Madness can be a useful device in literature: by abandoning the constraints of sanity and rationality, a character can explore grey areas which are not available to the sane. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama made full use of this device to create dramatic spaces which plumbed the heights and depths of human experience. Madness in the works of playwrights such as Thomas Kyd and John Webster also served as a tool of divine justice: the punishment the sane laws of man could not mete out, the laws of madness exacted. As we'll see, madness operates in all these different ways in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623).
The Duchess is a young widow who now wishes to marry the man she loves: her steward Antonio. However, her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, object to the union on the grounds of propriety. They believe that the marriage will sully the reputation of their noble house, so they declare the relationship null. Refusing to toe the family line, the Duchess marries Antonio in secret. In time, she bears three children, but she refuses to name the father. When Bosola, a spy, coaxes her secret out of her and reveals it to her brothers, the Duchess tries to escape Malfi with her family. While Antonio and her oldest son manage to flee, the Duchess and her two younger children are captured. To punish her, Ferdinand imprisons her with the city’s madmen, hoping to drive her out of her mind.
And, 'cause she 'll needs be mad, I am resolv'd
To move forth the common hospital
All the mad-folk, and place them near her lodging;
There let them practise together, sing and dance,
And act their gambols to the full o' th' moon…
Driving and declaring a woman “mad” is, of course, an old patriarchal device of control. By proving the Duchess unsound of mind, Ferdinand can justify his own actions. Yet the Duchess bears her suffering with poise, retaining her sanity among madmen. When Ferdinand finally orders her execution, she bravely accepts her fate.
BOSOLA. Doth not death fright you?
DUCHESS. Who would be afraid on 't,
Knowing to meet such excellent company
In th' other world?
The Duchess and her two children are strangled. The strangling represents the quieting of a woman’s voice by force. Though Webster’s play does create space for the Duchess to express her individuality, it cannot yet grant her the space to live with her independent views. This uncertainty in the text is represented through the actual madness of her twin, Ferdinand. As the plot advances, we see Ferdinand grow more and more unstable and violent. His reactions to his sister’s love for Antonio are apoplectic and unhealthy; he seems to be obsessed with the carnal aspect of their relationship, suggesting an incestuous interest in his own sister. He is uneasy with his sister’s sexuality and independence and punishes her for her bodily autonomy by destroying that body. Close to her murder, his madness bursts out fully; he suffers from lycanthropy, or a belief that he is a wolf.
I'll go hunt the badger by owl-light:
'Tis a deed of darkness.
Later, he starts to hallucinate that his own shadow is menacingly following him. In the end, as the plot grows increasingly nihilistic, Ferdinand and Bosola kill each other. Thus, Ferdinand’s madness serves two very important functions. First, it is a way to resolve the text’s anxiety about the independence of the Duchess of Malfi. Webster created a woman with a mind of her own, but she couldn’t be shown to exist while defying the world of men; therefore, the mad brutality of Ferdinand is used to deal with the problem of the Duchess. Second, the madness also serves as the punishment of Ferdinand’s crimes. It allows the text to avenge the Duchess in as macabre a fashion as she was killed. Therefore, madness plays an extremely important part in the play.