In The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster illustrates in numerous dualities, the ambiguity of what is sanctioned and forbidden for women (regardless of social rank or status) during the 16th century. The many dichotomies that are woven throughout The Duchess of Malfi suggest that what was allowed and prohibited was controversially and inconsistently dictated by the church. The majority of the lines that contain references to these juxtapositions are said by The Duchess, Ferdinand, and Bosola. As supported by the selected imagery that is prominent with each character, Duchess represents what is mostly Godly (heavenly), Ferdinand what is base and lowly (hell), and Bosola is a vessel of uncertainty and of total ambiguity (purgatory), showing sparks of being intrigued with varying good and evil deeds, but never fully aligning himself with any one moral code.
Ferdinand is a base, lowly character, with an obsessive and sexually perverted preoccupation with his sister’s life and decision making. Webster continues the theme of duality, by centering the battle of wills on the twins, Ferdinand and Duchess. Based on Webster’s representation and the eventual outcome, what was acceptable for men in society was in stark contrast with what was permissible for women. Ferdinand’s sexual desire for his sister and his feeling of ownership over her body and her own sexual desire, is not only sick and disturbing, but a sin, according to the church. By the end of the play he is reduced to lunacy, and even bestial desires, as he believes he is a werewolf. Duchess forewarns us of Ferdinand’s fate in the scene where he visits her in prison, and she tells him he shall “howl in hell for’t” when he threatens to harm her children (Kermode, 525). This foreshadows his continued monstrous behavior, and his ultimate demise into lunacy.
Bosola’s too-little-too-late attempt at repentance, after murdering the Duchess, again, leaves the audience out of alignment with any one feeling towards him. Webster’s view of humanity is clearly pessimistic, as each character ultimately fails at having the ability to change their course of behavior. Everyone’s fate is sealed at the very beginning of the play. The dichotomy–or perhaps similarity–between the stage and reality is suggested in the way the actors manipulate each other and the audience throughout the course of the play, just as people fall prey to manipulations and temptations in real life. Are Bosola’s behaviors sanctioned because he is a servant? Does it make it acceptable that he is simply fulfilling his duties, and being the best servant that he can be, by following orders without questioning the morality of the assigned tasks? The contrasting worlds of superiors and their underlings are weaved throughout the play, particularly in the relationships between Duchess and Antonio, and Ferdinand and Bosola. Figuratively, and often literally, Bosola stands outside of the evolving events of the play, as an outsider-looking-in, aloof and observant, but not invested in any one course of action. Filled with more contrasting behaviors than either Duchess or Ferdinand, Bosola possesses the education and intellect of the upper class, but is relegated to servitude. While on the one hand, he feels sorry for any failure on his part to please Ferdinand and Cardinal, he takes pity on the Duchess, after he kills her. In John Webster by Elmer Stoll, the author characterizes Bosola’s behavior: “. . . now one role is uppermost, now the other, now villain, now moralist, without any ethical or psychological coherence between the two, without even an effort for such coherence in the shape of a contention of motives” (124). His moral judgment seems mostly vacant, as he questions the appropriateness and morality of what he is being asked to do, only through the prescribed lenses of Catholic doctrine, which had a long history of corruption.
Webster’s pessimistic (albeit somewhat accurate) view of the world is that it is ethically unstable. The play has an inhuman element, where each player holds a place on the continuum of societal indifference. Although The Duchess of Malfi makes clear statements about the inequalities in the hierarchies of class and religion, the importance of the painful and fatal contradictions in the gender paradigm are undeniably evident in Webster’s portrayal of the Duchess.
Kermode, Frank. The Duchess of Malfi: Seven Masterpieces of Jacobean Drama. New York: Modern Library, 2005. Print.
Stoll, Elmer Edgar. John Webster: The Periods of His Work as Determined by His Relations to the Drama of His Day. Pennsylvania: The Folcroft Press, 1969. Print.