The Duchess of Malfi

Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi": Mad, Mad Ferdinand

Much of John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" centers around the subversions and perversions of Ferdinand, the Duchess' brother. Ferdinand is an immensely disturbed man who has been driven to insanity by his inability to control his sister, and his resultant inability to control his own life. His incestuous desires, though subtle, fill him with the need to wield power over her, even though this leaves him unable to rule his land, his real dominion. When he realizes that he cannot rule the Duchess, he begins to use legal rhetoric, situating himself verbally, if not physically, as her judge. When this ractic fails him, and he relinquishes even more control, Ferdinand loses a grip on his sanity. He develops the belief that he is a werewolf, and cannot maintain a definite self. All of these events begin, however, with his unnatural sexual longing for the Duchess.

The reader realizes that something is amiss with Ferdinand's sexuality when he learns that Ferdinand is not sexually active. Ferdinand is the only character in the play who should be sexually active, and yet he is not. The Cardinal is a holy man who has made a vow of celibacy, but is having an affair with Julia; he doesn't even seem to have any...

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