The Duchess of Malfi written by John Webster was first performed around 1613. A dramatic tragedy, the play is about a forbidden marriage between the Duchess and Antonio her steward, and the wrath of her brothers which leads to many of their deaths. Webster focuses on the role of rank to detail the emotions between relationships in an aristocratic family in a time when class was all important. He uses many distinctive features to convey the substance of the play and its characters, and give the actors playing the roles cues for stage performance.
This extract is part of the proposal and marriage scene, one of the biggest emotional dramatic scenes of the play. The duchess is marrying in secret against her brothers wishes; their fear is that she will demean the family’s honour by remarrying. It also forms the most positive aspect of the play, using one of the traditional stage conventions of love, defiance and disapproval (Pacheco and Johnson (2012) pg. 93). This serves to provide a ‘lift’ to an otherwise dark play, and compares the lighter side of the Duchess’ sexual desire to her brother Ferdinand’s.
The extract is set at the second half of Act 1 scene 1, the first half being to set the backdrop for the audience and give them a good idea of each character and a good indication of things to come. Specifically, the extract is between the Duchess finding out how Antonio feels about marriage and their union itself; here, the Duchess is convincing Antonio that he is worthy of her, that she is woman enough despite her brothers, her rank and her status as a widow. This is achieved by the features of Webster’s distinctive language and the stage directions (both written and performed through reading).
The Duchess uses double meaning in her dialogue, ‘So now the grounds broke/ you may discover what a wealthy mine/ I make you lord of.’ (Webster, (2010) 1.1.432-33). She is referring to her own wealth and the value of his rank when they marry. This wordplay is...
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