A woman of Renaissance-ian nature was stereotypically linked to the male dominant in her life. In contrast, the women that were powerful – and there were plenty – were subject to the idea that the female body was not strong enough to live up to a male counterpart. Rarely is the support of feminism and feminine sexuality seen in a time ruled and respected by powerful males. John Webster, however, presents a character of social prowess and sexual determination in his play The Duchess of Malfi, juxtaposing the social views of a woman with his characterization of the Duchess. The Duchess exudes autonomy in all of her many forms: as a ruler, widow, wife, and sister. Even in her death she radiates nobility, remaining the royal figure Webster has so carefully depicted her as even with her last, dying breath. Despite her removal in the middle of the play, the Duchess denies the patriarchal system enforced upon her by her brothers with every chance she is given.
As a woman, it is expected to be passed from a father’s home into a husband’s. While the Duchess does in fact marry, she is widowed before the audience meets her. Without any children – male children, to be specific – the social hierarchy must accept her as the next in line in terms of power. While the secrecy regarding her marriage results in speculation as to her character, the lengths in which she goes to keep her relationship with Antonio hidden depict the dedication her court has to her. For example, when she claims that Antonio has been abusing her funds, the men of her court are quick to believe her. The spectacle she creates in ridding the court of Antonio for the sake of their marriage even turns her men against h...
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...known eternally as the Duchess. This suggests that Webster wished for her to remain the powerful feminine figure that she was long after her presence was gone.
The Duchess’ brothers represent a patriarchy that spites the powerful feminine figure and the frustration that comes from her marriage is in her rebellion against their implicit regulation. As a ruler, widow, wife, and sister, the Duchess faces tribulations that she disregards in light of her own passions. The Duchess is a figure of independence and rebellion, which eventually ignited the want for revenge from her brothers who strive for control. Whereas a strong feminine figure was by no means hard to find, the idea of women surpassing the laws of man was a hard concept to grasp. Ultimately, The Duchess’ constant opposition to the patriarchy takes her life, though it does not take her autonomous influence.
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