Themes central to John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi include entrapment, animalism, and the objectification of women are all closely intertwined in the tragedy. The idea of entrapment and confinement is represented throughout the play. By hiring Bosola to spy on the Duchess, the Cardinal and Ferdinand set the trap to ensnare the Duchess and thus become the men who capture wild creatures in order to kill them. We can see this as the first step leading to the Duchess’ death and the first step to the Duchess’ true imprisonment. Another instance of entrapment was the Duchess’ marriage itself. When the Duchess first proposed the idea to Antonio of getting married, she had to do it in the seclusion of her chamber out of fear that one of her servants would find out. This fear led to her marriage ceremony being confined within the walls of her chamber as if it were an entrance to some prison. Entrapment can also be seen in Ferdinand’s character. Ferdinand becomes trapped inside his irrational and bestial rage against his sister for violating their family chastity. He struggles to be free of her and move on with his life which ultimately leads to his insanity. He, furthermore, becomes more imprisoned inside his own body as his madness eats away at his soul. Hence, the idea of the characters being confined by themselves is a predominant idea in the play.
Another important theme in this play is the reference to the plant and animal images. Little can be said for the references to plants, as they match the predominant mood of the play. For example, Bosola describes the brothers as “plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools; they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pics, and caterpillars feed on them” (I, i, 53-56). Much more significant are the many animals of the play. Owls, vipers, adders, and rats, perform the same function as the references to disease and decay do while others seem to be of more significance to the theme of appearance and reality. There are cockatrices, basilisks, salamanders, and of course, the wolfman. Maybe these animals are simply extensions of the dark mood of the play. Aside from the dark mood of the play, there are many references to birds in the play. Some of these are birds of darkness and serve the theme of evil which runs throughout the work. Notably, the owl is exploited as the omen of evil and death. Its appearance in that role is foreshadowed by Ferdinand’s words to the Duchess after he learns of the marriage “The howling of a wolf/Is music to thee screech-owl” (III, ii, 89-90). The owl reappears in his role of the evil bird when the madmen sing “of beasts and fatal fowl/As ravens, screech-owls, bulls and bears” (IV, ii, 345). The bird imagery parallels the most realistic interpretation of the play’s major conflict: the Duchess and Antonio are the captive birds and the brothers control the bird cage’s doors.
Focusing more closely on the wolfman, werewolves represented the societal anxieties about the relationship between a human’s body and mind. In the time period in which this play was written, lycanthropy was understood most frequently as a mental illness in which the patient believes he had transformed into an animal. Although Ferdinand alludes to wolves frequently throughout the play, he is not diagnosed by the Doctor until the final act: “A very pestilent disease, my lord,/They call lycanthropia” (IV, i, 33). Assuming that Ferdinand’s lycanthropy is induced by an excess of sadness, it can be argued that his illness began after the Duchess’s murder in Act Four. Although Ferdinand ordered Bosola to murder his sister, he gets angry at him after the fact. This delves further into Ferdinand’s madness and the theme of both animalism and Ferdinand’s entrapment in his own body.
It is evident from the beginning of the play that men hold women to a lower standard, even those of good social standing like the Duchess. Ferdinand and the Cardinal worried about the fact that the Duchess could be swayed easily into a new marriage and that she would become that man’s possession, as is what happens in the Renaissance dynastic marriage. Thus, as Ferdinand and the Cardinal felt justified in controlling the biological uses of the Duchess. While it is understandable that they were trying to protect the body of their sister, they treated her like a trade article rather than a part of their family. Her rebellion against their wishes of her keeping her chastity leads to Ferdinand’s obsessive sexual interest. To him, she is now one of those diseased women whose “livers are more spotted/than Laban’s sheep” (I, i, 290-291), or a whore, or witch who “gives the devil suck” (I, i, 302). However, the Duchess is able to escape and rebel against his obsession and controlling nature with her marriage to Antonio because she enters into it irregularly and without her brothers’ consent (Jankowski). It is in direct contrast to the customary rule that is women are placed under the control of their male family members. Perhaps Webster is trying to show that women of the Renaissance time period were nothing like the Duchess’ character and that more should be like her.
The underlying theme between entrapment, animalism, and the objectification of women, all present in this play, is the Duchess was a woman who struggled with maintaining her integrity in the dark world surrounding her. It may be the case that Webster was trying represent what the ideal woman of the Renaissance time period should be but also show how they were treated and how they were expected to conduct themselves.
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