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

Being Human series four

Ah, Being Human. The show with the most ridiculous sounding premise imaginable, that delivers such enjoyable content. ‘A vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house’ sounds like a cross between ‘Twilight’ (death to that terrible franchise by the way) and an unsuccessful seventies sitcom. But what it proved to be was greater than the sum of parts. It may be comedy horror crossed with domestic drama, but there is an underlying philosophy to this show. The central idea-that emotional connections are what make us human beings-is a good one. There are reflections on free will, redemption and isolation in between the jokes and the stakings. Russell Toveys’ career was kick started by his role as George the werewolf-though having seen him in Sherlock series 2 episode 2: The hounds of Baskerville, I fear he may be stuck with dog-related roles for a while.

I worried for the fourth season. Replacing half the cast was bad enough-but the premise of this season seemed dangerously over the top, a risky move in television. But like the scores of critics who were forced to rethink, I warmed to this season at the end.

It was a mistake to worry about the recasting. Damien Molony is a wonderful new vampire, and even better, is not attempting to imitate his predecessor. The first vampire, Mitchell (Aidan Turner), was a laid-back Irish charmer who reverts to his old violent tendencies at the end of series three. It would be a terrible decision to copy that character. And Molony doesn’t. His incredibly posh, uptight Hal is repressed and obsessive-compulsive. There is something very funny, menacing and tragic about his character.

Damien Moloney as Hal York

Michael Socha also gives a good performance as the new werewolf Tom. The actors have very good chemistry together, and do the ‘odd couple’ act convincingly. Sadly, there are fewer domestic scenes in this series, but we do get to see them discuss Antiques Roadshow, so not all domestic humor goes out of the window.  Lenora Crichlow is her lovely self as the ghost, but it looks as though she will be replaced for the fifth series. If so, let’s hope her replacement proves as likable in the long run.

The main fault lies with the writers. In any series of Being Human, the storyline is very important. The writers work hard on a structured story arc that throws some terrible moral dilemma at the characters, but still allows for some fun. But in this case, they made the wrong choice: ‘The vampire leaders will arrive in two months and begin world domination.’ is just a little too big and silly. One main draws of the show is the focus on small, domestic problems, not big apocalyptic ones. To keep everything on the human level was a good decision, and should not be abandoned. The moral dilemma the group is presented with also has a try-too-hard feel to it. Worst of all, there is not very much for the characters to do while they await the vampire leaders, so there are a lot of one-episode story arcs rather than a build up to the climax. There are drop-ins from a serial killer, an  old character, a troublesome journalist and a sub-plot involving werewolves. Which brings me to this series’ main villain, Cutler the vampire.

It’s hard to know what they were trying to do with Cutler. This show is known for its big, bad villains (Herrick in series one and three, Kemp in series two) and Cutler immediately comes across as a lightweight. He is that most dubious of phenomena, the intentionally sympathetic baddie. His character reminds you of the overconfident twerp at the office who owns expensive desk toys and wants to be an executive. We are treated to his sad back-story, in which his life is casually torn to shreds in front of him. But like Alex in A clockwork Orange, this character is still a villain. This is someone who tears out throats absentmindedly. Were the writers trying to be ironic? Add depth to the character? Make some point about human nature? Either way, it is pretty underwhelming. The actor does his best, injecting a cocky, devious evil into Cutler, while also making him very vulnerable. He also has some pretty good lines.

It looked as though the show had gone the way of Torchwood and failed to deliver a big villain. But fans and critics were wrong to worry. At the end, Being Human finally picks up to its usual standards. This came partly with the action, but mostly in the form of the wonderful Mark Gatiss. He gives an understated and chilling performance as the sinister vampire leader Mr. Snow. Far from failing to produce a good villain, the writers gave us the scariest character Being Human has ever seen. With his blackened teeth and filthy fingernails, Mr. Snow is repulsive. He brings to mind the pre-Dracula stories, when vampires clawed their way out of graves, and didn’t bother to wine and dine you. Gatiss-last seen playing Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock-is one of the best actors around, and can make the smallest word or gesture stick in the mind.

Mark Gatiss as Mr. Snow

So what is the final verdict? This series overall has stumbled, but it has not in the end, actually failed. There has been a lot of changes, some pretty regrettable, like the leaning towards silliness. The underlying tone of the show remains, thank God, but it seems to lean further away from the domestic. This is a pity. If you change too much you could lose everything that makes Being Human what it is. The new cast is fine, and gives a new reason to watch the show. So shall we forgive the writers for this season? Well, redemption is one of the shows major themes. Let’s forgive Being Human, and keep our hopes up for season five. One thing this show is known to do is resurrect its more successful villains. Long live Mr. Snow! (But not too long, please.)

Three colors blue

http://bt.eutorrents.com

“Three colours blue” is the first instalment of Kieslowskis’ famous trilogy exploring the French revolutionary ideals. The other two films in the trilogy, “Three colours white” and “Three colours red” explore equality and fraternity on the personal level. Like “Blue”, they show their protagonists go though a long personal struggle to achieve the films ideal, often at financial or emotional cost. “Three colours blue”, being a story of personal grief, charts a woman’s struggle for emotional liberation, and sees her suffering horrors in the process. These three ideals-liberty, equality and fraternity-are portrayed by Kieslowski as pure, almost sublimated targets, which can be reached only through hard work. His choice to use these themes-themes an entire country fought over in a bloody revolution-can only make the trilogy public art, art intended to speak to and for France, and the rest of humanity.

The plot is reasonably simple; Julie, (Juliette Binoche), loses her composer husband and child in an accident. Traumatised, she leaves her home and tries to discard her past, rejecting all love and friendship, which she now views as “traps”. Gradually though, she re-learns how to live, and finishes her husbands final work, the “Symphony for the unification of Europe”. The work proves to be a healing force, and she can finally rebuild her life. Binoche is wonderful in the part, delivering one of her career-making performances, which won the “best actress” at the 1993 Venice film festival.

As with all Kieslowski films, the cinematography is beautiful, but in this case shows reality from the protagonists point of view; the repeated use of close-ups expresses Julies wish to limit the world to her immediate environment. The repeated motifs Kieslowski uses, of glass, water and reflections, are relevant; they reflect Julies’ mindset, namely her desire to keep the world at a distance; Glass allows observation without contact: Julie observes the world, and allows it to observe her, but she does not allow anyone emotional contact. Water is used in a similar way in this film, but also reflect her wish to drown her emotions; Julie repeatedly visit’s a swimming pool, where she often stays submerged for a long time.

The journey from isolation to social integration is ferociously difficult for Julie, and mirrors the idea of an eternal struggle for freedom; Julie fights hard against an oppressive emotion, finding recourse in creative work, which is eventually a healing force; the plot is the story of a fierce human struggle to throw off the past, and by hard work, create a future. However detached the story seems on the surface, these peculiarly French ideals run through the very heart of it.

One of Kieslowskis’ abiding interests is in human connections, which he identifies with the three ideals throughout the trilogy; Julie’s initial rejection of society is repeatedly challenged by the director; He uses various tricks and motifs to remind us of the interconnectedness of everyone in society; For example, in one scene a busker plays the very music Julies husband was composing; He later reveals that he made up the tune himself. This scene serves to remind us that different people from different backgrounds, for different reasons might have identical thoughts. Julies’ journey away from voluntary isolation, and return to love, reflects the directors beliefs: The individual must always return to society, because life outside society is worthless.

“Three colours blue” is certainly a masterpiece, and won unanimous praise from critics when it was first released. Quite apart from Binoche’s perfect performance, it interprets emotional freedom as a high ideal. Woven in with this ideal is Kieslowskis’ vision of society as a unified whole, which offers love in its various forms, provided you accept it. Kieslowskis’ film is certainly public art, speaking on the most personal level. It speaks very well.

Damnation

Bela Tarr has a tendency to be demanding and introspective as a director. Since his beginning in Hungarian cinema, he has been a revolutionary force, determined to present his own picture of Hungarian reality. His determination to scrap the “lies” being shown on screen caused him to create a complete manifesto with regard to his new style of film-making; his emphasis on the importance of black and white, close-ups and hand-held camera-work formed the basis of his distinctive style.

http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6749

Though “Damnation” is not half as complex as his later film  “Werkmiester harmonies”, it reflects the directors rather dark and pessimistic view of humanity. The story is about a romance between Kerrer, a listless, brooding man and a married singer. Kerrer finds life as it is unbearable, and hopes for escape . The film follows his pursuit of the singer, and his eventual betrayal and despair.

Tarrs direction is incredibly stylish, specialising in slow long shots and composition; Tarr creates an atmosphere of brooding menace persistent through the whole film, where he uses the “film noir” imagery for all its worth. The combination of light and composition makes the whole visually stunning, though the very slow long shots can be demanding of the audience.

One of the most effective devices in this film is the way the crime is treated: The singer (Vali Kerekes) is very much the femme fatale, capable by her own admission, of terrible things. There are references to violence and smuggling, but suggestion is always the primary tool. The film lurks on the edge of  the criminal underworld, affording the viewer a glimpse of what the characters could be involved in.

Vali Kerekes low-key performance as the disillusioned singer is one of the highlights of the film; she radiates listless menace, nearly upstaging Miklos Szekley, who plays the infatuated Kerrer. The singer is really the star of the film, not through what she does, but by what Kerekes makes us believe she is capable of.

 

 

Kerrers story is a story of  rejection of society; since he feels society has nothing to offer him, he seeks out something else, which he feels is embodied in the singer. At one point, the director provides us with a visual metaphor precisely to illustrate this rejection; while the whole village is gathered in a great dance indoors, one madman chooses to dance alone in the rain outside.

At the beginning of the film, Kerrer has already isolated himself from the world; he has no job, almost no human contact, and is flirting with crime. What he is seeking, quite deliberately, is to discard the values of a society he finds oppressive. His hopes for the future lie in his idea of what he might find outside society, if he succeeds in escaping it. At one point the confides to the singer that she personifies the amoral freedom he longs for;

“Between you and a world forever out of reach, there is a strange and empty tunnel. I don’t know anyone else who knows that road. You’re standing alone at the entrance to that tunnel, because you know something I can’t even put a name on, something deeper and more ruthless than I can ever understand. I realise that I can never get closer to that world, I can only long for it, because it is hidden by I light and warmth I cannot bear. I have never been able to believe in it, nor to renounce it…if I were to lose you it would  be the unforgivable end of me, because I know nothing about that unnameable world. Since you are part of it, you mean the world to me.”

Kerrers pursuit of the singer is the malcontents pursuit of a state of freedom. What the film is ultimately about is the decent into damnation, and the motives of those who reject social values.

Bastards Law

This is the first episode of a theoretical nine-part series worked out for a college assignment.  I collaborated with Tina Tamarakar in writing this, so Tina, no need to reach for a copyright lawyer. I dont have the slightest idea how a series like this could end, but if you have any suggestions, do let me know. Images from Bela Tarrs’ “Werkmiester harmnoies” and “Damnation”.

Scene 1.
 
It is a dark night, and rain is pouring down from the sky. There is a solitary street lamp, which illuminates nothing but its own little circle of pavement on the dark little London street.
Maria walks into view. Barely more than twenty, she is dressed in a raincoat rather too big for her, carrying an  A-Z and an umbrella as well as a small scrap of paper. She pauses under the street lamp and tries to examine the A-Z, fumbling with the umbrella.
 
Two hoodies loom out of the shadows behind her. They grab her before she has time to think-only for Max to leap into the scene. He fends them off with some well-choreographed action and a knuckleduster.
 
The thugs run off, as Max stoops to help Maria to her feet.
Max: Well done. Its not even past midnight, and you did a good job of nearly getting killed just now. Who are you, walking around at this hour?
Maria: (Scrambling to the ground and searching desperately) The address…!
Max: Don’t mind me. (Watches in irritable bewilderment as she finds the paper and sighs with relief).
Maria: This could be my only chance of saving him.
Max: (With the air of someone who, having found a beetle in their salad, lifts the rest of the lettuce.)…Oh? (she turns to look at him. A strong-looking man in his mid thirties, Max is very much the policeman, apart from his clothes. Feeling awkward and grateful, she pushes her hair away from her face.)
Maria:…I forgot to thank you.
Max: Don’t worry, I never expect thanks. Now…I think its question time. (Tries to take the paper from her but she moves back.) I don’t mean you any harm. And you’re obviously in trouble. You can let me help you, or you can face this-whatever this is-on your own. (Takes the paper from her now unresisting hand. It has an address written on it in smudged pencil). What is this?
Maria: (On the edge of tears) I think it’s the place where they took him…
 
Scene 2. (Flashback)
 
Maria and her father, Doctor Smith are eating breakfast in their kitchen. He is middle-aged, mild, rather soft-looking, and does not deserve what is about to happen to him. Maria finishes her coffee at the table. He opens today’s post, dismissing the bills, and then stares in distaste at a letter from OMNICORPS. This sinister company-who primarily deal in nuclear weapons-has written AGAIN to offer him work.
 
Smith: (Over his shoulder) Will you look at this? Those disgusting people are really not giving up.
Maria: Another subtly menacing job offer? 
Smith: I think it’s a bit much, actually, if you can’t work in nuclear physics without getting job offers like this. Just listen to this! “Accepting our offer would see you enter an exiting and lucrative business with unlimited hopes for the future-”¬ yes, unlike the people they would drop the bombs on, whose future would be nonexistent! Its an insult, really, for them to expect you to accept jobs like that. The trouble with working in science now is that everywhere you turn you meet people who expect to buy and sell you. You’re young, you don’t know what its like, but being considered a commodity is…its…well, you don’t belong to yourself, that’s all I can say. Not to them. Even your thoughts-no, especially your thoughts-are company property. I went into science because I love it! And I wanted to serve humanity! Do these people give a damn about my reasons? If you have a mind and can be useful they see you as a thing. No rights, no will of your own. Like a computer…(Throws the letter on the table.) Now on top of it they’re making threats. 
Maria: What threats?
Smith: Oh, nothing very explicit. Everything that lot say is coded-its often like that with powerful companies-but basically they say that they could get very nasty if they don’t get what they want, and I should consider you.
Maria: (Alarmed)I don’t like the sound of that! What could they do?
Smith: Nothing! Oh, you mustn’t worry. I’ve got people backing me, there’s  not much they can do to hurt us. (Glances at the clock). You need to get going, go on, or you’ll be late. You’ll be back-when?
Maria: Around six.
Smith: Don’t come through the lab please, I’ll be working all day. (Kisses her cheek.) See you later.
(She leaves. The camera focuses on the discarded letter on the table. As Smith finishes his coffee in the background, the camera pans in on the letter, till first the white page, then the company logo, fill the screen. The logo gets bigger and bigger, a black circle in the centre gets wider, until the screen goes completely black.
 
Scene 3
 
The blackness remains for a moment then lightens. We are in a dark room. Matilda sits at a desk reading a letter from Smith. A ruthless non-human in allrespects, she advertises it in her appearance. A man, mostly hidden in the shadows, stands behind her.)


Matilda: He won’t accept the offer.
(She leans back and sighs.)
Man: Are you sure, Ma’am?
Matilda: Completely. I sent him that final offer purely as a sort of…sop. A last chance. Now I know it was a waste of paper. He’s refused so often, he won’t accept now, he’s not that type. (She lays the letter down carefully, takes out a small hand-mirror, and redoes her lipstick.) You know, I won’t even wait for a reply. Why bother? Just take him. (Pouts in the mirror.) Grab him. I’m tired of playing polite. He was given a chance. Many chances.
Man: What about the girl Ma’am?
Matilda: What about her?
Man: Yes Ma’am. 
 
He moves away. Scene darkens.
 
Scene 4
The camera peeks between some leaves outside a laboratory window. Through the window, Smith is working at a table, feverishly writing notes.
In another part of the house, a window is quietly prised open.
Smith completely fails to hear several pairs of feet on the stairway, and down the hall. He fails to hear a door quietly open behind him. Return to the shot through the window. Dark shapes surround Smith from behind, and one of them throws a hood over his head…
 
Scene darkens.
 
Return to the street with Maria and Max
 
Maria: I went home that night and the house was dark and empty. I searched and searched. The next morning I phoned all his friends. In the end I went to the police.
Max: And? What happened? What did the police do?
Maria: Well you can imagine. There was a search like you get when anyone goes missing-but then …it was just knocked down. No one explained. There were “orders from head office” apparently. But no one explained-why?
Max: Did anyone say who in head office?
Maria: No-one told me anything.
Max: (Shoves his hands deep in his pockets and paces a bit. Stops with his back to her.) You said your father was a scientist.
Maria: Yes?
Max: And someone, a very reticent someone, ordered that a search be dropped. A search for a scientist, and a missing scientist, is always an official worry. If you’ll excuse the term, its valuable national property gone missing. You need to look after it.
Maria: (Annoyed) That’s my father, don’t talk like that about him! Do you even have a point?
Max: My point is, they dropped the case for a reason, and reasons like that are always a lead! It comes back to power, and people-this person in head office. They cut you dead when it came to getting answers. They had something to hide. (Turns on her suddenly) But that wasn’t the end was it? What happened?
 
Scene 5
Flashback 
 
Marias sitting room. She is crying on a sofa, her face hidden in her hands. Her mobile phone is on a table beside her. She glances at it and reaches out but then withdraws her hand. Camera cuts to a shot of the letter box in the front door. A hand enters the shot and pushes a slip of paper through the slot. In the sitting room Maria hears the noise. Looking tearful but now curious she goes to the front door. The piece of paper is lying on the door mat. End flashback.
 
Return to the street
 
Maria: The address was the only clue I have ever had. And I have to find it.
Max: Well good luck there. You are out on your own, in the dead of night, and you haven’t even brought something to defend yourself with. I assume you didn’t tell the police.
Maria: I don’t think they would have helped. I told you about the strange way the case was knocked down. You clearly think I’m silly-but I think I would have gotten no help.
Max: That’s broadly true I think, after what you’ve told me. You wouldn’t be allowed help. Lucky you ran into me. (Holds out his hand). Give me that A-Z. I have nothing better to do tonight.
 
Scene 6
 
The two stand in front of a dark East End warehouse. It seems to be in complete disrepair. The rain is pouring down now and they stand together under her umbrella. A single street light illuminates the open front door.
Max: Are you sure about this? It would be easy now to turn around and go home. I can tell you from experience, things like this are often harder to get out of than you’d like.
Maria: Are you joking? I have to find my father.
Max: Just checking.
 
The two go in, Max leading, Maria following behind. Max produces a torch from somewhere in his coat. the beam illuminates a dark, cavernous room, and broken furniture. Suddenly he turns the torch beam onto something white on the floor.
Max: I don’t think he is here …but someone gave themselves away.
 
He holds up a small business card. The OMNICORPS logo is visible in the torch light.