Stephanie Alice Baker in Social Tragedy The Power of Myth, Ritual and Emotion in the New Media Ecology, defines Social Tragedy as something that “focuses on the power of meaningful narratives to move audiences to feel and think about suffering as a cause for moral action”. For instance, the post-modernist reader would consider the tragic end of the proto-feminist female protagonist of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623), a social tragedy. However, the Jacobean reader would consider the same proto-feminism a social tragedy in that it deviates from the then prevalent social norms.

The Duchess of Malfi opens with Antonio admiring the French court (1.1.4-23), and thus highlighting the corruption of the Italian court which is defined by what it is not (i.e. the French court). The corruption of the Italian court is an integrant of Social Tragedy in the play for both the Jacobean as well as the post-modernist readers. We see the corruption of the court running through its courtiers and its people in their relationships, power play and acrimony, best depicted in the character of Ferdinand. He fails to uphold the virtuous image of a man of high rank. He is introduced by Antonio in a negative light, “He speaks with others’ tongues, and hears men’s suits / With others’ ears” (1.1.168-69). Ferdinand proves to be greedy, lustful and irascible when he suspects his sister of having an unsanctioned sexual relationship. His anger is uncontrollable, “I could kill her now” (2.5.64). Even the Cardinal finds his outrage inordinate when he further goes on to deliver vulgar, graphic and violent images in relation to the Duchess of Malfi, “Root up her goodly forest, blast her meads, / And lay her general territory as waste, / As she hath done her honour’s.” (2.5.19-21). Objectification, misogyny and a sexual innuendo runs through his dialogues. He can almost “see her in the shameful act of sin” and uses crude language in speech, “’Tis not your whore’s milk that shall quench my wild-fire‘’ (2.5.48). Hence, Ferdinand is compared with the image of fire in his rage and physical and voyeuristic imagination as opposed to the emergence of the Cardinal as the composed and calculative Machiavellian villain. Ferdinand’s incestuous desire towards his sister is evident in spite of the mention of the brothers’ desire for her property because it is left a loose thread. The brothers contribute to the play’s Social Tragedy for readers from both ages because of their negative attributes. The only redeeming prospect for them, in the Jacobean view, is if in a religious light their actions are justified as done in an attempt to preserve the Duchess’ chastity and purity, and thus their family’s dignity and purity. After the death of his sister and her children, Ferdinand is driven mad, perhaps by guilt and regret. This is ironic because he, in sanity, tried to drive the Duchess mad. In his madness, he is reduced to an incapacitated character. He thus falls from his stature which is also social tragedy in the eyes of the Jacobean reader.

Ferdinand’s apathy towards the Duchess is contrasted with Antonio’s admiration for her. Antonio says, “There speaketh so divine a continence… Let all sweet ladies break their flatt’ring glasses, / And dress themselves in her” (1.2.121). Anand Prakash in the Introduction to the play points out that “This is not exactly the language of a lover but an onlooker who is filled with wonder as he gazes upon an angel”. Antonio is self-aware and acknowledges the social gap between the Duchess and himself. Perhaps, for this reason he is unable to internalise his marriage in spite of consummation as even after their marriage he addresses her, not as a husband but as a conscientious server when he says, “Will your Grace hear me?” (3.2.183). Antonio becomes the object of gaze for the Duchess since she’s the one who pursued him and even takes the initiative of proposing when Antonio said, “O my unworthiness!” (1.2.348). Thus we see an inversion of gender roles in the play. Antonio seems to be the hero of the play only by the virtue of his gender, not merit. Meanwhile the Duchess proves to be a bold female character with her own desires and the will to fulfil them. Jenia Geraghty in her essay The Principal Characters and Their Roles observes, The Duchess is seen right from the start as a lusty character who is pursuing the affection of Antonio. Her dialogue is full of sexual innuendo, and she can be seen as being in the category of the renaissance stereotype the ‘lusty widow’. She is presented as a powerful woman with a dominant will and right to the moment of her death is portrayed as strong and independent. Defying her brother’s warnings not to remarry is further proof of her strength. The Duchess’s defiant insistence on marrying Antonio, her second husband, is an action which shows that she has her own desires, and a more dominant will than anybody around her.” Webster has given her all the qualities that Antonio, her spouse, lacks, qualities which were not thought to be desirable in a woman of that era; she plots, schemes and has a bold and impetuous nature. In this she resonates the female protagonist of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath. She sends Antonio to Ancona to protect him which is another example of gender inversion. Subsequently Antonio’s virtuous image is corrupted when the Duchess accuses him of theft. Ergo, for the Jacobean reader, Antonio’s character embodies social tragedy, first, in his unequal relationship with the Duchess and second, in his fall from a virtuous image in the eyes of society. Antonio fails to meet the requirement of his environment and remains a lowly scholar, looked after by his wife. Critics have questioned Antonio’s ambition because of his marriage to an upper class woman but he is well aware of his class throughout. He says, “Ambition, Madam, is a great man’s madness” (1.2.337). Even in death he proves to be a meek character as the scene gives more of an insight into Bosola than Antonio. Conceivably, Webster tries to show the readers that an honest man like Antonio cannot survive in the evil world that he created. Also, Webster highlights the social gap that exists in society and in Antonio he demonstrates how there is a price to pay for overriding the social strata. This highlights the Social Tragedy for the post-modernist readers.

On the one hand, Antonio, in spite of being a well-educated, honest and kind man, fails to emerge as a strong character. On the other hand, the Duchess, who is marginalised because of her gender as well as her class, manages to take control of her own life and live on her terms. She acknowledges that women of her class don’t have the luxury to love (and break societal boundaries), yet she refuses to live a lonely life. Jacqueline Pearson in “To Behold My Tragedy”: Tragedy and Anti-Tragedy notes that the Duchess “is contrasted with Antonio whose conventional admiration for “fixed order” (1.1.6) is only abandoned as he dies.” This however, is social tragedy to the Jacobean reader as she defies social norms and goes against the will of her brothers or patriarchal authority. While Ferdinand and the Cardinal depict evil, the Duchess is noble. She is clever enough to enter into a legal matrimony with Antonio with Cariola as witness and quickly devises a plan to protect her family in scene II of Act III. These are instance of the Duchess’ mental and intellectual prowess and show her wit and decisiveness. These characteristics were not seen as ones that women of the era possessed and thus, while such progressivism pleasing for the post-modernist reader, it is social tragedy for the Jacobean audience. Her hamartia (tragic flaw) is her optimism and naivety. She easily trusts Bosola who is actually serving her brothers in hope of promotion and personal gain. Ferdinand tries to drive her insane in Act IV but this in turn “helps to keep her in her right wits by asserting her essential sanity in the face of the madness of her opponents, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola”, as stated by Pearson. The final assertion of her individuality are her last words, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.142). She dies in dignity as opposed to Ferdinand. The Duchess’ physical death parallels with Antonio’s. Like Antonio is too virtuous for a society so evil, the Duchess is too noble and strong a female character for the society to accept. Due to her proto-feminist characteristics, her only choice was to cease to exist in the Jacobean world. The post-modernist reader would deem this Social Tragedy, while for the Jacobean reader this restores the balance in society. The readers also experience a social death of the Duchess when she falls from her stature in the eyes of her brothers (thus the patriarchal society) in scene V of Act II because they find out that she has transcended her limitations. Much like The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi reveals a woman who, despite her attempts at transcendence, is ultimately encumbered by the female stereotypes of her time. However, it is possible that the Duchess has made an advance over Vittoria in her status as a woman. Somer Marie Stahl in Social Commentary and the Feminine Center in John Webter posits, “No longer is the central female character playing the part of the adulteress as in The White Devil; instead, in The Duchess of Malfi, the part of adulteress is reserved for a minor female character. This exchange of roles seems significant; however, like Vittoria, the Duchess ultimately fails to transcend any true boundaries created by the patriarchal society in which she lives.”

Webster portrays the various female stereotypes that are sustained by a patriarchal society in his play through each of his female characters, much as he does in The White Devil. Anand Prakash is of the view that “Being a victim of husband and lover, Julia wins our sympathy in her sudden attraction towards Bosola”. Her adultery is social tragedy for the Jacobean audience but could be seen as empowerment by the post-modernist readers. Cariola is also an unconventional character in her views on marriage and remains a friend and confidant of the Duchess. Likewise, Delio continues to be a loyal friend to Antonio and has been called “a Horatio-like figure (Hamlet)” by Anand Prakash. While these characters are simpler to assess, Bosola has a complex chameleon like attitude. He has been called the true “evil hero” of the play by Anand Prakash as he is willing to go to any extent for personal benefit but towards the end of the play, develops a conscience. This could however be stemming from a vengeful desire when he was blamed by Ferdinand for murdering the Duchess. Readers from both eras agree that Bosola’s corrupt nature makes up for social tragedy.

In Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a variety of themes and characters coexist. Social Tragedy is evident in this Revenge Tragedy. In her essay, The Duchess of Malfi: A Case Study in Literary Representation of Women, Lisa Jardine finds the play difficult because the woman hero in Jacobean drama is first shown as violating social norms and then as suffering in terms set for her by patriarchy. The patriarchal authority collapses with the insanity and death of Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Antonio, as noble as he is, is unable to change the fate of his family. Society fails to uphold its values and it fails to allow the people to create their own value. In the end the Duchess’ son becomes the Duke which is against Antonio’s wishes. Some critics view this as restoration of balance and order; not to mention he is the ‘rightful’ heir. However, this could also be viewed as the circular nature of life in a society, consumed with corruption.

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