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

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John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

Love and marriage: Antonio the steward

The brothers, of course, turn out to be right about their sister, who is indeed planning a second marriage to a commoner. Like Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, she chooses for herself rather than deferring to the wishes of her male relations. How does the play encourage us to feel about the Duchess’s defiant second marriage? It is important that by the time her intentions towards Antonio are made clear, we have become well acquainted with the object of her affections. We have already seen that Antonio and Delio begin the scene alone onstage, when Antonio is depicted in terms of his well-developed and credible political ideas. As the other main characters enter and exit, the two characters stand apart and discuss them, Antonio providing detailed descriptions of Bosola, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, and finally of the Duchess. The fact that it is he who is selected to provide the audience with this information endows this character of humble birth with a considerable amount of authority. It has often been remarked that in this opening scene Antonio and Delio serve as a kind of Chorus, guiding the spectators’ responses in the manner of the Choruses of the tragedies of ancient Greece.

As the Duchess’s steward, Antonio occupies the same position as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (1601). It is a measure of the difference between the two plays that while Malvolio is ridiculed and humiliated as a social-climbing kill-joy, Antonio is treated with considerable respect. Not only is he allowed to enlighten the spectators as to the natures of the play’s main characters; his merit is emphasised when he is announced as the winner of the joust (1.1.90–3). Malvolio is tricked into revealing his deep-seated longing for the social advancement that marriage to his employer, the Countess Olivia, would bring. Antonio, by contrast, discovers in this scene that he really is the object of his employer’s desire. By investing the figure of the steward with so much authority, Webster is presenting a direct challenge to the elitism and caste pride represented by the Duchess’s brothers.

Antonio’s descriptions of the Cardinal and Ferdinand serve to enhance our understanding of the kind of social and political rottenness the brothers embody. What he stresses is the gap between their inner and outer selves. According to Antonio, while the Cardinal may play the role of ‘brave fellow’ when in company (1.1.159), underneath he is ‘a melancholy churchman’ (1.1.164) given to inveterate plotting against his enemies and not averse to bribing his way to the top of his profession. Ferdinand, in a similar fashion, acts the part of suave Renaissance prince, but beneath the surface lies a ‘most perverse and turbulent nature’ (1.1.176). In his role as judge, he pretends ‘to sleep o’th’bench / Only to entrap offenders in their answers’ (1.1.182–3). Through Antonio, then, the play identifies both brothers with a talent for dissimulation; they are actors who use performance to control and dominate others.

Activity 4

Look now at lines 195–217 of Act 1, Scene 1 and try to answer these two questions:

  1. What does Antonio say about his employer, the Duchess?
  2. What strikes you as distinctive about his language?


  1. Antonio describes the Duchess as a paragon of womanhood, as different from her corrupt brothers as it is possible to be. Her speech, he says, is enchanting without being in any way sinister, and her countenance is so lovely that it could cure paralysis! Antonio stresses the Duchess’s virtue as well, specifically her chastity: she may attract men through her beauty and eloquence, but these are coupled with a ‘divine’ ‘continence’ that ‘cuts off’ lustful thoughts and that endows even her dreams with a purity that other women, including those who have just been to confession, fail to match. Like the Duchess’s brothers, Antonio sees chastity as the quintessential feminine virtue, but while the Cardinal and Ferdinand take for granted their sister’s moral frailty, Antonio pays her the compliment of claiming she entirely lives up to the ideal. He concludes that the Duchess ought to be a model for other women to emulate.
  2. This summary makes it clear how exaggerated, how hyperbolic, Antonio’s praise of the Duchess is. When he says that her speech and sweet look combined could enable a man crippled with paralysis to dance a galliard, a dance that required considerable speed and strength, he does not mean his words to be taken literally; he is using hyperbole, or extravagant overstatement, to convey the power of the Duchess’s charms.

Webster is drawing here on a particular kind of love poetry of the period, often termed Petrarchan, from its originator, the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374). Petrarchan love poetry usually took the form of the sonnet – a 14-line poem in iambic pentameter with a complex rhyme scheme – and had numerous conventions, one of which was a strong tendency to idealise the loved object. Look at this fairly typical example by Edmund Spenser (c.1552–1599), which is sonnet 3 from his sonnet sequence Amoretti:

Verse Line number
The soverayne beauty which I doo admyre,
 witnesse the world how worthy to be prayzed;
 the light wherof hath kindled heavenly fyre
 in my fraile spirit by her from baseness raysed:
That being now with her huge brightnesse dazed,
 base thing I can no more endure to view,
 but looking still on her I stand amazed
 at wondrous sight of so celestiall hew.
So when my toung would speak her praises dew,
 it stopped is with thought’s astonishment;
 and when my pen would write her titles true,
 it ravisht is with fancie’s wonderment:
Yet in my hart I then both speake and write
 the wonder that my wit cannot endite [put into words].


(Evans, 1977, p. 115)

Like Antonio’s speech, Spenser’s poem is concerned with the power of female beauty, which is associated with monarchy in the word ‘soverayne’ (sovereign) (l. 1) and with divinity in words like ‘heavenly’ (l. 3) and ‘celestiall’ (l. 8). Antonio too invests the Duchess’s appearance with a spiritual potency, and both the sonnet and the speech see this as capable of strengthening and ennobling the onlooker: like Antonio’s man lying in ‘a dead palsy’, the speaker of Spenser’s poem is raised from baseness by the woman’s beauty, his ‘fraile’ spirit revived and renewed.

By the time of the first performance of The Duchess in 1613–14, this kind of love poetry, with its idealised picture of the woman, was fairly old-fashioned, and this is reflected in Delio’s amused response to his friend’s rapturous speech: ‘Fie, Antonio, / You play the wire-drawer with her commendations’ (1.1.213–14). By identifying Antonio with a man who stretches metal to make wire, Delio’s metaphor suggests that his praise of the Duchess was both long-winded and a trifle excessive. But Antonio sticks to his guns, closing his description of the Duchess with a memorable couplet: ‘All her particular worth grows to this sum, / She stains the time past, lights the time to come’ (1.1.216–17). In other words, she leaves an indelible mark on the past (or possibly makes it look dark by comparison with herself) and casts a light upon the future. Thus, by the time the Duchess begins her courtship of Antonio, we know that he is in love with her, and Webster’s representation of that love in Petrarchan terms identifies it as intensely romantic, as a form of adoration that, in Antonio’s circumstances, defines the social distance separating him from his aristocratic employer.


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