The Duchess Of Malfi, written in 1612-13, and first performed in 1614, was written by the English Dramatist John Webster. The play is wholly based on the latter life and death of the Duchess of Amalfi. Set in the Jacobean day and age, this play is often seen as a critique of the Jacobean Era and very meekly brings out the drawbacks of this Age. The Jacobean period is said to have witnessed like never before the demise of ‘humanist’ ideas and ideals such as that of free will, moral courage and positive vision of life. A more cynical pursuit seemed to have taken over such ideals and religion became less Godly and spiritual, and more pragmatic and corrupted, with people using religion for their own convenience and as a tool to subvert the so called inferiors.
The Duchess of Malfi can be read under a lot of literary categories- as a realistic critique of Jacobean age,morality play, a revenge drama, a tragedy or more specifically a social tragedy. In this paper we will mostly focus on it being read as a social tragedy. It is to be noted that even under ‘social tragedy’ this play can be read under two different lights, one being the fact that the Duchess had transcended her social boundaries and dared to marry after having been widowed and bearing a child with her first husband which wasn’t apparently approved in the then Italian courts in the Jacobean age, also that her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal and warned her against a second marriage. She did not just defy rules and orders of the patriarch, she married Antonio who was below her own social stature which was scandalous and even bore 3 ‘illegitimate’ children from him; all such actions which are seen as the Duchess’ naive optimism and unpragmatic choices are seen as the catalyst and the tragic elements of the play. And secondly, the play can also be seen as a social tragedy, when the Duchess falls from her position of being a part of the monarch, to a mere ‘womanly’ character who her brothers want to control and subjugate. Her social fall, her confinement and her ultimate tragic death all signify a pitiful social tragedy.
“DUCHESS: I am Duchess of Malfi still.
BOSOLA: That makes thy sleeps so broken:
Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But looked to near, have neither heat nor light”
-(4. 2. 134-137)
The Duchess’s declaration that she is “Duchess of Malfi still” is one of the most famous lines in the play. At this point in The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess is in confinement away from her family who she has been made to believe are dead, and that she is in a position of mercy with all her riches and fortunes, her dukedom lost and freedom curtailed, but still she is not deterred and holds herself up with pride.
Bosola, disguised as a tomb-maker, tries to take that away from her too, telling her that her nobility can provide her no comfort, providing “neither heat, nor light”. It seems cruel to take this last comfort from her, but in doing so, he actually allows her true “glories” to shine through, not those based on her title or nobility, but those that come from the depths of her spirit–her courage and her deep familial love, evidenced by her domestic pleas to Cariola to take care of her children.
This emphasis on the insignificance of rank in the face of death and tragedy is important because it shows the true depths of the difference between the Duchess and her evil brothers. They have nothing but their rank and their associated power, and so when they are faced with death, they die without courage and “leave no more fame behind ‘em than” (5.5.113) a footprint in snow exposed to the sun. The Duchess, on the other hand, by dying so nobly, leaves the mark of the her spirit behind, which ultimately allows for hope at the end in the form of her surviving son, the true “light”.
This play also toys with a lot of other notions of that time, take it in the image of the Duchess, where she has to propose to Antonio which is not only seen as very bold and unladylike by the readers and critics. But also, the belief that the concept of love and romantic idealism are reserved only for the lower classes of people and not for those who occupy the higher ranks in the social and economic hierarchy as is seen in Ferdinand’s speech “….Love gives them counsel to enquire from him ‘mongst unambitious shepherds, Where dowries were not talked of….” (3. 2. 127-129.) This stereotype accentuates the Duchess’ proposal and puts her in a doubtful position as a woman with extravagant desires and pleasures, she seems to somehow objectify Antonio as well which seems like a possible role-reversal as can be seen in her speech; “Duchess: Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep.” (3. 2. 10) She is the one who plots and plans and Antonio the one to submit, accept and perform. And she is a very strong character as well because nor did she just defy her brothers but also stood firm grounds till the end and was the only character amongst all male characters to have died with dignity and pride and not brought down by fear or anxiety. Her character can be seen as that of a proto-feminist as well: Having practiced self-will and made decisions for herself, disregarding the moral code of conduct as demanded by the patriarch. She maintained her mental stability till the end and did not fall prey to the attempts of her brother to make her feel guilty or fearful of her doomed future.
The brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal played the parts of atypical Jacobean men who want to rule over the women of their families and want to be revered by them at the same time, whereas Antonio came out as a completely opposite character, he let the Duchess take the reigns of their relationship/marriage in her own hands and accepted the gender inversion, and not just that he was not able to internalize his marriage with the Duchess and still gave her the higher position in the marriage whereas, the man is supposed to be the higher authority in marriage as taken to be the norm of the then society. His self-awareness as being socially of lower stature to the Duchess kept him aware and comprehensive, which led to the evident class gap in the play and made the readers believe the so-called flaws in an unequal marriage, apart from being objectified and bossed around by the Duchess, he was the character that is believed to be the reason behind the Duchess’ exaltation. His character gave the Duchess the shade of being a male, heroic character who protected and tried to save her husband from death.
All men in the play have significant deaths, Ferdinand loses his mind and dies in a brawl with Bosola. Bosola, a melancholic, yet an intelligent character who merely lacked self-awareness, which made him into a villain of most peculiar nature, died an undeserved yet destined death. The Cardinal lost his life due to his villainous plans being exposed to Bosola and Antonio to died an unheroic death by the hands of Bosola. Thus, the only character who retained their dignity till the end and reached their end with pride and no remorse was that of the Duchess, who is glorified even in death and her death sets the deaths of other characters in motion.