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John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

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Femininity can be defined as having or demonstrating qualities that are regarded as characteristic to women, whilst the specific expectations and beliefs alter depending on the societies views of the time, this then implies that femininity is a social and cultural construct- ‘one isn’t born a woman, one becomes one,’. In the Jacobean era, when John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ was first performed, society was essentially patriarchal, men held all offices of significance and made all political and economic decisions and there was the general view that women with power were deviating from the natural order. 

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Male dominance possibly could have been invoked through the representation of men in the Bible. Indeed, the predominantly male images of God and the absence of powerful women seem to support this. Women in the bible are often described as a wife, daughters, or a concubine of the male characters. Jacobeans believed that women were chattels; a possession of their fathers until married and chaste virgins upon marriage, then owned by their husbands much like any inheritable objects. Women were expected to be loyal and submissive towards their husbands. 

This patriarchal view and expectations for women endure and can be seen explored by Fowles in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ since it is a novel written in the late 20th century but set in the 19th. As a result of the second wave of feminism, women were more outspoken while campaigning for different rights, in 1967, this campaigning brought the legalisation of the contraceptive pill and abortions to all women allowing them sexual freedom and gave them the opportunity to broaden their aspirations far beyond motherhood and marriage. The Women’s Liberation Movement changed the expectations of women in society from the ‘traditional expectations’ that would have been seen in the era that ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ was set in.

Within the play ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, Webster presents a strong female that defies the norms of femininity. Indeed, the Duchess is seen as an independent, powerful woman. Women of the Duchess’ status would have been expected to remain widows upon the death of their husbands, especially if they already had an heir because it was not needed to remarry for another child. The widows were not controlled by one man, however, they were often harassed by male relatives which resulted in them seeking protection in a new husband. 

This is reflected in the play but in an alternate way; the Duchess’ brothers were arguing for her to stay a widow and to stay loyal to her husband but Webster presents her as arguing with this. She states that she ‘is flesh and blood, sir: ‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster kneels at my husband’s tomb.’ Here, Webster informs audiences that the Duchess is firm in her beliefs and does not see herself as abiding by the Jacobean view that widows should be physically alive but emotionally and sexually dead. The phrase ‘flesh and blood’ is used to remind everyone that she is a human rather than a woman who is seen as objects by the patriarchal society, as an extension of her husband. Her defiant and self-assured personality could have been shocking to Jacobean audiences because it was far different from the submissive characteristic that was expected of women.

Interestingly, in Act 1, the Duchess is seen taking the lead in conversation with Antonio which would be necessary as she is of higher social status however Jacobean audiences may have questioned it. Additionally, in contrast to the traditional arrangement, the Duchess proposes to Antonio, shown in the lines ‘And I did vow never to part with it But to my second husband.’ However, as the scene develops it is clear that she has a plan. She proposes to Antonio by presenting him the ring from her previous marriage which shows that she is willing to cast away all of the expectations of a widow in order to elope with Antonio. 

Some members of Jacobean audiences would have probably found this action quite shocking since it was far from the social norm of the time. Some members of modern audiences would have also been taken back by this because some feminist critics could argue that proposing to a loved one is still seen as a male behaviour rather than something that the female could do. This shows how the Duchess ‘exercises transgressive, independent sexual agency in defiance of social conventions not through infidelity but through marriage or more accurately remarriage’ because she is knowingly deciding to go against her brothers’ wishes of her remaining a widow by marrying Antonio and proposing to him herself rather than the more socially accepted arrangement. 

As a character, the Duchess has been presented by Webster as being a tragic protagonist, a character who has admirable traits that earn them the favour of the audience but also has a hamartia which ultimately leads to their downfall. In ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ the Duchess’ hamartia is that she falls prey to her own error in judgement of her brother’s attitude towards her family which is that he wants them ‘Burnt in a coal pit with the ventage stopped’ which shows how greatly he despises her family and her decision to marry Antonio. In most plays of the time the tragic protagonists were usually presented in male characters such as Shakespeare’s Othello, whose fatal flaw was his jealousy, this furthers the view that she is not a conventional woman.

Likewise, Sarah Woodruff from John Fowles’ novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ also defies the norms of femininity of the time in which the novel was set, 1867 Victorian England. At this point, it was expected for women to desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers and pursue sexual and emotional satisfaction, although the latter was less expected of them. Unlike Webster, Fowles’ presentation of Sarah is not to show her as empowered or overtly strong but rather as an independent woman. 

An alternative view of postmodernism critics would be that she is used by Fowles in order to question the fundamental Victorian principles and assumptions of women by preferring freedom to the happiness that she may have found in marriage. Indeed, Sarah is shown to have found happiness in stereotypically male traits that she has and wishes to develop, these are shown in the quotation ‘You were not born a woman with a natural respect, a love of intelligence, beauty, learning… I have no right to desire these things, but my heart craves them and I cannot believe it is all vanity’ This quotation clearly suggest that Sarah desires freedom so that she is able to have these unconventional traits without scrutiny from society. 

Another way in which Fowles shows Sarah as contrasting to the norms is through her reputation that she is unmarried due to the rumours of her relationship with the French lieutenant, this leads society to think of her and treat her in negative ways demonstrated when the Vicar and Mrs Poultney discuss her as ‘a most distressing case’ because Sarah’s name has been scorched but also because she has rejected the society’s norms and expectations of a woman. By using the word ‘distressing’ Fowles is suggesting that the nature of Sarah’s life is worrying for the Vicar because she is so isolated which means that she has no protection or control from a male figure.

When the readers are first introduced to Sarah during Charles Smithson’s and Ernestina Freeman’s walk along the shore, Ernestina seems hesitant about approaching Sarah because of the speculation surrounding her and she says ‘she is never to be seen when we visit.’ This implies that it would be socially unacceptable to interact with Sarah because of her title as a ‘Fallen Woman’, a woman who has lost her virginity before marriage. During the 19th century, women were expected to stay chaste till marriage but then were assumed to only desire marriage because it allowed them to become mothers rather than focusing on sexual satisfaction.

In contrast, women of the late 1960s had greater sexual freedom due to the Women’s Liberation Movement which allowed them to be open about their sexuality. Societies views are clearly seen in the quotation ‘”A man she is said to have….” “Fallen in love with?” “Worse than that.” “And he abandoned her?”’ Interestingly, Ernestina is fearful that interacting with Sarah or even speaking about her will cause others to think poorly of her because it would be improper for a woman of her social status to interact with such a low ranking woman with such reputation. By using the word ‘worse’ Fowles is implying that something severe occurred between Sarah and the Lieutenant that would have had disastrous effects on their reputations.

Fowles here clearly explores Victorian society’s attitudes to women who do not conform to their expectations of femininity regardless of the situation and shows how they are punished for it. In the novel Sarah is described as being socially isolated from the entire town of Lyme by Ernestina and Charles as shown in the lines ‘And she is so ostracized that she has to spend her days out here?’ ‘She is.’ 

This could be seen as a way of displaying Fowles’ perception of how Victorians would act in order to discourage other women who may consider straying from the social norm. The use of the word ‘ostracized’ shows readers that Charles is aware that the town of Lyme has completely excluded her from their society. Indeed, Fowles presents her as epitomising a self-liberated woman and at the time of publication, the second wave of feminism was in progress and the motions such as the ‘Married Women’s Property Act’ had finally been revised in 1964 resulting in much greater financial independence for women. To many readers perhaps a maverick like Sarah would have been pleasing.

Fowles presents other female characters as willful but not overtly challenging societal norms. For example, Ernestina in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ is presented as a conventional Victorian aristocratic woman. In the 19th century, it was expected that the groom was supposed to be at least five years older than the bride to enforce a ‘natural hierarchy’ between the sexes, Charles is eleven years older than Ernestina, yet there are still moments in which Ernestina is more controlling over Charles. For example in chapter twelve when he returns to their lodging Ernestina demands that he ‘shall not have a drop of tea until you have accounted for every moment of your day.’ 

This presents to readers that she is a strong, assertive character who does not completely adhere to the submissive expectations of women in the Victorian era, she does not greet Charles in a polite, affectionate way that was stereotypically expected of a fiancé. Nevertheless, Charles does not reprimand her for being so forward and demanding, instead he complies and tells her about his day, showing readers that because he loves her she does not get punished for acting against the norms of femininity which shows that she has some authority over Charles.

The character of Julia in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ is a further example of a woman who challenges the expectations of women because unlike men, women are expected to stay chaste and loyal to their husbands. However in the play, Julia, the wife of Castruchio, is presented as a fickle lover who is seen to have affections for many characters throughout the extent of the play such as the Cardinal and Bosala as well as the Cardinal’s assumption that ‘you have approved those giddy and wild turnings in yourself’ meaning that she has supposedly had relations with many other men. 

However, she is also used to show a woman who is confident with her sexuality. Indeed, in Act 2 scene 4 she speaks of sexual relationships with both the Cardinal and Delio, in her interaction with Delio she uses her confidence to have power over him in regards to how she responds to his offer of money for sex, ‘Sir, I’ll go ask my husband if I shall,’. This line shows how she can use her wit to discreetly mock Delio since Webster presents her as a woman who takes a man if she feels the impulse and desire towards him. 

This may have been shocking for a Jacobean audience since it was immoral for women to express their sexuality in this way, these actions meant that she was unloyal in her marriage which would reflect badly on her husband and taint his reputation. However, she is still manipulated into being controlled by the Cardinal when he reminds her that he is in control of their affair despite her telling him that she is willing to be his mistress. The Cardinal compares her to wild animals repeatedly in this scene, implying that she is unpredictable and animalistic in regards to her sexuality although he also compares her to a bird of prey ‘I have taken you off your melancholy perch…And let you fly at it.’ 

This could be seen as the Cardinal saying that he set her free from her relationship with Castruchio which is referred to as a ‘melancholy perch’ suggesting that it is an unhappy relationship. Other audience members may interpret the quotation as implying that he has control over her because falcons are creatures whose flight is controlled by their falconer who in this case is the Cardinal. Despite Julia having promiscuous interactions between men, she is not punished until the end of the play when she is used to make the Cardinal admit to his involvement in the Duchess’ murder and is then found out by the Cardinal to be betraying him, when he does he forces her to kiss a poison covered book.

Furthermore, it could be argued by some critics that women are punished for defying femininity because of the rules the patriarchy has set in place for women that maintain the men’s superiority to women. Webster presents a corrupt patriarchal society that is governed by an immoral religion, the women in the play are victims of this society because they are punished for actions that men could carry out without penance. 

The main implication that Malfi is fatally corrupted is seen in the opening of the play when Antonio returns from France and says ‘Some cursed example poison’t near the head, Death and diseases through the whole land spread.’ Webster uses this metaphor to suggest that if the leaders of the society are rotten then the rest of the community will be affected by their actions and be influenced by their values and ideals. 

This corruption is reflected in the actions of Ferdinand in relation to the punishment of the Duchess since he wants her dead shown in the quotation ‘…Burnt in a coal pit with the ventage stopped, That their cursed smoke might not ascend to heaven;’ Here Webster is demonstrating to the readers that while Ferdinand wants his sister dead, he also wants her and her children to suffer from eternal damnation because he is stating that he wants to stop their souls from going to heaven, a concept that is severely important to people of religion. 

To stop her from ascending would mean that her soul would be forced to descend to hell, causing her eternal torture. In the eyes of modern audiences, this would be seen as an unnecessary punishment for a woman and it may have even shocked Jacobean audiences with the maliciousness of the fantasy. Ferdinand’s demands also reveal to the audience that he believes that to silence the Duchess’ defiant mind and stop her actions he must kill her so that she can never challenge his requests again or go against what is expected of her as a woman. Unlike Webster with the Duchess, Fowles never truly depicts Sarah as being punished by society or the patriarchy in any way, she is merely shut out by Lyme. However, she does not see this as a punishment because Fowles implies that she has deliberately caused it so that she could be free from society’s expectations of her as a woman.

In conclusion, it could be argued that the female characters in the texts are punished for defying the norms of femininity that men have had a large role in creating. Toril Moi suggests that ‘patriarchal oppression consists of imposing certain social standards of femininity on all biological females…to make us believe that the chosen standards for ‘femininity’ are natural’ and therefore the women within the texts are only punished in order to uphold the patriarchy and deter any women that may consider defying the prescribed ‘norms’ of femininity that keep them submissive.  

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