The Duchess of Malfi

Role-Play and Identity in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi' College

The writers of the early modern period often presented in their texts characters who struggled with a crisis of identity. Furthermore, these characters were unable to reconcile their identity with the role that they played within the fictional world they inhabited. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, the character of Satan struggles with the subtext of performing the role of antagonist in the poem, a role which stems from the uncertainty of his identity due to his opposition to God and his fall from heaven. In a contrasting manner, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster presents a central character who accepts her role as an individual of power fully, even going so far as to defy contemporary perceptions of gender and class in the process, all due to the absolute certainty she has in her identity. It is clear to see that within the early modern period writers attempted to resolve tensions between role-play and identity, resulting in both positive and negative portrayals of the relationship between the two.

The Satan of Paradise Lost is often interpreted as a romantic hero, his portrayal being compared to that of Prometheus, Odysseus or Achilles, Lucy Newlyn noting that ‘Satan is measured according to the heroic standards...

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