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Many assume that marriage is simply a formal union between a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife. However, there is a constant struggle to define not only what marriage is, but what a husband or wife is and the roles these titles entail. Early modern literature often suggests that marriage is “the fusion of spouses into ‘one flesh’ and the man’s role as the head of the corporate body” (Dolan 30). The Duchess in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612) challenges this presumed male authority following her predecessors, Lucres from Henry Medwall’s Fulgens and Lucres (1512) and Amadine from the anonymously written Mucedorus (1598). The women presented in these early Renaissance dramas demonstrate a great amount of agency in their romantic relationships, fulfilling their personal desires. Faced by boundaries set by male members of authority in their families and Jacobean religious and social norms, they are forced to use extreme manipulation and secrecy to fulfill their desires. Although their goals seem to be purely based on heterosexual relationships conforming to the institution of marriage, they are given the opportunity to freely choose their husbands and lovers. They take a very humanistic approach by, in most cases, choosing them based on merit and virtue. For Amadine and Lucrese, their tactics create the desired outcome; marriage. For the Duchess, however, her actions and agency for love lead to her untimely death. Not without suffering, these women prove to be before their time, demonstrating the emerging rights of women in early modern society through their active roles as equal, if not leading roles in their romantic relationships.
John Webster is an early seventeenth-cen...

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... reign most in her, I know not; but it shows a fearful madness” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). Cariola references two subjects, “the spirit of greatness” and the spirit “of woman” and declares her confusion as to which “spirit” is the most dominant (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). As a woman, she should follow the advice of her brothers and “give o’er these chargeable revels” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). But instead, she decides to defy “terrible good counsel” and make her own decision to marry Antonio. Cariola states in her last line that regardless of which “spirit” reigns “most” in the soul of the Duchess, that “it shows a fearful madness” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). Cariola is foreshadowing the onslaught of tragedy when she speaks about “a fearful madness” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). Ironically, she cannot control the consequences that follow the one action in which she did possess control.
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