Inviting Destruction in Duchess of Malfi

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Inviting Destruction in Duchess of Malfi

It has been asserted that, through her willfulness, the Duchess invites her own destruction. However the assertion has to be looked at from a 17th century point-of-view, as well as a modern one. The assertion is firmly rooted in the issue of human rights, and that issue has changed and evolved an enormous amount over the past few centuries, since Duchess of Malfi was written.

Society in the early 17th century was very different from ours today; then, women were far below men in stature and respect - they had no rights, and husbands and other male family members treated them more like possessions than human beings. While most women accepted this, there were, as always, those who rebelled - the Duchess is one such rebel. She refuses to accept the rules of society, instead choosing her own path to follow?an unpredictable and dangerous path, as is eventually seen with her capture, torture and death at the hands of her own brothers. For example, in Act I, Scene II, no sooner have Ferdinand and the Cardinal warned her against remarrying, than she and Antonio are arranging to be married - a perfect example of her headstrong attitude. She is also remarkably open towards Antonio about the whole affair; indeed, it is her who moves their relationship onwards from light-hearted ?irting to marriage itself, when she gives her wedding ring to Antonio, saying:

And I did vow never to part with it,

But to my second husband.

This forwardness would have shocked 17th century audiences, who would have expected the man to have been the most con?dent of the two, although it seems perfectly natural to us today.

This is her wilfulness - her rejection of standard pr...

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... accepted and what was not, and she chose to do things her own way. The assertion that she invited her own destruction is probably a valid one; however, her willfulness did not cause her destruction - the insanity of her brothers is responsible for that; her willfulness was simply the match that lit the fuse. It was not society's fault, it is the Duchess and her brothers' fault for not ?tting into that society. The Duchess would not adapt herself, so she expected everything else to adapt and, in doing so, invited her own destruction. Even to the very end she remains strong-willed and decisive, refusing to show any fear of her imminent death, or regret for her past actions:


Doth not death fright you?

DUCHESS Who would be afraid on't?

Knowing to meet such excellent company

In th'other world.

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