Purging the ‘Unconventional’ in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

‘What is’t distracts you?/
This is flesh, and blood, sire;/
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster/
kneels at my husband’s tomb.’
-The Duchess, The Duchess of Malfi (l.386-387)

In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess finds herself condemned for crossing the conventional position of widow deigned appropriate for her by figures of male authority. Rather than adhere to her brother’s orders, the Duchess utilises the small amount of independence proffered to her in widowhood to defy them. The Duchess rejects her subordinate patriarchal position, subverting this inferiority to become both wooer and head of her household.1 However, this insubordination is not celebrated; rather, it is viewed with disdain and anger by almost all of the characters in the play. The Duchess is viewed as a figure of treasonous radicality, threatening not only the private family model but the very status and order of the governing state. As she declares her decision to marry Antonio, the Duchess announces ‘let old wives report/ I winked and chose a husband’.2 In using ‘I’, the Duchess places herself in a position of autonomy; she makes it apparent that she ‘chose’ (l.281) Antonio out of her own free will. Furthermore, the Duchess clearly distances herself from the ‘old wives’ (l.280) of conventionality in favour of a more masculine assertion of personal choice. However, in Webster’s allusion to the Duchess having ‘winked’, defined as ‘to indicate that something is a joke or a secret’, the Duchess is presented as irresponsibly naïve.3 She seemingly fails to register the severity of her subversion; rather, she instead becomes collocated with the archetypal ‘lusty widow’ figure, driven by rampant sexual appetite and desire.

Although the Duchess repeatedly asserts that her actions are the result of the pure love she feels for Antonio, Webster consistently undermines this through a discourse of lust and desire. This language is first evoked by her brothers, who suggest that her wish to remarry is inevitable as she ‘is a widow’ and knows ‘already what man is’ (ll.225-226). The Duchess is further advised that she must not allow her ‘high blood’ to be ‘sway[ed]’ (l.228). The bawdy nature of Ferdinand and The Cardinal’s speech bears striking similarities to the language used in the 1650 conduct book The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. In this text, it is stated ‘for widows, the fontanel of whose desires hath been opened by the former permissions of the marriage-bed’, they must remember ‘that God hath now restrained the former license’ and ‘bridle[d] […] their desires.’4 Through such paralleling, the Duchess is thus presented as a figure whose actions are founded on gross self-interest and lust. This results in both the aristocracy and the ‘common rabble’ ‘directly say[ing]/ she is a strumpet’ (l.26).

Denounced as a ‘strumpet’ (l.26), the Duchess becomes a radical figure that is viewed with disdain by figures of lower and higher-class social status. As Sarah Steen argues, ‘in light of Renaissance social standards […] the Duchess flouted patriarchal authority […] violated decorum by remarrying and by choosing a man below her in station’; she also demonstrated ‘an overt and dangerous female sexuality, all of which threatened the social order.’5 In this subversion, the Duchess ultimately comes to radically usurp not only the rigid social positions afforded to men and women in society, but also their positions within the private family model. Due to the class difference between Antonio and the Duchess, the Duchess ultimately subverts the traditional framework by becoming both the orchestrater and instigator of their union. In doing so, she usurps Antonio’s role as head of the private domestic family. It is she that proposes marriage to Antonio, telling him ‘raise’ himself’ with her ‘hand to help’ (ll.351-352). Through subverting the strict family model, the Duchess not only threatens the patriarchal social structure of the family but also the very foundations of the governing body. At the time of the plays first performance, as Dympna Callaghan expounds, advice books such as A Godly Form of Household Government depicted the family structure as ‘a microcosm of the state.6 In this reading, the Duchess not only threatens private social order, but also rigid political order. Her actions are denounced as politically radical and monstrous; ‘desperate physic’ must, as Ferdinand declares, be applied ‘to purge infected blood, such as hers’ (ll.23-26). The threat of the Duchess must, as Webster’s play comes to suggest, be ‘purged’ from society at whatever cost.


Featured Painting: Paris Bordone, The Venetian Lovers, circa 1530, Oil on Canvas, 80 x 95cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.

1. For more information on the position of the widow in Renaissance England, see Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner, Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

2. John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, I.ii.l.280-281, in Renaissance Drama: An Anthology of Plays and Entertainments, ed. by Arthur F. Kinney (London: Blackwells, 2004). All further references to The Duchess of Malfi are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

3. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/wink [Accessed 1/04/2018].

4. Jeremy Taylor, ‘The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living’ in The Whole Works of the Reverend Jeremy Taylor: Volume I (London: J.R and C. Childs, 1836), pp.399-515, p.427.

5. Sara Jayne Steen, ‘The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and the Duchess of Malfi’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 22 (1991), pp.61-76, p.61.

6. Dympna Callaghan, ‘Loving and Marrying’ in Romeo and Juliet: Texts and Contexts, ed. Dympna Callaghan (Boston, New York: Bedford Books, 2003), pp.245- 248, p.247.


Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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