strictly necessary detail, and with some speeches removed altogether, Bosola did not stand a chance of offsetting the play's extraordinary events with an inward-tuned consciousness, nor could he present clearly his change from malcontent to revenger, cynic to moralist, hired intelligencer to surrogate protagonist. None of this can be made apparent to the audience with a series of isolated moments of “truth,” however delicately real or blatantly theatrical their enactment. In a foreword to a celebratory book about the company, Michael Racliffe noted that Cheek by Jowl's Hamlet was one of the two productions in their first ten years that had disappointed him when he followed their work as a critic: its “intended simplicity,” he wrote, “seemed, most uncharacteristically, to give the play no firm direction or narrative shape.”12 The sustained and tormented inward life of Hamlet can be given its central place in the tragedy only by the same means as those needed to bring Bosola to full life on the stage; directed to achieve only moments of truth, both Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi will lose coherence and these two characters their prominence.

A third reason why the political and philosophical aspects of the tragedy were undervalued is that both productions concentrated attention on the sexual relationships of Duchess to Ferdinand and Antonio, although only one of them had given star-treatment to the actors playing them. Both also emphasized the Cardinal's sexual proclivities rather than his power over others that derives from his intellect and his position in the church. When actors are encouraged to work from their own sense of their characters' situations, a Renaissance play is very likely to be reduced to the measure of those aspects of modern life that are most readily related to the dramatic text, and not those deriving from political realities that are outside the experience of ordinary citizens or from ideas that are far from easy to understand and define. Putting on such plays as The Duchess of Malfi should involve more than the actors and director finding what “works” for them and how “life” can most readily be breathed into the text. The incessant exploration of Cheek by Jowl productions and the self-imposed critical sense of the experienced actors in the Greenwich production will always help to reach beyond what is merely conventional or easily successful, but a more rigorous intellectual inquiry and a greater concern for historical processes are also required if texts such as this one are to yield further secrets and productions realize their less accessible possibilities.

No one who cares for the plays of the English Renaissance can be other than grateful and glad that these two companies brought so much finesse and energy and such open-ended and committed exploration to their productions of The Duchess; these are techniques needed to restore plays like this to favor in our theater, and these companies have shown others the way to follow. Their success has also demonstrated that large theaters and expensive stage settings are not important but rather militate against suitable performance and reception. Better finance should rather be used to pay four or five more actors and to allow longer initial rehearsals; with these advantages, both productions would have been better able to tackle the play's political and intellectual issues.


  1. “Dramatic restorers at work,” Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod interviewed by Benedict Nightingale, The Times (London, 29 December 1995).

  2. From verses prefixed to the first edition of the play, 1623; quoted, as all passages from The Duchess of Malfi, from the Revels Plays edition, ed. John Russell Brown (London: Methuen, 1964).

  3. The Sunday Times (London, 13 February 1994).

  4. From verses prefixed to the first edition of the play, 1623.

  5. The performance described in this article was given on 15 May 1995, shortly before the production's hundredth performance in London; some details were checked in subsequent discussion immediately afterward with Robert Demeger, who played the Cardinal.

  6. John Harrop's Acting (London: Routledge, 1992) offers a clear compendium of such advice: on sense-memory see esp. 39-42; on physical action, 54-55.

  7. According to Robert Demeger (see note 5), the characters' laughs had been added during the pre-London tour as the actors and director learned what was needed to retain their audiences' attention and belief, and to stop them from laughing at their performances.

  8. The performance that is the source for most of the following observations was on 4 January 1996.

  9. These comments are from the following sources, named in the order in which they have been quoted: The Guardian, The Independent, The Evening Standard, The Financial Times, The Observer, The Sunday Telegraph, The Spectator, The Independent on Sunday, The Daily Express.

  10. Simon Reade, Cheek by Jowl, Ten Years of Celebration (Bath: Absolute Classics, 1991), 107, 101, 102.

  11. Amanda Harris in ibid., 101.

  12. Reade, 7.

Elizabeth Oakes (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Oakes, Elizabeth. “The Duchess of Malfi as a Tragedy of Identity.” Studies in Philology 96, no. 1 (1999): 51-67.

[In this essay, Oakes interprets the Duchess's struggles with identity as a function of the role of the hero, who must not have a private life. Oakes places the Duchess's behavior as a widow in the context of contemporary strictures on proper widowhood to suggest that her actions after the death of her husband are not the cause of her downfall, but instead heighten the impact of her tragedy.]

In the criticism on The Duchess of Malfi, there is one major point of debate: how is one to react to and judge the Duchess' behavior as a widow? In exploring this question, scholars disagree: some argue that she causes, even deserves, her degradation and death; others maintain that she transgresses none of the rules of decorum for a widow of the time. Although I will argue for the latter, my sole purpose in this paper is not to examine the Duchess as if she were on trial and I a member of a jury. As I will argue, the Duchess is so easily within the bounds of her society in remarrying that her widowhood is not the cause but the context for her martyrdom. As well as limning her as a character, contemporary attitudes toward widows also provide the configuration within which Ferdinand's vision of her as the Duke's widow, not Antonio's, finally stands. The importance of Webster's depiction of the Duchess' widowhood lies not only in his exonerating her but also in his using the dynamics of her marital status to construct and then deconstruct a female hero within the genre of tragedy.

It has been hard to view the Duchess as a hero,1 for the male hero in early modern tragedy achieves a kind of identity—“This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.250-51), says the quintessential hero. “I am a very foolish, fond old man” (4.7.60),2 says Lear, accurately describing himself perhaps for the first time. In tragedy the hero may refer to his place in the society, as Hamlet does, or to his own experience, as Lear does. Identity of both kinds can also be lost: Macbeth's kingly robes hang loosely about him; he is left at the end only with his brute, physical strength, what he had before he accrued society's rewards. Marlowe's Dr. Faustus is literally torn apart, losing not only the constructed self but the body upon which it is predicated. In this play the Duchess comports herself in a way that is congruent with her society's mores, but not with her brother's wishes, and in the end he wins. His victory is not only in his control over her physical self, however. In contrast to her defining herself as woman, wife, and mother—powerless roles outside the personal, domestic circle—throughout the bulk of the play, she at the end reverts to the identity gained through her earlier marriage, one that gave her the one thing her marriage to Antonio did not—status in the society. She and Ferdinand struggle throughout the play over whether she will be the late Duke's Duchess or a living man's wife. At the end she is, she says, the Duchess of Malfi, and with that title she negates her relationship with Antonio: she becomes the woman carved in stone that Ferdinand wanted her to be.


Even in the heyday of New Criticism, The Duchess of Malfi occasioned historical analysis. In 1951, for instance, Clifford Leech pronounced the Duchess a “warning to the rash and wanton” of the dangers inherent in taking a second husband. In a rebuttal five years later, Frank W. Wadsworth concluded, after examining a wider array of contemporary works on remarriage (Leech cites only three sources opposing remarriage), that “Webster's attitude toward his protagonist was diametrically opposed to what Dr. Leech assumes it to have been.” Indeed, he continues, The Duchess of Malfi is “essentially the heroine's play.” Two more recent critics concur with Wadsworth's judgment. There were two opposing bodies of opinion on widows, Margaret Mikesell argues, and the play shows Ferdinand's attitude toward his sister's union as arising out of but perverting the Catholic Church's espousal of perpetual widowhood and the Duchess' as exemplifying the emerging, more tolerant Protestant position approving, even encouraging, a woman's remarriage. In his massive study of Webster, Charles Forker also discounts the view that the Duchess is culpable of some breach, recounting contemporary widows who wed, some even to a groom of lesser status, without scandal.3

Wadsworth, Mikesell, and Forker argue convincingly from a solid and varied base of evidence suggesting pluralistic contemporary attitudes toward widows. I agree with them that forces in the culture sanctioned remarriage for a widow; what I wish to add is a closer look at the nuances with which Webster crafts the character of the Duchess. In addition to the arguments of my predecessors, I believe her youth, the propriety of her choice of Antonio, and her freedom to choose further absolve her (actually even within the strictures of the Catholic literature that Mikesell offers).

One aspect of the Duchess that commentators have left undiscussed is Webster's emphasis on her youth. In the literature on widows of the time, even the most conservative moralist and the most vitriolic misogynist exempt the young woman. For instance, in a volume lauding the bereaved wife who devotes herself only to God, the Jesuit Father Fulvius Androtius encourages the younger woman to rewed: such an act, he says, “is not ill but approved of all.”4 Accordingly, between 1600 and 1659 half the widows in their twenties and thirties returned to the altar.5 As he instructs Bosola to spy on her, Ferdinand alludes to the probability of her remarriage, given her years, a concession that has gone unnoticed by critics:

                                                                                I give you that
To live i'th' court, here; and observe the duchess.
To note all the particulars of her 'haviour;
What suitors do solicit her for marriage
And whom she best affects: she's a young widow—
I would not have her marry again.
No, sir?
Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied,
I say I would not.


From these lines it is clear that Ferdinand assumes suitors will be calling on his sister, with his “I would not have her marry again,” a markedly disjunctive thought. Because he immediately cautions Bosola not to ask him why, we can assume that it would be the logical thing for Bosola to do, despite his inferior status. Judged against the background of the acceptability of a woman of the Duchess' years to rewed, Ferdinand's strictures lose credibility.7 He, not her society, is condemning her to a life of solitude.

Furthermore, Webster emphasizes the Duchess' youth with a foil character, the Old Lady, whose presence puzzles critics.8 It is the Old Lady's painted face, a sign of old age, that Bosola stresses,9 greeting her with the question, “You come from painting now?” (2.1.21), and continuing to describe each wrinkle and inventory of what he calls her “shop of witchcraft” (2.1.35) through twenty-four lines (2.1.21-44). The Old Lady thus graphically reinforces the Duchess' nubility, appearing as she does immediately after the courtship scene.

In addition, other aspects of widowhood that could besmirch the contemporary audience's assessment of her are absent or allayed in the play. Although remarriage was not uncommon for widows of all ages,10 a year's wait was customary. As William Heale phrases it, a woman who “remarrieth within her yeere of mourning, is by the law free from infamy, but by the lawe also adjudged unworthie of mattrimonial dignity.”11 Although no definite time is reported in the text, the ritual mourning period seems to have passed, because the Duchess has been giving parties. In fact, it is to talk about “these triumphs [festivities] and this large expense” (1.1.365) that she calls in Antonio to inspect his accounts of her estate. Surely a lady of her rank would not have breached custom so, and surely Ferdinand would have commented on it if she had.

The Duchess also observes other strictures on remarriage. Like any woman, a widow would not marry within interdicted degrees of kinship or commit bigamy. In addition, marrying her husband's murderer constituted criminality, one of those “detestable” conditions that could nullify a union.12 The Duchess is not kin to Antonio, nor does she have another husband. Neither she nor Antonio bears any responsibility for the Duke's death, in contrast, for example, to Vittoria de Corombona and Brachiano in Webster's The White Devil. Not realizing this distinction causes Joyce E. Peterson to assert that the

seizure of her duchy and the Pope's censure of her looseness would assuredly have recalled Mary Queen of Scots' difficulties. … Mary's subjects, the Pope, and her Catholic allies all turned from her because of her loss of reputation over Darnley's murder and the Bothwell marriage that followed.13

However, it was not so much Mary's remarriage but her choice of a man implicated in her consort's murder and one ruthlessly ambitious for her crown that caused her ruin.14

Not only is the Duchess within the bounds of decorum, custom, and law in remarrying, but she is also not, as one critic of the play claims, “acting out … a taboo” in thinking that her financial independence gives “her real power to determine her own behavior.”15 Quite simply, the widow's economic freedom,16 which was considerable, empowered her, especially when it came to marriage. For instance, those who speak to widows on the subject of remarriage do not command but advise. In “A Godly Advise Touchynge Mariage,” Andrewe Kyngesmill assures his sister that he is not trying to “persuade or dissuade” her on the choice of a new husband, for she is her “owne judge” in considering her future.17 When one woman did not agree with her family on the choice of a new husband, she reminded them, “What fortune I have, I have had it from my [deceased] hus[band] and a widow is free.”18 The poem carved on Lady Margaret Hastings' monument perhaps says it best: “Her second match she made of her own choice,” it ends, “pleasing herselfe who others pleas'd before.”19 Indeed, an actual woman in the Duchess' position could expect to “marry againe to her owne great liking,” as a writer of the time phrases it.20

Webster presents the Duchess as choosing well, diminishing the difference in rank between her and Antonio.21 Although indisputably he is not the late Duke's social equal, Antonio is certainly not, as Ferdinand first envisions him,

                                                            some strong thigh'd bargeman;
Or one o'th' wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge,
Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.


In fact, Antonio's counterpart in Painter's tale is termed a “Gentleman” in the title;22 and in Webster's tragedy, before he marries the Duchess, he shows some gentlemanly skill when he wins the ring at jousting. Moreover, morally superior to the brothers, he, in his praise of the French court, introduces a standard into the play from which we can clearly judge the two brothers, those “plum-trees, that grow crooked over standing pools” (1.1.49-50), as Bosola terms them. Indeed, they reject him as a spy on the Duchess, deeming him, according to the Cardinal, “too honest for such business’ (1.1.230).

In addition, Antonio resembles the man several writers deem appropriate for a widow. For instance, believing a certain type of man will keep his sister from “of an happie widowe” becoming “an unhappie wife”,23 Kyngesmill urges her to reject the suitor who has neither good character nor sufficient income, as well as the one who values wealth, looks, or rank in society above all. In Euphistic prose, Kyngesmill outlines a potential mate who is not of

greate livyng, but of good life: He hath a livyng, but competent, not aboundyng, not flowyng with full streame: Peradventure no Knight, yet a plaine Gentleman, not verie well borne, but verie well brought up, not worshipfull, but worship worthie, not of greate estimation, but of singular honestie, not so long trained in the Courte, as conversant in the Schoole, his landes are not so greate as his learnyng, his Cheste not so stored with monie, but his head and mynde possessed, and furnished with the Creature of truthe, and the inestimable wealth of wisedom: … not so well frended of men, as favoured of God … I meane not so well attired in the outward man, as clothed in the inward manne.24

This description is not inconsistent with Bosola's description of Antonio to the Duchess as an

                                                                                unvalu'd jewel [that]
You have, in a wanton humour, thrown away,
To bless the man shall find him: he was an excellent
Courtier, and most faithful, a soldier that thought it
As beastly to know his own value too little
As devilish to acknowledge it too much:
Both his virtue and form deserv'd a far better fortune.
His discourse rather delighted to judge itself, than show itself.
His breast was fill'd with all perfection.
And yet it seem'd a private whisp'ring-room,
It made so little noise of't.


Seen against Kyngesmill's idea of a brother-in-law, Ferdinand's proposal of Count Malateste, whom the Duchess calls a “mere stick of sugar candy” (3.1.42), undercuts his perspicacity as a judge of a brother-in-law.26 Kyngesmill promulgates the value of the inner man, but Ferdinand proposes a husband who is mere show.

Instead of indicting the Duchess, the play anatomizes Ferdinand, and in doing so places his brutal ideology in question. Frank Whigham, for instance, objects to seeing the Duchess “as deservedly punished, chiefly because the ideology that grounds such a judgment—Ferdinand's ideology—is the very ideology the play puts most deeply in question.”27 But what is Ferdinand's ideology? From where in the culture of the society and of the play is it coming? Although Mikesell places his attitudes about widows in the Catholic-Protestant debate, the parameters, I believe, are much wider.


That early modern England was patriarchal is beyond question: that a widow possessed anomalous freedom and choice in this society is also clear. What unease this situation must have caused can perhaps be seen in the constructs that the society developed. On the one hand, there was the lusty widow, one of the most prevalent stereotypes of the period. On the other, there was the “true widow,” the woman who spends the remainder of her days after her husband's death in prayer and good works. In addition, there was the topos of the widow who dies with the husband. What is interesting about these is that none of the three seems to have been particularly mimetic, especially the last one. As I have pointed out, the majority of widows, especially young ones, remarried: moreover, these women as a group seem to have been more circumspect than wives and maids. And, reassuringly for us in this century, I have found no contemporary cases of women killing themselves to be with their dead mates. What makes these three images important to the play is that Ferdinand seems to be able to conceive of his sister only in one or the other—if not eternally chaste, she must be libidinous, and, if so, she must die. He cannot, or will not, envision a life for her outside these choices.

Although women like the Duchess married, arbiters of opinion in the society from Juan Luis Vives in 1529 to Richard Braithwait in 1631 praise a widow who

requires nothing else, desires nothing else, than to satisfie her husbands bequest, through dead: honouring him with a due Commemoration and admiration of his vertues: for the lives of those that dye, consist in the memory of those that live.28

Even women who do great deeds worthy of a man are extolled for their devotion in mourning. Designating Judith as one of the nine most worthy females for decapitating Holofernes and saving her city, Thomas Heywood valorizes her for remaining in “constant Widow-hood,” increasing “more and more in honour.”29 Because these women are the best of their sex, they are the ones a man should marry. However, says Niccholes, for “such a Widdow couldst thou marry shee were worthy thy choyce, but such a one shee could not bee, because she would not then marry.”30 This is the woman Ferdinand wants the Duchess to be: this is his idea of the heroic widow.

If she is not, then Ferdinand can see his sister only in the other extreme: the stereotypical lusty widow,31 the one who “never says nay,” as one ballad goes, a message that is repeated in sources as various as sermons where the widow is said to be eager to participate again in “those blessings which attend Wedlock” and physicians' manuals, where she is described as sometimes having “intolerable symptoms of lust.”32 Thus, one courted a widow “in a converted order from a maid,” going from “action to love” instead of the opposite.33 However, few widows seem to have lived out the fantasy of lust attributed to them. In fact, contemporary records show them to be more observant of sexual mores than maids or wives.34

Although Ferdinand tries to paint her as the prurient widow, the Duchess is the object, not the source, of sexual innuendo;35 and her evocation of the stereotype when she claims Antonio “like a widow” with “half a blush” (1.1.459) tends to dissipate its onus, as it dissociates her from the hypocrisy sometimes linked with this figure.36 In fact, once they are in bed, she tells Antonio,

We'll only lie, and talk together, and plot
T'appease my humorous kindred; and if you please
Like the old tale, in ‘Alexander and Lodowick’,
Lay a naked sword between us, keep us chaste.


She believes her union is based on a mutual love, one that should lead to a natural fruitfulness:

Bless, heaven, this sacred Gordian, which let violence
Never untwine.
And may our sweet affections, like the spheres,
Be still in motion.
                                                                                Quickening, and make
The like soft music.
That we may imitate the loving palms.(37)


If ever there were a couple who expressed lofty sentiments about marriage, Antonio and the Duchess are it. In fact, it is a tribute to Webster's artistry that they do not become icy paragons. We are, I believe, meant to see her and her husband as not only an exemplary couple but a happy one. And it is just this happiness that makes her death tragic.38

Webster places the pressure for the Duchess' remaining single squarely on Ferdinand and Ferdinand alone.39 In fact, several characters even question his actions and counter his charges. The Duchess, for instance, defends herself by telling her brother he is “too strict” and asking,

                    Why might I not marry?
I have not gone about, in this, to create
Any new world, or custom.
Why should only I,
Of all the other princes of the world.
Be cas'd up, like a holy relic? I have youth,
And a little beauty.


In addition, even though the Pilgrims wonder that “so great a lady would have match'd herself / Unto so mean a person,” they question the justice of Ferdinand's retaliation against her, calling him “too cruel” and attributing the seizure of her dukedom only to “her brother's instigation” (3.4.25-26, 27, 35). By far the most telling reaction to Ferdinand, however, is the Cardinal's, the only other character in the play with a blood relationship to the Duchess. When Ferdinand castigates her, calls her a whore, and declares that he could “kill her now,” the Cardinal asks, “Are you stark mad?” and accuses his brother of finding in her an “imperfection” that is really in himself (2.5.63, 66, 51-54). Both Ferdinand's mental state and his transference unfold so as to confirm his brother's suspicions. In one instance, especially, he attributes to the Duchess qualities that are actually his own. After referring to her children as “cubs” (4.1.33) and “young wolves” (4.2.259), Ferdinand succumbs to lycanthropy. When she is reduced to an echo at the end, the Duchess is silenced like so many women in early modern drama, but the power silencing her is shown to be aberrant because of its locus in Ferdinand, whose madness dominates the last act.

Ferdinand perceives the Duchess as the craven, lustful widow, who, like Vittoria de Corombona and others on the Jacobean stage, incurs the wrath of the society by flaunting its mores. However, the Duchess eventually incarnates another construct, one even more extreme than the widow as grieving paragon: the widow as sacrificial hero. From at least The Defence of Good Women in 154040 to 1620, after the date of Webster's play, sources describe a golden age when some brave women followed their husbands in death, a period they say should mitigate the negative opinion of women's present detractors. In 1609, for instance, only a few years before the play, William Heale extols Demotia, who “made a speedy voyage unto death” after her husband.41 Even the author of the Lawes Resolutions of Womens Rights, usually supportive of remarriage, believes there is “some colour of reason, to extoll the resolution of Dido” in killing herself rather than marrying the tyrant threatening her city.42 Even though surely no writer intended his female readers to emulate such figures, in this topos widows were divided, as Vives says, into those who are “nothing moved with the death of their husbandes” and those who “would with a right good will have quitte theyr husbands lives with their own.”43 Accordingly, when the Duchess is shown the bodies of Antonio and her children, she wishes only to die too:

There is not between heaven and earth one wish
I stay after this: it wastes me more
Than were't my picture, fashion'd out of wax,
Stuck with a magical needle and then buried
In some foul dunghill; and yon's an excellent property
For a tyrant, which I would account mercy.
What's that?
If they would bind me to that lifeless trunk,
And let me freeze to death.
                                                                                Come, you must live.
That's the greatest torture souls feel in hell—
In hell: that they must live, and cannot die.
Portia, I'll new-kindle thy coals again,
And revive the rare and almost dead example
Of a loving wife.(44)


After the Duke's death, the Duchess craved a shroud only for her blushes (1.1.502), but at this point in the play she would be the absolutely idealized widow, a sacrifice intensified by her youth. Although it is hard for us in this century to envision this form of early modern suttee as laudatory,45 within the context of the play, through it, the Duchess is approaching the heroic. Even Ferdinand honors her eventually in his own perverted way: “Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young” (4.2.264), he exclaims upon viewing her corpse. It is relevant too that it is Antonio for whom she is willing to die. To grieve perpetually for the Duke was not an option the Duchess considered, at least after she fell in love with Antonio. Here, however, at this point in the play, she would sacrifice her life for her second husband; that her wish originates in her, not in her brother's dictum, valorizes emotion and the private life in the play.46

Because of the emotive force behind it and its strong place in the widow lore of the society, her wish to die for Antonio is the climax of her development as a character. Although her most famous line, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.142), has been traditionally interpreted as an affirmation of dignity in the face of degradation,47 it is instead deeply, ironically tragic. By identifying herself here with the title granted by her first marriage, she establishes herself as the Duke's widow, the role Ferdinand wanted her to play.48 (Just for a moment imagine Lear at the end awakening and saying, “I am king” instead of “I am a very foolish, fond old man” [4.7.60].) A verbal echo exacerbates the irony. During the courtship scene at the beginning of the play, the Duchess assures Antonio she is “not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband's tomb” (1.1.454-55). However, after Ferdinand imprisons her, Cariola says she looks “like some reverend monument / Whose ruins are even pitied” (4.2.33-34). Dying inscripted in Ferdinand's vision of her as the Duke's widow, she is indeed the figure cut in alabaster, finally the Duke's widow, not Antonio's. The disjunction in the development of her characterization can be seen clearly by imagining for a moment that instead of defining herself in these terms, the Duchess said, “I am Antonio's wife still.” With this substitution her characterization would realign itself.49 No wonder that immediately after she reminds Bosola of her status, he says the following: “My trade is to flatter the dead, not the living—I am a tomb maker” (4.2.147-48). Although proud in the terms of her society as it defines her high place in the social hierarchy, her statement is tragic within those of her personal life.

In the first part of the paper I joined several recent critics who exonerate the Duchess by placing her in her historical context. My goal at that point was to show that Webster was more careful than has been shown in his creation of her. He uses the nuances of contemporary attitudes and customs about widowhood to make her virtually blameless. Such attention to sociological detail on Webster's part has to do with more than what we used to call character development, however; it also helps delineate what we used to call theme. The Duchess of Malfi is about how a blameless woman herself participates not in her physical destruction as much as in her psychological destruction. Unlike Hamlet or Lear, the Duchess loses her hard-won identity as wife and mother. She dies netted in a construct conferred by the society, not one she won but one she was given.50 In the movement from climax to catastrophe to transcendence, a royal scapegoat such as Hamlet identifies with the society and then dies to cleanse it. What Webster does is show in the character of a woman what the hero loses in the process. The hero's original sin—what he, and, in this case, she, must give up or lose in the genre—is the private life.


  1. That the Duchess cannot be a hero in the traditional sense “should not be attributed to faulty plot construction on the part of Webster … but to the fact that the presence of the female protagonist radically destabilizes the tragic paradigm as it has been constructed in criticism from fatal flaw to catastrophe, and, finally, to apotheosis,” says Dympna Callaghan. But, she continues, “there is no need for a female hero nor should feminists try to create a new critical paradigm in order to accommodate one. Heroes are merely the chief characters of plays, not the timeless representatives of the bravest and the best.” See her Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of “King Lear,” “Othello,” “The Duchess of Malfi,” and “The White Devil” (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1989), 67-68. However, Frank Whigham calls the Duchess “the first fully tragic woman in Renaissance drama” in “Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi,PMLA 100 (1985): 174.

  2. The lines from Hamlet are from the Arden volume edited by Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1984); those from King Lear are also from the Arden edited by Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1985).

  3. See, respectively, Clifford Leech, John Webster: A Critical Study (London: Hogarth Press, 1951), 108; Frank W. Wadsworth, “Webster's Duchess of Malfi in the Light of Some Contemporary Ideas on Marriage and Remarriage,” PQ 35 (1956): 407; Margaret Mikesell, “Catholic and Protestant Widows in The Duchess of Malfi,Renaissance and Reformation 19 (1983): 271; and Charles R. Forker, The Skull beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), esp. 297-301. Sara Jane Steen also defends the Duchess' remarriage by showing the plurality of attitudes towards the marriage of Lady Arbella Stuart who, although not a widow, resembled the Duchess in other ways in “The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi,Sixteenth Century Journal 22 (1991): 76. The argument about the Duchess' culpability is by no means settled, however, as two fairly recent works condemn the Duchess as a violator of the rules for widows. Joyce E. Peterson, for instance, judges her derelict in choosing personal happiness over obedience to the strictures of her widowhood. The Duchess is, in fact, the “curs'd example” of Peterson's title, Curs'd Example: “The Duchess of Malfi” and Commonweal Tragedy (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1978). Although more sympathetic to the Duchess, Dena Goldberg believes “the brothers' misinterpretation and condemnation of the Duchess' desires and her egalitarianism is supported by general opinion.” See Between Worlds: A Study of the Plays of John Webster (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987), 80.

  4. Father Fulvius Androtius, The Widdowes Glasse in The Treasure of Vowed Chastity in Secular Persons. Also the Widdowes Glasse, trans. I. W. P. (London, 1621), 229. Thomas Becon also thinks it “convenient and meet” for the older widow to meditate upon death but “seemly” for the young woman to rewed in “Of the Office of Widows,” in “The Sixth Part of the Catechism: of the Offices of all Degrees,” in Works of Thomas Becon, vol. 3, ed. Rev. John Ayre (Cambridge, 1844), 3:365-661. That this bifurcation is long standing can be seen in the most popular conduct book of the age, Juan Luis Vives' A verie Fruitfull and Pleasant Booke Called the Instruction of a Christian Woman, trans. Richard Hyrde (London, 1592), Book 3. sig. Dd8-Dd8v.

  5. Barbara J. Todd, “The Remarrying Widow: A Stereotype Reconsidered,” in Women in English Society 1500-1800, ed. Mary Prior (London: Methuen, 1985), 64.

  6. Later in the play, the Duchess presents herself to Antonio as a “young widow / That claims you for her husband” (1.1.457-58). See also 3.2.139. All quotations from The Duchess of Malfi are from The Revels Plays volume edited by John Russell Brown (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) and are subsequently documented parenthetically.

  7. Her youth also obviates the audience's seeing in her the stereotype of the older widow and the stripling, with which Richard insults Elizabeth in Richard III (1.3.100-102). All quotations from this play are from the Arden volume edited by Antony Hammond (London: Methuen, 1985).

  8. She enters “the play for the sole purpose of being abused by” Bosola, says Mary Beth Rose in The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), 160. And, says Peter Stallybrass, “The lady serves no function in the scene except as an emblem of corruption,” in “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 133.

  9. Incidentally, the Duchess in Webster's source, William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure, calls attention to her years, adding that she is “not yet painted.” The passage in its entirety reads, “To the intent then that such mishap [the loss of honor through an unchaste life] happen not to me, and perceiving myself unable stil thus to live, being yong as I am, and (God be thanked) neither deformed nor yet painted, I had rather be the loving wife of a simple feere, than the Concubine of a king or great Prince” (186). The relevant portion of the source is included as an appendix in Brown's edition of the play. Although almost schizophrenic in his attitude toward the Duchess, Painter here justifies her choice with the traditional rationale for the marriage of the young widow.

  10. After 1600, 37.5٪ of all widows rewed, according to Todd (“The Remarrying Widow,” 60). Social critics have also noted this phenomenon. For example, according to Peter Laslett, widowers and widows had a “marked success” in finding new partners. See The World We Have Lost Further Explored, 3rd ed. (New York: Scribner's 1984), 156. Indeed, says Lawrence Stone, “It looks very much as if modern divorce is little more than a functional substitute for death,” in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (New York: Harper, 1977), 56.

  11. William Heale, An Apologie for Women (Oxford, 1609), 50-51.

  12. The Lawes Resolution of Womens Rights (London, 1632), 71, 59. This volume was written around the turn of the century. Also see F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts Mainly from Essex Archidiaconal Records (Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1973), 168-70.

  13. Peterson, Curs'd Example, 61-62.

  14. See Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1969; reprint, New York: Greenwich House, 1983), 306-33.

  15. Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983; reprint, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 90.

  16. A widow received no less than a third of her husband's assets, whether he specified so or no (Lawes, 107). According to social historians, the widow's inheritance rights were the most stable of all. For instance, see B. A. Holderness, “Widows in Pre-Industrial Society: An Essay upon Their Economic Functions,” Land, Kinship, and Life-Cycles, ed. Richard M. Smith (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 433, and Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840 (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 282-83. A considerable personal autonomy followed from this financial independence, as various social historians note. The wealthy widow was, along with the queen, the one woman who “ever belonged to England as an individual,” says Laslett (The World We Have Lost, 19). Also see Richard T. Vann, “Toward a New Lifestyle: Women in Preindustrial Capitalism,” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton, 1977), 195; Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 259-60; and Holderness, “Widows,” 427.

  17. Andrew Kyngesmill, “A Godly Advise Touchying Mariage,” in A View of Mans Estate (London, 1580), sig. 13v.

  18. Quoted in Miriam Slater, Family Life in the Seventeenth Century: The Verneys of Claydon House (London: Routledge, 1984), 105.

  19. Quoted in Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 622.

  20. Lawes, 331. For examples of widows setting their own financial or libidinal terms, see the following: Miranda Chaytor, “Household and Kinship: Ryton in the Late 16th and Early 17th Centuries,” History Workshop Journal 10 (1980): 42, 346; Marie L. Cioni, Women and Law in Elizabethan England with Particular Reference to the Court of Chancery (New York: Garland, 1985), 138, 346; and Ralph Houlbrooke, “The Making of Marriage in Mid-Tudor England: Evidence from the Records of Matrimonial Contract Litigation,” Journal of Family History 10 (1985): 346. Lady Dorothy Union covered both finances and marital relations in her contract with George Shirley. Not only did she assert her wish “to reserve her own living to herself, and to bestow it without any control,” but also she stipulated that “if she chance[d] to find fault with her husband's unsufficiency,” she could “choose another bedfellow” (quoted in Roy Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry [Hampshire: Thames and Hudson, 1977], 107).

  21. That Webster takes pains to do this, even though, as Forker argues, marriage between those of different status was not “inevitably deplored” (Skull, 300), suggests that the playwright was extraordinarily careful in the Duchess' characterization. In fact, John Selzer maintains that it “is in her proposal of marriage to Antonio that the Duchess most clearly articulates her understanding that an appreciation of worth, not degree [the controversy about which Selzer sees as the primary conflict of the play], should rule people's actions,” in “Merit and Degree in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi,ELR 11 (1981), 72-73.

  22. See Brown, Duchess, 176.

  23. Kyngesmill, “Godly Advise,” sig. 13v.

  24. Ibid., Idv-Ie.

  25. Although Bosola may be trying to trap the Duchess by his praise of Antonio, throughout the action he is clear-eyed as to virtues and vices, no matter whom he serves. Forker (Skull, 331-32) and Selzer (“Merit and Degree,” 75) too believe we are to take these lines describing Antonio at face value.

  26. “The goodly [handsome] personage without wisedom and vertue, what is it better than a paynted man,” asks Thomas Pritchard in The Schoole of Honest and Vertuous Lyfe (London, 1579), 70.

  27. Whigham, “Sexual and Social Mobility,” 183, n. 20.

  28. Richard Braithwait, The English Gentlewoman (London, 1631), 113. Also see Vives, Instruction of a Christian Woman Book 3, sig. Cc3v.

  29. Thomas Heywood, The Exemplary Lives and Memorable Acts of Nine the Most Worthy Women of the World: Three Jewes. Three Gentiles. Three Christians (London, 1640), 42-43. Heywood also praises her for wearing her “sackecloath, and her mourning apparell” and fasting “all the dayes of her Widdow-hood” before she kills Holofernes (30).

  30. Alexander Niccholes, A Discourse, of Marriage and Wiving: and of the Greatest Mystery Therein Contained: How to Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (London, 1615), sig. Ev. Other sources that deify the perpetual widow are Androtius, Widdowes Glass, who devotes most of the volume to praising her (see especially 241, 306) and Thomas Bentley, The Monument of Matrones (London, 1582), vol. 3, pt. 2, lamp 5: 178. For those who especially stress the heroic aspect of her chastity, see W[illiam] C[ragge], The Widows Joy (London, 1622), 8-9; Braithwait, English Gentlewoman, 107, 112; and Androtius, Widdowes Glass, 289-90. Advice on how a widow is to fight temptation can be found in Bentley, Monument (vol. 3, pt. 2, lamp 5: 179).

  31. Mikesell makes a similar point: Ferdinand and the Cardinal, she says, “consistently see her as the lusty widow, and in their persecution of her gradually reduce her to the posture of the devout widow” (“Catholic and Protestant,” 272).

  32. See Samuel Pepys, “Nobody his Counsaile to Chuse a Wife,” in A Pepysian Garland: Black-Letter Broadside Ballads of the Years 1595-1639, ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 264; C[ragge], Widows Joy, 8; and N. Fontanus, The Woman Doctor (London, 1592), as quoted in H. Smith, “Gynecology and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England,” in Liberating Women's History, ed. B. A. Carroll (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 104.

  33. Wye Saltonstall, Picture Loquentes, or Pictures Drawn Forth in Characters (London, 1631), sig. C. Also see Niccholes, Discourse, sig. D4v-E and Martin Parker, “The Wiving Age,” in Rollins, Pepysian, 238. The widow's lust is not always derided, however; in some works it is given as one of the reasons to wed such a woman. See Pepys, in Rollins, Pepysian, 268, and Sir John Davies, “A Contention Between a Wife, a Widowe and a Maide for Precedence at an Offringe,” The Poems of Sir John Davies, ed. Robert Krueger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 174.

  34. For instance, in Stratford-upon-Avon, only one widow was called before the church court, or the bawdy court, as it was also called since it examined cases of immorality, between the years 1590-1616 as compared to twenty-one cases involving married or unmarried women. See E. R. C. Brinkworth, Shakespeare and the Bawdy Court of Stratford (London: Phillimore, 1972), 135. In Abingdon, Todd says, the “churchwardens never had occasion to present a widow for living in an unlawful union” (“The Remarrying Widow,” 77). Also see Ingram (Church Courts, 271-72) for similar statistics. In addition, widows were not often the mothers of illegitimate children (and we must remember that more often in this time period than now widows were young). Keith Wrightson finds “married women or widows … only occasionally involved” in bastardy proceedings in Essex between 1627 and 1640 in “The Nadir of English Illegitimacy in the Seventeenth Century,” Bastardy and Its Comparative History: Studies in the History of Illegitimacy and Marital Nonconformism in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, North America, Jamaica and Japan, ed. Peter Laslett, Larla Oosterveen and Richard M. Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), 187. In addition, the Lancashire records from 1590-1606 show only three widows cited for bearing illegitimate children (131, 216, 228) in contrast to two wives (97, 119) and fifty-five unmarried women (see almost every page), as can be seen from the Lancashire Quarter Sessions Records, ed. James Tait (Manchester: for the Chetham Society, 1917). Also see David Levine and Keith Wrightson, “The Social Context of Illegitimacy in Early Modern England,” in Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith, Bastardy, 163, n. 5; Todd, “The Remarrying Widow,” 77; and P. E. H. Hair, “Bridal Pregnancy in Earlier Rural England Further Examined,” Population Studies 24 (1970): 64. For a contemporary commendation of widows, see Lawes, 329-30. In fact, some of the few charges may have been trumped up in order to gain the woman's land, Ingram believes (Church Courts, 244-45).

  35. “It is exclusively in their imagination that all the trappings of the ‘lusty widow’ as Ferdinand calls his sister, appear,” says Mikesell (“Catholic and Protestant,” 271). However, other critics, even sympathetic ones, sometimes see her as “implicated” in “an atmosphere fraught with explicitly offensive sexual innuendo” which “controls our assessment of her character” (Jardine, Still Harping, 70) in her first scene with Ferdinand. However, the Duchess' lines in this section consist of the following: “Will you hear me? / I'll never marry”; “This is terrible good counsel”; “I think this speech between you both was studied / It came so roundly off”; and “Fie sir!” (1.1.301-2, 312, 329-30, 337).

  36. For instance, John Marston's and William Barkstead's The Insatiate Countess begins with a tableau of the Countess in deep mourning. Her real feelings erupt later when she wishes her husband sunk “tenne cubites deeper” (6). The play is included in The Plays of John Marston, ed. H. Harvey Wood (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1935-39). Hamlet too associates Gertrude with this hypocritical aspect of the figure.

  37. It is tempting to see in the use of this word, similar as it is to plum, a comparison of the Duchess' and Antonio's natural fruitfulness and fertility with that of the brothers, who instead of “palms” are “plum-trees, that grow crooked over standing pools” (1.1.49-50).

  38. It “is the full recognition of the importance of private life … that makes her tragic stature possible,” says Rose (Expense of Spirit, 163). Along the same lines, Forker says that the play is “a tragedy of erotic devotion in which the lovers, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, risk their lives for values that are shown to be healthier, richer, and more humane than those that they dare to flout” (Skull, 297).

  39. It may be true the “common rabble” call her a “strumpet” (3.1.25-26), but then they think she is unmarried.

  40. The story of Panthea who kills herself after her husband's death even though she “was in mariage desyred” by his conqueror is paradigmatic of Sir Thomas Elyot's examples of such exemplary women in The Defence of Good Women (London, 1540), 21.

  41. Heale, Apologie, 8-9. Also see Vives, Instruction of a Christian Woman, Book 3, sig. Bb4v; Christopher Newstead, An Apology for Women; Or, Womens Defence (London, 1620), 24-26; and Jacques du Bosc, “Of Courage, The Compleat Woman, trans. N. N. (London, 1639), 15.

  42. Lawes, 326-27. The author is here, of course, referring to the original story of Dido in which she kills herself to prevent remarriage. Virgil added Aeneas and transformed her from “a model of heroic chastity to an example of the dangers of erotic passion,” says Stephen Orgel in “Shakespeare and the Cannibals,” in Cannibals, Witches, and Divorce: Estranging the Renaissance, ed. Marjorie Garber (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 60-62.

  43. Vives, Instruction of a Christian Woman, Book 3, sig. Bb4v.

  44. Her behavior differs radically here from the stereotypical lusty widow. In defending her, M. C. Bradbrook points out that had she “been wanton, she would have tried her arts upon her jailers” to escape. “Renaissance Contexts for The Duchess of Malfi,” in Modern Critical Interpretations: John Webster'sThe Duchess of Malfi,” ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 54.

  45. For instance, Mikesell's wording in describing the Duchess in this mode is as follows: “As she kneels to await her death, she has been reduced to the Catholic image of the ideal widow who relinquishes” all worldly ties [italics mine] (“Catholic and Protestant,” 272). My point is that even though Ferdinand has engineered her fate here, the role itself, especially if the woman chose it herself, was deemed heroic in the time.

  46. Two recent critics have pinpointed the public vs. the private life as one of the central conflicts of the play. For instance, Rose says that “rather than representing public and private life as a hierarchy that subordinates the latter to the former, The Duchess of Malfi attempts to draw the two domains together and to confer upon them equal distinction. The point is a crucial one, because in this play … the effort constitutes a central, rather than a subordinate action, and its failure provides the primary tragic material of the play” (Expense of Spirit, 162). See also Susan Wells, The Dialectics of Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 62-80.

  47. For instance, see Ralph Berry, The Art of John Webster (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 147-48, and Selzer, “Merit and Degree,” 77. Robert Ornstein calls the line “an assertion of individuality,” but, he concedes, it could be also “justly interpreted as a tremor of meaningless pride” in The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1960), 148. An important exception is Whigham, who calls attention to the incongruity of her assertion after the loss of her property: “In reiterating her freedom's origin (in rank), she inevitably also reminds us of her deep inscription in that system, for she has no independent proper name. Webster insists she is not Victoria, nor Livia, not Lucrezia or Cordelia, but one born to be trapped in rank, however she may struggle in the destructive element” (“Sexual and Social Mobility,” 174).

  48. Interestingly, in Richard III Richard calls Queen Elizabeth “My Lady Grey,” a term the Arden edition glosses as a “contemptuous use” of the queen's first married name (129).

  49. “A perception that underlies all of Webster's most compelling drama concerns the disequilibria, both within the psyche and outside it, that threatens a secure or fixed estimation of the self,” says Forker (Skull, 333).

  50. In interrogating tragedy as a genre, David Leverenz analyzes Hamlet as the “ironic stifling of a hero's identity by structures of rule that no longer have legitimacy,” in “The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 125. We could, I believe, say much the same about The Duchess of Malfi.

Katherine Rowe (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Rowe, Katherine. “‘That Curious Engine’: Action at a Distance in The Duchess of Malfi.” In Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern, pp. 86-110. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.

[In this essay, part of a larger study of the repeated image of the dead hand in literature, Rowe discusses the image of the hand as it represents both marriage and the occult in The Duchess of Malfi. Rowe focuses on the scene in which Ferdinand offers the Duchess a dead man's hand in place of his own, considering it within contemporary discourse and beliefs about witchcraft.]

The question of whether human agency is something that can be located, fixed, and attributed properly to individual actors pervades the plays of the early seventeenth century. Metaphors of bodily shape and physiology that served well to ground earlier political allegories unravel the social and political fictions that define persons in these plays. Thus, to the alternate discomfort and thrill of generations of critics, Jacobean tragedy unseams the body in unseemly ways—staging dismemberments, rapes, virginity tests, poisoned kisses, and tortures that surpass the earlier Senecan dramas like Titus Andronicus in their frequency and vivid display. Recent scholarship has interpreted these spectacles in both aesthetic and political terms. For example, Peter Stallybrass's adaptation of Bakhtin's paradigm of classical and grotesque bodies makes it clear that Jacobean bodily aesthetics undermine any confidence in an “enclosed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and the world.”1 Feminist scholars like Theodora Jankowski and Kathleen McLuskie have illuminated the gender politics of this aesthetic by concentrating on the challenges to patriarchal order posed by the female grotesque in these plays.2

The emphasis of such scholarship needs to be shifted from the display of bodies “that are open to the outside world,” in Bakhtin's words—“the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose”—to grotesqueries of action and performance.3 Jacobean tragedy dramatizes the permeable boundaries between acting subjects, staging an intellectual problem: what does it mean to make one person the bearer of another's deeds, the instrument of another's intentions? The graphic play of hands in this drama provides an important vocabulary for addressing such concerns, adapting the commonplace motifs of political theory—where hands stand for relations of office, deputation, substitution, or other mediating service—to the stage. Equally important is the related tradition of vicious servants, which translated these motifs into dramatic character during the mid- to late sixteenth century. Ambidexter, the Vice character of Elizabethan drama who “plays with both hands,” exemplifies this convention. His plot is probably most familiar from the moral-chronicle play Cambises, where he undermines the authority of every master he serves, playing each against the other and eventually bringing down the state. The history of his name clarifies the conceptual problems Ambidexter embodies. As early as the fourteenth century, Lollard polemics against Simoniac clerics (who bought and sold ecclesiastical preferment) labeled “such men of double estate” ambidexters.4 Later, the epithet was extended to judges or advocates who profited from their cases. And eventually, it came to include the general order of deceptive intermediaries: those who serve two masters or perform the letter of a command for their own profit. In this way, debates about delegation and proxy in early ecclesiastical and legal writings provided a ready vocabulary for representing similar conflicts as they developed in financial, political, and amorous relations.

The Machiavellian servants, duplicitous officers, and intelligencers that proliferated on the Jacobean stage inherited Ambidexter's plot and made it newly urgent. The principles that sustained social obligations in England underwent gradual but profound shifts at the beginning of the seventeenth century, which Henry Sumner Maine first identified as the movement from a status to a contract society.5 These changes are reflected both in the emergence of the notion of the agent as a conceptual category, and in the shifting terms of deputation and substitution the label comprises. The traditional obligations of social position that first define an agent simply as a “doer” expand in this period to include the self-interest of the “doer or meddler in a thing.”6 And the renovated Ambidexters of contemporary drama focus our attention on the problems of performance such meddling entails. Repeatedly, they pose questions raised by the possibility of conflicting self-interest in contracts for service: if actions by deputy or proxy are a matter of voluntary agreement by both parties rather than of traditional duties, how can their outcomes be secured?

These concerns are staged most vividly in a scene that recurs across many of the plays in this period: when two characters, usually master and servant, take hands in compact or agreement—only to have that handclasp ironized or interrupted. The creepily erotic pledge between Iago and Othello, punctuated by Iago's ironic asides, is a familiar instance. Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling offers a later, more extended and more graphic example. Early in the play, the villain DeFlores murders a man betrothed to the woman he lusts for and cuts off the dead man's ring finger. Beatrice had asked for his help in murdering the man, for their betrothal was based on political interests and not her own choice. The severed finger that DeFlores returns with testifies to that broken troth, and it also symbolizes the new coercive compact that replaces it: the bargain between Beatrice and her henchman. In the ensuing action the finger haunts Beatrice as DeFlores does, a talisman of the permanent hold his service has over her and the sexual blackmail it permits. Loathing DeFlores, Beatrice had not meant to agree either to a continuing or a sexual relationship with him. But the contract for murder returns more than she contracted for. In the most famous line of the play, she becomes “the deed's creature” (3.4.138): the subordinate agent of an action in which she had imagined herself a distant and superior principal.

The central problems in Beatrice's perverse contract with DeFlores—the tenuous relation between intentions and outcomes, the equivocal nature of consent, and the role reversals of agent and principal, servant and master—are framed in the language of marriage and court service. Recent scholarship has illuminated the important role marital metaphors played in early explorations of contract, across the discourses of law, political theory, and literature. Feminist historians have emphasized the unequal distribution of rights and obligations naturalized—and sometimes critiqued—by marriage metaphors in early contract theory.7 Less attention has been paid to the related idiom of service in the period: despite the challenges a surplus of educated professionals posed to traditional systems of courtiership and patronage; despite important changes taking place in the common law that governed dealers, deputies, factors, and other agents; and despite the call of such resonant literary figures as DeFlores's verdict, “y'are the deed's creature.”8

The connections between the discourses of marriage and service that give rise to such complex relations between agent, principal, and act are particularly clear in the four scenes of formal agreement that punctuate John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1612). These scenes illuminate a third, equally important discourse brought to bear on these relations in this period: the discourse of witchcraft. The language of witchcraft permeates The Duchess of Malfi—with its familiars, invisible devils, mandrake roots, and digging up of the dead. These practices are associated throughout with problems of contract. Occult relations shadow most of the ritual handclasps that punctuate the action of the play, but they appear most explicitly in the last of these tableaux. In the first act, the Duchess secretly gives her hand in marriage to her steward Antonio; next her brother Ferdinand take hands with his Machiavellian servant, Bosola, as he hires Bosola to spy on her. Bosola pledges his service to the Duchess in a similar scene, even as he machinates to discover her secrets. And in the final, most infamous of these scenes, Ferdinand hands the Duchess a “dead man's hand” in revenge for her wayward choice. When he dramatically raises the lights, the Duchess responds in shock, “Oh, horrible! … What witchcraft doth he practise that he hath left a dead man's hand here?”9 Critics have long recognized the way Ferdinand's trick perversely evokes the rituals of marriage, but the Duchess's query tends to languish in footnotes that cite folk tradition and go no further. Yet the dead man's hand, or Hand of Glory, raises specific jurisprudential issues pertinent to understanding Webster's analysis of agency relations elsewhere in the play. The common law pertaining to its use in the practice of witchcraft defined the key problem of actions over distance: what kinds of evidence will help us trace the connections between intent and the consequences of a deed? The manual imagery that marks these scenes thus supplies a common vocabulary, linking shared concerns with self-interest, authority, and performance across disparate spheres. In this way, the discourses of marriage, service, and occult practice intersect in the figure of the dead man's hand, illuminating the epistemological challenges raised by changing notions of obligation in the early seventeenth century.


From at least as early as Chaucer's “Wife of Bathe's Tale,” medieval and early modern literature deploys the language of obligation in two registers: the Pauline rhetoric of mutual debt and affection owed by husband and wife, a debt that is often imagined as generative, returning more than it exacts; and the mercantile language of exchange and economic value, which seems to promise due equivalence for property or service. By the early seventeenth century, the difference between kinds of debt began to be negotiated as a difference between modes of affiliation or promise: parties to an agreement would be bound either by status and condition (which carried their own moral obligations) or by voluntarily committing themselves to a contract. As scholars like Don Wayne and Luke Wilson have shown, the rise of the common-law action of assumpsit (legal “promise”), reflected what Wayne calls “an unmistakable tension between, on the one hand, the traditional moral doctrine of social obligation according to status, and on the other, the more modern principles of rational self-interest and voluntary contractual obligation.”10 Marital contracts remained an important vehicle for exploring this tension, for traditionally, they unified the notions of obligation based on status and voluntary contract. However, promises to marry came increasingly to be tried under the common law of assumpsit, as Wayne notes. This shift emphasized less the legal fiction of one person—and couverture—that marriage created, and more the voluntary—and thus paradoxical—nature of the agreement required to sustain that fiction. The conflict between the voluntary nature of marital consent and legal absence of female will in marriage became an important idiom for the conflict between kinds of contract: motivated either by self-interest or affectionate duty, based either on voluntary agreement or on status.

This is a dramatic trope that Webster returns to over and over again in his plays, as if it offers a particularly fruitful or intractable intellectual puzzle. For example, The Devil's Law Case opens with a forced betrothal, explicitly setting the claims of voluntary agreement against those of subordinate status, when the merchant Romelio gives his sister Jolenta away in marriage against her will. The play goes on to rehearse a variety of conditions that might obviate her consent, some legitimate, others not: duress, madness, bewitchment, the prior claims of filial duty, and the youth of the parties involved. Similarly, Webster's The White Devil explores the variety of ways consent might be suborned: by deception, lust, and surprisingly, loyalty. When the Duke Brachiano divorces his wife Isabella, for example, Webster stages a vow that paradoxically dissolves itself. “I will make / Myself the author of your cursed vow,” Isabella says, loyally initiating a divorce that she does not wish, while emphasizing the self-division her loving submission entails.11

Thus, when Webster's Duchess woos her steward, Antonio, by dictating her will, her language negotiates familiar territory. The scene replays the gesture of handfasting in several registers, enacting their mutual consent. Early modern audiences would have understood the traditional logic of this gesture implicitly; as the physician John Bulwer later summarizes it: “What we put our hand unto we are infallibly understood to will and intend, and with counsel and advice to undertake, and promise our concurrence.12 First, the Duchess puts her ring on Antonio's finger as he kneels and then urges him to stand up, metaphorically raising him to her rank by means of the ritual gesture: “Raise yourself, / Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so” (1.1.408-9). Continuing this verbal play, Antonio responds that he was not fishing ambitiously for advancement of this kind: “Conceive not I am so stupid, but I aim / Wherto your favours tend; but he's a fool / That, being a-cold, would thrust his hands i' th' fire / To warm them” (1.1.415-17). Finally, she closes the scene by asking him to take her hand again: “I would have you lead your fortune by the hand, / Unto your marriage bed / … O, let me shroud my blushes in your bosom, / Since 'tis the treasury of all my secrets” (1.1.485-86, 492-93).

As this last line suggests, their language crosses the different registers of debt, combining amorous and economic rhetorics in a way that is both erotic and logically vexed. The Duchess flirtatiously offers to submit her will, voluntarily, to the legal person of her husband:

O, you are an upright treasurer, but you mistook,
For when I said I meant to make inquiry
What's laid up for tomorrow, I did mean
What's laid up yonder for me.
                                                                                                                                                      In heaven.
I am making my will, as 'tis fit princes should
In perfect memory, and I pray, sir, tell me
Were not one better make it smiling, thus,
Than in deep groans, and terrible ghastly looks,
As if the gifts we parted with procured
That violent distraction?
                                                                                                    O, much better.
If I had a husband now, this care were quit;
But I intend to make you overseer;
What good deed shall we first remember? Say.
Begin with that first good deed begun i'th'world
After man's creation, the sacrament of marriage;
I'd have you first provide for a good husband,
Give him all.
                                                                                Yes, your excellent self.


Yet the fiction of making a will maintains their separation by rank—duchess and steward—and hence the separate executive status of her voluntary agreement.

I thank you gentle love,
And, cause you shall not come to me in debt,
Being now my steward, here upon your lips
I sign your Quietus est.


Here Webster plays on the contradictory positions the hierarchies of marriage and courtly service offer the Duchess and Antonio. But less obviously, he also dramatizes the tension between affiliations by moral obligation and by mutual agreement that Wayne describes. The Duchess invokes the fiction that promises of the heart will be fulfilled here and that such promises morally quit their differences in rank and value. Yet in the next lines, she complains that her rank forces her to woo by equivocal metaphors, “as a tyrant doubles with his words” (1.1.433). And the dangers inherent in court service, rampant elsewhere in the play, lurk in this courtship as well. She might all too easily become a corrupt and ungrateful ruler like her brothers, dispensing largesse and preferment according to her whim rather than his desserts; like other agents, he might act with dangerous autonomy, according to his own self-interest rather than the duties defined by his station.

The dangers of such service rapidly overtake the principles of mutual obligation and affectionate duty that make the Duchess and Antonio equals in marriage. For when her brothers separate husband and wife, they are forced to play the roles of tyrannical prince and vicious retainer. The Duchess banishes Antonio with the fiction that he defrauded her estate and punningly conceals their marriage by calling his work bad stewardship. Antonio fakes a corresponding complaint, using language that sounds conventional but soon becomes urgent: “O the inconstant / And rotten ground of service!” (3.2.199). After Antonio departs, Bosola pretends to defend him, in a similar vein. He rehearses the terrible uncertainty of reward in the current court climate:

I would sooner swim to the Bermudes on
Two politicians' rotten bladders, tied
Together with an intelligencer's heart-string,
Than depend on so changeable a prince's favour.


This is Bosola's refrain, begun in the opening scene and repeated throughout the play: the principles of court service have fallen from the heroic model of feudal duty and affection; we cannot count on largesse or advancement in return for faithful service to our princes. Instead, as his vivid comparisons suggest, the obligations of prince and steward, lord and servant are Machiavellian—founded on self-interest rather than the pull of the heart. This thin basis for obligation defines the role of the intelligencer as such.

Bosola's complaint, in turn, initiates a plot shift that plays out the threats implicit in the Duchess's equivocal wooing. When Bosola takes Antonio's part, the Duchess immediately reveals her marriage and chooses him as her new “executor,” echoing her words to Antonio: “Sir, your direction / Shall lead me by the hand” (3.2.313-14). In Antonio's mouth, the charge of quixotic ingratitude is a fake one, prompted by the need for subterfuge and defense. But it animates Bosola's character entirely, and as the Duchess offers him her hand she chooses her undoing. For Bosola takes Antonio's part in a second sense, playing out the consequences of a Machiavellian contract. The doubling of plots in this scene is suggestive: to the extent that the Duchess's marriage to her steward assimilates their court relationship to a nonhierarchical, consensual one, the new, mixed bond becomes vulnerable to the wayward interest of both parties.

The intrusion of self-interest into established forms of duty—not just incidentally, but as a new basis for obligation—is figured in the severed hand that Ferdinand offers the Duchess. The prop evokes the widespread allegory of the body marital, common in contemporary marriage discourse as a way of describing the subordination of a wife to her husband. It literalizes the gift of hands and hearts that she and Antonio rehearse in the wooing scene. But its prosthetic, disembodied form challenges the fiction of marital couverture, or single person, that that symbolic gift is meant to sustain. A contemporary analogue, from Thomas Gataker's 1623 Protestant marriage sermon “A Wife In Deed,” clarifies Webster's logic in this scene. Gataker defines marriage in terms of the conflict between the female volition required to execute male intention and its extreme forms—wayward and continuing willfulness. Playing on his title, “A Wife In Deed,” he punningly defines subordinate office (subordination “in deed”) as the true and natural role of a wife:

But the Woman that beareth the Name, and standeth in the roome of a Wife, but doth not the office and dutie of a Wife, is but as an eye of glass, or a silver nose, or an ivorie tooth, or an iron hand, or a woodden leg, that occupieth the place indeed, and beareth the Name of a limbe or a member, but is not truly or properly any part of that bodie whereunto it is fastened; it is but equivocally so called.13

Gataker's insistence that a wife internalize her subordinate status, consenting to the loss of her separate will, typifies the self-alienation Webster is at pains to illuminate whenever he raises the paradox of marital consent on stage. As a limb of the marital body, the wife executes the husband's will; but she also ratifies their mutual rights and obligations by doing so. Or, as in Gataker's example, she fails to ratify them. The looseness of a wife not well fastened to her husband clarifies the symbolic exchange of the dead man's hand: the severed part marks the eruption of wayward volition into relations of office and duty—suggesting the potentially disastrous results for other kinds of social arrangements, like political or financial contracts, ratified by similar voluntary gestures of consent.

Gataker's misogyny echoes in the rants of Bosola and Ferdinand, who are prone to explode about the sexual waywardness of women, exemplified by the Duchess—“a sister damned; she's loose i'th'hilts, / Grown a notorious strumpet” (2.5.3-4). The play as a whole, however, has a more complicated agenda than Ferdinand does in offering this hand. Webster is interested not so much in female willfulness alone, but in the larger mechanism of volition loosed from the traditional obligations of degree and place that female willfulness types. Like Gataker, he locates this looseness not just beneath the skin but in action or deed: as the cryptic phrase “loose i'th'hilts” implies, suggesting an unwieldy instrument. In this way, the Duchess's own hand comes to exemplify the paradoxes of the dead man's hand. It is redescribed as an instrument that may not perform its proper office or submit to the will of its employer. Just after he tricks her into revealing her marriage, Bosola praises the Duchess with a grim double entendre. He describes her hand in words that recall the testamentary language she used to woo Antonio:

… the neglected poets of your time,
In honour of this trophy of a man,
Raised by that curious engine, your white hand,
Shall thank you, in your grave, for't; and make that
More reverend than all the cabinets
Of living princes.


Several sixteenth-century senses of the word “engine” operate here to suggest the self-alienation brought about by her marriage and figured in her hand. First, the notion of engine as a snare, as skill in contriving, or trickery—reinforced by Webster's only other use of the word, early on in the play. When her two brothers confront the Duchess, they moralize, “Hypocrisy is woven of a fine small thread, / Subtler than Vulcan's engine” (1.1.304-5). The parable of Vulcan underwrites Bosola's use of “engine” with a plot of lust discovered that the play acts out—as if the Duchess's handfasting carries in it its own inevitable urge to publish. Her very capacity to choose, Bosola implies, will catch her up; and her subsequent choice of Bosola confirms this prediction. This is one version of what it might be to be the deed's creature.

Bosola develops a second reading of “engine” as stage machinery: describing the marriage as a tragic action that will unfold, will she nil she, to remake the Duchess into her own monument. Here he echoes the rhetoric of the wooing scene, with its language of wills, death, winding-sheets, and shroud. He suggests that the Duchess has given herself away by a kind of mortmain or testamentary “dead hand.” The echo scene, late in the play, certainly confirms the reach of her will beyond the grave. But this is not the posterity she contracted for in choosing Antonio. Indeed, she says the opposite when she tells him to kiss her: “This is flesh and blood, sir; / 'Tis not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband's tomb” (1.1.443-45). Thus, the plot initiated by this “curious engine” directly reverses her intentions, and in this way, it anticipates a third sense of “engine”: the modern notion of a mechanism that drives itself, sui generis, like the automata of Hobbes's famous opening to Leviathan.14 In Bosola's description, the Duchess's hand operates partly under its own power, against the interests of its owner. And it behaves this way precisely by undermining the contract it should ratify.

Thus, just as Lavinia's hand becomes a type of the disabilities that pervade Rome, so the Duchess's hand exemplifies the concerns that plague voluntary contracts in this play. These are several: the paradox of willingly subjecting one's will to another, with the uncanny alienations that entails; the conflict between self-interest and affectionate duty; and the difficulty of controlling the outcomes of actions performed through a deputy or proxy. Pairing the Duchess's “curious engine” with the dead man's hand, Webster expands on this third problem. He invokes the discourse of witchcraft to explore the nature of the ties that bind intention to act and the ways these ties attenuate in relations of service.


By the time Ferdinand offers to “seal his peace” with the Duchess—or take hands in confirmation of renewed accord—this gesture has been established as a contradictory sign, binding intelligencers as well as lovers, signifying parting as well as agreement. When Ferdinand berates the Duchess for dishonoring herself (and him), his parable of the traveling companions Reputation, Love, and Death, reminds us of the separations as well as conjunctions figured by clasped hands:

          “Stay,” quoth Reputation,
“Do not forsake me; for it is my nature,
If once I part from any man I meet,
I am never found again.” And so, for you:
You have shook hands with Reputation,
And made him invisible.


When Ferdinand offers a dead man's hand in place of his own, the travesty undoes the social bonds that such rituals are meant to cement. His language maliciously parodies the affectionate obligations symbolized by the marital handclasp:15

I come to seal my peace with you: here's a hand,
Gives her a dead man's hand [with a ring]
I affectionately kiss it.
Pray do: and bury the print of it in your heart.
I will leave this ring with you for a love-token;
And the hand, as sure as the ring; and do not doubt
But you shall have the heart too. When you need a friend
Send it to him that owed it: you shall see
Whether he can aid you.
                                                                                                              You are very cold.
I fear you are not well after your travel.
          [Bosola brings up lights]
Ha! Lights! O horrible!
                                                                                          Let her have lights enough.
          Exit [Ferdinand]
What witchcraft doth he practise that he hath left
A dead man's hand here?


Critics tend to interpret this exchange emblematically, as a kind of memento mori or as a symbolic displacement of Ferdinand's incestuous desires. It is surely both. Yet the Duchess's shocked reaction suggests connections to the language of witchcraft elsewhere in the play and directs us to read the prop in that context as well. Folk tales of the Hand of Glory and contemporary common law governing the use of dead bodies register a specific horror in the dead man's hand: the prospect of losing the part of the body that connects intention and effect (the part “infallibly understood to will and intend” in John Bulwer's words) and finding it subject to the designs of someone else. Ferdinand's offer demonstrates, dismayingly, how easily a hand clasp can be converted to an emblem of its own undoing, or a hand can be made to represent the disability of its holder, as perversely destructive as the “curious engine” of the Duchess's hand.

The Hand of Glory or “Main-de-Gloire” has a fairly extended history in early European witchcraft lore and practice.16 The famous demonologist Francesco Maria Guazzo's description of the charm in his Compendium Maleficarum (1608), includes a recipe for its use and preparation that was well established. Guazzo's primary source is the 1595 Demonolatreiae by Nicholas Remy, a notorious French demonologist and judge of witchcraft trials.17 Remy in turn describes a practice well codified in folk tradition.

To make such a charm, the witch cuts the hand off an exhumed body and prepares it magically: the severed hand is “pickled with various salts, dried in strong sunlight or an oven until … quite hard.”18 When employed in witchcraft, the fingers are anointed with devilish oils and either burned or used as a candle-holder (Guazzo, 84-85, 90). As long as the Hand of Glory burns, it causes all those around except the witch to sleep, to be immobilized, or it allows the witch to act invisibly. Later demonologists borrow accounts of this charm, often word for word, from these earlier ones. And by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, folk anecdotes, horror stories, and even contemporary incidents involving the Hand of Glory were in lively circulation, presumably deriving renewed popularity from the 1722 publication of the grimoire Secrets Merveilleux de la Magie Naturelle et Cabalistique de Petit Albert. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the colloquial use of the term “hand” for a charm or talisman continues in occasional use in the southern and south-midland United States, where the terms “hand,” “lucky-hand,” and “hand-giver” denote one who casts a spell on another.

What the charm is used for, and how it is disabled are as much a matter of tradition as its preparation. Demonologists and folklorists alike substantiate their explanations of the charm with “real life” accounts of thieves who were caught using a Hand of Glory during a theft. Typically, the stories concern a relatively recent event in some nearby province. This is the way Guazzo begins his own account of how the Hand of Glory works: “In the Diocese of Liege, relates Caesarius of Heisterbach, in a town which some call Hugo and others Dinant, there came one night to an inn two men” (85). Guazzo describes how the two thieves use the Hand of Glory to witch their victims into a deep sleep, and then recounts their frustration by a perspicacious maidservant, who douses the burning charm. The folklorist Christina Hole offers a more recent anecdote, from The Observer, 16 January 1831; it tells of an attempted robbery on 3 January at Loughcrew, Co. Meath in which thieves using a Hand of Glory were similarly foiled (179). Hole immediately follows this brief reference with a more detailed story from the last decade of the eighteenth century, equally charged with verisimilitude: this account was “originally collected by Charles Wastell from Bella Parkin, the daughter of the maidservant concerned.” Like the other versions of the tale, this one tells of an attempted theft at the “Old Spital Inn, near Stainmore,” foiled by the alert maidservant who witnesses the use of the Hand and puts it out (180).

The burglary plot becomes a standard feature of the Hand of Glory, remarkably consistent in its particular details across several centuries.19 The motif of theft suggests the problems caused by the mobile and appropriable nature of physical signs of agency. And it emphasizes the tenuousness of property as a vehicle for effective human action. The detachable, instrumental nature of the Hand of Glory is what makes it a powerful tool and what facilitates supernatural activities. Yet its very status as a thing that can be taken up by another and turned to unwonted uses reveals a profound weakness in—and threat to—each person who employs it—for the thief or witch is always foiled.

For Webster, drawing on these traditions, the dead man's hand also suggests the tenuousness of bodily metaphors as evidence for any theory about effectual human action. The specific form these problems take in The Duchess of Malfi is the task of explaining actions performed at a distance, by proxy, or through intermediation, where the evidence that proves the connection between intention and effect is not clear. This is the central problem maleficia or evil acts posed in early seventeenth-century common law. Like the leg that Ferdinand is later discovered to have “digged up” as a sign of his mad witchery, the Hand of Glory falls under the criminal category of “digging up the dead,” a new offense added to James I's 1604 Statute. The 1604 Statute defines the offense as follows:

[Taking] up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her, or their grave, or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone, or any other part of any dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment.

(R. Robbins, 280)

Other revisions in the 1604 Statute emphasized contract with the devil or evil spirits, spelling out the variety of pacts that might be engaged in: “consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed, or reward” (280). Digging up the dead was one of a set of practices that could provide evidence of such covenants; thus the statute specifies it as a felony punishable by death without benefit of clergy and sanctuary if convicted. Recorded use of dead bodies for witchcraft in England appears sporadic; in his analysis of the Essex Assizes between 1560 to 1680, for example, Alan Macfarlane cites only one indictment for the use of dead bodies.20 Russell Hope Robbins, on the other hand, records the use of the Hand of Glory as evidence in continental witchcraft prosecutions, citing a case Guazzo borrows from Remy that took place in Guermingen in 1588 (241). Webster's use of the charm with minimal glossing (“What witchcraft doth he practise”) suggests that such practices were known widely by reputation, if not by trial. One larger English context for the new provisions in the 1604 legislation was of course James I's increasing persecution of Recusants. The statute might well have been used to demonize Catholic worship of relics by assimilating them to occult practice. Certainly, Bosola's threat that the Duchess's own hand and person will become a site of pilgrimage resonates with the horrifying rather than redeeming potential of such reverence. The Hand of Glory itself conjures the worst potential of contemporary relics. With its elaborate preparation and diabolical use, it evokes the manufacture of false relics and the corrupted interests they serve. It also realizes a profound dissolution of body and person, for this talisman perverts the actual synecdoche, pars pro toto, inherent in a true relic, as the body part that should incorporate the whole person is converted to another person's instrument.21

What is most important to this brief account of the tradition of the Hand of Glory is less its actual employment—recipes in grimoires and demonologies are certainly of questionable provenance—than its legal status as the sign and tool of maleficia, or evil acts. According to the 1604 Statute's rules about exhumation and the felonious use of corpses, a person who used a Hand of Glory would by definition be a witch. Furthermore, as a “known practice of witchcraft,” possession of the charm would constitute the “just and sufficient proof” required for conviction in William Perkins's 1608 guide to justices (R. Robbins, 174). Like the use of wax figures and the employment of familiars, the charm offered a particularly powerful kind of evidence for the presumption of maleficia—in contrast with the more dubiously grounded presumptions of contract with the devil. Witchcraft trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often linked malevolent motive and injurious effect in the absence of the kind of direct evidence of causality that other kinds of criminal action required. This was a fact much noted and worried over by contemporary jurists and often the source of skepticism. In a detailed discussion of this problem, Alan Macfarlane cites Gifford's Dialogue as an influential critical account of the difficulty of proving such causal links. He argues, “It was only possible to testify to motives and effects, not to witness the actual act of witchcraft or the invisible way in which this force operated” (Macfarlane, 16).22 Michael Dalton's Countrey Justice (1618) is often quoted by modern scholars to illustrate jurisprudential concerns about the attenuation, over time and space, of links between evil effects and the person of the witch who intended them. Dalton's manual bases his guidelines on the Discovery of Witches, containing the 1612 arraignments of witches at the Lancaster Assize. He cautions, “Now against these Witches the Justices of peace may not alwaies expect direct evidence, seeing that all their workes are the workes of darknesse, and no witnesses present with them to accuse them.”23 Comparing witchcraft to poisoning, Dalton concludes that “halfe proofes are to be allowed, and are good causes of suspition” (Dalton, 268).

Trials thus provided a stage on which to adjudicate the differences between evil intentions and their effects, and “natural” or accidental events that occurred by unhappy coincidence. As both explanation and evidence of the peculiar power practiced by witches, the charm provides a missing link that distinguishes these two kinds of events. It is significant that recipes for the Hand of Glory often stipulate that the hand come from the body of a felon, forging an a priori association with criminal action. In this way a clear distinction can be kept between acts of God and felonious ones. The difficulty of maintaining such distinctions is a problem that recurs throughout contemporary debates about the existence of witchcraft and is characteristically couched in the language of manual action. Thomas Ady's work, for example, is full of passages contesting “whose hand is in” an action—God's or witches': “Seldom hath a man the hand of God against him in his estate, or health of body, or any way, but presently he cryeth out of some poor innocent Neighbour, that he, or she hath bewitched him.” “And therefore men should look into the Scriptures, and search what sins bring afflictions from Gods hand, and not say presently, what old man or woman was last at my door, that I may hang him or her for a Witch.”24 Much earlier, Reginald Scot argued a similarly skeptical line: “Fewe or none can (nowadaies) with patience indure the hand and correction of God. For if any adversities, greefe, sicknesse, losse of children, corne, catell, or libertie happen unto them; by & by they exclaim uppon witches.”25

Amputated from the body whose intentions it should be serving yet generating powerful effects for the one who wields it, the dead man's hand exemplifies the vexed status of testimonial and material evidence in witchcraft prosecutions. It signifies both a compelling forensic connection between intention and act and the urgent need to forge that connection against accepted legal convention. As trial evidence, the Hand of Glory mediates between the person of the witch and distant maleficia. And by supplying such evidence, the charm brings the witch under control, for it peculiarly confirms both her temporary power and her ultimate helplessness, as the repeated formula of foiled sorcery confirms. In these contradictory roles, the Hand of Glory remains a “curious engine,” working invisibly and inexorably, with an agency attenuated from the body of the acting subject and often against the interests of its possessor.

Evoking this forensic history, Webster stages a punning byplay on the etymology of the term “Hand of Glory,” drawing on the continental origins of the name. The phrase “Hand of Glory” translates the French main de gloire, a “deformation by ‘popular etymology’ of the Old French mandegloire”: from mandegore, mandragore, or mandrake.26 Like the dead man's hand, the mandrake plant is associated with felonious acts, supposed by popular tradition to grow under the gallows. In Webster's play, it serves as Ferdinand's explanation of his madness: he has grown mad from digging one up, he says to his brother. “What's the Prodigy?” the cardinal asks. “Read there, a sister damn'ed; she's loose i'th'hilts, / Grown a notorious strumpet” (2.5.1-4). For Ferdinand, as many critics have noted, his sister's sexual willfulness profoundly threatens his own person, much as the loosely fastened wife of Gataker's exemplum threatens her husband—hence, the frequent scholarly diagnosis of incestuous obsession. But the play overlays this erotic subtext with other causes for his madness, leading us through the language of madness back to the relationship between Ferdinand and Bosola.


For Webster, the failure of the body to ratify states like intention and consent is epitomized in the dead man's hand: where the part that symbolizes effectual action becomes the grotesque instrument of another's design. As “Main de Gloire,” the dead man's hand suggests that the condition for madness is precisely the recognition of will and consent as a property held by another. This is a recognition that both Bosola and Ferdinand come to, in different ways, in the scene in which Bosola claims his reward for killing the Duchess. When Bosola challenges Ferdinand for his reward, Ferdinand denies his role as a principal to the act. His denial is premised on his own madness, the lack of legitimate judicial process, and as a consequence of both, the independent moral authority Bosola has acted with. Bosola contests these claims, reverting over and over to their traditional roles as lord and retainer, which make him an extension of Ferdinand. In this, he reprises the nostalgic imagery with which the play began, with its aphoristic descriptions of the ideal prince as a tree or fountain, from which the character and actions of the court naturally spring.27 The relationship between Bosola and Ferdinand profoundly undermines these organic models and looks forward, warily, to voluntary and consensual forms of agency. Thus, Webster anatomizes in single relationships the principle of willful subjection to authority that much later writers, like Hobbes and Locke, were to take up in terms of collective consent in a commonwealth.

Just after the Duchess's executioners leave the stage, Ferdinand enters and Bosola confronts him with her body. Ferdinand immediately begins to repent, and as he does so, to imagine Bosola as the agent of justice who might have saved her: the faithful servant of so many conduct manuals, who proves his merit by selective, moral disobedience:28

                                                                                          Let me see her face again.
Why didst not thou pity her? What an excellent
Honest man might'st thou have been
If thou hadst borne her to some sanctuary!
Or, bold in a good cause, opposed thyself
With thy advancèd sword above thy head,
Between her innocence and my revenge!
I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits,
Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done't.


This is not a specious denial. Ferdinand is mad precisely in the sense that his divided intentions are performed by another and come into conflict when they are executed. In this way, he can imagine Bosola as a rescuer who acts out his internal oppositions. The servant's role imagined here is both more complex and more perverse than traditions of moral disobedience dictate. Bosola acts one part of Ferdinand's intentions, while another reacts to its murderous effects, as if Ferdinand were the audience to a scene he directs:

For thee (as we observe in tragedies
That a good actor many times is cursed
For playing a villain's part), I hate thee for't:
And for my sake say thou hast done much ill well.


Bosola responds by insisting on his role as Ferdinand's servant, implicitly reprising his trademark complaint against ungrateful masters: “Let me quicken your memory; for I perceive / You are falling into ingratitude. I challenge / The reward due to my service” (4.2.284-86). Ferdinand counters by asserting more explicitly that Bosola acted without authority, and when Bosola insists he acted on Ferdinand's authority, Ferdinand objects that it was not legitimate:

Did any ceremonial form of law
Doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury
Deliver her conviction up i'th' court?
Where shalt thou find this judgement registered
Unless in hell?


Throughout the rest of this scene, the counterpoint between two notions of service continues: Ferdinand's analysis depends on a service relationship that invests the agent with independent volition and is based on voluntary agreement; Bosola defines obligations according to traditional duties of place and degree. Bosola refuses to leave and again insists on his reward, couching it in terms that emphasize a lord's duties toward his retainers: “I will first receive my pension” [my emphasis] (4.2.304). Much more than “reward,” the word “pension” connotes regular and periodic payment for allegiance, as well as service, over a long period. Again, Ferdinand disputes such claims by characterizing Bosola as an independently evil actor: “You are a villain.” “When your ingratitude / Is judge, I am so” (4.2.305-6), Bosola retorts, calling attention to Ferdinand's sophistic analysis. His master continues nonetheless in the same vein, insisting on Bosola's independent capacity to choose the authority by which he acts, despite his evident failure to have done so: “O horror! / That not the fear of him which binds the devils / Can prescribe man obedience” (4.2.306-8).

Webster closes the scene with a remarkable turn of character, as Bosola—disabused of a fantasy of true service that he had perversely always seemed to acknowledge as illusory—repents. “I stand like one / That long hath ta'en a sweet and golden dream: / I am angry with myself, now that I wake” (4.2.315-17). When Bosola comes to himself, as it were, he comes to accept Ferdinand's redefinition of their relationship: to accept the notion that he might be bound to act as a morally independent agent—and not be bound by duty and loyal affection to his lord:

I served your tyranny, and rather strove
To satisfy yourself, than all the world;
And though I loathed the evil, yet I loved
You that did counsel it, and rather sought
To appear a true servant than an honest man.


Bosola accepts Ferdinand's mad excuses—“He's much distracted”—and fully internalizes his own moral authority in a newly recognized conscience:

What would I do, were this to do again?
I would not change my peace of conscience
For all the wealth of Europe. She stirs; here's life.
Return, fair soul, from darkness, and lead mine
Out of this sensible hell. She's warm, she breathes.


The Duchess's revival, however brief, underscores the dramatic significance of this moment of conversion, but the complicated dependency of Bosola's and Ferdinand's intentions elsewhere in the play is suspended rather than resolved here. For Ferdinand has certainly ordered the Duchess's death, and, mad as he is, the play confirms the need for revenge against him. When Bosola proceeds to carry this out, he describes himself in language that seems scripted by Ferdinand's repentant thoughts—as if the roles of moral agent and submissive instrument cannot so clearly be distinguished as his epiphany implied: “The weakest arm is strong enough, that strikes / With the sword of justice” (5.2.339-40). Bosola's service is always preposterous, as Patricia Parker uses the word, coming before explicit command. Thus, when he first meets with Ferdinand to seek service he asks, “Whose throat must I cut?” And Ferdinand answers, “Your inclination to shed blood rides post / Before my occasion to use you” (1.1.240-42).

As a malcontent, Bosola is very far from finding common cause with others, to create a body of men that—as Mark Curtis describes his actual contemporaries—might nourish the beginnings of active parliamentarian discourse.29 But Webster's interests are more analytical than polemical in this play. He uses the fraught compact between Bosola and Ferdinand to dramatize radical and frightening consequences of voluntary contract, bringing internal states as well as deeds under its sway. When Bosola echoes Ferdinand—as when the heroic Duchess is reduced to the character of Echo in the last act—he comes close to defining intention as an imaginary and social condition: called into being by, expressed by, and even supplied by another.

But Webster finds such mediation occult, illicit, and profoundly self-alienating. It is the state that intelligencers in particular embody, as Bosola's opening line—“I do haunt you still”—promises. When Ferdinand engages Bosola in the first act, they define Bosola's role by comparison to a witch's familiar:

It seems you would create me
One of your familiars.
                                                                                          Familiar! what's that?
Why, a very quaint invisible devil, in flesh:
An intelligencer.
                                                                      Such a kind of thriving thing
I would wish thee, and ere long, thou may'st arrive
At a higher place by't.


Like the Hand of Glory, familiars explain the witch's capacity to act at a distance, in her own absence. Often, as Ferdinand suggests, they were held to be the Devil's agents: low-ranking demons who serve the witch in turn for her own service to the Devil, or sometimes, as Guazzo tells us, the Devil in disguise. In either case, they provide sure proof of a contract with the Devil: both Perkins and Dalton find the presence of a familiar compelling evidence for conviction; R. Robbins summarizes their utility in trials by nothing that “as cats and mice were everywhere, it was never difficult to discover and prove a witch” (175). By invoking familiars, Webster suggests the similarly dangerous conditions of agency embodied in the intelligencer: a proxy, representative, or extension of the self who is at once proper and alien. For Webster the threat represented by such substitutes—wife, intelligencer, familiar—is the tenuous hold contract has over them. Of themselves, and not exclusively by dependence or authority, such agents thrive in the world.

If the compact between Bosola and Ferdinand dramatizes the dynamic and uncertain relation between servants and masters bound by contract, the Duchess herself embodies the problem of what it means voluntarily to alienate portions of the self this way. Wooing Antonio, she speaks in her double roles as sovereign and subordinate: one who has a property in herself, as demonstrated by the fact that she may consent to give it away. The language of revenue, expense, and bequest that marks the wooing scene makes this propriety clear. And related terms frame the debate between the Duchess and her brothers, when they challenge it. Facing them off, she brings a remarkably modern interpretation to her economic metaphors: “Diamonds are of most value, / They say, that have passed through most jewellers' hands” (1.1.290-91). Ferdinand retorts in typically nasty, reactionary mode: “Whores, by that rule, are precious”: such exchange will profoundly change your status and character. But the market metaphor—supporting a self-determined, self-possessed individual, and sustaining her right selectively to alienate those parts of herself that she chooses—lingers.

English revenge tragedy characteristically literalizes such fictional conversions of the self into property, turning hands and fingers into stage props. These grotesqueries raise uncomfortable questions about the difference between alienable qualities of person—like labor or service—and ostensibly inalienable ones—internal states like virtuous or evil character, purpose, a sense of self. The market logic that begins to surface in the Duchess's self-description emerges with these questions and tends to overshadow them. By the time John Locke makes consensual contract the foundation of political and civil society, the contradictions embodied in the Duchess's ability to give herself away in marriage are naturalized in the notion of a liberal self, whose essential status cannot be changed by contract or exchange. To consent to make oneself a servant to another, Locke says, “by selling him, for a certain time” only the service one undertakes to do, in exchange for wages, “gives the master but a temporary power over [the servant] and no greater than what is contained in the contract between them.”30 Locke's confidence derives in part from the corresponding role labor plays for him in ratifying property rights: what Jean-Christophe Agnew has called the “redeeming discipline of labor.”31 By the late eighteenth century, the grotesque autonomy epitomized by Gataker's prosthetic limbs animates a new genre, which puts such ideals to the test. Writers like Keats, Maupassant, Le Fanu, and Jacobs disrupt the narrow and secure lines of property that define contracts for service in liberal economic theory, and they call into question the redeeming nature of the tasks that ratify such contracts. Their tales of lively, inimical, severed hands address the uncanny dependencies and alienations of domestic service and industrial labor.


  1. Stallybrass, “Reading the Body,” 137, citing Bakhtin, 320.

  2. See McLuskie, Renaissance Dramatists; Jankowski.

  3. Bakhtin, 26.

  4. “Hermaphrodite or ambidexter would be good names for such men of double estate,” “The Lollard Conclusions, 1394,” in E. Peters, 279.

  5. Maine, 165.

  6. See Rider; Cockeram.

  7. Constance Jordan pioneered this field; see especially Renaissance Feminism and more recently, Shakespeare's Monarchies. Literary scholars have most often addressed early modern contractualism in terms of the genre of romance. For an excellent summary of the use of marital consent as a model for political contract, in this generic context, see Victoria Kahn's recent “Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract.” On royalist romance see Annabel Patterson, “Paradise Regained,” and Lois Potter, Secret Rites and Secret Writing. On emergent vocabularies for contract in medieval literature see Fowler, “Civil Death and the Maiden.” With the exception of the last, most literary studies of contractualism focus on the mid-seventeenth century on. I hope to contribute to this work by expanding both its generic and historical field of view.

  8. There are important exceptions. A. R. Braunmuller describes such developments in the law of agency in “Second Means. “In “Faithful Servants,” Richard Strier maps out the theory of courtly service promulgated in conduct manuals like Castiglione's The Courtier. Jonathan Dollimore's reading of social displacement in Webster's The White Devil calls attention to the surplus of dispossessed, university-educated men in this period; writers from Bacon to Hobbes pointed to this surplus and consequent discontentment as an important cause of sedition and rebellion. See “The White Devil,” in Radical Tragedy, 231-46, esp. 242. Earlier scholarship usually addressed these issues in terms of the character of the Malcontent; I hope to shift attention from character type to the structural analysis of service relations that preoccupies these plays. Lawrence Danson's recent discussion of Webster's own concerns about rising professionalism (presented at the 1997 Shakespeare Association of America seminar “Early Modern Drama and the Question of Agency”) suggests the new directions this kind of study might take. Danson reads Bosola's divided role as an agent for himself and an agent for others as a reflection of Webster's intense concern with the changing nature of patronage and professional service in this period.

  9. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 4.1.53-55. Hereafter cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line number of the Oxford World Classics edition.

  10. Wayne, 115.

  11. Webster, The White Devil, 2.1. 216-17. Hereafter cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line numbers of the New Mermaid edition.

  12. Bulwer, 50.

  13. Gataker, 9.

  14. This is slightly earlier than the OED places the emergence of this sense of the word, in the 1630s.

  15. For a detailed analysis of the marital traditions Webster draws on in this scene, including the anatomical logic symbolized by handfasting, see Randall.

  16. The critical note in Brennan's edition glosses the dead man's hand briefly: “A dead man's hand was a powerful charm used in the cure of madness.” Brennan's source is M. C. Bradbrook's brief citation of the scene “Two Notes upon Webster.” Bradbrook invokes a mixed tradition of folk cures and occult practices to explain the prop, including the Hand of Glory. She notes that dead hands and fingers, often severed, were used in a number of early modern European folk cures, and their use persisted at least into the nineteenth century. Her source, in turn, is George Lyman Kittredge's seminal Witchcraft in Old and New England, whose robust bibliography of medicinal and malevolent uses of dead hands is where most editors of the play arrive.

  17. Remy seems to have been comparable in reputation to Jean Bodin; his Demonolatreiae (1595), which covered trial accounts between 1581 and 1591, was frequently republished and borrowed from. See R. Robbins; Macfarlane.

  18. See E. Radford and M. Radford, The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, edited and revised by Christina Hole, 179.

  19. It is also reflected in several sources and analogues. Lucas cites Herodotus's Tale of Rhampsinitus (2.121), which involves two related plots, one of theft from the king's coffers, one of a trick with a severed hand that leads to the marriage of the trickster and the king's haughty daughter. See related examples in Kittredge; Porter; and S. Thompson.

  20. Macfarlane, 25.

  21. Here, and throughout this book, I am indebted to Caroline Walker Bynum's rich account of late medieval relics and the complex synecdoches they realize. See Fragmentation and Redemption, especially chapter 7.

  22. Macfarlane also quotes Francis Hutchinson's assertion in his Historical Essay (1718) that it was “lawful to give in Evidence Matters that are no ways relating to that Fact, and done many Years before” (16). A number of scholars including Macfarlane (16) and Newman (54) quote Dalton, The Countrey Justice (1619), on this principle (see Note 23, following).

  23. Dalton, 251, quoted in R. Robbins, 175. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  24. Ady, 114, 130.

  25. Scot, 192.

  26. OED, sb. 1.

  27. See the opening set pieces by Antonio and Bosola, 1.1.11, 1.1.47.

  28. See Strier for the theory of faithful disobedience in conduct literature and contemporary political theory.

  29. See Curtis.

  30. Locke, chapter 7, sec. 85.

  31. Agnew describes the “arrival of a new labor standard of value” in Worlds Apart, 143.


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Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Heliene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Bradbrook, Muriel C. “Two Notes upon Webster.” Modern Language Review 42 (1947): 283-84.

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Bulwer, John. Chirologia: Or, the Natural Language of the Hand, and Chironomia: Or, the Art of Manual Rhetoric. Ed. James W. Cleary. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.

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Curtis, Mark. “The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England.” In Crisis in Europe, 1560-1660, edited by Trevor Aston. London: Routledge, 1965.

Dalton, Michael, ed. The Countrey Justice, Containing the Practise of the Justices of the Peace out of Their Sessions. Gathered, for the Better Helpe of Such Justices of Peace as Have Not Been Much Conversant in the Studie of the Lawes of This Realme. Classical English Law Texts. London: Professional Books Limited, 1973.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1984.

Fowler, Elizabeth. “Civil Death and the Maiden: Agency and the Conditions of Contract in Piers Plowman.Speculum 70, no. 4 (October 1995): 760-92.

Gataker, Thomas. A Good Wife God's Gift: A Wife In Deed: Two Marriage Sermons. London: John Haviland for Fulke Clifton, 1623?

Jordan, Constance. Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

———. Shakespeare's Monarchies: Ruler and Subject in the Romances. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Kahn, Victoria. “Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract.” Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 2 (1997).

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Essays and Criticism