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British Poetry And Drama Unit 2 Jacobean Drama
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6. How does the play The Duchess of Malfi end? Do you suggest any alternative ending?
Ans: The play ends with the death of the Duchess’s brothers, who had vied to take her fortune for themselves throughout the entire play. The brothers, having killed the Duchess and her daughters, get into a fight and end up stabbing one another, leading to their mutual demise.
At the same time, Antonio, the lowly lover of the deceased Duchess, returns from banishment. Because he and the Duchess had been together and had children, his son is believed to be the Duchess’s eldest son and therefore the heir to the throne of Amalfi (or Malfi, as the play calls it). He claims the throne—although this is against the wishes of his father, Antonio, because Antonio believes that the “court of princes” is corrupt and leads to nothing good.
Interestingly, the text leaves open several other avenues that could occur and some which may be more fitting. For instance, with Antonio counselling his son not to take the riches and throne because of corruption, his son could indeed refuse the throne. At the same time, the text mentions another son of the Duchess (by her first marriage). It is possible that this son has the true claim to the throne. If that were the case, he could swoop in, and the parties could use his arrival to resolve their disputes with Antonio’s son graciously, giving him the throne in return for financial security—leading to a peaceful and moral resolution.
7. Comment on the character of the Duchess as a very remarkable woman in a man’s world using evidence from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
Ans: As John Webster’s early-1600s revenge play The Duchess of Malfi opens, the Duchess is recently widowed and childless, which places her in a particularly vulnerable position. Without the protection of her husband, the Duke of Amalfi, she can easily fall prey to any number of men eager to control her and take advantage of thewalth and political power she inherited from her husband.
Any man who attempts to do so however, needs to be prepared to contend with her strength of will, indomitable spirit, passion, pride, and bravery as well as her absolute disregard of the demands and expectations of a wholly male-dominated society.
Her twin brother, Ferdinand—violent, intemperate, and borderline insane—and her other brother, a corrupt Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who hates his sister for no known reason, forbid her to remarry under pain of death.
The Duchess agrees to their demand, but almost immediately defies them by secretly marrying Antonio, a man of socially inferior standing, after a courtship in which the Duchess played the dominant role. The brothers vow revenge against the Duchess for daring to defy them.
Unfortunately, the independent-minded and virtuous Duchess lacks an understanding of her brothers’ capacity for deception and cruelty and the depths of depravity to which they will go to protect their self-interests. As a result, she’s unable to protect herself, her husband, or two of their three children from their ultimate destruction.
8. Compare the two Aragonian brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, and discuss how they contribute the death of the Duchess in The Duch-ess of Malfi.
Ans: There’s really not much to distinguish Ferdinand from this brother, the Cardinal. They’re both devious, greedy, and immoral schemers who deliberately set out to murder their sister out of greed and misplaced pride. The only real difference between them is how they go about their wicked plan.
Ferdinand is the more headstrong brother of the two, flying into a violent rage at the least provocation. When he finds out from his spy that the Duchess has children, he immediately goes out of his mind, threatening to inflict all manner of torture and suffering upon the woman, who, after all, is his sister.
The Cardinal is more cold and calculating than his brother but no less wicked. He’d much rather resort to subtle means to get his way, as can be seen from his use of poison in murdering Julia. Even so, he still goes along with Ferdinand’s evil plot and so bears equal moral responsibility for the brutal murder of the Duchess and her children. He could easily have stopped Ferdinand in his tracks if he’d wanted to, but he chose not to. The truth is that he wanted his sister to die; he just didn’t want to get his hands dirty.
In some respects, the Cardinal is the more wicked of the two in that he expresses no remorse for his actions, whereas Ferdinand is not just tortured by guilt but driven insane by it.
9. Theme of madness in The Duchess of Malfi?
Ans: Madness can be a useful device in literature : by abandoning the constraints of sanity and rationality, a character can explore grey areas which are not available to the sane. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama made full use of this device to create dramatic spaces which plumbed the heights and depths of human experience. Madness in the works of playwrights such as Thomas Kyd and John Webster also served as a tool of divine justice: the punishment the sane laws of man could not mete out, the laws of madness exacted. As we’ll see, madness operates in all these different ways in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623).
The Duchess is a young widow who now wishes to many the man she loves: her steward Antonio. However, her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, object to the union on the grounds of propriety. They believe that the marriage will sully the reputation of their noble house, so they declare the relationship null. Refusing to toe the family line, the Duchess marries Antonio in secret. In time, she bears three children, but she refuses to name the father. When Bosola, a spy, coaxes her secret out of her and reveals it to her brothers, the Duchess tries to escape Malfi with her family. While Antonio and her oldest son manage to flee, the Duchess and her two younger children are captured. To punish her, Ferdinand imprisons her with the city’s madmen, hoping to drive her out of her mind.
And, ’cause she ‘II needs be mad, I am resolv’d
To move forth the common hospital
All the mad-folk, and place them near her lodging,
There let them practise together, sing and dance,
And act their gambols to the full o’ th’ moon…
Driving and declaring a woman “mad” is, of course, an old patriarchal device of control. By proving the Duchess unsound of mind, Ferdinand can justify his own actions. Yet the Duchess bears her suffering with poise, retaining her sanity among madmen. When Ferdinand finally orders her execution, she bravely accepts her fate.
BOSOLA. Don’t death fright you?
DUCHESS. Who would be afraid on ‘t,
Knowing to meet such excellent company
In the’ other world?
The Duchess and her two children are strangled. The strangling represents the quieting of a woman’s voice by force. Though Webster’s play does create space for the Duchess to express her individuality, it cannot yet grant her the space to live with her independent views. This uncertainty in the text is represented through the actual madness of her twin, Ferdinand. As the plot advances, we see Ferdinand grow more and more unstable and violent. His reactions to his sister’s love for Antonio are apoplectic and unhealthy; he seems to be obsessed with the carnal aspect of their relationship, suggesting an incestuous interest in his own sister. He is uneasy with his sister’s sexuality and independence and punishes her for her bodily autonomy by destroying that body. Close to her murder, his madness bursts out fully; he suffers from lycanthropy, or a belief that he is a wolf.
I’ll go hunt the badger by owl-light :
‘Tis a deed of darkness.
Later, he starts to hallucinate that his own shadow is menacingly following him. In the end, as the plot grows increasingly nihilistic, Ferdinand and Bosola kill each other. Thus, Ferdinand’s madness serves two very important functions. First, it is a way to resolve the text’s anxiety about the independence of the Duchess of Malfi. Webster created a woman with a mind of her own, but she couldn’t be shown to exist while defying the world of men; therefore, the mad brutality of Ferdinand is used to deal with the problem of the Duchess. Second, the madness also serves as the punishment for Ferdinand’s crimes. It allows the text to avenge the Duchess in as macabre a fashion as she was killed. Therefore, madness plays an extremely important part in the play.
10. Who is the man described as very honest in act 1, scene 1, in the play The Duchess of Malfi?
Ans: In act I, scene 1, the Cardinal describes Antonio as very honest. The Cardinal tells Ferdinand that Antonio is “too honest.”
The Cardinal, the duchess’s brother, is an evil and ruthless person, but he is correct in his assessment that Antonio is basically a good guy. The Cardinal is not correct, however, when he says that Antonio is too honest—for Antonio does, of course, secretly marry the Duchess, even though he is below her in rank as her steward. He also maintains this secret for a long time: the couple manage to have three children together before they are found out.
Honesty is relative, however, and as it is Antonio is much more honest than many of the sordid people that surround his wife—such as Bosola, who shows the duchess what he says is Antonio’s severed hand (a lie) and then strangles her.
11. What is Webster’s view of women in The Duchess of Malfi with regards to the characters of the Duchess and Julia?
Ans: Julia is presented by Webster as very much the foil to the Duchess. Whereas the Duchess is given to us as a respectable aristocratic lady of the utmost refinement and constancy, Julia is portrayed as a scarlet woman, brazen in expressing her overpowering sexuality. She’s an inveterate pleasure-seeker, flitting back and forth between one man and another whenever the mood suits her.
It’s clear from Julia’s unpleasant demise—murdered her lover, the Cardinal, using a poisoned Bible, no less (how’s that for symbolism?)—that Webster does not regard her behavior as in any way appropriate. The prevailing moral standards of the time dictated that women, especially those of noble birth, should maintain chasteness and purity at all costs. Julia, in departing from those standards (and that’s putting it mildly) has suffered what most people at that time would’ve considered a richly-deserved fate.
In stark contrast, the Duchess’s fate is truly tragic because, unlike Julia, she unfailingly lives up to the ideal of aristocratic womanhood. Despite the constant taunts and accusations from her brothers concerning her clandestine marriage to Antonio, she can hold her head up high as a virtuous lady of quality. Though possessed of a powerful sexuality, the Duchess chooses to express it within the confines of marriage, albeit a marriage with a man some way beneath her on the social ladder.
12. Discuss The Duchess of Malfi in relation to the revenge play tradition.
Ans: The Duchess of Malfi, a play written by John Webster, was first performed around 1613 and first printed in 1623. To briefly summarise, the Duchess of Malfi is a young widow who falls in love with Antonio, her steward. This is essentially a mixed marriage in the sense that it is a love match between two people who would have been considered social “unequals” in the early modern period. Despite the fact that the Duchess’ brothers, Ferdinand and Cardinal, warn her against marrying and losing her chastity, she decides to marry Antonio anyway. The two have three children in secret. Through a spy named Bosola, the brothers find out that the Duchess has borne children, but they do not know the identity of the father, nor that she has gotten married. Both brothers are furious and Ferdinand first attempts to induce the Duchess to kill herself. In response, she attempts to protect Antonio and her children by sending them away, but she is found out by Bosola. All of the members of this family are then banished. While Antonio and the eldest son flee, the Duchess and two other children are imprisoned. In prison, they are strangled by Ferdinand, who begins to go insane. In the end, nearly everyone ends up dying a horrible death, and the only person who survives is the eldest son of the Duchess and Antonio.
The play is gory, tragic, and full of dark humour. It features many of the common elements of the revenge play. Quite obviously, we have overlapping instances of revenge being sought, from the Duchess’ brothers seeking revenge on her and Antonio, to Bosola and Antonio seeking revenge on the brothers. Beyond that, however, we also have the gory and undeserved murder of a heroic martyr, in this case, the Duchess. We also have social commentary on an important issue such as early modern social structures and what happens to those who attempt to challenge them. There is also an astounding amount of bloodshed and death, as well as eventual madness in those who have perpetrated this mass bloodshed.
I should note, however, that some have argued that the play actually inverts the usual structure of revenge tragedy through the character of Bosola. Though he is instrumental in the wrongful death of the Duchess and her children, he sort of follows in her footsteps in his own transgression and ends up being instrumental in the seemingly just deaths of her cruel brothers as well.
For more, I would recommend reading the play itself, Christina Luckyj’s introduction to The Duchess of Malfi : A Critical Guide, as well as the websites below.
13. What was the significance of Bosola giving the Duchess the apricots? Did she get sick from eating too much, too fast or was it that apricots make pregnant women sick.
Ans: Bosola has the Duchess eat the apricots to confirm his suspicions that she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is confirmed when she throws up and goes into labour. It’s suggested that they should say the apricots are poisoned so no one will suspect that the Duchess is giving birth.
I think this scene reflects the time period in which it was written. Knowledge of pregnancy and how pregnancy affected women was not great, so it’s assumed that the Duchess will throw up (morning sickness?) even though most women suffer from nausea during the first few months of pregnancy, not at the end. Also, Bosola sees the sickness of the Duchess as proof positive of pregnancy, when in fact, throwing up doesn’t always mean you’re pregnant. Some women don’t even crave certain things when they’re pregnant.
14. What is the role of Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi?
Ans: Bosola is a complicated and fascinating character. He acts the role of both villain and avenger, working first against and then for the duchess.
First, Bosola agrees to work as a spy and also murder the Duchess for Ferdinand and the Cardinal, even though he knows they are evil and their court corrupt. He realises he has entered into a wicked bargain. Ferdinand offers him a respectable job, something he covets very highly, as an ex-convict who spent seven years as a galley slave because of the murder he committed earlier. As Bosola puts it :
For the good deed you have done me. I must do
All the ill man can invent !
Later, however, the cynical Bosola grows to admire the Duchess for her genuine goodness. He sees the kind works of her “white hand.” He wishes he worked for her, but he has made his bargain. He kills her, as is expected. However, when Ferdinand reneges on paying Bosola, Bosola gets angry. He says,
I served your tyranny, and rather strove
To satisfy yourself than all the world;
And, though I loathed the evil, yet I loved
You that did counsel it, and rather sought
To appear a true servant than an honest man .
Killing the Duchess, Bosola says, was “much ‘against mine own good nature.” He decides to avenge the Duchess by killing her brothers, though he is killed in return.
15. What is the nature of power centred in men like Cardinal and Ferdinand?
Ans: The nature of power in men like Cardinal and Ferdinand is physical, coercive, and assertive with all the manifest derivatives of control, manipulation, pressure, and authority.
In The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess is a widow whose two brothers, Ferdinand and Cardinal, feel it is their duty to order her life as they see fit. As mentioned, the nature of their power over the Duchess is :
Towards the end of Act III, Bosola, acting on Ferdinand’s orders, takes the Duchess captive and forcibly brings her back to her palace. There, she is imprisoned against her will. Although Bosola assures the Duchess that her brothers mean her ‘safety and pity,’ their conduct suggests otherwise.
Ferdinand even prefers to see his sister in the dark. He torments her with a dead man’s hand (supposedly her husband’s), presents her with artificial wax figures purportedly representing Antonio and their three children, and hires madmen to afflict her with their macabre singing and dancing. In the end, the Duchess is strangled to death by executioners in Ferdinand’s pay for the crime of disobeying her brothers. Her two younger children are also strangled to death. The duchess’ oldest child has fled to Milan with his father, Antonio.
Over the course of the play, the duchess is coerced to bend herself to her brothers’ edicts through threats to her physical safety. An example of coercion is found in Act 1 where Ferdinand threatens the Duchess with their father’s dagger.
You are my sister;/ This was my father’s poniard, do you see ?/ I ‘d be loth to see ‘t look rusty, ’cause ’twas his.
The dagger is a symbol of the power the brothers hold over the Duchess. They do not want her to marry because they want to inherit her estate and wealth. Both go so far as to install a spy, Bosola, in her household so that they can keep an eye on her whereabouts and actions from afar.
The brothers intend to push back, to assert if you will, their power over anything and anyone in their way. Their chief nemesis in this regard is Antonio, the man their sister has loved and married in secret. At the end of Act III, Ferdinand sends a letter to his sister demanding Antonio’s head for supposedly failing to make good on some debts in Naples. The Duchess, fearing for her husband’s life, advises him to flee with their oldest son to Milan.
In Act V, Antonio hopes to reconcile with his brothers-in-law, but Delio tells him that ‘though they have sent their letters of safe-conduct/ For your repair to Milan, they appear/ But nets to entrap you.’ In fact, the Cardinal has given the Marquis of Pescara the right to confiscate Antonio’s lands and to distribute them to his own relatives or to whomever he pleases. These actions testify to the brothers’ desires to completely eradicate any opposition or impediment to their plans.
16. How is the language of act 4 scene 1 significant and what literary devices does Webster use?
Ans: Act Four in The Duchess of Malfi is full of captivity-themed language and imagery. In Scene 1 we are told that,
“She seems to welcome the end of misery more than shun it.”
Her treatment in the palace that used to be hers to manage tells us that she is restrained there because she is being punished. Note the choice of words (ex. “imprisonment”) used by Frederico. The probability seems to be that if she was tied up as if she were mad, it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy and she would become so. The word “restraint” is even used :
“this restraint, Like English mastiffs that grow fierce with tying.”
This is followed by the language of religious guilt, punishment, penitence and horror. Darkness is used to horrible effect as the Duchess realises what she has just done with the dead hand. The effect of all this is to get the audience to engage with the characters. Tragic elements are produced as they would themselves have been familiar with the terror of these religious “end of life” threats.
Later Cariola reassures her that she will want to “to shake this durance off,” but her thoughts turn to snared birds, just as Bosola wants her to. Earlier, she had felt envy of a bird’s ability to “choose its mate and sing for the joy of spring.” He wants her to know and pine for the freedom she has lost.
17. How is gender represented in The Duchess of Malfi?
Ans: Gender is one of the most prominent themes that both provides the basic premise and structures the action of The Duchess of Malfi. First, the protagonist is female, which was unusual in Jacobean plays. Second, she takes an active role in affecting the circumstances of her life and those of her children. She defies her family, as represented by her two brothers, to chart her own path. The male protagonist, her husband Antonio, is of a lower class and has a far less forceful personality.
In addition, the overall scenario presented about women’s inheritance of property drew on but did not reflect contemporary English practices. The basic premise of the play is that the Duchess has inherited her husband’s lands, but because she is childless, on her death they will pass to her brothers. Webster capitalised on his audience’s interest in gender and inheritance. England had been rocked by the secret marriage ofArbella Stuart, a cousin of King James and member of his court, to William Seymour, a nobleman, but of lesser rank—a scandal that ended in her imprisonment and in the Tower of London precisely when Webster was writing his play.
The playwright set the play in Italy because, in part, he was drawing on an actual historical case there— but he was also disguising the Stuart-Seymour allusion as well as providing a setting where those unusual policies might be plausible. Arguments about female sexuality are used throughout as the brothers criticise their sister’s possible future marriage as based on her carnal desires. Her brother Ferdinand calls her a “lusty widow” and accuses her of the sin of “luxury,” which was then a synonym for lust.
Hypocrisy in gendered interactions also arises as a theme. The Duchess’s other brother is a Cardinal. He rants about his sister’s honour, worrying about carnal temptations that he thinks abound in her court. Yet the Cardinal has a mistress, who is herself a married woman. That the Cardinal is not only breaking church law in carrying on a sexual liaison, but drawing the woman into a sinful relationship, shows how gendered interactions shape the author’s portrayal of the characters’ morality.
The idea that women should be subordinate or weaker than men repeatedly arises. Near the end, when Bosola is about to die, he lambasts mankind itself, equating human fear with femaleness : “0, this gloomy world! / In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness, / Doth womanish and fearful mankind live !” Throughout the play, however, rendered norms of behaviour stand in contradiction to actual behaviours.
18. Discuss the line “Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness.”
Ans: Antonio is a humble and straight man—or at least he appears to be so among an incredibly crooked court. He speaks this line in Act I, Scene 3 to the Duchess., with whom he is having a conversation heavy with implication and innuendo. For example, the Duchess says that one of Antonio’s eyes are bloodshot, and she gives him her rir,g for its “healing properties.” This is of course her wedding ring, and she is implying that Antonio should marry her.
She goes on to say that his head is too low, and she needs to “raise him up” to talk to him. She means this in terms of court status, not literally. It is then that he says “Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness.” Antonio is ambivalent in regard to pursuing higher things and thinks none of this would be worth the trouble and scandal it would cause. He fears the intoxicating effects of power and how they may change him from his righteous ways.
19. Describe the murder scene in the play “Duchess of Mali.”
Ans: This is during Act 5, Scene 5 of the play. At the beginning of the scene, the Cardinal is pondering the nature of hell when Bosola enters, along with a servant carrying Antonio’s body. Bosola tells the Cardinal, “I am come to kill thee.” The Cardinal cries, “We are betrayed !” and Pescara, Malatesti, Roderigo and Grisolan then enter.
The Cardinal tries to tell them that he is being attacked, but they don’t believe him, thinking it to be a ruse. To ensure nobody will enter to help him, Bosola kills the servant and then stabs the Cardinal. However, Ferdinand breaks in and gives Bosola his death wound. In retribution, the dying Bosola kills Ferdinand. When Pescara, Malatesti, Roderigo and Grisolan come in and find the carnage, Bosola explains that it was done in revenge for the Duchess of Malfi. The Cardinal finally dies; Bosola gives a soliloquy on the nature of life and then also dies. When Delio and Antonio’s son arrive, they are “come too late” to offer any assistance.
20. Please give a critique of aristocracy in as presented in the “Duchess of Malfi”?
Ans: This Renaissance play paints the aristocracy is a mostly negative light. The brothers of the Duchess are jealous, hypocritical and vindictive. The Cardinal, supposedly a man of God, not only has a mistress but makes himself a murderer in the end through her death. Ferdinand is controlling and violent, wanting in the end for his sister to suffer despair and be damned, in addition to suffering death for her deception. The deception that causes this is a result of the brother’s controlling nature. They did not want the Duchess to marry because they did not want the wealth of the family to be spread to anyone else, such as heirs. Not only does the Duchess marry, but she marries Antonio, a man of a lower. class – not accepted by the aristocracy of the time, who were so superior as to think themselves above all other people and above the law. This greed that leads to the Duchess’ death also causes Ferdinand to order the death of her two small children. The aristocracy here is portrayed as without morals.
The only saving grace is the Duchess herself. She is a shining light, proving that in any social group, there will be exceptions. She lets herself be led by love, does what she can to protect her husband and children, and in the end, faces her death with dignity.
21. Comment on the title of the play The Duchess of Malfi.
Ans: The play Duchess of Malfi is named after the character and real life historical tragic figure of Duchess of Malfi who was the regent of the southern Italian town of Amalfi between 1498 and 1510. She was a popular regent, as voiced at the beginning of the play by her lover and, later, husband Antonio :
(Her) days are practised in such noble virtue
That her night, nay more, her very sleep
Are more in heaven than other ladies’ shrifts’
While it is debatable whether or not she’s the main protagonist—she and her children are killed as early as act 4—it is her decision to marry someone whom her family sees as beneath her that starts the play’s tragic chain of events, eventually leading to the deaths of all the play’s principle characters.
As her brother Ferdinand states in the final scene, just after the Bosola and the Cardinal have suffered their fatal stab wounds,
My sister, 0 my sister! there’s the cause on’t
She is the cause, but through no fault of her own (Webster represents her as a virtuous figure throughout). The fault lies with her brothers, the Cardinal, and Ferdinand. The Cardinal wants her to remain an unmarried window so the land of Amalfi remains in the family, and Ferdinand wants her to remain an unmarried widow so he can keep her to himself.
From this perspective, the play’s title contains the two things most central to the play’s antagonist’s atrocious behaviour: the land of Amalfi and the Duchess herself.
22. What are some important themes (besides death and good vs. evil) in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi?
Ans: Many important themes found in John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi are evident or implied right from the very beginning of the work.
Delio’s opening speech, for instance, alludes to the differences between France and Italy. One important theme of the play will be corruption at an Italian court. Italy was often associated with evil in Renaissance English plays.
Three lines into his own first speech, Antonia refers to the “judicious king” of France. He thus foreshadows another important theme of the play : the importance of having persons of virtue in positions of power. Some of the powerful people in Webster’s play are deeply evil.
Antioni’s reference to the “judicious” French king implies the importance of reason and rational behaviour, which (unless corrupted) were associated with moral virtue in Renaissance literature.
Antonio next describes how the French king has rid
. . . his royal palace
Of flattering sycophants, of dissolute
And infamous persons .. .
These lines introduce several more themes important to the play : flattery, sycophancy (or absolutely unquestioning loyalty, usually to an unworthy person), and immoral behaviour. By implication, the play will be endorsing the opposites of these : truth-telling, virtuous independence, and virtuous conduct.
Thus many of the key themes of the play are present, either explicitly or implicitly, in the first twenty lines of the work.
23. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi explores the issue of female agency vis a vis the Duchess’ symbolic identity. How is the Duchess’ personality defined by the others around her?
Ans: The Duchess stands out in this play as a contrast to practically all the other characters. She is the only true strong, independent personality. She remains true to her own ideals and dies with her sense of identity still intact. The other characters act from lust, envy, fear and hatred and are revealed as being essentially weak and/or confused; the Cardinal cries out for help as he is killed, Ferdinand goes wholly mad and Bosola too dies in a sense of confusion. These three are the principal villains of the play who serve to throw the Duchess’s good points into sharp relief. But other characters, like the minor female characters Julia and Cariola also highlight the Duchess’s strength of character by contrast; Julia is a mere wanton, comparable to the Duchess in choosing her lovers but without any comparable sense of virtue, while Cariola, the Duchess’s maid, is inferior both in social class and strength of mind. As for Antonio, the Duchess’s lover, he too appears more irresolute and hesitant than she does. She is the one that takes charge; she refuses to submit to men as females in her time were generally expected to do, and she takes a strong active role in the play, refusing to be cowed even in death.
24. Can The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster be called a revenge tragedy?
Ans: The Duchess of Malfi contains elements of the revenge drama, a popular form in the 17th century because audiences enjoyed the onstage violence and bloodshed. However, it also veers from the classical revenge drama. In a purer revenge drama, such as Hamlet, a hero takes revenge on someone who deserves punishment in order to restore justice and honour to a corrupted environment, but in this play, the brothers act violently against the Duchess not because she has overtly dishonoured them, but because they don’t like that she has remarried. Their revenge is thus not legitimate. Further, the Duchess; even though the play’s heroine and title character, dies before getting revenge on those who hurt her. However, the play does include many dead bodies, a salient aspect of this genre, and Bosola, in a change of heart after participating in their murders, decides he wants to avenge the Duchess and Antonio. Moral corruption, a mainstay of the revenge drama, saturates this play. For example, the Cardinal, who should be an exemplar of Christian chastity and virtue, not only has a mistress, but also murders her.
25. Analyse the significance of the story that the Duchess tells at the end of Act III scene 5.
Ans: The significance of this story lies in what has just happened to the Duchess. She has just been arrested by Bosola in disguise and is going to be taken to her palace by guards. The story she tells is therefore a kind of parable that refers to her own state as a captured individual. The story of the dog-fish and the salmon and how they interact and the moral that can be drawn from it applies to her own situation. Consider the following excerpt from this story :
Our value never can be truly known,
Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown:
I’ th’ market then my price may be the higher,
Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.’
So, to great men the moral may be stretched;
Men oft are valued high, when th’ are most wretched.
The Duchess, having just been arrested, is “valued” more highly because of her “wretched” state, but she is appealing, like the salmon is appealing, to be identified as just another human who is worthy of being shown mercy and kindness. The story thus represents a plea for a common humanity in spite of everything else that has happened in the play.
26. What are some examples in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster of intersection between the personal and the political?
Ans: An important example of the intersection between the personal and the political occurs at the conclusion of the play. Antonio, the Cardinal, the Duke and Bosola lie in “this great ruin,” with Bosola the last to die before the entrance of Delio, who enters with Antonio’s son. Delio declares Bosola, the Duke and Cardinal, the Duchess and Antonio, in “both form and matter,” melted away as the sun melts snow and frost :
Delio. [They] Leave no more fame behind ’em, than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.
In this example, the political intersects with the personal because the deaths of the Duke and Cardinal were the result of political power struggle, while Antonio’s son stands before his father’s corpse. To explain, in grasping for the Duchess’s land and wealth, the Duke and Cardinal were also grasping for the political power it would deliver to them : The Duke’s realm of governance would be increased as would the Cardinal’s realm of religious authority. Antonio’s son is uninvolved in the political intrigues and the power struggles even though he becomes Duke as a consequence. His interest, a personal one, is in the lives of his mother and father.
Another example occurs during the Duchess’s imprisonment. Duke Ferdinand enters with a severed hand, intimating that it is Antonio’s hand :
Ferdinand. I come to seal my peace with you. Here ‘s a hand
Gives her a dead man’s hand.
To which you have vowed much love; the ring upon ‘t
His motivation is a political one : He wants to maneuver the political situation revolving around his sister’s wealth, power and marriage to his advantage. To do so, he attacks her psychologically on her personal relationship, hoping “To bring her to despair.”