Of all the British Renaissance plays I’ve studied, The Duchess of Malfi is by far my favorite. Albeit horrific and macabre, it leaves little to be desired, as it is layered with all of the juicy ingredients of an epic tragedy: greed, lust, betrayal, arrogance, and love. Although the conflict within the play can be analyzed through many lenses-including class and religion–gender politics remains a constant theme, and is central throughout. Webster frames this complex gender dynamic with an equally intricate weaving of polarities. Loyalty and disloyalty, honesty and dishonesty, fantasy and reality, certainty and uncertainty, Protestant and Catholic, action and consequence, feminine and masculine, instinct and reason, angels and devils, heat and cold, life and death, rich and poor, theatrical stage versus real life, are just some of the dualities that are persistently demonstrated throughout the work.
However, none of these pairings provide any answer or relief to the reader as they plod along awaiting the inevitable tragedies that lie ahead. Instead, I suggest that Webster was presenting a portrait of life itself, in which nothing is certain, except uncertainty and the laws of attraction. This theme of ambivalence is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Webster’s tragedy in comparison to Shakespeare’s, and is likely a reflection of the uncertainty and social anxiety of an era in which the hierarchical structures of gender, class and religion were being challenged.
Within the context of gender, The Duchess breaks many of the standard values placed on women during this period. She is in a position of power as heir to the throne, and she is the sexual aggressor with her soon-to-be husband Antonio, who is slightly reticent about marrying her. In fact, there is a complete role reversal when she proposes to him. Conversely, he takes on many female qualities, as he is not the breadwinner, and is soft, mild, meek and sweet. His ultimate fate (death) is perhaps a result of his class ambition; he is punished for daring to climb higher among the social ranks by marrying above his status. Puritan theorists shunned the blending or misrepresentation of the different class structures.
When The Duchess is killed in Act 4, Webster continues the theme of ambiguity and duality, because she is not an entirely sympathetic character. The reader never becomes attached to her character; an intimate connection between The Duchess and the audience is never made. Her shrewishness is evident in the ease with which she lies to her brothers, and knowingly deceives them. She also has an aloof, detached personality throughout the play, and I would argue that her tragic flaw was similar to that of Othello. She seems blind to the reality of what’s happening around her, and somewhat arrogant. On the other hand, her relationship with Cariola is affectionate and admirable, and her ability to maintain her dignity, even in the face of death, is courageous. “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (Act 4, scene 3, 534) she reminds Bosola after he hurls disrespectful epithets at her. She also garners sympathy from the audience as she reminds Cariola to take care of her son’s cold, and have her daughter say her prayers at night. The juxtaposition of Cariola’s antics just before she is murdered highlights just how refined and majestic the Duchess is.
This persistent struggle and conflict that Webster beautifully and intricately layers throughout the play reflects the societal discomfort with undefined and threatened gender and class boundaries. While the play is titled after its heroine The Duchess, Bosola remains the dominant and consistent voice throughout the play. He is the ultimate representation of the continuous ambivalence, fluctuations and contradictions in society that exist within the gender and class hierarchy. He is an example of the moral and ethical instability of the period, as he bridges the gap between women and men, and the upper and lower class.
The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster, The Modern Library, 2005.