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Depictions of Gender, Mortality and Death in Websters The

Duchess Of Malfi

Baldung, Death and the Maiden, c. 1509-10, panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

LL516 - Early Modern Literature

Konstantina Amygdala

Student no.14803825
The earlier seventeenth century was a period of extreme upheaval in all areas of life, an
upheaval that is mirrored in the literature of the time. There also appears to be an increased
interest in the analysis of the self and the private life of the individual. In this chapter I will
attempt to explore the notions of gender, mortality and death in the early modern period. I
will do this by exploring the concepts that informed the construction of womanhood, while in
addition examining the influence of the Ars Moriendi as well as Baldungs Death and the
Maiden in Websters play The Duchess of Malfi.

The Duchess of Malfi, written in 1613-14, is a Jacobean revenge tragedy, a term that
correlates to stories filled with lust and revenge, religious hypocrisy, court intrigues and
heroes met with terrible deaths. According to Roland Wymer the term Jacobean is a
problematic one, as it engulfs plays performed from 1603 to 1625 thus obscuring the fact that
the distinct preoccupations found in them were established in plays performed beforehand.
Shakespeares Hamlet and Othello, Martons Antonios Revenge, Jonsons Segamus, and
Chapmans Bussy DAmbois, were written before 1603, with the exception of Othello that
was written in 1604, but nevertheless inform Jacobean tragedys subject matter.1 Mertons
play informed Jacobean tragedy in connection to the Italian setting and the self-parodying
extravagances of rhetoric and plotting. Othello depicted the figure of a charismatic hero
brought down by his own weaknesses, while also presenting an obsessional eroticism found
in many Jacobean tragedys that followed, the Duchess of Malfi being one of them.
Chapmans play also presents a martial heroic figure destroyed by his flaws, while
articulating powerful outbursts about the hollowness of court life. From Hamlet comes the
revenge plot, the disturbed sexuality and the depictions of another corrupt court in which
rank corruption, mining all within,/ Infects unseen A similar description of a corrupt court
filled with intrigue, perverse desires and murder is presented in Johnsons play. These
depictions of poisonous courts and protagonists set for self-destruction could be viewed as
theatrical representations of the crisis occurring in England during the lasts years of
Elizabeths reign, where anxieties regarding her succession brought on a failed rebellion by
the Earl of Essex.2 Roland argues that the cynical mood of Jacobean tragedy doesnt
necessarily correspond to feelings regarding King James I and his court as Once certain
attitudes have been imaginatively and powerfully realized in art, they continue to be

1 Michael Hattaway ed. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture(Blackwell,


2003) p 545

2 Ibid p.546
reproduced, whether or not they remain an appropriate response to new social and political
circumstances.3 Therefore the anti-court discourse in Jacobean tragedy may signify the
sustained use of a tried style of dramatic writing, that wasnt relevant to the period during
which it was performed.

In the Duchess of Malfi besides the depiction of a corrupt court another concept presented in
the play that seems to correspond more to the period of Elizabeths rule that James I is the
preoccupation with issues of gender and the concept of a female ruler. In regards to the early
modern period most books were written by men. These writers examined the nature of
women in a wide range of genres. Classical, biblical and medieval discourses, such as the
story of Adam and Eve and authorities as Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas,
informed these writers, who defined the ideal conduct of women, supporting that they were
the inferior sex.4 The perceived differences between the two sexes were viewed as divinely
sanctioned, sourcing from natural law and establishing women as subjects of the private
sphere, their position being in the household, whereas men belonged in the public sphere and
had to assume public duties.5 Discourses in connection to a mans place in society centred on
estate or social rank, alternatively early modern theorists generally divided women into
virgins, wives or widows, marriage being the focal point in regards to their status.6 The
opposing views of womanhood were established, each attributed certain characteristics. On
the one hand women who disregarded the precepts of religion and didnt have the guidance
and protection of a male relative were regarded as wantons or shrews and potentially the
source of disorder and sexual license. 7In contrast the women that were devoted to the
instructions of religion and obediently followed the prescriptions of the male head of the
household were considered role models for duty and piety. The discourses regarding the
nature of women as subservient to men made the concept of a female ruler exceedingly hard
to analyse. The appearance of three female monarchs in mid-sixteenth-century Britain made

3 Michael Hattaway ed. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture(Blackwell,


2003) p. 546

4 M. Sommerville, Sex and subjection: attitudes towards women in early modern society (London:
Edward Arnold, 1995)

5 A. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

6 Jaqueline Eales, Women in Early Modern England 1500-1700 (London: UCL Press, 1998) p. 23

7 Ibid
obvious that no language was available for defining the nature of female sovereignty.8
Arguments as John Alumers that a woman could be subject to her husband and also rule over
him as his magistrate left a lot to be desired.

Websters the Duchess of Malfi presents the contradictions regarding female rule through
exploring the notions of a female sovereigns body natural and body politic.9 These
contractions become obvious as the story unfolds, and the boundaries between the Duchess
two bodies seem to become blurry. Ferdinands and Cardinals efforts to safeguard their
sisters chastity could be interpreted as an effort to assume control over either their sister
body natural, and having to do with notions of the early modern constructions of womanhood
that viewed widows as hypersexual, or as an effort to control her body politic which was
linked to the concept of the dynastic family unit. The early modern notion of womanhood that
considered widows as wantons is prevalent in the first act. When the Duchess brothers
advises her against remarrying Ferdinand addresses her as lusty widow and notes that she
already knows what a man is, which in his mind translates to her seeking sexual pleasure
when her brothers are gone. The fact that Ferdinand states that You are my sister; makes
this seem as a private affair in which the male relatives exercise their control over their
female relatives body natural. But when they state Let not youth, high promotion,
eloquence/Card. No, Nor anything without the addition, honour,/ Sway your high blood. it
seems that this need for control is in regards to the concept of a dynastic marriage. This
institutions nature completely objectified women that were viewed as objects to be traded or
owned by their father or husband. The products of the female body, the children, were also
considered as objects that would solidify future trade agreements between the husband and
other families, therefore the chastity of the female body was of great importance as the
production of illegitimate children would decrease the females value. As Jankowski stated
in less than 100 lines we appear to move from contemplation of the body politic of the
Duchess [ ] to a picture of her widow's body natural at the mercy of her brothers' fears of
her remarriage and early modem notions of the hypersexuality of widows.10

8 Theodora A. Jankowski, Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John
Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi", Studies in Philology, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Spring, 1990), p.221

9 Theodora A. Jankowski, Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in John
Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi", Studies in Philology, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Spring, 1990) p. 222

10 Ibid p. 226
The Duchess refusal to submit to the early modern concepts of womanhood, to bend to the
will of her male relatives, which are depicted through her marriage and sexual politics, lead
to the loss of her duchy, her confinement and ultimately her death. Her confinement reassures
her brothers need for control over her body and sexuality. While previous descriptions of her
body, declared it as a symbol of womens untrustworthiness, as it was hidden by cosmetics or
concealed by clothing, in this act it is described as "a box of worm-seed or preserve of
earthworms.11 These are instead emblems of mortality, a concept that pervaded early modern
life. At that period death was not just an event at the end of each individuals life, but instead
it outlined earthly existence. It was a mortals predestination, an imbued element of human
experience after the Fall, life as morir viviendo, as death-in-life. 12This notion is depicted in
Baldungs Death and the maiden.13 The image portrays a young woman observing herself in a
mirror hold by an older one. The figure of death is behind the girl holding an hourglass, a
symbol of the passage of time, while the older woman is warding the hand with the hourglass
off. According to Joseph Leo Koerner the old woman does not stop death from claiming its
victim, but from symbolizing the girl's death. Death's presence does not signify the girls
upcoming doom but is meant to reveal her mortality.14 In the Duchess of Malfi the scene of
the Duchess death seems reminiscent of this image. Bosola is disguised as an old man who is
about to kill the young woman. He reminds the viewer of the imagery of Time or Death
confronting a Youth and Beauty. In this sense the scene of the Duchess death acquires a
double meaning. On the one hand as an individual she is the victim of her brothers revenge
and on the other, if considered allegorically she is a depiction of every woman who faces the
inevitability of Death.

The notion of Death as predestination directly corresponds to early modern views regarding a
good death or a bad death. The matter of how one responds to death is an important concept
in the Early Modern period. Bettie Anne Doebler argues that Webster uses elements from the

11 Ibid p 241

12 Joseph Leo Koerner, The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans Baldung
Grien, University of California Press: Representations, No. 10, Spring, (1985) p. p 52

13 Baldung, Death and the Maiden, c. 1509-10, panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

14 Joseph Leo Koerner The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans Baldung
Grien, University of California Press: Representations, No. 10, Spring, (1985) p. 94
old ars moriendi tradition to structure the death scenes in Act IV of the Duchess of Malfi15
He is referring to the short version of the related Latin texts dating cc 1450, relating to the
five temptations a person had to resist when dying. The folklore around the ars moriendi
tradition supported that at the moment before a persons death, the devil would make a last
attempt to capture their soul. In the original woodcut from the ars series the demons are
depicted attempting to bring the dying person to despair by presenting them with all their past
sins. Websters play has a number of allusions to the woodcut series. Living a good life,
contemplating death, understanding the importance of mercy when facing ones sins, getting
through despair by trusting in Gods mercy, are all devotional assumptions that the play
contains and that are drawn from the ars moriendi tradition. The events occurring in Act IV
scene I, where Bosola presents the Duchess with the wax figures of her husband Antonio and
their children, all seemingly dead, correspond to the images depicted in the ars moriendi
texts. They are an enactment of one of the five temptations. Bosola assumes the role of a
demon showing the Duchess what Ferdinand perceived as her sins in order to push her to the
temptation of despair. Her response is of course exactly what he expected, as she claims she
is "full of daggers." In spite the fact that her desire for death is evident she doesnt commit
suicide, instead she curses her brothers for their monstrous actions stating Let Heaven a little
while cease crowning martyrs /To punish them! Go howl them this and say, I long to bleed. /It
is some mercy when men kill with speed.16 When her death comes she accepts it nobly, in
contradiction to the depictions of the deaths of Ferdinand and Cardinal. Thus she become a
heroic martyred figure by the only means available for a woman at that time, her good death.
This representation of the Duchess is a more orthodox one than that of the female ruler. In
this scene she is portrayed as a martyr, a woman suffering for the loss of her loved ones,
bringing in mind images of Virgin Mary. According to Doebler at the scene of her death
Traditional symbolism points outside the play towards a heavenly justice.17 The audience of
that period would probably be able to picture an angel leading her soul to heaven so she could
finally find peace.

15 Bettie Anne Doebler, Continuity in the Art of Dying: "The Duchess of Malfi" (Comparative
Drama, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall (1980) p. 203

16 John Webster ,The Duchess of Malfi (Renascence Editions, 2001) IV.i.107-10

17 Bettie Anne Doebler, Continuity in the Art of Dying: "The Duchess of Malfi" (Comparative
Drama, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall (1980) p. 209
To conclude, the term Jacobean tragedy is a problematic one, as the preoccupations presented
in the plays of that period can be found in plays of the late Elizabethan period. Corrupt
courts, murders, Italian settings and heroic figures whose actions bring their own demise are
some of the central plot elements of Jacobean tragedy that can be found in Websters The
Duchess of Malfi. In the play there is also an evident preoccupation with issues of gender in
regards to the concept of a female ruler. The early modern construction of womanhood that
was informed by classical, biblical and medieval discourses defined women as the inferior
sex. The women of that time were viewed as either virgins, wives or widows, marriage being
the focus regarding their position in society, while also characteristic of their behaviour. Thus
the issue of a female sovereign, especially in connection to that sovereigns marriage that was
raised after the appearance of three female monarchs was of great significance. The
contradictions imbued in the figure of a female monarch in the early modern period are
presented in the play through the depictions of the Duchess body natural and body politic.
Turning to the concept of death in that period, it was regarded as every individuals
predestination, something inescapable after the Fall. Images as Baldungs Death and the
Maiden depict the concept of being aware of ones own mortality, a notion that informed
early modern life. These depictions are mirrored in the play along with the concept of a good
death versus a bad death. In it the influence of the ars moriendi is evident as devotional
assumptions regarding the moment of death, such as not giving into despair but accepting
death with piety, are clearly presented.

Bibliography

A. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (New York: Columbia University Press,


1995)

Baldung, Death and the Maiden, c. 1509-10, panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Bettie Anne Doebler, Continuity in the Art of Dying: "The Duchess of Malfi" (Comparative
Drama, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall (1980)

Jaqueline Eales, Women in Early Modern England 1500-1700 (London: UCL Press, 1998)

John Webster ,The Duchess of Malfi (Renascence Editions, 2001)


Joseph Leo Koerner, The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans
Baldung Grien, University of California Press: Representations, No. 10, Spring, (1985)

M. Sommerville, Sex and subjection: attitudes towards women in early modern society
(London: Edward Arnold, 1995)

Michael Hattaway ed. A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture


(Blackwell, 2003)

Theodora A. Jankowski, Defining/Confining the Duchess: Negotiating the Female Body in


John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi", Studies in Philology, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Spring, 1990)