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The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi



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Published by api-3703506
John Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi

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Published by: api-3703506 on Oct 18, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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John Webster\u2019s Duchess of Malfi: Noble in Birth and Life

In John Webster\u2019s play The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess shows an uncommon
strength of character and self-reliance, beginning with her decision to defy her brothers
and marry again, and culminating with her death. The Duchess displays a powerful
personal strength and a dominating will until the moment of her death at Bosola\u2019s hands.
She displays her strength throughout her prolonged ordeal in a myriad of ways, beginning
by defying her brothers\u2019 wishes for her not to remarry in the first place, and continuing
after her capture by Ferdinand, with her dignity throughout her torture and her death.

The Duchess demonstrates her unique determination by going against the
command of her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, that she never marry again. She
makes an immediate decision, knowing what she wants and what is right for her, and
ignoring what may be right for her brothers. This is the first indication of the powerful
will the Duchess displays throughout the play. Despite the intensity of the emotional and
political pressure her brothers subject her to, she is determined to achieve what she
desires most, marriage to Antonio: \u201cIf all my royal kindred/ Lay in my way unto this
marriage,/ I\u2019d make them my low footsteps\u201d (Webster 1441). She is determined to do
what she wants and face the consequences, whether it subverts the established order or
not \u2014\u201cSo I through fights and threatenings will assay/ This dangerous venture (Webster
1441).\u201d Her defiant insistence on following her own desires allows her to achieve what
she wants, Antonio. She shows a strength of will and character with her actions, because
to the reader, it seems that Ferdinand and the Cardinal have no real motive for their
request for the duchess not to marry. The Duchess insists on being acknowledged as the

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person and duchess she is, able to make decisions for herself and in her own best interest.
Her actions contrast with the prevailing ideas of how women should act in such a way
that Mary Beth Rose contends, \u201cHer assertiveness in wooing Antonio has been
characterized as androgynous, an attempt to conjoin male and female modes (Rose 164).\u201d
The Duchess\u2019s actions as the play continues demonstrate the \u201cradical potential of female
heroism in the process of cultural change (Rose 165).\u201d Despite being looked down upon
as a lesser person as a woman and a widow, the Duchess purports herself with a dignity
that Ferdinand and the Cardinal, with their tyranny, can never accomplish. She refuses to
admit that her life is over due to her premature widowhood, and accept their idea that she
is supposed to remain alone for the rest of her life. She defies them, hoping they will
change, and hoping that things at her court will change for the better because of it.

No matter what happens to her, the Duchess believes in herself and the strength
she possesses\u2014\u201cI am armed \u2018gainst misery\u201d (Webster 1477). She knows the duties she
has as duchess, but even more importantly, she knows what she wants to accomplish in
her personal life, and she intends to let no one stand in her way. She proclaims to
Antonio, \u201cThis is flesh and blood, sir,;/'Tis ot the figure cut in alabaster/ Kneels at my
husband's tomb\u201d (Webster 1444).

As Ferdinand tortures her, the Duchess again shows her uncommon inner
strength. Bosola presses her to admit she erred in disobeying her brothers, but she
refuses to succumb to this pressure. He tells Ferdinand that she displays \u201ca behavior so
noble/ As gives a majesty to adversity\u201d (Webster 1477). Lee Bliss writes of the Duchess,
\u201cshe refuses Bosola\u2019s or her brothers\u2019 right to judge or punish her. The Duchess does not

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simply defy Bosola. She challenges the assumptions on which he bases his taunts, forces
on him the dilemma of knowledge confounding knowledge\u201d (Bliss 152). She explains to
him, \u201cMan is most happy when one\u2019s own actions/ Be arguments and examples of his
virtue\u201d (Webster 1476), and she follows this creed in the play. It is this ability to fight for
what she believes in that helps Bosola, after her death, to realize that he has erred in
following her brothers\u2019 orders, going against what is right or good in the process. She
asks him, \u201cI prithee, who is greatest? Can you tell?\u201d (Webster 1476), and he eventually
realizes that the person who allows their actions to carry out their beliefs is the \u201cgreatest.\u201d
He realizes that her values were important enough to her to not only believe in but to
follow through and stand up for, and he admires this quality in her and realizes how
wrong he was to believe in the false pretenses under which he was following Ferdinand\u2019s
orders. According to Travis Bogard, \u201cWebster... surrounds her last moments with all the
horrors of hell. The purpose is to see if a force of pure, motiveless evil can shake her
fundamental integrity\u201d (Bogard 67). Gunnar Boklund agrees that by \u201cdepriving the
Duchess first of her elevated social position, then of her liberty and the amenities of life
and now finally of her hope, Webster has methodically taken away all the exterior
supports on which she may conceivably have relied to fortify her endurance. From now
on she is all alone in a closed room, with nothing outside herself to aid her\u201d (Boklund
113). The Duchess of Malfi proclaims, \u201cNecessity makes me suffer constantly\u201d (Webster
1482), but despite this, she does not give in to baser desires, such as hate or revenge, at
least outwardly. As they are being bombarded by a cacophony of noises, she goes so far
as to tell Cariola, \u201cNothing but noise and folly/ Can keep me in my right wits, whereas

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