‘There is little or nothing to feel optimistic about by the end of the play’. In the light of this statement, explore connections between The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Despite Webster being cited by critics as one of the principal playwrights to introduce the darker side of literature to the English stage, and the tragic end of the characters in both The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s questionable whether the conclusion of either play can be described as being completely devoid of optimism. Both endings are undeniably tragic but can also be interpreted as having aspects of hope and justice – whether this is the death of the Cardinal and Ferdinand ending years of their corrupt influence within the court, Blanche’s escape from Stanley’s unrelenting cruelty, or the way that each play leaves a child who carries the potential to improve the situation that they have been born into.
In Renaissance Italy, when The Duchess of Malfi is set, women were legally subject to their husbands and had no political rights. Even women of the highest classes were expected to be submissive and to fill their time with tasks such as embroidery and entertaining guests. This gender prejudice is clear throughout the play, for example when Ferdinand stipulates through a oaded rhetorical question that women can be easily swayed into sleeping with someone, “What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale; Make a woman believe?” The way that the Duchess refuses to conform to the standards of the time and acts instead on her own desires could be credited with the fatalistic and pessimistic atmosphere of the play; it’s a recurring theme throughout literature that those who refuse to conform are punished for their deviance. From the beginning of the play, it’s clear to the audience that Ferdinand and the Cardinal are in positions of great power. As well as this, they each have a presumed superiority over the Duchess by default because of the patriarchal society of the time and are presented by Webster as cold and ruthless characters, described by Bosola as having a pair of hearts like “hollow graves, rotten, and rotting others.” The Cardinal seems to be a Machiavellian villain – extremely cold and calculating who will do anything to advance his position, regardless of how corrupt this may be. This, combined with Bosola being shown to be perceptive and a good judge of character throughout the play, leaves little hope in the audience’s eyes of mercy for the Duchess from the Aragonian brothers . Therefore, it could be said that the Duchess condemns herself from the moment that she defies her brothers, and that from that point onwards there is a lack of hope for her and consequently an inevitable lack of optimism at the end of the play. However, this rejection of controlling social constructs cannot be dismissed as being simply fatalistic. Lucy Webster, a writer for emagazine, noted that throughout the Duchess of Malfi “Not for the first time, Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre anticipates social concerns and issues that are urgently debated today”. The manner that Webster addresses an issue such as the position of women, that is still so relevant today, could be said to add optimism to the conclusion of the play as, especially in a modern reading, the Duchess’s independence is celebrated by many and can be seen as being progressive in a violent and regressive society, giving the play a sense of optimism despite her death.
Although written centuries after The Duchess of Malfi, A Streetcar Named Desire tackles similar issues surrounding women being condemned for rejecting the confines of their sex. However, it could be said that the ending of the play presents a more pessimistic view on the consequences of female sexuality. Like the Duchess, Blanche embraces her sexuality to a higher degree than was thought acceptable by society at the time. Just as characters in The Duchess of Malfi use derogatory language to describe women who are thought to be overtly sexual, such as when Ferdinand dismisses the Duchess’s thoughts on re-marriage by saying “Whores, by that rule, are precious”, or the repeated use of the term “strumpet”, Stanley also uses offensive terms to judge Blanche’s sexual actions. For example when he is described as sizing women up “at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind.” Although the actions of each female protagonist leads to their downfall, the optimism present at the end of The Duchess of Malfi partially stems from the the fulfilment that the Duchess manages to find in her loving sexual relationship with Antonio prior to her death. Contrastingly to this, Blanche doesn’t seem to be in control of her sexuality but rather controlled by it to a harmful degree, for example when she tells the young man “Come here. I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth!” Whereas the Duchess is comfortable with her sexuality, Blanche seems to have a constant conflict between her Southern Belle demeanor and an obviously very sexual hidden side to herself. The way that Blanche’s sexuality is a contributing factor to her eventual undoing could lead to a lack of optimism at the end of the play, especially in the eyes of modern audiences who hold less prejudices surrounding female sexuality and could interpret the struggle that Blanche has with her sexuality as being a consequence of the controlling society in which she has grown up, and the pressure that she puts on herself to fulfill her role as a Southern Belle.
When the Duchess says “Heaven-gates are not so highly arched as princes’ palaces; they that enter there must go upon their knees” prior to her death, it’s suggested that she’ll be granted eternal reward for her defiance and confidence, lending optimism to her otherwise brutal demise. There are also implications that the Cardinal and Ferdinand will go to Hell and will be punished for their unrelenting cruelty. Towards the end of the play, Ferdinand says “When I go to hell, I mean to carry a bribe”, matter-of-factly stating his destination after he dies. Ferdinand could be perceived as being more honest when he enters the disturbed mental state following his sister’s murder – he recognises his own evil and mocks the delusion of the doctor who is meant to be curing him – and this adds weight to what he says, as though he’s found truth in his madness. The Cardinal also recognises his own flaws, saying “When I look into the fish-ponds in my garden, Methinks I see a thing arm’d with a rake, That seems to strike at me.” Especially within the atmosphere of anti-Catholicism at the time, the death of the Cardinal could be celebrated and seen to be representative of the end of a corrupt vein of religious leadership. Although the protagonists die, they can die with a clear conscience and the idea of eternal reward; the idea that the evil characters of the play will die with guilty consciences and will be punished for their deeds surrounds the end of the play with a sense of justice that evokes optimism.
Whereas the ending of The Duchess of Malfi ends with a sense of optimism with Ferdinand and the Cardinal arguably being justly punished for their wrongdoings, Stanley remains triumphant at the conclusion of A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella is overtly faithful to him, seeming to choose him over her own sister as she states “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley”, and he gets his old life back as Blanche is forced to leave. Unlike the change seen in Ferdinand and Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, Stanley’s cruelty is unrelenting and he shows no mercy towards Blanche and displays no newfound respect for her. As well as this, Webster suggests that the Duchess leaves a strong legacy and will be remembered and celebrated for years to come through Delio’s narrative “Integrity of life is fame’s best friend, Which nobly, beyond death, shall crown the end.” She also leaves a son, and Delio insinuates that he will be given an influential position when he says “join all our force To establish this young hopeful gentleman In’s mother’s right.” There is the optimistic suggestion through describing the Duchess’s son as “hopeful” that he could go on to bring about a change in the corrupt Italian court presented in the play, making the audience feel as though the Duchess has managed to be a positive force in society, despite all odds. Contrastingly to this, Blanche’s legacy – or lack of legacy – could not be more different. When Stanley tells her “You left nothing here but spilt talcum and old empty perfume bottles”, he uses images of superficial objects to imply that Blanche has left nothing of any substance, and that no part of her remains that cannot be easily disposed of and forgotten. Blanche has not succeeded in leaving a legacy and is arguably being unjustly remembered for her worst points – this could make the conclusion of the play devoid of optimism, especially in the eyes of an audience who have a sense of pathos for the character and have seen hints of the more graceful and positive aspects of her personality.
Through his use of a proclamative statement in the Duchess’ dialogue, “I am Duchess of Malfi still”, Webster could suggest that the Duchess is being brave in a horrifying situation. This continued sense of dignity could make the end of the play seem more optimistic as her strength is not defeated by the trials that she is put through and so, in a way, she triumphs over Ferdinand whose goal seems to be to break her down. However, another interpretation could be that this statement is in fact the Duchess clinging onto a title which has imprisoned her throughout the play. If it weren’t for her responsibilities and the importance of her reputation, the Duchess would arguably be able to marry Antonio without the repercussions that come with her lack of respect for the confines of her political position. As well as this, the repeated kneeling and standing imagery throughout the play could relate to The Wheel of Fortune, or Rota Fortunae; a concept in medieval and ancient philosophy referring to the unpredictable nature of fate and a symbolic technique employed by Webster throughout the play. For example, when the Duchess proposes to Antonio – breaking gender norms and being assertive – she says “Raise yourself, Or if you please, my hand help you: so”, and Antonio rises. The Duchess both literally and figuratively raises Antonio, especially in regards to his social standing. If a character in the play rising from their knees symbolises good fortune and success then, according to The Wheel of Fortune, the Duchess kneeling down to accept death would suggest that she has moved to the very bottom of the wheel and is being submissive to the fate that her brothers have planned for her. The Wheel of Fortune evokes the idea that Fate is a blind and unjust force, and with this interpretation the Duchess is painted as a victim of circumstance who is submitting to injustice, leaving the end of the play with a lack of optimism.
Both Blanche and the Duchess could be seen as being tragic heroines, which could contribute to a lack of optimism at the end of each play. They are both flawed – for example Blanche is elitist, using derogatory language such as “Polack” to describe Stanley, and is also hypocritical regarding the high standards that she expects from others despite her murky past. The Duchess can be seen as not having appropriate respect for her position as a political figure, and could be called irresponsible when she “winked and choose a husband”, suggesting something rash that has been decided with the speed of a wink. They also both make errors of judgement which could be seen as inevitably leading to their own destruction, which is reminiscent of other classic heroines in the tragedy genre. A sense of optimism could be created through the Duchess holding similarities with Othello’s tragic Desdemona, remaining strong, true, and righteous throughout the trials that she is put through. However Blanche seems to have more in common with the unhinged Electra in Sophocles’s Electra, who is driven by an obsession (which is arguably comparable to Blanche’s dangerous sexuality). Neither Blanche nor Electra find any compassion, even from their family – both could be seen as being betrayed by their sisters, such as when Stella complies when Eunice tells her “Stay here. Don’t go back in there. Stay with me and don’t look.” and makes herself blind to Blanche’s ordeal. The reaction from the other characters towards the Duchess and Blanche also correspond with contrasting tragic heroines from literature. In her essay ‘Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroines’, Rebecca Hersh writes “In the end, the strong and virtuous characters of Cordelia and Desdemona eventually force Lear and Othello to realize where they had gone wrong”, which reflects the revelation experienced by Ferdinand and Bosola and adds a sense of optimism to the end of The Duchess of Malfi which is arguably not present in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The Duchess’s death could be seen as a moral awakening for both Bosola and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Ferdinand. In Defining/Confining The Duchess by Theodora A. Jankowski, Jankowski suggests that the death of the Duchess “manages, for a moment, to cause Ferdinand to reconsider his part in it-“I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t” -and Bosola to view her as a saint-“Return, fair soul, from darkness, and lead mine / Out of this sensible hell.” It could be interpreted that this newly found conscience and desire for self-improvement gives an atmosphere of hope to the conclusion of the play, as it insinuates that even the most corrupt of characters is capable of change. The impact that the Duchess’s death has on Bosola is significant and casts a more positive light on the ending of the play, as he proclaims that he will wield the “sword of justice” and his role changes from intelligencer to avenger. However, there is a prolonged ambiguity surrounding the character of Bosola and this change could be interpreted as being motivated by Bosola’s anger over his deeds continually not being rewarded by the Cardinal or Ferdinand. Nevertheless, the contrast created by Webster between the descriptive language used by Ferdinand and Bosola to describe the Duchess – from “notorious strumpet”, for example, to “dearest friend” and “fair soul” – suggests that they have abandoned their prejudices against her assertive nature and her sexuality and are instead seeing how much light she brought to the world. The idea that the Duchess’s good nature has finally been recognised by those who criticised her most harshly could make an audience feel more optimistically about the ending of the play, as Ferdinand and Bosola have seen past the tarnished reputation which blinded them.
The Duchess dies with her sanity intact, but the opposite is true for Blanche at the end of the play. Although her death isn’t literal, she could be seen as experiencing a living death when she loses all sense of reality and is taken away to the mental hospital. Following the ordeal of the rape, Blanche retreats into a fantasy world as though it can protect her, asking “Didn’t I get a call?” and clinging to the unrealistic hope that Shep Huntleigh will come to her rescue. This continued reliance on male characters contrasts with the Duchess’s independence and presence of mind, and could be seen as making the ending of A Streetcar Named Desire more pessimistic as Blanche doesn’t manage to find her strength and is defeated mentally by the society that has judged her. However, another interpretation is that when Blanche loses her sanity she also loses her elitist and prejudiced ideas that she has held for the duration of the play. Blanche represents Old American ideals, some which were regressive and racist. Throughout the play she judges characters on their wealth and social standing, as well as their racial heritage. If Blanche is seen to be a metaphor of these outdated ideas about society, and Stanley represents the coming of a more diverse and less prejudiced society, then the rape scene takes on a new meaning. Although horrific and cruel, it could be seen as New America overcoming the elitism of Old America which puts a more optimistic light on the end of the play as it suggests the end of one period of society which was archaic, especially for modern audiences who can see in hindsight how damaging some of the ideas of Old America were. However, it is questionable whether this optimism can still be drawn on when this overthrowal is represented in such a violent way. Some critics have suggested that Williams is nostalgic for the grace and poetry of Old America, and this could be one reason for the lack of optimism surrounding the coming of the arguably more progressive ideas of New America at the end of the play.
I would argue that The Duchess of Malfi has a greater sense of optimism than A Streetcar Named Desire at the end of the play, despite the macabre writing style of Webster and its tragic genre. This is because of the hope for improvement of the court at the conclusion of the play, such as in Delio’s final speech when he announces “Let us make noble use Of this great ruin”, suggesting that something positive will come from the tragic ending of the play. In contrast to this, A Streetcar Named Desire ends with the triumph of the most cruel character in the play, and the suggestion that nothing will change because of his power and the way that other characters, such as Stella and Mitch, are under his influence. The son of Stella could be said to lend optimism to the ending of the play, however it’s possible that Stanley’s son would hold the same violent values as his father.