Comment on John Webster – The Duchess of Malfi Play by A.E.K.
The Duchess comes across to the audience as the epitome of stoicism 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 practised 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 naivety. Even her secret marriage 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 villainous 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 marriage. In contrast, her marriage 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 Loretto.
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 loveliness 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.
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.