When examining the roles and expectations for women during the early Modern period, there is a lot of conflicting opinion and ideology. This is evidenced in Webster’s choice in the tragic figure of the Duchess, a contradiction of what was expected and acceptable in society, by virtue of her power. Webster illustrates in these dualities the ambiguity of what is sanctioned and forbidden, for women (regardless of social rank or status) during the 16th century. The numerous 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 Duchess embodies many of the complexities inherent in the expected role of women. She is a virtuous and attractive woman, a mother, a widow, and both publicly and politically powerful. Amidst the social uncertainty that existed during the 1500-1600’s, her character represents conflicting ideas in arenas of class, religion, and gender. She represents virtue, honor, purity and femininity. However, it isn’t so straightforward. As a woman, she was assumed to not have control over her emotions and bodily functions. Popular Puritan doctrine suggested that women were to be sober, mild, modest and courteous. Even if it were possible to be all of these things all of the time, the representation of women in “The Duchess of Malfi” and other popular dramas during the period suggest that women were not meeting all of these expectations. Nonetheless, aside from basic human deviations from this perfect standard, Duchess is an example of a morally sound woman, both pure and dignified. During the early modern era, widows were stigmatized as being lustful, and unable to abate their sexual desire. There was conflict within the church as to whether it was acceptable for widows to remarry.
Although many critics argue that Webster’s flaw in “The Duchess of Malfi” was that the play and characters are morally ambiguous, I suggest that it was intentional, and genius. The fact that the Duchess may never achieve full sympathy from the audience is suggestive of the inconsistencies in social policy and doctrine. I also think it suggests the significance of Webster’s pessimistic views about religion, and human nature. The qualities in Duchess that are not virtuous are not awful enough to warrant the punishment her brothers (particularly Ferdinand) inflict on her. She knowingly deceives her brothers, but given how insane and evil her brothers were, we can excuse that choice. She maintains an air of haughtiness and disillusionment, as a result of her privilege, but it is balanced by the basic maternal and wifely instincts she feels towards her husband and children. Being a woman in a position of power in the 16th century was similarly problematic to gender inequality between men and women in today’s workplace. The ability to make decisions, take control and be a non-emotional leader, are qualities that were not associated with women. According to the Protestant church, it was perfectly acceptable for a widow to remarry, while traditional Catholic doctrine would not condone remarriage under any circumstances. Yet, the whole notion of a woman taking on any traditionally masculine roles, such as making important personal decisions, was contrary to societal expectation. This inconsistency was reflected in popular doctrine, and in the art, theater and literature. Duchess, although not perfect, ultimately represents enough righteousness for one to assume she is going to heaven.
Jankowski, Theodora A. “Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John
Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.” Studies in Philology. Vol. 87, No. 2 (Spring 1990): 221-245.
University of North Carolina Press. Print.
Leech, Clifford. Webster: The Duchess of Malfi. London: Edward Arnold Publishers LTD., 1963. Print.
—. John Webster: A Critical Study. London: The Hogarth Press, 1951. Print.