The Duchess of Malfi

Main themes

The main themes of the play are: corruption, misuse of power, revenge, deception, the status of women and the consequences of their assertion of authority, the argument of blood v. merit, the upshot of unequal marriage, cruelty, incest, and class.

Corruption

A vein of corruption runs throughout the play, notably in the character of the deadly Cardinal, a man ready to employ lesser beings (such as Bosola) to commit murders for him, then cast them aside as rotten fruit. He is no stranger to murder himself, however, as he slays his own mistress by making her kiss a poisoned book. Antonio describes him thus:

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The spring in his face is nothing but the engend'ring of toads; where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plot for them than ever was impos'd on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters. He should have been Pope; but instead of coming to it by the primitive decency of the church, he did bestow bribes so largely and so impudently as if he would have carried it away without heaven's knowledge. Some good he hath done.

The Cardinal gambles, keeps the wife of one of his courtiers as a mistress, and fights duels. Conspiracy and intrigue are the air he breathes. Duke Ferdinand is his brother's willing conspirator in villainy, and at times his rages shock even the Cardinal's sense of decorum. The Duke's corruption in the end destroys his sanity: incestuous desire for his own sister. Realizing she has married and borne children by Antonio, his rage drives him to do everything in his power to bring his sister to despair, madness and death, but in the end he is driven mad himself.

These two perverse villains destroy or poison all that is within their reach, all semblance of warmth or human affection.

Abuse of power

The brothers repeatedly abuse their power. Ferdinand is caught committing adultery but is not punished. The Cardinal abuses his ecclesiastical powers to have Antonio's property confiscated and to have the Duchess and her family banished from the state of Ancona. Ferdinand and the Cardinal order the death of the Duchess without any proper judgement passed by a court of law.[6]

Status of women and responsibility for the tragedy

The ideal quality her brothers would foist on the Duchess is that of being submissive to (their) male control, though ironically widowhood was often the first time women might be independent of the control of husbands or male relatives. However, the Duchess went against her brothers' wishes and remarried. Her assertion of her freedom of choice is best illustrated in her soliloquy following her conversation with her brothers when they strictly advise her to not even think about remarrying. Immediately after telling her brothers that she will never remarry, she says to herself: "If all my royal kindred/ Lay in my way unto this marriage,/ I'd make them my low foot-steps." The central conflict of the play involves the Duchess' desire to marry for love and her brothers' desire to prevent her from remarrying (either to inherit her estate and control her choices, or perhaps out of Ferdinand's potentially incestuous love for his sister). Throughout, she refuses to submit to her brothers' attempts at control and even asserts her identity and self-control at the moment of her death, announcing "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (4.2).

The internal struggle faced by the Duchess when fighting her brothers and hiding her marriage was all part of Webster’s intention to reflect and refer to the Roman paradigms and Senecan tragedies. This is compelled through the Duchess's speech and actions.[7]

Cruelty

The relationship between the Duchess and her brothers is rooted in cruelty. The brothers often try to manipulate her and drive her mad. This cruelty is first evident when the Cardinal and Ferdinand lock the Duchess in her own home. Ferdinand deceives the Duchess into thinking that he cares: "I come to seal my peace with you./ Here's a hand,/ To which you have vowed much love./ The ring upon't/ You gave"(4.1 42-44). In the darkness, the Duchess thinks that Ferdinand is asking for her forgiveness when he reaches out his hand, and so she kisses it; when the lights come on she sees the dead bodies of her husband and children, and believes she just kissed her husband's severed hand. But in reality, Ferdinand used wax figures to trick her into thinking her family is dead. This deception and cruelty cause the Duchess physical and emotional torment throughout the play. At the end of the play, the Duchess is strangled at the request of her brothers.[8]

During early modern England, most families were dysfunctional and relationships between relatives were often violent and cruel due to problems caused by money, gender roles, and sexuality.[9]

Class

The Duchess argues that high class is not an indicator of a good man. At the time, Italy was moving into capitalism and one no longer needed to be born into wealth to obtain it. Though the Duchess and her brothers are aware of this, her brothers, concerned with wealth and honor, nevertheless strive to dismantle her marriage to Antonio[10] while disapproving of their sister’s love life. Ferdinand is particularly obsessed with the idea of inheriting the fortune to which his sister is entitled, because it would protect his social and financial status. Ultimately the Duchess is put to death for remarrying into a lower class.

Objectification

The Duchess is often criticized for stepping out of the societal expectations of a widow in sixteenth century England. As a widow, the Duchess gains a new power and independence, which angers her brothers.[10] As a female in a position of power, she is expected to hold the throne and obey the patriarchal figures in the court, specifically her two brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand. The Cardinal and Ferdinand are in line to receive the inheritance if the Duchess does not have any children, so controlling her sexual affairs becomes their singular focus. Rather than respecting her autonomy and wishes, they aim to control her sexuality and diminish her independence. In Act I, Scene I, Ferdinand makes this clear when he states, “Nay,/ I mean the tongue: variety of courtship./ What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale/ Make a woman believe? Farewell, lusty widow”(1.1. 247-250). He is solely focused on preserving her chastity, so he views her as an object, rather than a human being. The continued objectification of the Duchess from her brothers conveys males’ perceived ability to control a woman’s body in the society of the 16th century.[11]


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