The tragedy of the Duchess that ironically raises her position as a heroine begins with her reign over Malfi. Being under the influence of a patriarchal society, men are granted rulership and women regarded secondary. During the seventeenth century, the norms of society were built upon religious laws that enforced one’s appearance reflecting their inner self, behaviour encompassing qualities such as fidelity, courage, integrity, and nobility, and the acceptance of responsibilities within one’s status.
Though these are Christian values that society holds dear, complying with them is a different issue, which contributes to the Duchess’ tragedy. It is ironic that though Duchess does comply with such values, she is condemned for doing so. Perhaps Webster is indirectly identifying the flaws of society where not only were there stratifications of classes, but with sexes too. It is understood that the order within society was to emulate heavenly order. This idea of Order was primarily to avoid chaos, but even more so, to control man’s appetite and earthly desires.
Such weaknesses in man undeniably lead to corruption, and this is reflected in the court life of Malfi. Because women came secondary during Webster’s time, the Duchess’ role becomes complicated. She is neither man’s ‘chattel’ nor a single (and often times called ‘loose’) woman, and because she is neither of the two, her decisions and actions are judged. Hence, why she could be seen as a heroine or a rebel. This notion is supported by the Feminist view. Gibson’s assertion: “Women are either innocent victims or sensual and self-willed; the cause of crimes the men commit”, corroborates this.
Judgments made upon the Duchess may not be fully valid until her real motives are revealed. Her rebellion is first witnessed in Act One Scene One where she is seen wooing Antonio despite her brothers’ warnings of forbidding her to remarry. More shocking for the Jacobeans is that she has chosen a man of a lower hierarchal status than herself. This scene may portray the Duchess disrupting Order and putting her self-will ahead of her God ordained fate. However, this is questionable as she could be marrying Antonio for his virtuous qualities.
By doing so, restoring the ‘official’ value of having a male figure rule instead of a female justifies her motives. What enables us to make such assumptions is Antonio’s description of her being “more in heaven than other ladies’ shrifts”. With such traits, we are able to trust her motives. Webster particularly enables us to do so by contrasting her traits to that of her brothers. Subsequent to Ferdinand perceiving the Duchess’ clandestine marriage to Antonio in Act 2 Scene 5, he undergoes a rage where his anger transforms into an unhealthy and abnormal obsession over his sister.
Webster uses several images of madness to reveal Ferdinand’s bestial side. The imagery of the mandrake being dug up symbolizes the superstition of the shriek it emits that induces madness. Ferdinand’s madness then turns violent when he threatens to literally overturn and destroy the Duchess’ kingdom, suggesting that he ‘could be one to toss her palace about her ears’. Continuing with his fit of anger, the audience starts to receive hints of his dark obsession over the Duchess. Where he says, “purge infected blood”, the imagery of blood can be doubled as violence as well as passion.
The Jacobeans recognized passion as an appetite, which leans towards corruption. Taking ‘blood’ as an imagery of passion, the added adjective of ‘infected’ corroborates his virtually incestuous type of love for his sister. This becomes even more apparent when he goes to the extent of imagining a “strong thighed bargeman carrying coals up to her privy lodgings”, as a pun for sexual innuendo of his sister having intercourse. Though the Cardinal’s reaction to their sister’s rebellion was not as outrageous as Ferdinand’s, Webster makes his character equally vile.
Like Ferdinand, the Cardinal possesses an appetite for women, creating a strong contrast between his appearance and reality. Given the title as a churchman, the audience would expect a church figure they are familiar with: merciful and aware of obeying and demonstrating Christian values. However, the corruption of the Cardinal is seen in his conversation with Julia, a promiscuous married woman. (The irony in this scene is the Cardinal’s shocking engagement of such corruption represented by the infidelity of a woman married to a lord.
He is amused with Julia committing adultery, calling her a “witty false one” after she relates her deceitfulness towards her husband. His appetite advances when he becomes rather seductive, yet sadistic when he begins to tease her in a cruel manner. “Come, I’ll love you wisely… I am very certain you cannot me make cuckold. ” Then proceeds to commanding her: “I pray thee kiss me. When thou wast with thy husband thou wast watched like a tame elephant. ” This comes as a shock to the audience as the Cardinal even encourages Julie to commit adultery.
As mentioned earlier, the Jacobeans believed that fidelity was one of the moral values they held dear. Here, a church representative is seen engaging in pleasures of the flesh and debauchery, instead of judging such sins. This inversion of order contributes to the corruption of the court that the Duchess is a part of, which is why her actions being condemned as rebellion appears less sinful than her brothers’. Relating back to the Duchess’ marriage with Antonio, Webster sets up a parallel of relationships that occur in the play to show the legitimacy of her marriage.
Of the three siblings, the Duchess seems to have the most lawful and holy of relationships because of her genuine love, purity, and commitment to Antonio. Though Calderwood may say that her marriage was an act of rebellion- “For what the Duchess is engaging in here is not properly ceremony but ceremony in reverse, a form of deceremonialization by which she divests herself of the responsibilities of her social role” , those in favour of the Duchess as a heroine can argue that she is willing to risk her appearance and reputation for the sake of a lasting marriage comprised of Christian values.
Subsequent to the Duchess’ marriage come the consequences of her suffering inevitably leading to death. Her tragedy begins when she faces separation from her husband and son in Act 3 Scene 5. Her initial reactions are sorrowful and perhaps hint humility. “Farewell boy, thou art happy that thou hast not understanding to know thy misery… ” But a little later, her sorrow turns to anger. “Must I like to a slave-born Russian account it praise to suffer tyranny? ” Her sudden outburst may appear to be one of her moments of vengefulness or even a sign or rebellion.
The Jacobeans may start to recognize the Duchess’ situation where she is starting to face her fate, which inevitably involves suffering. This could be seen as a ‘Christian rebellion’ where she lacks the faith in God’s plan for her. She hasn’t yet developed the endurance for the suffering, tyranny in this case. It may even reflect her pride by the way she hasn’t accepted suffering yet. However, Antonio reminds her, “Man like cassia, is proved best, being bruised”. The imagery of the cassia spice, which needs to be burnt in order to reveal its aromatic scent, reminds us of the ‘refiner’s fire’.
This analogy is based on the religious belief that the earthly body is but a cage for the soul. In order for the soul to be set free or to be ‘purified’ and made whole with God, it must undergo certain suffering. This is through putting appetite and earthly desires to death, including bestial traits such as pride, self-will, and ignorance, in order to receive the reward of salvation. Despite the death images in the scene portraying the coming of the Duchess’ tragedy, such as “Your kiss is colder than that I have seen an unholy anchorite give to a dead man’s skull” the audience knows that her suffering is only temporary.
She slowly accepts her fate of separation with her family by not preventing their departure when she says, “Let me look upon you once more. ” At this point where the suffering becomes more intense, Bosola enters the scenes more frequently, undertaking two contrasting, thus ironic roles. Given the role as the intelligence of Ferdinand and the Cardinal to spy over the Duchess’ activities, his commitment and faithfulness to his job is sustained throughout the play. This means that there are occasions where he is forced to betray her. However, it is ironic that through his job, Bosola becomes her ‘spiritual advisor’.
Because of the suffering the Duchess endures, her earthly instincts cause her to fall into despair at times. “Oh misery: like to a rusty o’er charged cannon, shall I never fly in pieces? ” It is evident here that the Duchess speaks of her own death, a sign of despair. The Jacobeans recognized despair as a form of pride as it rejects God’s plan, and is something man had no authority to decide upon. This lack of faith may be seen as yet another act of rebellion. However, Bosola stops her from doing so. He also recognizes and values the way the Duchess endures her suffering, and admires her for her composure.
When Bosola reports the Duchess’ current condition to Ferdinand, he mentions, “… She seems rather to welcome the end of misery than shun it; a behaviour so noble as gives a majesty to adversity… ” The fact that she shows her ‘majesty in adversity’ means that she still maintains her dignity of her earthy position despite her sorrow. This is seen by the way the Duchess does not plot revenge or show bitterness. By not fighting against her suffering (which she could easily do because of her ruling power), she shows acceptance of her fate.
This displaces her image as a rebel, replacing it with that of a tragic heroine. The Jacobeans recognizing this would therefore appreciate her perseverance. They may also link her situation as a parallel to the crucifixion of God’s Son. Though he had the power to end his crucifixion, he didn’t because he accepted his fate. This reinforces the idea of the Duchess being a tragic heroine. Even Ferdinand realises that the more suffering he inflicts upon her, the more Christ-like her character becomes when he says, “Her melancholy seems to be fortified with a strange disdain. Furthermore, the Duchess’ endurance of suffering also shows her commitment and genuine love for Antonio. This may be what strengthens her spiritually as well.
Though Bosola aknowledges that “this restraint, like English mastiffs that grow fierce with tying” in reference to the Duchess’ inner turmoil, he appreciates her dignified appearance and willingness to accept her punishment. Her strength shown exteriorly and her internal suffering perhaps reflect her pathway to heaven. As the play progresses, Ferdinand’s vengeance over his sister becomes increasingly brutal.
Through this, Bosola paradoxically comforts her. “What’s this flesh? A little crudded milk… a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body… gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of out prison. ” This profound notion justifies the Duchess’ emotions and behaviour. A sense of entrapment seems to prevail. Webster parallels this idea of entrapment to the individual’s soul set free through salvation. He also acknowledges the unimportance of the flesh.
The Duchess shows her worthiness of salvation just before she dies when she kneels. “… heaven gates are not so highly arched… hey that enter there must go upon their knees. ” Kneeling symbolizes an act of humility and obedience in accepting her fate. Comparing this with her pride in raising Antonio’s status, the Duchess’ moral intentions are revealed. This concludes the Duchess supporting the values of the seventeenth century, alongside Webster. Feminism has too narrow a view of the play. The Duchess only appears to be rebelling due to the circumstances she faces. However, such circumstances may be seen as tests to prove that she embraces moral value. Thus, we are confident that she has attained salvation.