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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Social criticism and contemporary societal reflection in The Duchess of Malfi


The Duchess of Malfi offers social criticism and reflects contemporary society by highlighting corruption, the abuse of power, and the oppressive nature of hierarchical structures. Through the tragic downfall of the Duchess, the play critiques the moral decay and the harsh consequences of defying societal norms, reflecting the tensions and injustices of early 17th-century society.

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How does the portrayal of the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi reflect social criticism?

The Duchess of Malfi portrays its titular heroine as a strong-willed, dignified, and courageous woman. Compared to her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, she is an authority figure with integrity and virtue. She does not allow her brothers' opinions (which are often hypocritical anyway) to steer her away from marrying again. In fact, the Duchess is quite a lively and full figure, not to mention bold for her time: she has sexual desires which are not presented as corrupt, she pursues her future husband as the wooer in their relationship, and she ultimately dies with dignity rather than fear or regret even though her death is ghastly and unfair.

The Duchess's portrayal could be seen as a reaction to the way female monarchs were viewed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the period in which the play was written, the idea of a female ruler was one treated with doubt at best and hostility at worst. While England had just experienced a golden age under Elizabeth I, she had to do what she could to de-feminize herself, comparing her heart to that of a king rather than a queen and avoiding marriage so no man would be dominant over her.

In the play, the Duchess tries to have both her power and family life, and it was believed a woman could not have both, hence why the Duchess keeps her marriage a secret from her greedy, controlling brothers who are more interested in making sure she dies childless and allows the land to pass onto them rather than any offspring she might have. They try to shame her into not marrying again with exchanges like the following in act 1, scene 1:

DUCHESS: Diamonds are of most value,
They say, that have passed through most jewelers' hands.

FERDINAND: Whores, by that rule, are precious.

In this way, the Duchess's brothers are shaming her sexual desires (which is ironic considering the cardinal has a married woman for a mistress and it is heavily implied Ferdinand desires his own sister) and trying to control her property by controlling her body. Their power is patriarchal and the Duchess's defying them—and hence the power of men over women—is what leads to her tragic downfall.

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Analyze how The Duchess of Malfi reflects contemporary society.

Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is a pretty accurate reflection of the society in which it was written. It presents us with a rigidly patriarchal society in which women are under the firm control of men.

The values on which this society operates exist largely for the benefit of men and allow them to maintain control over women. If women should try to challenge these values in any way, then they are to be subjected to punishment, physical violence, and even death.

This is precisely what happens to the eponymous Duchess in the play. She has transgressed the norms and values of patriarchal society by appearing to have children out of wedlock. In actual fact, the Duchess's children aren't illegitimate at all; they were fathered by her husband Antonio.

But because the Duchess's wedding to Antonio took place in secret, the general assumption is that her children were born out of wedlock, which at that time was considered unacceptable, especially for a noblewoman like the Duchess.

The Duchess's brothers are so enraged by news of her apparently illegitimate offspring that they set out to restore the family honor by destroying their sister. When they hear about her secret marriage to Antonio, they're even more infuriated.

The Duchess has made her choice of husband entirely by herself, without the consent or input of her brothers, which would've been the done thing at the time. For someone of the Duchess's social position in those days, it would've been considered scandalous for a woman to choose her own husband, especially a social inferior like Antonio.

In the event, for all her undoubted bravery, the Duchess will pay for her transgressions with her life, a sign of just how firm a grip the patriarchy had upon society at this time.

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