The Duchess of Malfi: When a Woman-Prince Can Talk
The Duchess of Malfi (1623) by John Webster presents the case of a woman-prince, an “anomaly in the symbolic and political structure” of early seventeenth-century England, who is endowed with powerful language and therefore directs the action of the play and her consequent persecution. Her ambivalent position bears resemblance to the case of Elizabeth I and her threatening symbolic position, since her body politic is male and her body natural is female, with all the contradictions of the construction of the feminine in Early Modern Europe. What is most threatening in Webster’s representation is the duchess’ ability with language (see the wooing scene among the others) so that she is viewed as a dangerous subject to be kept under strict control by the males of the family. As an heiress, she detains a power which is in contrast with a sex that should be weak, dominated and subservient. The play constructs masculinity as rationality and order and femininity as passion and disorder or corruption. In this way the duchess' behavior becomes in turn a clear metaphor of a Court and a State viewed in decay and increasingly corrupted and ill. The metaphorical pattern created around the body-language of the duchess is that of a femininity that is diseased, corrupted, immoral and decayed, retaining a witch-like status and a devilish body position. The corruption of the court is equated with the corruption of the woman-prince whose power is exceeding and dangerous. In a matter of years, in the real scene of England the disruption of order will be total, with the assassination of the King and the following Civil War. The theatres themselves will be closed and the threat posited by “woman” culturally represented, as the cause of all evils in the patriarchal restoration in search of definite identity will see the final act of the persecution of women as witches and whores.
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