In The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, the Duchess is introduced as an independent and young woman who has lost her husband. As a widow, the Duchess has complete power over Malfi and her court, a power usually held by a man, and her all male court is under her command. The reversal of power is made starkly apparent as Webster illustrates the Cardinal and Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brothers, as being hostile and oppressive and Antonio as being a man struggling to find his own identity and position in society. On the other hand, the Duchess is spirited and defiant as she chooses to follow her ideas instead of being easily influenced by the male-dominated world she lives in. Throughout Acts 1-3, the Duchess’ relationships with Antonio, Ferdinand, and the Cardinal depict her struggle for power and her independent nature through her thought that “We are forced to woo because none dare woo us” (1.1.434).
The Duchess is depicted as a completely isolated character with no strong female companions of her status. Although she does confide in her maid, Cariola, she ultimately rejects Cariola’s warnings about “jesting with religion” (3.2.313) and believes that she is a “superstitious fool” (3.2.314). Merely known as “the Duchess,” a title which she would not have had without her deceased first husband, she is all alone in her society. As a woman, the Duchess refuses to be submissive to men. She ignores Ferdinand’s requests not to marry again (1.1.249), and thus she takes the initiative to court Antonio, a steward whom the Cardinal does not believe highly of and deems him of being “too honest” (1.1.223). Allowing passion to overcome reason and disregarding her brothers’ warnings not to marry again, the Duchess goes forward with her plan to marry Antonio and affirms her desire to act in a manner that pleases her. Instead of Antonio wooing her, the Duchess persuades Antonio for his hand in marriage and is the voice in their relationship. Single-handedly, the Duchess creates...
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