Evolution of Women In 'The Dutches of Malfi' by John Webster

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The Duchess of Malfi is the base character that is responsible for an evolutionizing image pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a women, I mean a dependent women. The association of dependence linked in women cause the idea of a less than self sufficient human. The duchess of Malfi set a tone and ripple effect since the birth of her play. The play unfolds in multiple sequences of events that happen over a span of years. This transformation shown on stage of the way this woman develops is god awful. Over the course of this play her feelings were never valid or focused on although the entirety of this play happens to her and because of her own actions. The key issue is just that, her actions. Her actions are a domino effect of the renaissance age she lived in, she had no choice in the life she lived. The start of this play happens after she is widowed to the Duke of Malfi. The start for the audience happens at this point in her life, however her actions as a 17th century women were never up to her. The age of the renaissance was the rebirth of arts and politics however the idea and image of women took a little longer to evolve, because of this, woman like the duchess of malfi never were able to determine their own fate. Life was well planned and women followed rules and never faced the reality of life men did. Woodbridge clearly explains the affiliation of women at the time and how they were represented in literature and life.

The renaissance was a time where these playwrights voiced their opinion on feminism through the way they wrote their characters in plays. Woodbridge further elaborates on all the factors that may have swayed people's mindset at the time such as the hierarchical social system, christian orthodoxy, and a “lack of coherent economic theory” that prevented an understanding of perceiving women as equal. At first glance Webster was one of the first authors to center a female character, which is an advancement from past playwrights at the time. The problem is he centered this female character in a setting overruled by masculinity, which physically ends up suffocating the Dutchess and suffocating its readers, he writes a perfectly good character that is sadly swallowed by her restrictions. The absolute worst factor about this play is the fact that it was based off of what could be a true story. In “An Introduction to The Duchess of Malfi.” the author explains Webster could accredit the origin of this story from a book called Palace of Pleasure (1567) by WIlliam Painter. There are records of the existence of a Duchess of Amalfi who widowed at 19 in 1498. The real events happened a little differently, she marries her household’s majo domo, then has a kid, she then escaped her brothers once the truth was revealed and the rest is uncertain. Webster choose a real event and translated that into a play where he furthers the stigma as women being less than, or victims. The sexualization and the objectification of the duchess is reoccuring from start to finish. Her fate was never her control, she was wedded to the Duke of malfi. The duke was not her choice, due to the tradition of the father wedding their daughter for the gain of power.Her value diminishes from the start to the end of the play and it's simply because she wants to wed once again.

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The biggest obstacle are her brothers that clearly do not accept their sister to lose her “chastity” by remarrying. Kate Aughterson explains in her book, “Women are double victims. In the ideal patriarchal system they are displayed as proxies of masculine power, and vessels of masculine legitimate power”(255). Aughterson furthers this by explaining that the women Webster wrote in his plays were “sacrificial victims” to the patriarchy at the time. Having these women portrayed as victim only worsens the image of women because they become completely dominated by their masculine superiors. The duchess very clearly represents the tragic heroine. She is there to be pitied and manipulated at the mercy of the male figures that surround her. Laura Bromley, the author of The Rhetoric of Feminine Identity in The White Devil, validates” The language of men in Victoria’s society reveals that they perceive women only in terms of sexual stereotypes.” She further expands, “Any woman whose behavior departs from the norms of passivity and silence is labeled and condemned as a “whore,”or “devil”(50). This idea of labeling women as the greater evil, later stems into how women always portrayed as the villain or helpless heroine. The women in Webster’s play tend to have a recurring pattern, they all show transgressive behavior but have no support to validate this. So having a female character be the focal point of a play does nothing for feminism if they just serve as a point to portray the social abuses of the time period, they do nothing to reform the perception of women as “victims”.

There are multiple lines in the play that further show just in the writing out of context how sexualized and materialized she speaks to herself; “This is flesh and blood sir Tis is not the figure in alabaster/ kneels at my husbands tomb” this is a line directly found in the script during a scene where she is speaking to Antonio. See the way she even addresses herself, of course this in context is the norm, however it very much verbalizes how women view themselves and placed themselves. Webster allowed the duchess to have a bit of spunk even as a widow but it's done in such a way that it mirrors a lot of stigmas that are still current.It is because of this play that there are female characters that are linked in plays long after this one, that portray a women as less than her male counterparts. An example is found in Blanche’s character in the play Streetcar Named Desire. Power is the thread that runs through both Webster’s play as well as in Williams’ Streetcar that takes place in the 20th century and classifies as modern domestic tragedy. What these two plays have in common is, both misrepresent women as the low in the social hierarchy due to the tendency of masculine power that corrupt and leave women with no authority. What is a constant topic in both these plays are the wants of the men in the play, that usually are the want to control all female characters, because of this, the female characters always have a punishment to fear which leaves them incapable of acting out.

Blanche in Streetcar is perceived as a “crazy” woman who has little to no self control and is frowned upon the whole play. Blanche is powerless to her own desires and she can not root her own issues from herself, which makes her out to be out of control of her own psychological state at the end of the play. This portrayal of women is problematic and still present even in contemporary pop culture. There are multiple references to pop culture today that are reminiscent of the character of the duchess. The duchess is sexualized and objectified throughout the play and is one of the earliest examples of how women are portrayed stil today. At often times rap music will use women to center their lyrics around but you may never get the woman's perspective. The dutchess fell in love with Antonio and quite frankly it was not her brothers business, but the play focuses a lot more on the revenge of the brothers and the effects of the widow’s love than it does on how the dutchess felt and loved. This notion of invalidating a woman's perspective although it still may be her own situation is globalized. This can be seen in lyrics of reggaeton such as Ozuna - Dile que tu me quieres (2017) which is a song about a girl who has a father that does not approve of her current relationship and her lover is telling her to disregard his thoughts and to excuse the relationship because he loves her and she loves him. But not once do you hear the perspective of this women he sings about being in love, she is overcasted by her male counterparts like her father and her lover and sexuliazed throughout the song.

Another modern day reference to women being objectified can be found in Kanye West's early 2000 hit gold digger where a woman is essentially being bought off and lured by a male. He uses women as a status symbol instead of ever valuing her as an individual. The writers that have been developing works since the beginning of time are as close as we get to time travel. It is important to note that it is because of these brutally honest plays we have ideas of life back then. In order to fully progress, the past has to be analyzed and reflected. Webster was a brilliant playwright for the time being, his characters show proof of our advancement as people. One day the future will look back on us and scrutinize us for our patriarchal issues, but the contrast between these two time frames assure us it's only up from here. The duchess was a victim and put on a platform to use, now that translates into many base character that stem other levels of complex characters. The themes in this play are those that carry on into all genres. The duchess created so many different outlets of one story. Besides the sexualization and objectification that are pressed upon the dutchess this play was the first to express the beginnings of horror and revenge genres. The duchess of malfi is a full play with lots of angles to dissect it from.

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Evolution of Women In ‘The Dutches of Malfi’ by John Webster. (2020, November 26). WritingBros. Retrieved July 22, 2024, from https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/evolution-of-women-in-the-dutches-of-malfi-by-john-webster/
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Evolution of Women In ‘The Dutches of Malfi’ by John Webster [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Nov 26 [cited 2024 Jul 22]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/evolution-of-women-in-the-dutches-of-malfi-by-john-webster/
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