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: the Duchess

What of the Duchess herself? According to Clifford Leech and James L. Calderwood, in studies of the play produced in the 1950s and 1960s, she is portrayed in accordance with the stereotypes of the highly sexed widow voiced by her brothers, and her marriage to Antonio is depicted as wilful, wanton and irresponsible (Rabkin, 1968, pp. 75–9, 93). Do you agree? We will address this question by looking at Webster’s representation of the Duchess’s courtship of her steward, but before we do that, it is worth remembering that by the time we meet the play’s protagonist, her brothers have been revealed unambiguously as villains. It seems unlikely, then, that the play would invite us to endorse their views. A more credible argument would be that the play is seeking to discredit misogynistic attitudes to women by putting them in the mouths of its least appealing characters.

The Duchess is certainly violating norms of femininity in the final episode of Act 1, as she adopts the active role in the marriage, courting and effectively proposing marriage to Antonio. She is thus even bolder than Desdemona, who only ‘hints’ to Othello that she would welcome his courtship (Shakespeare, 2008 [1622], 1.3.166). Yet, I would argue that the Duchess’s seizing of the initiative is not presented as the result of an overactive libido. Indeed, the Duchess speaks of her own sexuality with admirable common sense, saying to Antonio: ‘This is flesh and blood, sir, / ’Tis not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband’s tomb’ (1.1.457–9). This is refreshing, not only after the brothers’ misogyny, but also after Antonio’s own desexualised portrait of the Duchess. Later in the play, in a moment of great danger, she asks Ferdinand: ‘Why should only I / Of all the other princes of the world / Be cased up like a holy relic? I have youth, / And a little beauty’ (3.2.137–9). Both these passages stress the difference between nature and artifice, between the naturalness of a woman’s flesh, blood, youth and beauty and the way patriarchal society seeks to transform women into decorative, precious objects that can be locked away and safely controlled. This contrast between nature and representation suggests that the Duchess is neither lascivious, as her brothers would have it, nor the inhuman paragon of loyalty and chastity – the alabaster figure, the holy relic – that men would like her, and women generally, to be. She expresses her own sexuality in a manner that makes it sound healthy and natural, in opposition to a patriarchal mindset predisposed to see women in terms of the binary oppositions of angel and whore.

Described image
Figure 3 Helen Mirren as the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, dir. Adrian Noble (Manchester Royal Exchange, 1980). Photo: Photostage.

Webster, then, appears to have no qualms about stressing the sexual dimension of the Duchess’s love for Antonio. What else can we say about his portrayal of the lovers’ relationship in the final courtship section of the play’s long opening scene? The expression of love and desire is necessarily muted at the start, as the Duchess keeps up the pretence that she has sent for Antonio to help her in the preparation of her will. There are moments when her nerves seem to get the better of her, as when she forgets what she just asked Antonio to do and needs to be reminded (1.1.365–8). But their mutual attraction is evident throughout, and in the theatre a director would need to decide just how openly flirtatious or guarded their initial interaction should be. The Duchess takes more pleasure in Antonio’s compliment – ‘So please your beauteous excellence’ (1.1.372) – than seems strictly compatible with her position as his employer. And both parties waste no time in bringing the discussion around to the topic of marriage, Antonio revealing, when pressed, a touching desire for parenthood:

Say a man never marry, nor have children,
What takes that from him? Only the bare name
Of being a father, or the weak delight
To see the little wanton ride a-cock-horse
Upon a painted stick, or hear him chatter
Like a taught starling.


Slowly, the Duchess builds up to a more open expression of her feelings, declaring her love – ‘Go, go brag / You have left me heartless, mine is in your bosom’ (1.1.452–3) – and revealing that it is rooted in her perception and appreciation of Antonio’s virtues:

If you will know where breathes a complete man –
I speak it without flattery – turn your eyes
And progress through yourself.


The marriage itself is represented in terms of harmony and mutuality. Both characters kneel and speak lines that evoke strongly companionate ideas of marriage: the ‘sacred Gordian’ knot that cannot be untied (1.1.482); the music of the ‘spheres’ (1.1.483); the ‘loving palms’ that ‘ne’er bore fruit divided’ (1.1.485, 487). The delivery of the lines, the fact that they are performed as a kind of duet with the Duchess and Antonio echoing and completing one another’s images, reinforces the couple’s mutual affection.

Described image
Figure 4 Emblem of loving palms as a symbol of a good marriage, in Cats, J. (1657) Emblemata Moralia et Oeconomica, in Alle de Werken van Jakob Cats, Amsterdam. Photo: By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C..

It seems highly likely that Webster’s original Protestant audience would have responded favourably to this depiction of a marriage based on shared admiration and the desire to raise a family. Would it have been a problem that the marriage was clandestine? Early modern marriage law is too complex a topic to deal with in any depth here; suffice it to say that a valid and binding marriage required only that the couple declare their mutual consent in the present tense – what the Duchess refers to as ‘a contract in a chamber, / Per verba de presenti’ (1.1.480–1). But in 1604, James I sought ‘to clarify the definition of marriage by taking it out of private hands and requiring it to be validated by ecclesiastical ceremony’ (Marcus, 2009, p. 36), a move opposed by large segments of English society who saw this as an encroachment by church and state on a time-honoured tradition. When the Duchess declares ‘We now are man and wife, and ’tis the Church / That must but echo this’ (1.1.492–3), she is giving priority to an idea of marriage as a private contract outside the direct control of the ecclesiastical authorities – an idea with which many of the play’s original spectators would no doubt have sympathised.

To portray the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio as devoid of affection, as some productions do, is to ignore the copious textual evidence that Webster depicts it as a love match. It is certainly true, however, that Webster never lets us forget the power differential between the bride and groom. The staging of the courtship stresses how much this marriage turns conventional gender roles on their heads. Not only does the Duchess instigate the wooing; it is she who places the ring on Antonio’s finger, and when he kneels in response, she raises him up again. Visually, this underscores her powerful position. Webster’s use of dramatic irony strengthens our sense of this; not to be confused with verbal irony, when a text means something quite different from what it says, dramatic irony involves a situation in which an audience or reader knows more than one or more characters. The fact that we know what the Duchess is up to, while Antonio remains in the dark until the Duchess slips the ring onto his finger, intensifies our awareness of his inferior position.

Webster also makes it clear that for Antonio part of the attraction of the Duchess’s proposal is the self-advancement it promises, hence his initial response when she gives him her wedding ring and her amorous intentions become clear: ‘There is a saucy and ambitious devil / Is dancing in this circle’ (1.1.416–17). The metaphor of the wedding ring as a magic circle inside of which a ‘saucy and ambitious devil’ is dancing conveys not only Antonio’s desire for upward social mobility, but also his conviction that that desire is a dangerous temptation. Webster is hardly cynical about this: we have already heard Antonio’s fulsome speech of praise for the Duchess, as well as his deeply felt evocation of the joys of fatherhood. The point is not that Antonio feels no love for the Duchess, but that his motives for marrying are mixed.

He is also frightened of the Duchess’s brothers, and Webster encourages us to share his fear. We have just heard both Ferdinand and the Cardinal make thinly veiled threats to their sister, the language of which suggests that a secret, unauthorised second marriage will be met with severe punishment. So Ferdinand declares: ‘Such weddings may more properly be said / To be executed than celebrated’ (1.1.327–8); the Cardinal adding: ‘The marriage night / Is the entrance into some prison’ (1.1.328–9). These statements serve as prolepses gesturing towards the violent treatment awaiting the Duchess and setting up strong verbal links between marriage for love on the one hand and suffering and death on the other. Webster continues to provide verbal clues as to the fate of this forbidden union during the courtship and marriage. We have seen that the Duchess is forced to dissemble her intentions at the start of the wooing, but her pretence that she is making her will seems a desperately ominous start to the courtship, and the language at this point, with its talk of the ‘deep groans and terrible ghastly looks’ of the dying, and the ‘winding sheet’ in which a corpse was wrapped (1.1.383, 393), underlines just how ill-fated this marriage for love will prove. Webster’s language subtly yokes love and death, alerting the spectators to the dangers awaiting the lovers, even if the heroine herself chooses to dismiss them.

Activity 5

Read the Duchess’s speech that follows Ferdinand’s exit at line 345 and precedes Cariola’s entry at 353. How would you characterise the mood of this passage?


I would say that the mood of the speech is extraordinarily defiant. We have just heard Ferdinand and the Cardinal threaten to punish a second marriage, but as soon as the Duchess is alone onstage, she dismisses them with withering contempt:

                              If all my royal kindred
Lay in my way unto this marriage
I’d make them my low foot-steps ...


The lines imagine her royal kindred as a literal obstacle blocking her path to ‘this marriage’, an obstacle she simply turns to her advantage, using them as ‘low foot-steps’ to the altar. The Duchess’s sentence carries on for another six lines, most of which are taken up with an extended simile in which she makes an analogy between herself and ‘men in some great battles’ who ‘[b]y apprehending danger have achieved / Almost impossible actions’ (1.1.348, 349–50). As in the opening lines of the speech, the Duchess acknowledges the problem but determines to use it to her advantage, just as men in battle sometimes do, facing danger and thereby transforming their fear into courage and valour.

The Duchess is entering imaginatively into a masculine world of military heroism that she has only heard about: ‘I have heard soldiers say so’ (1.1.350). Her sex may exclude her from this world, but her high rank connects her to it, for war had traditionally been the chief vocation of the male aristocrat, as Ferdinand indicates earlier in the scene when he asks impatiently ‘When shall we leave this sportive action and fall to action indeed?’ (1.1.93–4). We can hear the note of class pride in the Duchess’s speech: the easy sense of superiority that fuels the metaphor of her ‘royal kindred’ as nothing more than ‘low foot-steps’; the self-assertiveness of her declaration ‘So I, through frights and threat’nings will assay / This dangerous venture’ (1.1.351–2). When Antonio, later in the scene, asks ‘But for your brothers?’ (1.1.472), the Duchess replies:

                             Do not think of them.
All discord, without this circumference,
Is only to be pitied and not feared.


This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout Acts 2 and 3 in moments of danger, as the Duchess seeks to reassure her husband, who consistently feels helpless and overwhelmed by the course of events. Antonio seems to recognise the gender confusion when he says to his new wife: ‘These words should be mine’ (1.1.476).

So the play, while staging a cross-class marriage, never loses sight of the class differences of the couple and the way this skews traditional gender roles. The Duchess may marry the steward she admires as ‘a complete man’ (1.1.439), but she remains very much an aristocrat. This brings us to the vexed question of why she places Cariola behind the arras prior to wooing Antonio. It seems that Cariola emerges from her hiding place in order to act as witness of the couple’s marriage vows, but numerous critics, including Clifford Leech and Frank Whigham, have felt that there is something duplicitous and coercive in the Duchess’s treatment of her prospective husband in this episode; the wary steward is enticed with promises of vast wealth (1.1.432–4) and ultimately trapped in wedlock by the Duchess’s own spy behind the arras (Leech in Rabkin, 1968, p. 93; Whigham, 1985, p. 173). Does Webster, then, reveal in his heroine traces of the kind of manipulative bullying we see as well in her brothers, suggesting that using people is part and parcel of being a member of the ruling class? Perhaps, but other critics have argued for a reading of this episode that is more flattering to the Duchess. For example, William Empson suggests that she hides Cariola precisely in order to leave Antonio free to decline her proposal, an insult he may have felt disinclined to deliver in the presence of her waiting woman (Rabkin, 1968, p. 93).

This long opening scene draws to a close with Cariola’s choric commentary:

Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman
Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows
A fearful madness. I owe her much of pity.


Cariola is uncertain whether to see the Duchess’s bid for self-determination as evidence of her ‘greatness’ of spirit or her feminine wilfulness. It is important that ‘greatness’ is offered here as a possibility. Whigham calls the Duchess ‘a cultural voyager’ who ‘arrogates to herself a new role, that of female hero’ (1985, p. 172). She does this not only in the speech we considered earlier but also when she says to Cariola. ‘Wish me good speed, / For I am going into a wilderness / Where I shall find nor path, nor friendly clew / To be my guide’ (1.1.362–5). She is moving knowingly into uncharted waters, beyond the bounds of socially accepted behaviour where there will be no clear path to guide her. It is in the absence of models to imitate that she identifies herself with the notion of masculine heroism so integral to her class. Cariola, too, is uncertain how to describe an aristocratic woman who is flouting the requirements of her rank and gender.

In Act 1, Webster constructs a dramatic world dominated by a morally impoverished aristocratic elite obsessed with controlling their sister’s sexuality and policing the class boundary that sets them apart from those lower down the social scale. It is against the backdrop of this poisonous courtly milieu that the marriage between the Duchess and Antonio takes on such positive meanings, and becomes a vehicle for upholding a view of marriage based on mutual love and compatibility and the right of a woman to determine her own sexual destiny, independently of her male relations. There is nothing glib or sentimental in Webster’s endorsement of these values; the play does not pretend that love provides a simple solution to disparities of rank, for example. Yet to a very real extent, Webster draws on the conventions of stage comedy in Act 1 of The Duchess, presenting us with an obstacle to true love, in the form of familial disapproval, and inviting sympathy for the lovers who defy that authority. Yet the play is too dark and its authority figures too sinister to sustain much hope of a comic denouement, and Webster’s language steadily reminds us that in this play love and death are inextricable.


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