THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
Reaffirming the Male Ambition in John Webster's
The Duchess of Malfi
Throughout Webster's tragedy the Duchess is defined not through her ideals, as noble as they may be, but through Webster's characters' twisted definitions of the Jacobean patriarchy. Her demise at the conclusion of act four is indeed caused by her marriage to Antonio. However, the marriage to Antonio can only be seen as indirectly causing her downfall. The marriage is subverted by the Duchess' defiance of her brother's warped sense of patriarchal conventions concerning widowhood. As I hope to show, the Duchess did not defy social conventions concerning the remarrying by widows. Rather, Ferdinand and the Cardinal's depiction of a sadistic patriarchy twists the noble marriage into something horrific and this, not her marriage to Antonio, is the true cause of the Duchess' downfall.
The first lengthy depiction of Ferdinand and the Cardinal clues the reader to the fact that Malfi's patriarchs are disturbed. Although the description comes from Bosola, the reader soon learns that the malcontent's view of the Duchess' brothers is accurate. Bosola describes the pair as "plum trees that grow crooked over / standing pools; they are rich and o'erladen with fruit, but none but / crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them" (I.i.46-8). The "crooked" reference applies to their corruption of the court. This corruption is not withheld when concerning their sister and her affairs. Crows, pies (a bird of evil omen), and caterpillars also suggest their corruptive behavior at court, here symbolized by a stagnant pool where nothing (e.g. equality for women, etc.) can grow or be nurtured.
Antonio’s opening description of France’s idealic monarchy contrasts what the reader soon discovers to be the corruption of Ferdinand and the Cardinal, Malfi’s patriarchs. Antonio states: “Considering duly that a prince’s court / Is like a common fountain, whence