In The Duchess of Malfi, after being tempted with despair and suicide, the Duchess finally achieves human dignity just before she is murdered. Comment.
Throughout John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess remains a site of contested moralities: religious, political, social and sexual. After she chooses to violate her brothers’ orders and marries Antonio, a social inferior, covertly, she loses her agency. Her imprisonment and execution can be read as the epitome of this loss of agency: she becomes a helpless victim to the plans orchestrated by Ferdinand, and has no choice but to accept her punishment. However, through this paper, I would like to show, through a detailed exploration of the death scene and by concentrating on the ars moriendi tradition, that even in this situation of utter helplessness, tempted to despair and suicide, the Duchess still retains a certain agency and dies a death of dignity, justifying her proclamation, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.139).
The ars moriendi (the art of dying) was a Christian body of literature which gave instructions to the dying and those who attended to them on how to die a “good death”, which would ensure salvation. Its elaborate rituals and iconography helped in distancing the fear of spiritual death (Doebler 204). Webster combines the elements of this tradition to bring a certain sense of depth and meaning to the Duchess’s death. The symbolic significance of the ars moriendi is to be understood to realize how the allegorizing of the Duchess’s death lends her a dignity which the realism of the action denies her, as Christina Luckyj points out in her Introduction to The Duchess of Malfi A Critical Guide. As Eklebad shows, the death scene is the spiritual centre of the play, containing Webster’s deepest analysis of character, in which the Duchess stoically accepts her fate. The ars moriendi also assured the audience that though her death is inevitable; there is hope for her soul outside a cruel, corrupted world.
In the beginning, we see the Duchess suffering her fate silently and calmly. Bosola, who was her most scathing critic at other times, especially when mocking her pregnant body, no describes her behaviour as “so noble, as gives a majesty to adversity” (IV.i.5-6). Throughout her ordeal, we see her consistently maintaining this composure, with the exception of when she is told that her family is dead.
The deathbed attains a central position in the ars moriendi tradition, representing the last opportunity for a reformation of the soul. The image of the deathbed balances fear and promise: the devil attempting to gain the soul at the moment when it is at its weakest, and the angel, embodying God’s mercy (Doebler 205). The Duchess is imprisoned within her own chamber, signifying an intrusion of her private space, and also, how her marital chamber now becomes a site for darkness and death. The chamber is dark and enclosed, like a tomb, symbolizing how Ferdinand attempts to place her spirit in a tomb; to kill her spirit, before her body is dead. When he comes in to see her, every light in the room is put out, intensifying the allusions throughout the play which associate him with darkness and devilishness. He tries to force the Duchess to admit that her marriage was illegitimate, calling her children “cubs” and “bastards” and refusing to accept them as legitimate heirs to her wealth. However, the Duchess stands firm in her conviction of the legitimacy of her marriage, and accuses Ferdinand of violating a Church sacrament by accusing her of lust. Ferdinand then abruptly ends the argument, giving her his hand, which she kisses, eager to make up.
The hand she kisses turns out to be a dead man’s hand, wearing her wedding ring. The dismembered hand with the ring is a symbol of the severing of the sacramental marriage bond (Tricomi 354). It also becomes the first tangible image of death. (Bergeron 336). Horrified, the Duchess asks for the lights to be turned on, only to discover wax figures, which she mistakenly assumes to be the corpses of Antonio and her children. The severed hand and the wax figures extinguish any possibility of hope, and mark the movement of the play to grotesque expressions of death and destruction. (Bergeron 336). The Duchess also shifts from her stoicism to succumb to despair, in accordance with Ferdinand’s plan. She curses her brothers, and contemplates suicide, wishing for death as soon as possible. Ironically, it is Bosola, the harbinger of her death, who dissuades her, reminding her that she is a Christian. The Duchess anguishes at her brother’s cruelty, saying, “It is some mercy when men kill with speed (IV.i.109)
When Bosola meets Ferdinand, he assures him that the Duchess was driven to despair like intended, but requests him to “go no farther in your cruelty” (IV.i.115). However, Ferdinand, obsessed with his sister’s body and enraged beyond reason that she has defiled his pure blood, refuses; planning to send madmen to visit her, so that she too, would be driven to madness.
The madmen are an assortment of professionals of the contemporary time: an astrologer, a lawyer, a priest, a doctor, among others, figure in the list. The aristocracy is absent from this list, and these men seem to have been driven to insanity by an over-exertion of their professional faculties. In this sense, they come to reflect the aristocracy’s view of this lower stratum. Madness as a construct becomes the function of this class. Ferdinand wants the madness of these people to drive the Duchess to madness, too; indicating that her desire to mix with this stratum and corrupt noble blood would result in a loss of her mental faculties.
The madmen function as an anti-masque. Brought on to stage by an external agency, their grotesque actions serve to inflict pain and thicken the ominous atmosphere of the play. They sing a song, referring to animals feeding on flesh. The demonic imagery of the madmen could signify that the Duchess experiences hell on this earth itself (Doebler 210), or it could be an outward manifestation of the inner ordeal the Duchess is undergoing (Bergeron 337). To the Elizabethans, the unity of the microcosm and macrocosm was expressed as a dance. The madmen’s dance, however, reveals the disunity and confusion of the Duchess’s world. (Ekeblad 259-60). As Ekeblad goes on to explain, the dance is part of a cruel irony on Ferdinand’s part. According to the masque tradition, what the madmen perform can be a charivari, a piece performed for a woman who marries immediately after her husband’s death. Ferdinand is thus mocking the Duchess by providing her belated wedding entertainment.
After the madmen leave, failing to inflict their state of mind on the Duchess, Bosola enters, disguised as an old man: a traditional rendering of the figure of Time, or Death. Bosola’s disguise seems intentional on Webster’s part, as if to lend an allegorical quality to his function (Bergeron 338). Bosola talks about the mortality of the flesh, and the transience of human life, according to the contemptus mundi theme of the ars moriendi, intended to separate the dying from any desire to cling on to this world and to accept and embrace death as a door to a new, everlasting world (Doebler 210).
The Duchess, however, does not understand that Bosola is playing his role according to a set pattern, to fulfil a purpose, and insists, “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.139). This powerful declaration clearly shows that the Duchess’s spirit has not been bent by any of the elaborate tortures Ferdinand imposed on her. She still clings on to the belief in her righteousness, and her legitimate power to act as she chose. This pronouncement shows, more than any other instance in the play, the strength of the Duchess’s character and her unshakable belief that her choices were right.
Bosola calls in the executioners. The Duchess’s death is imminent. Bosola sings a dirge, enunciating conventional sentiments about death. His dirge is the concluding song in the Duchess’s marriage masque. The preparation for her death has cruel connections with the dressing of a bride (Ekeblad 265). Cariola is removed from the scene, and her hysterics sharply contrasts with the Duchess’s calm demeanour. The Duchess is strangled to death. She exhibits no fear of the method in which she is to be killed, welcoming it, saying, “pull down heaven upon me” (IV.ii.227).
Her death transcends all questions of whether she was virtuous or not. Through the elaborate ritual of her execution, there remains no ambiguity that Webster intends the audience to understand that she will not be damned. Even when she stirs, and the scene swerves towards the possibility of becoming comic, she dies with the word “mercy” on her lips, indicating her death is well placed in the Christian world of salvation. The Duchess dies with dignity. Her stoicism renders her a certain agency throughout: she proves to Ferdinand that though he can destroy her body, her spirit cannot be touched. The rest of the deaths in the play stand in stark contrast to hers, making her death even more poignant. The respect she commands by her death, even from a ruthless cynic like Bosola, cements her place as the centre of the play. Her death marks the real tragedy of the play, and with her demise, the world she inhabited sinks to an irretrievable state of chaos and confusion.
Bergeron, David M. The Wax Figures in The Duchess of Malfi. Rice University: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 18, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1978), pp. 331-339.
Doebler, Bettie Anne. Continuity in the Art of Dying: “The Duchess of Malfi”. Comparative Drama, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Fall 1980), pp. 203-215.
Duclow, Donald F. Ars Moriendi. Web. www.deathreference.com/A-Bi/Ars-Moriendi.html
Ekeblad, Inga-Stina. The ‘Impure Art’ of John Webster. Oxford University Press : The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 35 (Aug., 1958), pp. 253-267.
Luckyj, Christina, ed. The Duchess of Malfi: A Critical Guide. Continuum Books, 2011.
Tricomi, Albert H. The Severed Hand in Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi” . Rice University: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 44, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama (Spring, 2004), pp. 347-358.
Webster, John. Prakash, Anand and singh, K.M., eds. The Duchess of Malfi. Worldview Publications, 2013.