The Duchess of Malfi - Character Summary

The Duchess of Malfi - Character Summary

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The Duchess of Malfi - Character Summary

"The birds that live i' th' field
On the wild benefit of nature, live
Happier than we; for they may choose their mates,
And carol their sweet pleasures to the spring."
The Duchess of Malfi (3.5.18-21)

The Duchess of Malfi: Character Summary

A widow, the duchess rules her duchy alone. Lonely and in love, she
secretly marries her steward Antonio. This is done in a hand-fast
marriage witnessed by Cariola, the Duchess' hand-maiden. By choosing
to marry Antonio in secret, the Duchess neglects her duty to her
people. When she begins getting pregnant and giving birth, her people
denounce her as a strumpet. They then lose their respect for their
leader. The pilgrims in Act 4 (when the Duchess and her family are in
Loreto at the religous shrine) are the only disinterested parties in
the play. They are also the only disinterested commoners.
back to top.

"That's the greatest torture souls feel in hell,
In hell: that they must live, and cannot die."
The Duchess of Malfi (4.1.70-71)

Women as Rulers

Women rulers and the circumstances they deal with are very much unlike
men rulers and their situations. The women must worry about society's
propensities, their own feelings, and the welfare of their people. It
is much more difficult to be a woman in power than to be a man in
power. The choices women rulers make cannot be only for themselves,
and one wrong decision can spell disaster. Interested in women's
courtly power and influence?

"A count! He's a mere stick of sugar-candy,
You may look quite through him. When I choose
A husband, I will marry for your honor."
The Duchess of Malfi (3.1.43-45)

The Real-life Duchess of Malfi: Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth I ruled over England alone. She never married,
choosing to claim instead that she was married to her country. By
doing this, Elizabeth retained her authority and she was not forgotten
behind the name of a man. In spite of this, though, or perhaps because
of it, she endeared herself to her people. The Duchess, choosing love,
chooses her downfall. The Queen Elizabeth, choosing duty (her throne),
chooses the path to immortality.

"I am acquainted with sad misery,
As the tanned galley-slave is with his oar.
Necessity makes me suffer constantly,
And custom makes it easy."
The Duchess of Malfi (4.2.27-30)

The Duchess and Ferdinand

Incest, as a motive, was used extensively in various Elizabethan
/Jacobean plays including Hamlet, A King & No King, and 'Tis Pity
She's a Whore. Incest is merely implied in The Duchess of Malfi
because the queer nature of the play does not allow it to become an

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Evidence supports the idea that Webster would like his
audience to view Ferdinand's rage against his sister's remarriage
stemming from a feeling of incest that even he himself may not
recognize (Leech 57).

Instances of Ferdinand's incestuous feelings occur throughout the
play. In Act I, for instance, Ferdinand speaks offensively toward his
sister finally calling her a "lusty widow" (I, ii). In response to the
Duchess' remarriage, he treats her with continued scorn & violent
behavior. When the true identity of her husband is discovered,
Ferdinand opts to wait until the Duchess is dead before attempting to
kill Antonio. Ferdinand's use of dead man's hand ["Here's a hand/ To
which you have vowed much love; the ring upon't/ You gave" (IV.i)]
suggests a sort of phallic significance (Leech 58).

"When Fortune's wheel is overcharged with princes,
The weight makes it move swift."
The Duchess of Malfi (3.5.96-97)

Ferdinand's last words hint at his possible recognition of his
incestuous feeling where he says, "My Sister, O my sister! there' s
the cause on't. / Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like
Diamonds, we are cut with our own dust" (V.v). His final statement
brings the reader back to Act I where the Duchess says, "Diamonds are
of most value / They say, that have passed through most jewellers'
[sic] hands" (I.ii). Where the Duchess earlier likens herself to a
diamond, Ferdinand is cut by her dust. This may suggest that he
acknowledges his destruction by the dust that both he & his sister
share (because of their blood relation). While Ferdinand accepts his
downfall, it is doubtful that he could have reached a full
understanding of his feelings due in part to his sickening state of
mind near the time of his death.

The Trials and Tribulations of Life for Women in the 16th and 17th

In the early modern period, the position of women was contradictory
and constantly shifting. At this time, the beliefs of the Roman
Catholic doctrines and the beliefs of the Protestant faith were at
odds with each other. This battle for supremacy betwee n the two
faiths helped to cause the turmoil of the early woman's position. On
the one hand, for Roman Catholics, the woman who remained a virgin was
a "special" (Jankowski, 26) being and all other women were seen as
somehow lesser, corrupted beings. Ma rried women were necessary for
multiplication of the human race but also tainted because of this
activity. The Protestant view of virginal women and married women was
different. Single women were seen as having a handicap that could only
be remedied th rough the process of marriage. There was an honorable
and acceptable position for single women in the Catholic faith: the
nun. She had some power over herself. In the Protestant faith, the
only honorable position for a woman was marriage and, to a lesser
degree, widowhood. These contradictory views made a woman's position
ambivalen t.

However, it must be noted that despite the shifting religious views of
the period, the 16th and 17th centuries were definitely patriarchal
societies, with the father/husband seen as the supreme ruler of his
children/wives. A single woman was subject to t he rule of her father
until her majority. Most women were married before her majority. There
were certain societal functions in place to assure the marriage of a
woman before her majority. She was jeered at and made to feel socially
unacceptable if she reached her majority unmarried. Names such as "old
maid" and "spinster" were used to denigrate her status and encourage
her to marry. Her chastity was often questioned . As a single,
unmarried woman, she could not own or sell property, draw up her wi ll
or initiate law suits (Jankowski, 24). Every possible device was used
by society to pressure a single woman into marriage.

During this period, there were three types of women: single women,
married women and widowed women. As noted above, the single woman was
considered her father's chattel and under heavy pressure to marry.
Only through marriage did she gain any measure of power and control,
and then usually only over her own household. Even with marriage, a
woman held no legal identity or rights. Widows, on the other hand, did
have legal identities and legal rights(Jankowski, 36).

Widows were exceptions or anomalies to the 16th and 17th century
patriarchal society. A widow was considered an "ungoverned woman" who
challenged and threatened societal norms of the period (Jankowski,
35). A widow had legal rights that single and marr ied women did not
have. A widow never directly inherited land, though she could hold it
for a minor son. She had the legal right to control her properties in
her own or her children's interests (Jankowski, 35). She could draw up
her own will. A widow was free to choose her next husband, while a
never-married woman usually had her prospective husband chosen for
her. The knowledge that with remarriage came the loss of these legal
rights caused many women to decide against remarriage. Since the widow
wa s often seen as "ungoverned" and "threatening" to current social
norms, societal pressure was put on the widow to remarry or be
considered sexually promiscuous and often called a whore.
Never-married and widowed women were discriminated against and made to
feel inferior to married women.

Powerful Women in the 16th and 17th Centuries: An Anomaly

For many people during this early modern period, powerful women were
considered unnatural and dangerous. The image of female dominance is
an image of social disorder (Jankowski, 55). The patriarchal society
of the time was a society in which all levels of the society looked
towards a male figure as the one who holds supreme power (Jankowski,
55). Powerful women were therefore often denigrated and seen as
dysfunctional. Despite having experienced three reigning monarchs
during this period, Mary Stuart, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor, there
was still a feeling of uneasiness among the general population at the
thought of these women rulers.

To be successful and powerful during this time, a woman had to embody
many contradictory qualities. She had to have so-called "manly"
intelligence, yet still appear motherly and feminine. She had to be
both tough and yet submissive. However, a powerful woman of this
period also had to walk a fine line. Political acumen was a must. She
could not go too far beyond social norms. If she became too subversive
or radical, she was often punished severely. Therefore, a powerful
woman had to know how accomplish her objectives within t he boundaries
of social limits.


The Duchess of Malfi presents a complex mixture of different types of
popular Renaissance tragedies. There are elements of revenge tragedy
(such as Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, or Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy),
romantic tragedy (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Ford's Tis Pity She's a
Whore), and political tragedy (Macbeth, King Lear, Marlowe's Edward II).


Webster created the character of Bosola from several different men in
his sources, including an historical Daniel de Bosola who murdered
Antonio. Combining various roles in the story has made Bosola a
complex and sometimes contradictory character.

In the opening scene, Bosola appears as the malcontent, a typical
Renaissance figure (compare Richard III, or Iago), an anti-hero with a
bitter, sarcastic, dark view of life. Ironically he also become the
chief spokesman for the play, demanding the audience's attention and,
to some degree, understanding.

Antonio's first description of Bosola as "court gall" is somewhat
modified by his admission that he is "very valiant" and that
melancholic moods have poisoned "all his goodness." Fredson Bowers
called him "a misfit, a man of worthier talents forced into a
degrading position, and with a brutal philosophy making the most of it
... If he must play the villain, then he has decided to be an
efficient one." (Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1940)

Bosola thinks of himself as a realist, self-aware with an honest
assessment of his nature and condition, but actually he proves to be
more of a disillusioned idealist. He realizes that in an evil age,
doing good often goes unrewarded, but he still believes there should
be honor among thieves at least. Even though he plays the faithful
henchmen in murdering for the brothers, neither of them shows any
gratitude. During the course of the play Bosola and the Duchess are
pitted against these powerful forces; as they strive for independence
of action, they become more aware by suffering.

In Act III, scene iii Delio describes Bosola as a pretentious scholar
of classical learning, but other than this reference nothing else is
made of this characteristic.


Antonio is noble in character, if not by birth, but appears weak in
contrast to Bosola, the Duchess, and her brothers. In the course of
the play he will initiate only one action, pursuing a truce with the
Cardinal (V.i), a foolhardy plan which ends in disaster.

Antonio's opening comments about the virtues of the French court set
up a contrast with that of the rulers in Italy. Many political
tragedies during this period were set in countries other than England,
where "the corruption of the times" could be criticized without fear
of the public censor.


In standing up to her overbearing brothers, and in her delightful
seduction of Antonio, the Duchess demonstrates her most attractive
character traits: strong, passionate, sensual, courageous,
independent, intelligent, witty, cunning, ambitious. "In temperament
she is a heroine of Shakespeare's romantic comedy" (Ornstein, in
Morris, John Webster, Mermaid Critical Commentary, 147). These
qualities, which most of today's audience would find admirable, were
potentially threatening to a male-dominated society.

Webster's primary source for his story (mostly true to history),
William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567), shows less sympathy for
the Duchess, taking a strict, moralistic tone, condemning her for
being too lustful and for breaking the accepted rules of her social
status. Was she guilty according to Renaissance standards of conduct?
In Webster's own time, King James had his cousin Lady Anabella
imprisoned for marrying beneath her against his wishes.

A modern audience's admiration of her may stem from other values just
beginning to be explored in Renaissance thought. From a modern
perspective she plays the role of existential hero: going into an
unknown wilderness with assurance only in herself. Later in the face
of death, she affirms, "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (IV.ii), "one
expression of that continual declaration of human independence which
proclaims the unique value of a particular human existence in the face
of the inevitable triumph of death" (Alexander in Morris, 95). She
finds herself a woman lost in a corrupt world of men, having no female
equals, a free spirit in a world of stifling restrictions.

In Skull beneath the Skin, Forker remarks, "Since the facts of the
Duchess's story cast her so prominently in the role of sufferer and
victim, it was important to devise a means for avoiding the impression
of abject helplessness and passivity ... Webster had to suggest
uptapped reserves of stamina in the character. ... The tragic journey
on which she embarks is largely solitary in both the physical and
spiritual senses, and ironically this is true despite her romantic
motivation. Her husband cannot protect her nor even be at her side in
the crisis--a crisis that Webster dramatizes as a wrenching ordeal of

Webster created in the Duchess what Shakespeare never did, a tragic
female protagonist (Juliet doesn't act on her own, Cleopatra shares
the world stage with Antony) who represents a challenge to social
hierarchy and "natural" order:

* As a woman she refuses to be subservient to men: she ignores her
brothers' commands not to marry, and she takes the initiative to
woo Antonio. A rich widow presented a special threat to
male-dominated families, as she was now free to marry of her own
choosing for love, and to give the family wealth to another man.

* As an individual she places her personal desires above the good of
the state. In the Renaissance doctrine of the king's two bodies, a
ruler was considered to have both a public and private persona;
when private self-interest rules, the state suffers (as seen in
Richard II, or Marlowe's Edward II). The 16th century cautionary
work Mirror for Magistrates depicted the fate of historical rulers
such as Julius Caesar who put private concerns before public. The
Duchess also places her personal decisions over the authority of
the church, being rather cavalier about official rites of marriage
and holy pilgrimages; but note that she still believes in heaven.

* As a free-spirited individual, she places passion above reason.
Many male tragic heroes are known for their powers of reasoning
and intricate self-examination (Hamlet, Macbeth, Brutus). However,
the common view of women was that their faculty for reasoning was
weaker than in men, being more easily swayed by passion, and more
easily deceived (as in the case of Eve), thus the need for male
leadership in matters of family, church, and state. Truly, the
Duchess does show herself a poor judge of character: she too
quickly dismisses her brothers' potential for evil ("time will
easily scatter the tempest"), later she too easily trusts Bosola
with her secret (III.ii). She disregards the opinion of the people
("let old wives report I winked") and admits to be blinded by
passion for her new husband.

Commentary on Act III, scene ii

This scene is a splendid study in dramatic and bold contrasts, the
delightful love play of the opening giving way to the deadly and
incestuous invasion of Ferdinand, disrupting their secret world.

Unlike the first time they are alone (I.ii) where the Duchess must
awkwardly woo her own steward (a charming scene in itself), here the
wedded lovers are completely at ease with each other, so comfortable
in their relationship that they joke freely about private sexual
matters in front of Cariola. Their teasing banter about who rules in
the night is quite telling, as in the next few moments the Duchess
takes charge of the situation, clearly demonstrating her superior
strength of mind and action.

With his sudden entrance Ferdinand destroys this idyllic setting, and
never again will the Duchess and Antonio enjoy each other's company in
peace. His earlier, subtle threat with his father's dagger (I.ii) now
becomes overt, suggesting that she kill herself with it.

Even though Ferdinand wants to have power over his sister, sexual as
well as fraternal, he seems hesitant to inflict harm on the Duchess'
body with his own hands (eventually she is murdered by strangulation
rather than stabbing). His incestuous feelings lying just beneath the
surface are apparent in this scene, although openly Ferdinand admits
only a concern over the family reputation.

Notice how the Duchess' strength of character shines through the
darkness of this scene. In the face of death she is defiant and
unrepentant: "whether I am doom'd to live or die, I can do both like a
prince," foreshadowing her most famous line in the next act, "I am
Duchess of Malfi still." Once the immediate threat is past, she takes
the initiative in planning their escape, not Antonio (whose bold words
are seldom matched with action).

The final action provides another contrast between the Duchess'
attempt to create a cover story for their escape, which Bosola easily
sees through, and Bosola's superb acting as an accomplished liar who
convinces the naive Duchess too quickly to offer him her confidence.

Commentary on Act III, scene v

Antonio assumes a traditional Medieval view of the world which
conforms to the moral order designed by God: "since we must part, /
Heaven hath a hand in't: but no otherwise / Than as some curious
artist takes in sunder / A clock, or watch, when it is out of frame, /
To bring't in better order." His optimism, that all things will work
together for good in the end, is challenged by the action of the play.

According to Irving Ribner, Jacobean tragedy demonstrates a lack of
confidence about the moral order of the world. Old structures and
beliefs were breaking down. Machiavelli was understood (perhaps
incorrectly) to have divorced politics from Christian ethics.
Scientists were developing more materialistic views of a universe
ruled by natural laws rather than divine command. Apocalyptic
religions preached that the world was seeing the last days, nearing
the end of a long period of progressive moral decay since the Fall of
Adam. Astronomical discoveries were interpreted as signs of this
approaching dissolution: the sun had dark spots on it, the stars were
not fixed in the heavens, no longer evidence of a perfect, unchanging
creation, but one subject to decay.

Webster finds moral order not in traditional faith or theology but in
a celebration of human dignity which renders human beings superior to
the world's chaos; see the Duchess' self-affirmation in the face of
death, IV.ii. (Ribner, Jacobean Tragedy: The Quest for Moral Order,

On the Duchess' mournful observation, "The birds that live i'th' field
/ On the wild benefit of nature, live / Happier than we":

The French essayist Montaigne (1533-1592), whose influence can be seen
throughout this play, challenged the common Renaissance and Christian
assumption of human superiority to animals, based on the faculty of

As he noted, unlike men, animals are kind to their young, faithful to
their mates, and do not wage war against each other. He felt the
superiority of reason was overrated, having severed men from their
natural, instinctive qualities (which the Duchess seems to possess
above her brothers).

Ferdinand fails in his attempt to break his sister's spirit. In the
face of death, she affirms her sense of dignity and self-worth, "I am
Duchess of Malfi still," which Alexander describes as "one expression
of that continual declaration of human independence which proclaims
the unique value of a particular human existence in the face of the
inevitable triumph of death" (Morris, John Webster 95). She has
attempted to fashion her own destiny in a world controlled by men, has
lost her gambit, but remains to the end defiant and proud, high above
the sordid world she leaves behind. Her vitality and lust for life in
the midst of darkness and depravity cling to existence even after her
strangulation. In many productions, her spirit lives on as the Duchess
speaks for the Echo (V.iii). Bosola, moved by her noble example,
experiences a conversion of spirit as well, and becomes her champion
in the finale of the play (more so than the ineffectual Antonio).

The Jacobean age was one of questioning and uncertainty about many
issues, such as religion, politics and law. At the same time it was
rediscovering the potency of Classical texts of Rome and Greece, and
reinterpreting tragic form to suit its own ends. The Duchess of Malfi
is a revenge tragedy, but Webster has used the form for much more than
just its entertainment value; he has used it as a vehicle for the
exploration of some themes relevant to the society of his time.

Webster based his plot on a true story set in Italy, and kept the
Italian setting because like Shakespeare and other playwrights of his
day, he had to use politically-acceptable foreign settings in which to
explore ideas such as those presented in The Duchess of Malfi, (which
were really commentaries on the England of their own era), to do with
inequality, injustice, and corruption, without causing outrage in
response to his work.

Antonio and The Duchess

The fact that Antonio can never have an equal relationship with the
Duchess has prompted some readers to feel that his importance as a
character in the play is limited, while others suggest that his main
role is as a mouthpiece for Webster's own judgements and opinions. To
assess the importance of his role we need to consider it relation to
the Duchess, and in the context of the play as a whole.

Inequalities of power associated with gender and social status are
highlighted in the relationship between The Duchess and Antonio, and
the reactions of others towards their relationship.

In Antonio's self-deprecating dying speech,

Antonio: We follow after bubbles, blown in th'air. [Act V, Scene iv]

we see that he admits to his life having been filled more with promise
than performance. He is a good man, but has been no match for the
situation in which Webster placed him.

Antonio is introduced into the play as an outsider to Amalfi,
returning home along with his confidant Delio. Delio can be perceived
as a more intelligent character than Antonio; almost the 'counsellors
counsellor', and more down-to-earth than his friend. Their dialogue
serves to introduce the audience to the theme of how a well-governed
court could be run, which will contrast dramatically to the corrupt
Antonio will find at Amalfi.

At the court they encounter Bosola, the malcontent, who later likens
the virtuous Antonio to a 'cedar planted by a spring', an image which
contrasts to Bolola's view of the Aragon brothers (The Duchess's
brothers: The Cardinal and Ferdinand) as,

plum trees, that grow crooked [Act 1, Scene i]

Being of lower social status, Antonio is perhaps an unlikely match for
the scheming Duchess, and being an honest man he is uncomfortable with
the plotting and deceit in which he becomes involved. Antonio is
considered to be equal to the Duchess in that he has acquired the
level of education necessary to be a counsellor; he has gained status,
in terms of the Renaissance humanist tradition, by absorbing
scholarship in order to improve himself, but as he well knows himself,
he can never equal The Duchess in blood. His predicament shows that as
well as creating him as a character in his own right, Webster is using
him as a device with which to make points about the society of the

While it was quite common for a male figure of power to marry below
his station, it was quite unacceptable for a noble female to conduct
herself in that way.

Duchess: I am Duchess of Malfi still [Act !V, Scene ii]

Thus, even when married to her, Antonio can never be her equal in

Powerful women, being considered by some to be unnatural and
dangerous, provoked much controversy at the time, a pertinent example
being Queen Elizabeth Tudor.

The Duchess is seen right from the start as a lusty character who is
pursuing the affection of Antonio. Her dialogue is full of sexual
innuendo, and she can be seen as being in the category of the
renaissance stereotype the 'lusty widow'. She is presented as a
powerful woman with a dominant will and right to the moment of her
death is portrayed as strong and independent. Defying her brother's
warnings not to remarry is further proof of her strength.

The Duchess's defiant insistence on marrying Antonio, her second
husband, is an action which shows that she has her own desires, and a
more dominant will than anybody around her. Webster has given her all
the qualities that Antonio, her spouse, lacks, qualities which were
not thought to be desirable in a woman of that era; she plots, schemes
and has a bold and impetuous nature.

She is also a fundamentally good character, and her dislike of the

Duchess: They that enter there,
Must go upon their knees [Act 4, Scene ii]

shows how she is an opposite of Ferdinand who moves about her in a
black ruse.

Thus The Duchess of Malfi hinges around a female protagonist, and,
like Antonio's, her predicament shows how the play's themes are
underpinned by Webster's thinking about social issues of his day.
Ironically, he is making points about women's rights at a time when
only men were allowed to act on the stage.

Like many playwrights of the time Webster had a legal background, and
this served to make him more aware of the inequalities of the law
involving women. He has a sensitive awareness of these inequalities
and the play illustrates the ridiculous views taken by the community.

Duchess: We are forced to woo, because none dare woo us [Act 1, Scene

In that line we can see that Webster has emphasised The Duchess's
commanding character by his use of language. The play has been written
mainly in unrhymed iambic pentameter of five stresses and ten
syllables per line, which was the norm for the blank verse of
renaissance dramas. Like all good playwrights of the time he has
occasionally bent the rules of this set pattern to make the lines
shorter or longer, for example to show a character's unbalanced
nature. The Duchess's line breaks the metre by being slightly too
long, showing that she refuses to be restrained, and adding power to
the point she is making.

Antonio fears that his feelings for the Duchess are little more than
'mad ambition', and in this respect we can liken him to Banquo in
Shakespeare's play Macbeth; a man who lacks drive because he believes
that ambition brings about the downfall of good men. Antonio proves to
be useless in any crisis and in Act 5 is even unaware that his wife
and children have been needlessly murdered. The Duchess, in contrast,
accepts death nobly and faces her fate with serenity.

Corruption is an important theme in the play.

Duchess: He [Ferdinand] left this with me
She shows the poignard.
Antonio: And it seems, did wish you would use it on yourself?
Duchess: His action seem'd to intend so much. [Act 3, Scene ii]

This interchange is just one small illustration of how moral
corruption is rife throughout the court of Amalfi. The only characters
seemingly not tainted are Antonio and the Duchess. The Duchess may
have chosen Antonio for this very reason, as he is a good and honest
man and not a sycophant of the court. Even the Cardinal, a
representative of religion, is full of dishonesty and murders his

Paradoxically, the corruption rife in the religious orders is
explained in humanist terms by Antonio's simile for politics and good

A prince's court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver-drops in general. But if't chance
Some curs'd example poison't near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread [Act 1, Scene i]

The corrupt motives of those around them bring about the downfall of
the couple, which is an inevitable outcome of a revenge tragedy. As we
have seen, Webster has woven the play into this genre and also raised
many points about beliefs of the Jacobean time. The Duchess has done
nothing legally wrong and Webster's exposure of the Cardinal's
hypocrisy reveals how unjust and tragic the fate of Antonio and his
wife really is.

So we have seen that Antonio does have a substantial role in his own
right. He is a good man who, due to his learning, had gained an
intimacy with the Duchess, but he is the victim of a corrupt society.
At the same time he has been shaped to show the inequalities of the
period and highlight the corruption of nobility. The evidence shows
that the presentation of Antonio serves to show both sides of an
argument. His marriage could have been successful, but is deemed
unorthodox, inappropriate and draws moral censure in at least three
ways; it is unequal, it is in secret and it is the Duchess's second

As good man destroyed by an unjust and corrupt society, we can
understand the despair in Antonio's dying words:

Antonio: Pleasure of life, what is't? Only the good hours of an ague.
[Act 5, Scene iv]

The Duchess comes across to the audience as the epitome of stoism and
strength of soul and character. At the beginning of the play, she is
portrayed as a a woman of great integrity and honour, such that
Antonio speaks of 'her days are practiced in such noble virtue that
sure her nights, nay more her very sleeps are more in heaven than
other lady's shrifts'. Indeed, we see her as a noble woman of much
childlike innocence and naeivity. Even her secret marraige to Antonio
is not seen as something of lust and sexual desire, but of a woman's
need for companionship and love 'tis not a figure cut in alabaster to
kneel at my husband's tomb' , something she obviously cannot derive
from her villanious brothers. Even at this point, she comes across as
a strong character of intense emotion and longing for affection and
love that she must resort to a secret marraige. In contrast, her
marraige to Antonio seems cleaner than the Cardinal's adulterous
relationship with Julia, his mistress. That the Duchess solemnises
their vows shows that she does have moral standards to uphold. Even
her 'feigned pilgrimage' to Ancona was something that she and her
family did as a real pilgrimage to pay their respect to our Lady of

The childlike innocence of the Duchess is seen from the way that she
tells Antonio that 'time will easily scatter the tempest' when Antonio
brings up the threat of her ARAGONIAN BROTHERS. Yet, it is because of
them that she is made to endure 'the worst torture, pain and fear'.
One certainly pities her and feels that she should not be made to
suffer so much for following her heart. Indeed, Ferdinand's obsession
to 'purge infected blood' seems less a move to right a wrong than out
of jealousy 'my imagination carrys me to see her in the shameful act
of sin'. The Duchess in nobly enduring all his cruel torments becomes
a 'reverend monument whose ruins are even pitied'. Yet to a certain
extent, while we pity the Duchess, one cannot deny that one feels a
great admiration for her strength of character. She accepts suffering
as her 'fate' and is 'acquainted with sad misery as the tanned slave
is with his oar'.

Even Bosola is able to realise the dignity in which she bears herself
up to the suffering that her brothers make her endure 'as majesty
gives to adversity; you may discern the shape of lovliness more
perfectly in her tears than in her smiles'. One admires her for being
so ready to accept her fate, the suffering she endures a mere
consequence of her loving Antonio and marrying him. It is also through
her suffering that she derives a new found wisdom 'your kiss is colder
than i have seen a holy anchorite give to a dead man's skull'. Indeed,
she realises the extent of her brother's tyranny and knows that she an
Antonio must part. Their last moments together are certainly touching,
and one truly pities her for being denied of true love. To lose the
love of her life drains her very soul, and she is left empty and
without meaning in life 'my laurel is all withered'.

The Duchess accepts her death with humility, 'heaven's gates are not
so highly arched as prince's palaces; they that enter there must go on
their knees'. Yet to the end, she is dignified 'I am the Duchess of
Malfi still'. Indeed, her 'violent death' seems more of a journey to
liberation rather than an end in itself. Throughout the play, the
Duchess is portrayed as the victim of entrapment, Ferdinand the
predator that toys with his prey, the Duchess before killing her. (see

The Duchess is hence a character to be admired and respected. That she
is a historical figure shows that Webster was indeed perceptive in the
plight of the Duchess at such a time when her behaviour to marry
Antonio outside the social status of her family would have been dealt
with death, no question to the reasoning behind it. Webster's play
hence is a statement against this convention, and the Duchess comes
across as a real person of human emotion that each and every
individual can relate to.

Heroic Maternity?

The drama of the Renaissance is notably lacking in detailed
representation of family life. In tragic plays, conflicts between
fathers and sons are somewhat important thematically; in comedy
fathers tend to appear as blocking figures only, and mothers appear
even less often. The conflicts seen in comedies are fairly
conventional and give little if any serious analysis of the dynamics
of family life. It seems particularly important that women are so
rarely seen, even amid the minute details that Renaissance drama does
provide about family life. They are rarely shown as mothers, even,
surprisingly, in plays by women. On the contrary, it seems that women
writers especially "deal with their anger t owards their mothers by
eliminating them." 1 For all the negative or missing images of women
and mothers that we seem to see in Renaissance drama, however, it is
important to recognize dramatists who do deal with family life and
show women and mothers who do not appear in a negative light.

Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi
give us women who are, despite being problematized slightly in both
works, almost heroic. Through the significant presence of their
children in the text, as well as the extraordinary endurance of their
maternal identity, we see women who, instead of being used as blocking
figures or simply being eliminated from the text entirely, are the
heroes of the play. Tragic plays in this period have usually shown
"helpless men whose heroism is ironically qualified by the contexts in
which they live." In Shakespearean tragedy, Othello and King Lear are
helpless men. More importantly however, MacBeth, Antony, and
Coriolanus are ruined mostly by the women in their lives. 2 With these
two plays both playwrights seem to show a final helplessness in their
tragic protagonists by making them women. However, by including
motherhood as part of their identity, instead of being helpless, the
Duchess and Hermione become heroic figures, as is shown by the fact
that this maternal identity is, in both cases, remembered in key
moments of both plays. The Duchess of Malfi shows us a woman who
sustains her identity as a wife and mother even to the point of her
death. Hermoine, the central figure in The Winter's Tale, is a woman
with similar endurance, maintaining her innocence even as she is
unjustly imprisoned. Her maternal identity is important: she gives
birth to a daughter while in prison and also appears to be a good
mother to her son. Hermione dies while on trial for her apparent
infidelity, upon hearing of the death of her first born son. The death
of Mamillius may perhaps be seen as an affirmation of the importance
of the mother figure, as he dies seemingly from the lack of her

The presence of the children in the text

One of the ways in which motherhood is celebrated in The Winter's Tale
and The Duchess of Malfi is by accentuating the presence of the
children in the text. In most examples of Renaissance drama there are
few references to the specific roles of children. They tend to get
lost in Renaissance society as well, because for the most part,
children are not treated as such, but as smaller adults. 3 In these
plays, however, the children begin to be portrayed as children, thus
allowing the maternal character to have a greater influence on their
lives. The Duchess and Hermione in this regard, enjoy a clearer
maternal identity than is displayed in other examples of Renaissance
Drama. In The Duchess of Malfi, though the children have no spoken
lines, their stage presence shows the precarious nature of the private
life of the Duchess and Antonio. Elizabeth M. Brennan suggests that
Act III, sn. ii. was staged in the following way: "...the placing and
removing of necessary props was combined with the removal of evidence
of the children's presence." A toy horse held nervously by Cariola was
the final piece of evidence in this particular production, added to
which was the off-stage cry of a child. This toy, as well as Cariola's
attitude in removing it, provided a metaphor for a threatened family
life. 4 Another scene in which we see the children play a role is the
false pilgrimage scene, also in act three. The Duchess has revealed to
Bosola that Antonio is her husband and the father of her children. She
takes his advice to make a pilgrimage as a ruse for escaping with her
family. Once the family arrives at the shrine, they are banished by
way of a dumbshow and the Duchess has lost the dukedom. The family
separates in this final domestic scene-Antonio's last words are to the
Duchess as the mother of his children:

If I do never see thee more
Be a good mother to your little ones,
And save them from the tiger: fare you well. (III, v., 82-83)

Shakespeare is slightly more reliable about representing children
children in his texts than is Webster, and The Winter's Tale is not
the only play which has a child character-recall in MacBeth, the scene
between Lady MacDuff and her son in Act IV of the play. In TheWinter's
Tale, however, more time is devoted to the presence and dialogue of
the young son of Hermoine and Leontes than to the children of the
Duchess and Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi. Mamillius is present in
the first scene of the play, as we hear him defending Leontes'
paternity. In the second act, Mamillius interacts significantly with
Hermione and her attending women. The young prince reacts as any child
might to the coddling of these women. "No I'll none of you," he says,
"You'll kiss me hard and speak to me as if I were a baby still."(II,
i., 5-6) The women later convince Mamillius to tell them a story,
after briefly mentioning Hermione's pregnancy and the possibility of a
new prince to serve. Instead of a prince, however, the later
imprisoned Hermione bears a daughter, who is perhaps presented more
significantly in the text than is Mamillius. To convince Leontes of
his error in believing Hermione to be unfaithful, Paulina brings his
daughter, proclaiming that the child is clearly his.

Although the print be little, the whole matter
And copy of the father; eye, nose, lip,
The trick of's frown, his forehead, nay, the valley,
The pretty dimples of his chin and cheek, his smiles,
The very mould and frame of hand, nail, finger:
And thou, good goddess Nature, which hast made it
So like him that got it, if thou hast
The ordering of the mind, too, 'mongst all colours
No yellow it 't; lest she suspect, as he does,
Her children not her husband's. (II, iii., 97-108)

Leontes calls Paulina a "gross hag" in response to her speech, and
threatens Antigonus, who would not stop Paulina's words. He also calls
the child a "mankind witch," which perhaps reflects a fear of his
possible connection to it. Although he still suspects that Hermione
has been unfaithful, she has borne a child which puts her in a
separate, and perhaps more important, sphere from her husband. The
presentation of the child by Paulina also seems to praise Hermione for
giving birth to what is so clearly a child of Leontes's. This fact
further emphasizes the heroic aspect of Hermione's motherhood.

"I am Duchess of Malfi still"

One of the most significant ideas about both of these plays is that in
each the heroine dies or is eliminated before the end. This particular
line in defense of identity from The Duchess of Malfi, "I am Duchess
of Malfi still," may therefore be related to both plays, although we
see a more poignant example in Webster's text. The remaining
characters in each play must also survive without the heroines. Their
actions following the deaths of both the Duchess and Hermione, seem to
give testimony to the significance of these women, and to the
continuing importance of their identity. The Duchess of Malfi perhaps
shows this idea more so than does The Winter's Tale, though
Shakespeare's play deals with Hermione's death in a unique way.
Throughout Webster's play, the Duchess has to deal with domineering
and cruel brothers, and her new domestic identity has to be hidden for
the most part-her relationship with Antonio and her children initially
remains in the private sphere of the play. Hermione, on the other
hand, is a married woman and a queen, and as such is duty-bound to
have children. Her maternity, however, is used against her as a
tangible way to prove that she was unfaithful to her husband. Both
women are condemned for their maternity as tangible evidence of their
supposed transgression. Yet after their deaths, those who condemned
Hermione and the Duchess are remorseful or suffering themselves.

In The Duchess of Malfi, after the duchess has been killed, we see
significant interaction between Ferdinand, the doctor, and also the
Cardinal, as he observes his brother in a state of madness. Pescara
initially asks the doctor about Ferdinand's condition, and is

I'll tell you:
In those that are possess'd with't there o'erflows
Such melancholy humour, they imagine
Themselves to be transformed into wolves.
Steal forth to churchyards in the dead of night,
And dig dead bodies up: as two nights since
One met the Duke, 'bout midnight in a lane
Behind St. Mark's church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl'd fearfully:
Said he was a wolf: only the difference
Was, a wolf's skin was hairy on the outside,
His on the inside: bad them take their swords,
Rip up his flesh, and try: straight I was sent for,
And having minister'd to him, found his Grace
Very well recovered. (V, ii., 7-21)

The Cardinal seems somewhat surprised to observe this strange behavior
in his brother, though he is aware of the reason for it, as he shows
by feigning an answer to Pescara who asks how Ferdinand came to be
this way. In The Winter's Tale, the elimination of the maternal figure
is dealt with differently, most likely because of the differing
circumstances of Hermione and the Duchess. Hermione was a queen, the
mother of a prince, and clearly entitled to recognition and privilege.
Although the Duchess was part of the nobility, her marriage to Antonio
was a common one, and she had clearly married beneath her own social
class. For these reasons the Duchess's children were not officially
recognized. Due to these differences between the two characters, there
are varying responses to their deaths--in The Duchess of Malfi we have
a character going mad, where as in The Winter's Tale, Leontes is
simply remorseful. He realizes that he has been wrong and deserves to
be spoken of as such, but he is not punished with madness. As he says
to Paulina:

Go on, go on;
Thou canst not speak too much: I have deserved
All tongues to speak their bitterest. (III, ii., 215-217)

He vows every day to visit the chapel where the bodies of the queen
and prince will lie, and "tears shed there shall be [his]
recreation"(III, ii., 240-241). Despite the different responses to the
elimination of the Duchess and Hermione, it is clear that both of
these women were significant to the text and to the other characters.
Their identities will be remembered and continue to influence the rest
of the play after they have disappeared from the text.

Although the removal of both of these women from the texts is
significant, the Duchess's death is more heroic than Hermione's.
Though we hear Paulina say that the Queen has died as a result of the
news of Mamillius' death, Shakespeare provides a dubious magical
solution in The Winter's Tale by bringing Hermione back to life at the
play's conclusion. Perhaps we may assume that Hermione didn't die at
all, but rather was kept in hiding somewhere until her identity became
less threatening or influential. Hermione was portrayed while alive in
the text, as a faithful wife and true mother. Despite Leontes'
accusations it is clear that her character was admirable and heroic,
and the fact that she "dies" unfairly makes this fact all the more
evident. Kept in the domestic arena, Hermione would have been a mother
who had an important influence over her child, as is shown by the
naming of her child through Antigonus's dream. However, restoring her
life at the end of the play, after Perdita has grown up motherless,
and Mamillius of course has died, perhaps reflects the concern that
society had for maternal power. Hermione's identity is no longer a
threat at the end of the play, and her nurturing, motherly skills are
no longer needed. The Duchess, however, retains her maternal identity;
she is still the Duchess of Malfi after she dies, and in fact one of
her children still survives, though he has been separated from her.
Although Hermione is a maternal character to be admired, that
particular aspect of her identity has been taken away, and she
reenters the play's action as an older woman who can have no true
influence or nurturing role in the family to whom she has returned.


Another important connection between the Duchess and Hermione which
emphasizes the influence which mothers have is that both women appear
to one or more of the other characters after they die. Act five, scene
three of The Duchess of Malfi has been called one of the most
beautiful scenes in the play. Here we have Antonio and Delio
responding to an echo coming from the Duchess's grave that we can
imagine to be the Duchess' voice. This last act seems to radiate with
the ethereal-each scene takes place at night, and we are acutely aware
that the Duchess is dead, yet she still claims a presence in the text.
This is the case here in the third scene, when she echoes the final
phrases that the men say, and especially where the words are different
("Ay wife's voice,") when responding to Antonio's comparison of the
echo with the Duchess' voice.

Hermione appears to Antigonus, in a dream during the night before he
abandons her child. As with his magical ending to the play,
Shakespeare also problemabizes Hermione's appearance here more so than
does Webster with the Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi. We find that
Hermione is presented to Antigonus in a polarized vision, first as "an
idealized image of maternal chastity and sorrow," 5 asking for a voice
in the naming of her daughter. She is initially shown "in pure white
robes, / Like very sanctity," but she leaves Antigonus' dream as a
witch, after offering the ominous warning that he will never again see
his wife. "and so with shrieks, / She melted into air" (III, iii,
22-23, 36-37). As a mother figure, Hermione is presented as one of the
most traditionally, at least by today's standards, maternal women of
Shakespeare's canon, shown not only giving birth to a child, but also
loving and nurturing her young son. This dream associates motherhood
with birth and death, but also seems to attach some sort of
omniscience and power to Hermione's maternal identity as she curses
Antigonus with separation from his wife. Shakespeare legitimizes
Hermione's curse, perhaps affirming a societal concern regarding
maternal power, in what appears to be one of drama's most famous stage
directions, "exit pursued by a bear"(III, iii., 58). 6

Final thoughts

As Diane Henderson suggests, "For all the limits and ironies of both
the Duchess and Hermione in The Winter's Tale as monumentalized icons,
these two characters shown pregnant and with their children, serve as
a complex counter image to the parade of fickle, insatiate, shrewish,
and smothering maternal images." 7 These two plays begin to show the
importance of the maternal character as the Duchess and Hermione
attempt to establish a place for themselves in a domestic sphere. Each
woman demonstrates a compassionate and nurturing identity, yet is
eliminated from the text for producing a child, a specifically
tangible result of her femininity and influence over men. Hermione was
suspected of infidelity, and the child was suspected to be Polixenes'.
The Duchess had children by Antonio, rather than honoring the memory
of her dead husband as her brothers believed she should. These women
are set up as characters to admire, because the accusations against
them have no true merit, and, although their maternity is clearly
problematized, it is a step in the right direction in terms of giving
mothers the honor and respect they deserve in the important arena of
the domestic.
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