John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

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John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

Marriage for love: family opposition

Having alerted us to the autocratic and criminal propensities of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, Webster goes on to inform us in the opening scene of their opposition to the idea of their widowed sister’s remarrying.

Activity 3

Have another look at lines 298–344. Try to identify two reasons for the Cardinal’s and Ferdinand’s hostility to the prospect of their sister’s marrying a second time.


Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  1. Both brothers seem to be worried that their widowed sister will succumb to temptation and undertake a marriage that damages the family honour.
  2. They also appear to be afraid that because she is a widow she is more likely to want to marry a second time.

This is another aspect of the play that is worthwhile examining in its historical and cultural context. The brothers’ attitudes tell us a great deal about early modern ideas about women and family honour. Their fears are in large part fuelled by anxieties about female sexuality in general and of widows in particular. Women in early modern England were widely thought to have a much stronger sexual appetite than men, which is one of the main reasons they were often feared as untrustworthy and why chastity was so insistently invoked as the cardinal feminine virtue. This is the anxiety voiced so poignantly by Othello when he exclaims: ‘O curse of marriage, / That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites’ (Shakespeare, 2008 [1622], 3.3.271–3). Ferdinand expresses this misogynistic commonplace when he says to the Duchess: ‘And women like that part which, like the lamprey, / Hath ne’er a bone in’t (1.1.340–1), his reference to the lamprey, a type of eel, containing a bawdy suggestion of ‘penis’. Widows, as sexually experienced women, were thought to be especially susceptible to this feminine vice. As the writer Joseph Swetnam put it in his work The Arraignment of Lewd, Froward and Unconstant Women (1615), ‘it is more easy for a young man or maid to forbear carnal acts than it is for a widow’ (quoted in Henderson and MacManus, 1985, p. 239). So we find the Cardinal telling his sister that widows’ vows never to remarry commonly last ‘no longer / Than the turning of an hourglass’ (1.1.309–10), while Ferdinand harps on about this theme with particular urgency, declaring that to marry twice is ‘luxurious’ (lascivious) (1.1.303), that those who do so have ‘spotted’ livers (1.1.304) – the liver was seen as the seat of passion – and calling his sister ‘lusty widow’ before leaving the stage (1.1.344).

The fact that widows were not firmly under the control of their male relations intensified their ability to arouse masculine anxieties. In this period, when a woman married she moved from a position of legal subservience to her father to being legally subject to her husband. A widow, then, especially if she inherited wealth from her dead husband, could claim an alarming degree of independence. She might, as a result, presume to choose her second husband herself, rather than marrying in accordance with her family’s wishes. This is a prospect that clearly worries the Cardinal, who warns his sister not to ‘take your own choice’ (1.1.322). The Duchess’s position as a female ruler only exacerbates her brothers’ concerns about her capacity to act independently of their wishes. Their repeated references to the dangerous temptations of the courtly life – ‘You live in a rank pasture here, i’th’court’ (1.1.312) and ‘I would have you to give o’er these chargeable revels’ (1.1.337) – disclose their unease with the power she wields as a duchess who presides over her own court.

Both brothers are concerned about family honour, but what precisely would make a second marriage dishonourable? Neither Ferdinand nor the Cardinal says outright that what they fear is that their sister will marry ‘beneath her’, but this uneasiness about rank is strongly implied in the advice they give her:

                                    You are a widow:
You know already what man is, and therefore
Let not youth, high promotion, eloquence –
No, nor any thing without the addition, honour,
Sway your high blood.

The Cardinal’s reference to the Duchess’s ‘high blood’ in particular smacks of class insecurity: he is afraid that she will fall into the arms of a lower-class man. Later in the play, when the brothers learn that their sister has indeed remarried, they leap to the conclusion that her second husband is of humble birth. So the Cardinal cries ‘Shall our blood, / The royal blood of Aragon and Castile, / Be thus attainted?’ (2.5.21–3), confirming his belief that a cross-class marriage constitutes a tainting or corruption of the family’s pure noble blood. The fact that at this stage they do not even know the identity of their sister’s new husband demonstrates just how insecure and under threat they feel, as though the privileges and power they inherited by virtue of their exalted birth are now being put under pressure by interlopers from lower down the social scale.

The brothers’ jitteriness about rank reflects the unprecedented levels of social mobility that characterised early modern England. Those in power were fond of claiming that a fixed and rigid social hierarchy was divinely ordained, but the reality was restless movement up and down the social scale, as land and wealth flowed away from old, established families into the hands of ‘new’ men – lawyers, merchants, administrators, yeomen – who were eager to step into their predecessors’ shoes. Not surprisingly, this erosion of the social hierarchy was accompanied by a heated debate about whether noble blood or personal merit was more deserving of honour. Webster, the son of a wealthy coach-maker, contributed to this debate throughout his theatrical career. According to literary critic Elli Abraham Shellist (2004), it is ‘the source of cultural conflict that is most frequently and intensely enacted’ in his plays. In The Duchess of Malfi, Webster signals that the play’s dominant aristocratic order is in a state of crisis, threatened by men like Antonio, an able administrator who, as we will soon learn, captures the heart of a high-born woman more impressed by merit than rank.

So the brothers’ attitude to the Duchess’s marrying again is determined not just by their ideas about women but also by their ideas about class boundaries and the nature of marriage. They share misogynistic views of the sexuality of widows and the patriarchal assumption that they have the right to dictate their sister’s sexual destiny. But these attitudes are all bound up with their belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman which should be chosen not by the individual but by the family, and not for reasons of love but with a view to enhancing family power and maintaining elite exclusivity. By the time Webster wrote The Duchess, this conception of marriage was very much associated with the upper classes. It is important to recognise that there was an alternative view available, often called the companionate ideal of marriage, which (as its name suggests) placed love and compatibility above the demands of family honour. This very different notion of marriage derived from the Protestant belief that marriage was an essential ingredient of human happiness and, as such, had to be built on a foundation of mutual love and respect. As an early seventeenth-century commentator put it: ‘As for love, it is the life and soul of marriage, without which it is no more itself than a carcass is a man; yea, it is uncomfortable, miserable and a living death’ (William Whately (1617) quoted in Keeble, 1994, p. 150). While the aristocracy clung to its desire for dynastic unions, other sections of early modern English society adhered to an idea of marriage as a partnership based on reciprocal affection.


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