The Duchess of Malfi

Sovereignty and Lycanthropy in The Duchess of Malfi College

‘As one judge said to the other, “Be just, and if you can’t be just, be arbitrary.”’ - William Burroughs

Agamben’s Homo Sacer begins thus: ‘The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.’ This liminal space of sovereignty is diagnosed by Carl Schmitt: ‘Authority proves that to produce law it need not be based on law.’ Agamben’s case in Homo Sacer is that the ‘inclusive exclusion’ that constitutes the sovereign’s legal status bears a striking similarity to a figure in Roman law who ‘may be killed and yet not sacrificed ’, the homo sacer, or as he appears in Germanic law, the Wolf-Man: ‘The sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.’ It is with respect to Agamben’s theory of sovereignty that this essay will attempt to analyze the Wolf-Man of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand, whilst also attempting to map Webster’s critique of aristocracy by comparison with Nick Land’s analysis of the 15th century child murderer and noble, Gilles de Rais.

‘The foundation of sovereign power is to be sought not in the subjects’ free renunciation of their...

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