The Duchess of Malfi: Feminism and identity

Gemma Arterton as the Duchess – Shakesperesglobe.com

The Duchess of Malfi, a tragedy written by one of Shakesperes greatest contemporaries, may be seen as a sort of feminist narrative, which I will examine here. The plot, simply put, is the story of a widow who marries again in defiance of her brothers. Ferdinand, her twin, imprisons and tortures her, attempting to break her spirit before he kills her. The issue of identity, of perception, is a major theme in the play with relation to the Duchess herself. Throughout the plot the Duchess is trying to assert the identity she has created for herself – that of a loving wife and mother – against the identities forced on her by her brothers, and by society at large.

One of the major factors in the tragedy of Ferdinand and the Duchess’s relationship is Ferdinand’s restricting of his sisters’ identity. He allows her no scope to exist as a woman. For Ferdinand, the Duchess may exist as a Duchess, a political figure; she may exist as his sister. She may exist as a (chaste) widow, like the ‘figure cut in alabaster’ that kneels over her husband’s tomb (Act I scene II). This identity Ferdinand has created for her, of a thing to be ‘caged up like a holy relic’ is unnatural to the Duchess, stifling. As she says, she has ‘youth and a little beauty’* – why should she not act naturally, as a woman? But any transgression of the limits Ferdinand sets for her, result in the imposition of another identity, every bit as false as the other:

Ferdinand: A sister damn’d; she’s loose i’th’ hilts,
Grown a notorious strumpet[…]
She hath had most cunning bawds to serve her turn,
And more secure conveyances for lust,
Than towns of garrison for service.
-Act II scene V

The woman Ferdinand conjures up in this scene is a whore, who will casually tumble “some strong-thigh’d bargeman/Or one o’th’ wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge/Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire/That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.” The whorishness assumed by Ferdinand is utterly alien to the Duchess’s nature, as evidenced in Act I scene II – her concern in that scene is with marriage in the spiritual sense. She asks her new husband to ‘lay a naked sword between us/To keep us chaste’ presumably until the marriage has been formalized in the church. She is established deliberately as the last woman to behave as Ferdinand assumes. The false identity Ferdinand imposes on her in this scene seems to reflect the imprisonment he later imposes; restrictive, abusive, misogynistic in tone.

The brutality that characterizes Ferdinand and his attitude to the Duchess contrasts with the gentle warmth characteristic of her own, self-created identity:

Duchess: This is flesh and blood, sir;
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster,
Kneels at my husband’s tomb.

– Act I scene II

indexGemma Arterton as the Duchess. No copyright infringement intended. Source: Thisweek.co.uk

The tenderness and wit of the ‘domestic’ scenes with her husband serve as a backdrop for the Duchess’s self-created identity. To herself she is a woman, a wife, and a mother. She is a private figure first, a social and political figure second. What the brothers demand of her is the suppression of the private self, which is a very large part of her self-identity, and her actions are a defiance of that.

Overall, the narrative on one level is that of struggle, attempted suppression of the Duchesses identity, the imposition of false identities in place of her own. Her triumph, as a wife and mother, is a sort of moral triumph over false identity; her son will inherit everything, and Fernand’s torture, while cruel, never forces her to renounce her identity. On the contrary, her last request to her servant Cariola “look thou giv’st my little boy/Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl/Say her prayers ere she sleep .”** Is a final assertion of her chosen identity as a wife and mother.

* Act III Scene II

**Act IV, Scene II

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