The Duchess of Malfi

Powerless Women: A Comparison of The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire 11th Grade

Power is the underlying current that runs through both Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, a 17th century revenge tragedy, and Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, a 20th Century modern domestic tragedy. Both plays offer stark representations of power’s tendency to corrupt, a corruption that often leaves women low in the social hierarchy, with little or no authority. Mens’ thirst for control makes female characters powerless to their authority in fear of punishment if they retaliate. However, women are also depicted as powerless to their own desires and psychological state, a theme that interestingly prevails more apparently in Streetcar than Malfi.

Both Williams and Webster use symbolism and plastic theatre to evoke a cogent sense of female powerlessness. Julia naively ‘kisses’ the Cardinal’s ‘poisoned’ bible, then swiftly dies. The Cardinal’s servants have made their exit before this particular action unfolds, leaving the Cardinal and minor character Julia isolated centre-stage. These proxemics ensure that the pair are at the scene’s cynosure, yet more importantly highlight Julia’s lack of power, as her opportunity to receive help from others is now utterly non-existent. Historians have noted the popular Jacobean stereotype of...

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