The Theme of Incest in The Duchess of Malfi

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One can begin the discussion on the theme of incest in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ by understanding the social conception of ‘incest’. Talcott Parsons says-“ it is not so much the prohibition of incest in its negative aspect(maintaining sexual relations) …(Instead) Incest is withdrawal from the obligation to contribute to the formation and maintenance of supra-familial bonds on which major economic, political and religious functions of the society are dependent.” Ferdinand’s incestuous behaviour towards the duchess follows the similar pattern pointed above ,i.e., Ferdinand’s aim is not the achievement of sexual relations with his sister. One may like to contest this reading by highlighting Ferdinand’s highly erotic language for the duchess, such as- “And women like that part, which, like the lamprey, Hath nev’r a bone in’t.”[1.ii.255-256]. But, at the very basic plot level the argument stands refuted when despite incarcerating the duchess and visiting her in darkness, Ferdinand’s intentions are never the ones of violating her. Thus, clearly, incest has different, problematic roots in the play. Critic Frank Whigham categorically points out that it is Ferdinand’s ‘status narcissism’ which figures as incest in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. To understand the phrase one needs to look at the social framework of Jacobean England. Whigham points out that by the time Webster was writing, English social structure had become highly differentiated, i.e., owing to the rapid mercantilism a new social class was emerging. The aristocracy was aware of the threat the new rising class could pose ,and was posing, in terms of usurping their privileged position. In the face of such a threat, marriage within an equ... ... middle of paper ... at the multiplicity of the society by aiming at closing ranks. Thus, the theme of incest also works as a cultural critique in the play. Whigham also states that staging incest often functioned as ‘institutional policing’ whereby the withdrawal of a group from the society in the name of status was seen as shunning social responsibility,and thus criticised. Finally, one can conclude the argument by commenting on the duchess’ role in the above-mentioned scheme of things. The duchess heroically battles her brother’s incestuous rage by not only defying him in marrying below her rank but also by dying a heroic death. In her marrying below her station critics have read her forward-looking stance ‘that enables proto –bourgeois companionate marriage to begin hiving off its territory’- thereby, giving a solid rebuttal to the parochial notion of incest.

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