Duchess Of Malfi | Role of Duchess in the Play The Duchess of Malfi

    The Duchess Of Malfi is written by John Webster, a famed dramatist of Jacobean Age about whose life almost nothing is known. He was perhaps a tailor in profession. As a tragedy writer he is assigned the rank only next to Shakespeare

      The Duchess Of Malfi inverts the usual structure of revenge tragedy

    With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, The Duchess Of Malfi returned to the stage with a performance on 30 September 1661 . 

Discuss the role of Duchess in the play The Duchess of Malfi

    The Duchess of Malfi is respectably ensconced in the cannon of English literature, appearing as the paradigmatic non- shakespearean Renaissance play

    The protagonist Duchess sister to Ferdinand and the Cardinal. At the beginning she is widow whose brothers take every precaution to keep her from marriage her brother arranged to have her strangled.  She is described as having sweet countenance and noble virtue, unlike her brothers. She is also witty and clever,  helping her keep up with her brothers banter, and has a tenderness  and warmth which day lack. She has three children, two sons and a daughter by Antonio. 

    What makes the Duchess such a compelling stage presence is what one critic refers to as her "strength.... in weakness". She can not win against her all powerful awful brothers and yet she is "Duchess Of Malfi still"  .

Role of Duchess in the Play The Duchess of Malfi
Duchess Of Malfi

    Webster gives us no absolute guidance to settle our opinions as to her character and personality. She is a hero with significant flaws. Antonio reiterates the rabble's estimation that 'she is a strumpet'.  Ferdinand with the irony of insightful acuity, thinks of her as a Renaissance stereotype 'lusty widow' . 

    Most critics unsympathetic of her seemingly duplicitous response to her brothers demand that she remain a widow,   "I'll never marry –" and thereby Webster's subtlety. Ferdinand has been cross - questioning her, excitedly ; he is cross that she argues back. In exasperation he almost shouts  "Will you hear me?" and cuts her off before she can finish her sentence. Notice the dash after her last word, marry as her brother interjects  with 'so most widows say'. Webster gives us no hint of what she would have said had she continued. But it is reasonable to assert that this truncated statement is poor evidence for her supposed deception. 

  The Duchess in fact consistently open and direct. She is lusty and knows it ;shows it to Antonio in their bedroom in s riposte full of sexual innuendo,  "what  pleasure can two lover find in sleep?"  She is only mildly more modest to Ferdinand in defence of her marriage, "I have youth /And a little beauty".

    Her attitude to religion and the church is ambivalent. She is dismissive of what she sees as the superficial and credulous practices of its adherents; for instance when her maid is critical of her projected and feigned pilgrimage to Loretto she instinctively admonishes Cariola as a 'superstitious fool'. Yet at the moment of her violent death she faces heaven calmly, knowing "that they that enter there /Must go upon their knees".

    What some critics have seen as her boldness and impetuosity, in her determination to marry, in her choice of husband, in her desire to live life away from the limelight in an abdication of her responsibility to exercise authority, in her denial of the advantages of birth and thus to 'put off all vain ceremony' , we may perceive as undeniable strength. She has a more dominant will than any who surround her. She wants to remarry. She decides, her husband will be her steward. She wants children, and is skillful enough to produce them whilst still concealing their existence. 

    Whe  her cover is blown and her brother learns of her 'disobedience' , she nearly escapes. 

    Only Bosola is ever a match for her, and only he sometimes. It is true he tricks her into captivity, but in the end he has to acknowledge her worth, her innocence and 'behavior so noble /As gives a majesty to adversity', and confirms Antonio's opinion made at the start of her 'such noble virtue'  

    Others have insinuated that it is her very probity that is the cause of disharmony around her court. It seems churlish to blame an unblemished soul for the manner in which evil forces react to her goodness. And yet this is Ferdinand's implication in his dying words. 

            'My sister oh! My sister, there's the cause on't'. (V5) 

    For the Duchess, the greatest agony is darkness; she curses the night stars, the Russian winter ; she experiences her twin brother move about her in a black disguise of darkness. Through it and isolation she grows into a peaceable acceptance. All her qualities are concentrated in her death. She has had to submit in order to rule.