“Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle: she di’d young.”
(Ferdinand, Act IV, Scene 2.
The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster).
John Webster examined the social issues of his day through his drama that usually featured a strong female character at the centre of the play. Through his use of satire, he reveals and examines societal issues such as the stereotypical role of the female, elements of class-consciousness, and the role of faith in a patriarchal society. His play ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ (first published in 1623) can thus be examined as a a social tragedy on multiple levels. In the Jacobean era, when it was written and performed, the social tragedy genre had a different connotation altogether. The play was believed to be part of the genre since it involved a woman attempting to transgress social bounds and was seen as a threat to society. It was seen by audiences to be a warning against questioning of social norms. However, as modern readers, we are able to criticise the society that prevents defiance of conventions and forces death as a consequence on anyone that ventures to break away from suppressive rules. The eponymous protagonist tries and fails to conduct her private family life in the manner she chooses, in the face of corruption and social norms that entangle the society of Malfi. Thus we can see Webster’s play to be posing a challenge to the society of his time, which did not allow women to have it all- familial as well as professional success- and forced the Duchess to face her brothers’ retribution. The Duchess in this situation thus faced a dual problem, that of being an independent woman in a world not ready to accept one as well as trying to hold onto her power as a ruler while keeping her motherhood secret. This makes her a truly tragic protagonist, as a fictionalised version of the real life Duchess Giovanna of Amalfi, and her professional struggles in a chauvinistic world make her a relatable figure even today.
In addition to the clashing contexts of the Jacobean and contemporary world in which this play is read, the context of the Classical Greek and Roman worlds must also be considered. During the Renaissance, a revival of the Classical texts was underway and Roman tragedies, particularly the works of Seneca, were widely read at the time. The Senecan revenge tragedy structure and conventions are therefore almost exactly replicated in Webster’s play. These as well as Greek influences are evident in the play through the invocation of pity and fear as devices in order to lead to a catharsis or purging of emotions, the protagonists being of noble or high birth, a fall of the protagonist from a great height (the Duchess achieves the peak of her political and marital success before her decline begins), lust as a strong force of motivation in the play (in Ferdinand’s feelings of incestuous desire), a slow estrangement of the central character from the world (the ostracism of the Duchess from society), physical horrors and scenes of carnage or mutilation (Ferdinand’s fits of violence and rage) as well as an ultimate restoration of order (the son of the Duchess taking over as Duke). The idea of morality in the play is also closely related to Classical texts. In the Duchess’s society, it was considered immoral and wrong for a noble woman to marry beneath her. Webster attempts to provoke thought through this socially unequal marriage and question what was considered morally acceptable. He himself does not pass moral judgment on her marriage, thus allowing for interpretations over the years to vary, with evolving times. Where the scheming, plotting and lying of the Duchess made her character appear morally dubious to the Jacobean audience, contemporary critics find it necessary for her to attempt to survive in a disparaging society determined to ensure her fall.
The play is heavily critical of this society of the Italian court, in exploring it through what it lacks (the values of the French court). According to Berry, “The Duchess of Malfi does not postulate an ordered universe at all. It offers a vision of a meaningless universe, a context for humanity irretrievably prone to corruption and error.” (1972) Webster portrays disorder by first referencing a model, the judicious French court, which serves as a contrast to the system portrayed in Malfi, the setting of his drama. By referencing France through Antonio’s appreciation for it, Webster conveys an image of an honest court in striking disparity to the action about to unfold. Antonio’s reference, made upon his return from France, represents Italy as a court of material focus, power play and “flattering sycophants” (according to Antonio, in Act I Scene 1, line 8) which is in want of truly loyal subjects to the Duchess. They instead are preoccupied with appearance, and image in society. Thus, the Machiavellian influence on Renaissance society can be noted. As he elaborates in his book ‘The Prince’ (first published posthumously in 1532), Machiavelli believed in the importance of putting on the appearance of virtue and nobility, even if the actual values were absent. Machiavelli’s concepts were however considered immoral and irreligious by a wide portion of the reading public and were thought to encourage dishonourable politics. The Cardinal and Basola are both important figures in the play as Machiavellian villains, as they propagate the notions discussed by the theorist.
The Cardinal can be seen as Machiavellian as he is manipulative, ruthless, creative (since he thought of a poisoned bible as a murder weapon), schemes with treacherous secrets, and is able to do all this level-headedly, unperturbed by passion or remorse. He is thus in direct contrast with Ferdinand, who is ruled by emotion and is full of fire where the Cardinal is cold and icy. He is similar to the character of Monticelso in Webster’s The White Devil (1612) in his shrewd nature. Robert Ornstein claims in his 1965 essay ‘Moral Vision in The Duchess of Malfi,’ the Cardinal “has a connoisseur’s taste for flawless villainy, for security in evil.” Contrary to him, Basola acts as a Machiavellian by adopting constantly different roles, most of which are under a pretence. This is a policy advocated by Machiavelli, who stressed the significance of keeping up deceptive appearances. On the one hand, Basola is acting as the Duchess’s employee and confidante and on the other as Ferdinand’s spy, reporting his findings to him. Basola is also seen as the malcontent- discontent with the social structure and offering comments, insights and criticisms on Renaissance society. All the characters of the play are, in fact, Machiavellian in their hollowness. They have a sense of ontological mobility (that is, they are able to shift who they are) and are thus unable to pinpoint their exact role in society. They adopt different roles depending on the situation and are in constant flux. For instance, the Duchess may start a scene embracing her role as a wife, but transition into her role as a sister, a prince, or a mother. While Basola at first seems to be in control of his character shifts, a closer reading reveals his insecurity and contradictions. He agrees to serve Ferdinand despite being critical of the aristocracy and is unable to locate himself in his unstable roles. Antonio must secretly don the role of the Duchess’s husband while pretending to be her employee. Ferdinand’s inner conflict with his identity as brother and his incestuous fixation with the Duchess makes him a victim of this confusion as well. The characters in the play pretend to be something they’re not, but are themselves constantly wrestling with the fluid uncertainty of their roles. The societal uncertainty governing the character dynamics is in keeping with the sense of tumult of the time. Traditional concepts of identity were changing since people were now beginning to be able to shape their own lives and livelihoods, rather than being born into their lot in life. This was a huge upset to the social hierarchy.
The relationship of Antonio with the Duchess therefore works on dual levels in society, at the domestic (as husband and wife) as well as political (as servant and master) level. Their roles have also been inverted as it was the Duchess who proposed to Antonio, an unconventional move made due to their social disparity. Further, society’s opinions on how these relationships should traditionally work colour their life in both spheres. However, the idea of an equal marriage is attempted nonetheless, and represents the growing popularity of Protestantism during the Renaissance. Webster portrays the steward Antonio much like Shakespeare’s steward Malvolio in the play Twelfth Night (published 1623). Ambitious “to be Count Malvolio,” his low status and admiration for Olivia is comparable to Antonio’s status before marrying the Duchess. Also, where the characters in Twelfth Night ridicule Malvolio’s ambition, Antonio is held in contempt by the Duchess’s brothers, and feared for the power he will gain through the marriage, bringing shame in the eyes of Ferdinand and the Cardinal to the family. Unlike Malvolio, however, Antonio follows his own ambition and marries the Duchess, igniting controversy, while Malvolio, the subject of a practical joke, is safely put back in his place through comedy. Antonio, having fulfilled his ambition of marrying the Duchess, faces a clash in his multiple duties to her, as he has varying responsibilities and is thus in a socially dubious position. The domestic and political worlds also clash in the duties of the Duchess to her brothers. The traditional role of a woman with respect to her male relatives is different from that which she must take on as a prince. Thus her roles in society (as a woman and as a Duchess) are in conflict and the collision of domestic and political spheres, and an inability to balance both, cause her ultimate death. With the victory of male world, the play acts as a social tragedy, with the society not ready to accept a woman in a political position. The playwright’s comment reveals society’s opinions (on how a power structure ought to be) to win by showing a woman’s failure. At the time, this would be viewed as a success and serve to warn people not to attempt to transgress social boundaries. The sixteenth century audience would also see the Duchess conducting her domestic life in secrecy as a neglect of her duty to her people, not appreciating her right to privacy.
The idea of ‘contemptus mundi’ which refers to the idea that the world is a wretched, empty place compared to the fulfilment found in religious contemplation is strong, particularly in the second half of the play. Webster provides new insight into the Latin concept, not involving the second part and disregarding the possibility of redemption through tranquility and contemplation. In the Renaissance age where faith and religion are being questioned, he finds there to be no space for blind faith and furthers the skepticism instead. He interrogates the factors making the society a place that forces the fall of the Duchess. He is perceptive to the corruption in the society, represented most aptly by the Cardinal, a man ready to employ lesser beings (according to him) such as Basola to commit murders for him, then cast them aside when no longer needed. He is no stranger to murder himself, as he slays his own mistress by making her kiss a poisoned book. He gambles, keeps the wife of one of his courtiers as a mistress and fights duels. He is described by Antonio as such;
“The spring in his face is nothing but the engend’ring of toads; where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plot for them than ever was impos’d on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters. He should have been Pope; but instead of coming to it by the primitive decency of the church, he did bestow bribes so largely and so impudently as if he would have carried it away without heaven’s knowledge. Some good he hath done.”
[Act I, scene ii]
Duke Ferdinand is his brother’s willing conspirator in villainy. At times, his rages shock even the Cardinal’s sense of decorum. The Duke’s corruption (incestuous desire for his sister) ultimately destroys his sanity. Realising she has married and borne children by Antonio, his rage drives him to do all in his power to bring his sister to despair, madness, and death, but in the end is driven mad himself. These two perverse villains destroy or poison all semblances of warmth or human affection in society. The court in The Duchess of Malfi, according to R. Berry “serves as a general symbol of social corruption,” and the court in The White Devil performs a similar function. (1972) The play has been interpreted as being less about the Duchess’s personal tragedy than the tragedy of a corrupt society as illustrated by her particular story. Instead of the tragedy of “the right noble Duchess,” it’s the tragedy of everyone- “Their life a general mist of error, / Their death a hideous storm of terror” (Act IV, Scene ii), as Basola puts it.
Cruelty, particularly of male relatives towards the female, is seen as another factor in the Duchess’s fall. Her brothers’ cruelty towards the Duchess is evident in their threats and the poniard is an important symbol of this. Cruelty is also seen in Ferdinand’s wish to make the Duchess mad and his employment of psychological torture. He makes use of wax figurines to trick the Duchess into thinking Antonio is dead and sends various madmen to the Duchess’s room to devastate her, hoping to drive her mad. The brothers also hired Basola as a spy, depriving the Duchess of her privacy. Ferdinand and the Cardinal seem to go to absurd lengths in their opposition to the Duchess’s union with Antonio. This stems from a desire to control her choices, Ferdinand’s incestuous love for his sister, due to class norms (Antonio’s being of an inferior class and social status), as well as wanting to control her property (which would not stay with them if she remarried). The Duchess’s desire for a family with the man of her choice directly clashes with her brothers’ desire that she remain their single, obedient sister. In Renaissance times, the family hierarchy was such that an unmarried woman was almost always under the control of her male relatives, and it drives her brothers (Ferdinand in particular) mad that, as the widow of a nobleman, the Duchess is a free agent with her own court.
Ferdinand: “You are a widow;
You know already what man is. And therefore
Let not youth, high promotion, eloquence”
Cardinal: “No, nor anything without the addition, honour,
Sway your high blood.”
(Act I, Scene i)
The Cardinal and Ferdinand are concerned with the honour associated with the social status of their family as well as the status of the Duchess as a widow. On hearing of the Duchess’ second marriage, the Cardinal responds, “Shall our blood/ The royal blood of Aragon and Castile, / Be thus attainted?” (Act II, Scene v) Ferdinand at this point refers to his sister as a “notorious strumpet.” R. S. White suggests, “Right through the sixteenth century, widows were in a unique legal position in England. They could marry according to their own choice more readily than spinsters and they could own property and title gained from their husbands. In other words, they were more free of their own family than if they had never married.” (2000) Despite this relative ‘freedom’ of choice in Jacobean society, her brothers’ wish to control the Duchess could not be stronger and the decision of the duchess is not socially acceptable. Denying her brothers their share of her inheritance as well as marrying below her social status demean her family name. Thus there is the added pressure that comes with her high birth, society considering it more significant than merit. She laments, “The misery of us that are born great! / We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us.” (Act I, Scene ii) However, Basola, being of a lower class, expresses support for her remarriage, and even admires the Duchess for her ability to see past class, saying “Do I not dream? Can this ambitious age/ Have so much goodness in’t as to prefer/ A man merely for worth, without these shadows/ Of wealth and painted honours Possible?” (Act III, Scene ii)
The brothers of the Duchess here reflect the growing upper-class anxiety of people like Antonio and Basola (those not of high birth) becoming successful through merit, hard work or bribery, with birth not being the only factor to govern status in a changing Jacobean society. Antonio, as a man getting ahead through integrity and moral soundness, is brutally struck down. This is thought by some critics (Berry, 1972) to indicate Webster’s own belief: virtue has no long-term rewards. Ultimately, neither the moral characters (Antonio and the Duchess), nor the blatantly immoral (Ferdinand and the Cardinal), nor the morally ambiguous (Basola) make it out alive. Webster’s world, then, is morally agnostic. Social ambition can thus be seen to bring about the tragedy of the play, through Antonio’s marrying upward and Basola’s desire to serve Ferdinand. Power is an equal factor in this, as it governs most domestic relationships in the play just as it does courtly ones, and marks a lack of human connection. Although both Ferdinand and the Cardinal have plenty of power, they end up dying, and so power is revealed to be a hollow structure.
Although, according to Pearson, her “tragic potential is fully realised in Act Four, with the death of the protagonist, where her heroic struggle comes to an end,” the Duchess symbolically dies, in the eyes of society, as early as the second act, when her brothers first uncover the truth about her second marriage. Even though she herself remains virtuous, her reputation is tarnished and the subject-ruler relationship is hurt, resulting in her social death. The importance of appearance and public image is here stressed again, and the Machiavellian values are seen reflected in Webster’s work. T.S. Eliot recognised Webster’s nature and psychology, commenting, “Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin.” (Whispers of Immortality, 1918)
No justice is shown to be meted out by society- everyone dies at the end, whether considered good or bad by the society, or by modern readers (for whom it is usually the inverse). This is a failure of society in the play. The protagonist, too, ultimately fails, like the character of Vittoria from Webster’s The White Devil (1612), to transcend any true boundaries created by the patriarchal society in which she lives. A tragedy as this one seems inevitable in a society hungry for material wealth and power alone, and where distinction between members of particular social classes is clear. This encourages disastrous ambition and an inherent desire to compete, in a society where corruption exists on all levels. Webster does not stop at simply exposing the issues evident to an audience in his time; he also suggests the possibility of a new social awareness and an interrogation of the struggles that bind his characters to their stereotypical roles. Although Webster’s characters fail to transcend any boundaries and this possibility is therefore not fully realised, small successes and satirical references within Webster’s work suggest that these issues were significant, both to Webster himself and to the audience that contributed to the societal shift taking place.