The Duchess of Malfi Background and themes Webster • Not a poor streetkid (as depicted in SiL) • His two great tragedies (D of M; The White Devil) are concerned with the fall of women • Devil was first (not a great success; too complex) and shares themes/motifs with Malfi; madness, scheming brother; disguise; jealousy Sources/origins • Refashioning of earlier dramas and sources was the norm, and in some cases, Webster might have imagined the actors and created the roles to suit them. • Refashioning of earlier dramas and sources was the norm, and in some cases, Webster might have imagined the actors and created the roles to suit them. • Richard Burbage might have played the main part (he played Shakespeare’s great tragic figures) • 1612-14 • Title page of 1623 says it was acted in both the Globe and Blackfriars • Tragedies often set in Italian setting. • It is a play about greatness and great people • Echoes of Shakespeare (RIII’s call for a horse, the hand scene recalls the witches imagery in Macbeth) • Sources set on the real story paint her as marrying for lust, giving a negative portrayal. Webster treats this differently. • He refashions his conventional sources to portray the corruption of patriarchy and play with the convention of the stereotype of the lusty wanton widow (for the most famous example, see Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath). The Duchess could be seen as the ‘Virtuous widow”, or as a parody/satire/humanising of this character. • This play is different from previous : it is devoted to the life and death of a woman, it is the tragedy of a woman (who is the lead character, and not a villain!). She is a hero who is not chaste. Incest • It cannot be spoken of; too taboo? Ferdinand refuses to explain his need to have her stay unmarried to Bosola: Do not you ask the reason but be satisfied I say I would not (1.1.250-1) His lack of initial justification makes the audience wonder; is the reason unspeakable? • According to the Catholic church, even marrying your cousin was illegal • While Ferdinand’s desire to see his sister stay single is not necessarily bizarre, it is unusual that he seems to expect a young widow to not marry again. • While both brothers warn her off of a second marriage, Ferdinand becomes even harsher once the Cardinal leaves, threatening her with a dagger. Although he tries to scare her away from lusty thoughts, he can’t help but contemplate her sexuality as a woman, as if he is fascinated by it: Women like that part which, like the lamprey, Hath ne’er a bone in’t (1.1.328-9) • His failure to explain his anxiety, and the fact that his words contrast with Antonio’s praise of the Duchess (and we have seen Antonio has been right with his judgments of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and Bosola) do not become a sane man’s speech • When he hears news that she has given birth, he is preoccupied by her sexuality and the identity of her lover (some strong-thighed bargeman 2.5.42) – is this some latent desire to replace her partner? He imagines her in sexual act: Methinks I see her laughing...Talk to me somewhat quickly, or my imagination will carry me to see her in the shameful act of sin (2.5.38-41) • The Cardinal and Ferdinand are in exactly the same position, but only the F reacts in such a way. • He takes onto himself the wrong done to her first husband: Thou hast ta’en that massy sheet of lead that hid thy husband’s bones, and folded it about my heart. (3.2.12-3). • Is he inhibited from action in 3.2 because he feels a sense of identification with the second husband, but also identifies with the first husband because he feels sexual jealousy. • He is preoccupied with her body. When she leaves the stage, wishing to die soon in 4.1, Bosola begs Ferdinand to stop taunting, but as soon as he mentions the body and delicate skin (4.1.116) that must endure penance, the thought is anguish to Ferdinand: Damn her! That body of hers... (4.1.117). He will spare her body but torment her mind with the presence of mad ppl.