The Duchess of Malfi’s Agency
The Duchess of Malfi is a sadistic drama about love, betrayal, and revenge. After her brothers forbid her to marry, the Duchess rebels against her submissive role, her patriarchal society, and her oppressive situation and marries—to a man beneath station—regardless. The effects of this one action, this one decision, lead to the death of her entire family, including herself. As Bosola suggests, this play illustrates the strength of fate—““We are merely the stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them” (Webster, Act 5, Sc 4). It suggests that the Duchess should not have ignored her aristocratic fate and married a commoner; it suggests that the Duchess should not have attempted to defy her fate as a woman in a predominantly patriarchal society. But the assumption that this play is about the power fate ignores the agency of these characters.
After her marriage to Antonio, the Duchess’ servant, Cariola says, “whether the spirit of greatness or of woman reign most in her, I know not; but it shows a fearful madness” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). Cariola references two subjects, “the spirit of greatness” and the spirit “of woman” and declares her confusion as to which “spirit” is the most dominant (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). As a woman, she should follow the advice of her brothers and “give o’er these chargeable revels” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). But instead, she decides to defy “terrible good counsel” and make her own decision to marry Antonio. Cariola states in her last line that regardless of which “spirit” reigns “most” in the soul of the Duchess, that “it shows a fearful madness” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). Cariola is foreshadowing the onslaught of tragedy when she speaks about “a fearful madness” (Webster, Act 1, Sc 1). Ironically, she cannot control the consequences that follow the one action in which she did possess control. She loses everything that she created herself, everything that she controlled because she sought the...
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