And Fortune seems only to have her eyesight,
To behold my tragedy.
[IV. ii. 35-36]

The Jacobean era in England was one which experienced the downfall of humanistic ideals like never before. There was a breakdown of free will, moral courage and positive vision of life, owing to strict patriarchal norms and religious oppression by corrupt institutions. There was, instead, an assertion of a cynical pursuit of interests. And the mind of the individual, bereft of ideals, resembled a tabula rasa that would sooner or later be filled up by vices and dominant evils of the time. Awareness of societal division and corruption is nowhere more obvious than in Webster’s most well known play, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ (w.1612-13).

The social tragedy apparent in The Duchess of Malfi is three-fold, and can be viewed from the following perspectives – firstly, the society as a whole, which is corrupt, oppressive and daunting; secondly, the brothers Ferdinand and Cardinal whose social standing is threatened by the misconduct of their sister, the Duchess; and finally the Duchess herself who is trapped in a world of masculine power, and appears as a pawn in the hands of her male superiors.

Critic Ralph Berry in his essay, ‘The Art of John Webster’ posits that The Duchess of Malfi offers a vision of a “meaningless universe, a context for humanity irretrievably prone to corruption and error.” The very first scene of the play brings to light the disharmony of the Italian court. Antonio, returning from France back to Malfi, sings praises in admiration of the French court, both for the judiciousness of their king in ridding himself of “flattering sycophants” and for the nobility of the council in having the duty to warn the king of any foreseeable depravity within his kingdom. Webster purposely conveys an image of an honest French court as a striking contrast to the action that is about to unfold within the court of Malfi.

The tensions in the play are set into motion almost immediately when Bosola is hired by Ferdinand and the Cardinal to spy on the Duchess and to inform them of any lecherous intentions held by her. Bosola epitomises the failed morals of the Jacobean era. He yearns for power and wealth and, in turn, will commit any criminal act in an effort to gain status. According to author Robert Ornstein, “Bosola is a malcontent, embittered by experience, and hungry for the security which advancement will afford.” His focus is exclusively on material wealth and in his conversation with the Cardinal, he demands belated payment for earlier crimes:

“I have done you
Better service than to be slighted thus.
Miserable age, where only the rewards
Of doing well is the doing of it.”

Bosola not only openly admits his desire for wealth, but is quick to reveal the corruption that exists within men of higher social standing, making clear to the audience that he is not alone in his corruption. He also refers to Ferdinand and the Cardinal as “plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools”, ripe and pregnant with fruit fed on by crows, pies, and caterpillars. Bosola is the first to feed on the riches of the brothers and in exposing their corruption he reveals his own stance as the caterpillar.

The Cardinal represents corruption that exists not only in men of a higher class in Jacobean society, but within the church as well. He has a connoisseur’s taste for flawless villainy, for security in evil. As mentioned, the Cardinal was the first to take part in dirty dealings with Bosola, hiring him as a hit man early on and then again to spy on the Duchess.

Thus, Bosola and the brothers bring out the tragedy of the society wherein personal ambition and malice are inherent in members of all classes.

The second tragedy of the play is that of the brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Literary critic R.S. White in his essay, ‘Moral Design of The Duchess of Malfi’, states that one of the main fears that troubled families of widows in the Jacobean age was that the woman would marry below her social status, depriving the family of their inheritance and, in their eyes, demean the family name. We can therefore assert that Ferdinand, as a threatened aristocrat, is frightened by the contamination of his ascriptive social rank and hence is obsessively preoccupied with its defence. This is the reason why the brothers continue on quite a vengeful tirade, even imagining the Duchess in the “shameful act of sin” she has committed. Still in the dark concerning her new husband, Ferdinand begins to imagine the Duchess having an adulterous affair:

“Happily, with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o’th’woodyard, that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.”              (2.5.43-45).

These are men of low social status, and it infuriates Ferdinand to think of his sister marrying beneath her.

In light of Renaissance social standards, the Duchess flouted patriarchal authority by marrying without the approval of male members of her family, she violated decorum by remarrying and by choosing a mate below her in station, and she revealed an overt and dangerous female sexuality, all of which threatened the social order.

Finally, we arrive at the tragedy of the Duchess, the powerful female protagonist of the play who seems to have fallen completely in the eyes of her brothers and labelled a “whore”. As early as the end of the first act, Cariola defines the tragedy apparent in the scheme of events: to her, the Duchess’s wooing of her steward seems “a fearful madness” which deserves “pity”. The Duchess’ behaviour as a widow is debatable. Some scholars argue that she causes, even deserves, her degradation and death; others maintain that she transgresses none of the rules of decorum for a widow of the time. On one hand, critics like Clifford Leech and Muriel C. Bradbrook accuse the Duchess of overturning a social code and defying the teachings of the Church. On the other hand, William Empson and Frank Wadsworth defend her by showing that Jacobean mores did permit her to marry a social inferior.

However, all in all, we can agree that the events that befall her are nothing short of tragic, although she manages to rescue her self-dignity right until her last breath.

The Duchess is linked through numerous images with different elements of evil, most often by her brother, Ferdinand. Ferdinand frequently associates his sister’s sexuality with witchcraft. As he warns her never to remarry, he remarks:

“Be not cunning,
For those whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years-
Ay, and give the devil suck”                (1.1.310-13)

Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal continue to warn the Duchess that any actions she takes under the cloak of night will also be brought to the light, insinuating that she is about to perform some sinister deed that needs the protection of darkness.

Further on in the play, upon hearing of the Duchess’ second marriage, Ferdinand again associates her death with an eerie image of a witch being burnt. Ferdinand is obviously appalled at the actions of the Duchess, and his only explanation for those actions is to associate her deeds with the work of the devil. She is treated like a witch, stripped off her family and honour and locked up in prison which resembles an infernal place. He leaves her with the “dead man’s hand” and stands to the side as torches are brought in revealing the artificial figures of Antonio and the children. At this point, the Duchess threatens suicide crying:

“Portia, I’ll newkindle thy coals again”         (4.1.72).

Here she references Brutus’ wife committing suicide by putting hot coals in her mouth, hence remaining faithful once Brutus’ cause has failed following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Like Portia, the Duchess would rather die quickly than live without Antonio and her children. This hellish scene prompts the Duchess to say that she longs to bleed and wishes the men would kill her quickly.

Despite the obvious occurrences in the play which can be used to tag The Duchess of Malfi as a classic Jacobean tragedy, it stands at a sharp contrast to other tragic plays of the era which depict the fall of a “tragic hero”. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and King Lear completely lose their social identities by the end. Macbeth’s kingly robes hang loosely about him; he is left at the end only with his brute, physical strength. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is literally torn apart, losing not only the constructed self but the body upon which it is predicated.

The Duchess of Malfi, however, reverts to the identity gained through her earlier marriage, one that gave her the one thing her marriage to Antonio did not – status in the society. At the end she is, she says, “the Duchess of Malfi”, and with that title she negates her relationship with Antonio. She becomes the woman carved in stone that Ferdinand wanted her to be.

In conclusion, we can assert The Duchess of Malfi is a social tragedy with elements both typical and atypical to seventeenth century drama.