The Duchess of Malfi Is a Misogynistic Play. Discuss.

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  • Topic: Gender, The Duchess of Malfi, Sexism
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  • Published : May 14, 2012
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Despite the main female protagonist, the Duchess, possessing admirable qualities for a woman of the Jacobean Era, with Bosola acknowledging her worth, stating that her “behaviour (is) so noble/As gives a majesty to adversity”, John Webster has created, as critic Badendyck describes, “a male diseased world” around her; she is forced to live in surroundings where male characters such as her brothers Ferdinand and The Cardinal abuse and humiliate her throughout the play- suggesting that Webster’s play does contain certain elements of misogyny. Nevertheless, Webster may have had the greater intention for the play actually being an advocate of feminism. Badendyck additionally states that “there is no denying that the luminous figure of the Duchess is perfectly capable of dominance”, implying the play is contradictory by the fact that Webster’s fundamentally misogynist content is counterbalanced, or potentially overpowered, by the powerful and independent “lusty widow”, with Charles Lamb describing the Duchess having the greatest “strength… in weakness”- who refuses to be subservient to men. Although she knows she cannot defeat her corrupt and devious brothers, she remains the “Duchess of Malfi still”.

However, the dark actions of Bosola do arguably sway the debate that the play is indeed more misogynistic, because as critics Calvo and Weber state in The Literature Workbook, Bosola does eventually become "the man who actually kills the Duchess", implying that the misogynistic routes of the play do eventually overpower Webster’s possible internal message of feminism. Bosola’s helplessness to avoid corruption, as Antonio states “foul melancholy/Will poison all his goodness” proves to be his central flaw. By yielding to Ferdinand and the Cardinal, Bosola has the ability to exhibit significant evil, such as sharing The Duchess’ secrets after she confided in him immediately to “the black malcontents”- by The Duchess being deceived by Bosola so easily, Webster might be...
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