Women in The Duchess of Malfi and The Changeling Essay

Women in The Duchess of Malfi and The Changeling Essay

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The Duchess in John Webster’s tragic play, The Duchess of Malfi, and Beatrice Joanna in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling, are both strong women living in a male-dominated society. The two women attempt to free themselves from this subordination by choosing to love that they desire. Both pay with their lives for this chance at freedom, but differ in their moral decisions about how they attempt it. Beatrice Joanna’s plan involves murder, whereas the widowed Duchess merely lives the life she chooses, then plots to leave Malfi. Both women are forced into their actions, but, whereas Beatrice Joanna is Machiavellian in her actions, the Duchess is morally superior.
Webster based his play on a real-life 16th Century scandal where a widowed Duchess remarried for love and did so beneath her class. The widowed Duchess had certain advantages and freedoms that the younger and unmarried Beatrice in The Changeling did not. The Duchess had significant wealth and independence, and she need not answer to a father or a husband. She no longer had the burden of protecting her virginity and the stigma attached if it was lost. Beatrice, on the other hand, had little sexual freedom, and she had to answer to her father and to the man to whom she was engaged. However a the Duchess, and Beatrice were doomed to subject to a patriarchal and male-dominated society. Upon her capture the Duchess declares: “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.141). She is a duchess only in name. In the end in both tragedies, it is the men –fathers, brothers, suitors, and the Church—who rule by physical force and by law.
Moreover, both women are driven by their passions and further choose to defy society by attempting to love who...


... middle of paper ...


...d such harm and destruction. In the end it is Beatrice herself who says it was love that forced her to kill. She ultimately made that moral decision. She confessed to Alsemero at the play’s conclusion,
To your bed scandal, I stand up innocent,
Which even the guilt of one black other deed
Will stand for proof of: your love has made me
A cruel murd’ress (5.3.63).

Therefore, our sympathies lie with the Duchess, who only desired to live the life she chose. She does her best to protect those she loves, hiding Antonio and caring for the safety of her children to the very end. She murders no one, and before her death forgives all. She is a most noble duchess and a true heroine.


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