The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi
Background and themes
• Not a poor streetkid (as depicted in SiL)
• His two great tragedies (D of M; The White
Devil) are concerned with the fall of women
• Devil was first (not a great success; too
complex) and shares themes/motifs with
Malfi; madness, scheming brother; disguise;
• Refashioning of earlier dramas and sources was
the norm, and in some cases, Webster might
have imagined the actors and created the roles to
suit them.
• Refashioning of earlier dramas and sources was
the norm, and in some cases, Webster might
have imagined the actors and created the roles to
suit them.
• Richard Burbage might have played the main part
(he played Shakespeare’s great tragic figures)
• 1612-14
• Title page of 1623 says it was acted in both
the Globe and Blackfriars
• Tragedies often set in Italian setting.
• It is a play about greatness and great people
• Echoes of Shakespeare (RIII’s call for a horse,
the hand scene recalls the witches imagery in
• Sources set on the real story paint her as
marrying for lust, giving a negative portrayal.
Webster treats this differently.
• He refashions his conventional sources to portray
the corruption of patriarchy and play with the
convention of the stereotype of the lusty wanton
widow (for the most famous example, see
Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath). The Duchess could
be seen as the ‘Virtuous widow”, or as a
parody/satire/humanising of this character.
• This play is different from previous : it is devoted
to the life and death of a woman, it is the tragedy
of a woman (who is the lead character, and not a
villain!). She is a hero who is not chaste.
• It cannot be spoken of; too taboo? Ferdinand refuses
to explain his need to have her stay unmarried to
Bosola: Do not you ask the reason but be satisfied I say
I would not (1.1.250-1) His lack of initial justification
makes the audience wonder; is the reason
• According to the Catholic church, even marrying your
cousin was illegal
• While Ferdinand’s desire to see his sister stay single is
not necessarily bizarre, it is unusual that he seems to
expect a young widow to not marry again.
• While both brothers warn her off of a second
marriage, Ferdinand becomes even harsher once
the Cardinal leaves, threatening her with a
dagger. Although he tries to scare her away from
lusty thoughts, he can’t help but contemplate her
sexuality as a woman, as if he is fascinated by it:
Women like that part which, like the lamprey,
Hath ne’er a bone in’t (1.1.328-9)
• His failure to explain his anxiety, and the fact that
his words contrast with Antonio’s praise of the
Duchess (and we have seen Antonio has been
right with his judgments of the Cardinal,
Ferdinand, and Bosola) do not become a sane
man’s speech
• When he hears news that she has given birth, he
is preoccupied by her sexuality and the identity of
her lover (some strong-thighed bargeman 2.5.42)
– is this some latent desire to replace her
partner? He imagines her in sexual act: Methinks
I see her laughing...Talk to me somewhat quickly,
or my imagination will carry me to see her in the
shameful act of sin (2.5.38-41)
• The Cardinal and Ferdinand are in exactly the
same position, but only the F reacts in such a
• He takes onto himself the wrong done to her first
husband: Thou hast ta’en that massy sheet of
lead that hid thy husband’s bones, and folded it
about my heart. (3.2.12-3).
• Is he inhibited from action in 3.2 because he feels
a sense of identification with the second
husband, but also identifies with the first
husband because he feels sexual jealousy.
• He is preoccupied with her body. When she
leaves the stage, wishing to die soon in 4.1,
Bosola begs Ferdinand to stop taunting, but as
soon as he mentions the body and delicate skin
(4.1.116) that must endure penance, the thought
is anguish to Ferdinand: Damn her! That body of
hers... (4.1.117). He will spare her body but
torment her mind with the presence of mad ppl.