Webster presents and scrutinizes women and their behaviour in various lights, sometimes critical but often sympathetic to the unattainable dichotomies that women are expected to fulfil. The Duchess herself is described by various (predominantly male) characters and is contrasted with other women such as Cariola, the old woman and, principally, Julia to accentuate her own attributes or lack thereof. The effect that his exploration of female autonomy would have had on a 17th Century audience would have been augmented by the introduction of female actors on stage in the mid 1600s that challenged both the patriarchal order that confined them to the domestic sphere. Female independence had become more recently accepted after the largely successful reign of Elizabeth I, although this was quickly followed by a return of the political system that restored gender hierarchy.
The Duchess is described by Antonio before she is seen on stage, implying the superiority of the male opinion, and is depicted by him as an unrealistic model of unalloyed virtue. His assertion that ‘her very sleeps, are more in heaven than other ladies’ shrifts’ is implicit that his paragon woman is pure and virginal, which is contrary to the reality of the Duchess who is willing to engage in and explore female sexuality to the point of suggested libidinousness. This is contrasted with Ferdinand’s lurid sexual fantasies in Act II Scene V of ‘her in the shameful act of sin’ that reveal his incestuous feelings for his sister that are seemingly, in addition to his inherent desire for complete control, the underlying reason that he ‘would not have her marry again’. Hypocritically, with ironic acuity, he thinks of her as a Renaissance stereotype ‘lusty widow’. When Ferdinand compares her to ‘an ‘excellent hyena’, suggesting her predatory nature, he associates her with the sexual ambiguity of hyenas, a species where females (who also have penises) dominate the males. In this metaphor, he inadvertently reveals the threat of female autonomy to the patriarchy that the courts system is infiltrated by. The Duchess is never given a personal name, referred to either by her rank (‘your grace’/ ‘my lady’) or relationship to a man (‘sister’/’wife’/’mistress’). Having already endured peripeteia after marrying Antonio, as she dies, she fulfils another one of Aristotle’s requirements for the protagonist of a tragedy which is to experience developing self-knowledge, exhibited when she questions ‘Am I not thy Duchess?’ before being followed by the assertion ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’. She seems forced into submission of the systematic removal of true identity, asserting her identity as ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ to achieve nobility and dignity in death. This concept of nobility being in some ways a pre-requisite of dignity is broken down when her final thoughts are that of common maternal instinct; thinking of her children, she states ‘look thou giv’st my little boy some syrup for his cold, and let the girl say her prayers ere she sleep’. Critic Mary Beth Rose argues that in her concerns for her children she dissolves the distinction between woman and greatness. By this time she has achieved the status of honourable defiance and dignity but now breaks down into a simple maternal figure that the audience would have related to, and the distinction between public and private dissolves. Although some of the Duchess’ lines contradict her defiance against the patriarchal system, such as her reference to her ‘little boy’ contrasts with ‘the girl’, alluding to an element of subconscious acceptance for male dominance, as Edmund Gosse in 1894 proclaimed, Webster’s overall portrayal of the Duchess’ behaviour, particularly in her death, is ‘calculated to inspire pity to a degree very rare indeed in any tragical poetry.’ This is accentuated by the contrasting deaths and behaviour of other characters in the play, particularly Julia.
Although Webster portrays misogynistic criticisms that are not explicitly refuted, e.g. ‘the common rabble do directly say she is a strumpet’, the virtuous nature and integrity of the Duchess undermines these remarks. But even before their contrasting deaths, a direct comparison between the two females is made when Julia is also deemed a ‘strumpet’ by Pescaro in Act V Scene I. Critic Frank Whigham comments on Julia’s role as a ‘renaissance court strumpet’, asserting that ‘she reaches out to two sources of power in the play: the Cardinal and Bosola. Her achievement is self-wasting.’ The same affect of the common description ‘strumpet’ is had in the aside ‘I have it, I will work upon this creature’ because Bosola himself is also a (self-proclaimed) ‘creature’. This allows for a comparison between Julia and Bosola that further reveals the inferior position of women in the play due to Bosola, in accordance with the Great Chain of Being, maintaining a higher position than his female counterpart Julia because he is the one who uses her (not vice versa), despite being dehumanized to the same extent for the sake of service to those above. Due to her husband’s age and impotence, she resorts to the temptation of other men, which is paralleled with the tempting of Adam in ‘Paradise Lost’. It also subverts the concept of the devil’s temptation of Eve when she herself tempts the ‘devil’ in the Cardinal. Julia and her rejection of sexual restrictions imposed on her is a character often admired and relished by contemporary audiences. Her promiscuity is contrasted with the Duchess’ love for Antonio, meaning Webster’s audience reacts more sympathetically to their illicit, clandestine marriage than they perhaps normally would.
Another female character contrasted to the Duchess is her maid, Cariola, who’s name is a pun on the Italian word carriol meaning trundle-bed (one bed tucked in under the other). Her name could suggest her constant physically close proximity as well as knowing all her secrets, but also conveys her lower status (i.e. sleeping under her). She seems to truly care for the wellbeing of the Duchess, displaying her vigilance, honourableness and trustworthiness when saying ‘for I’ll conceal this secret from the world,/ As warily as those that trade in poison/ Keep poison from their children’, and she ultimately dies (albeit unwillingly) affirming ‘I will die with her’. The Duchess uses her as an intelligencer, which in many ways reflects badly on the Duchess, who is meant to be symbolic of good against the surrounding evil of her brothers and the corrupt court. Her death, however, is less honourable and goes back on her earlier declaration that she ‘will die with her’. She seeks to feign excuses for her survival, saying both ‘I am quick with child’ and ‘I am contracted to a young gentleman’, before crying ‘I will not die!. Her cowardice doesn’t undermine her loyalty to the Duchess, but merely displays the inherent human characteristics of fear of death that the Duchess honourably rises above. Cariola is not unusual in her response, but serves as a contrast to the Duchess to highlight her nobility. Her language itself is that of obedience and servitude, (‘never, my Lord’ ‘my lady’ etc.) portraying her inferior position to most other characters. contrasting with the language of the Duchess, which is laiden with imagery and often in verse.
In Ferdinand’s cross-questioning of Duchess, he seems to exasperatedly exclaim ‘will you hear me?’ and cuts her off before she can finish her sentence (indicated by the hyphon) ‘’I’ll never marry-‘ – could be seen as a duplicitous response but the fact that she is interjected undermines this assumption as surely NOT IN OK BTW she could have gone on to justify her actions. Also faults okay
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