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The Duchess. She's, well, the Duchess.
Probably the most important thing to know about the Duchess when you begin reading this play is her very special snowflake social position. In Renaissance Europe, a woman was, in almost every conceivable situation, under the power of some man in her life: before marriage, her father; after marriage, her husband. Husband dies? Usually an adult son steps in.
Our girl the Duchess, though, is almost unique in that, having been widowed by her first husband and not having had any children by him (there's one mention of a son by Husband Numero Uno—the former Duke of Malfi—but we're pretty sure that that's a mistake) she not only gets to more or less control her own life but she's also inherited the political power of her dead husband. This complicated set of circumstances leaves us with a single, autonomous young woman getting to be large and in charge in her own court.
She, quite literally, rules.
The Duchess is a personal and dramatic powerhouse: she defies her brothers, marries for love, does her level best to keep her family safe and survives the tortures of Ferdinand with her sanity intact. Also, she's kind of hard to kill: in addition to reviving for a moment after she's been executed, she comes back as an echoing voice warning Antonio in the final act—even once she's dead you can't hold this woman down. Sisters are doin' it for themselves.
While rare, the Duchess's position isn't totally unprecedented. What's really shocking about her is her willingness to totally chuck social norms out the window and get hitched to a social inferior. Yeah, her brothers can't legally control her, but that they'd blatantly order her not to remarry and that she'd then turn around and say "Let old wives report / I winked and chose a husband" (1.1.340-41)? That's some real moxie.
The Duchess's marriage to Antonio is social crazycakes to early modern society on several levels:
In short, there are a lot of unwritten social rules she's breaking here, even though it's actually perfectly legal for her to marry Antonio (and, believe it or not, her quickie marriage in her bedroom with Cariola as witness is legitimately legally binding).
Okay, see that lest entry on that list up above? Well, don't diminish the power of that last crime. The Duchess straight-up professes that she's got sexual desire aplenty, insisting to Antonio that "This is flesh and blood, sir, / 'Tis not a figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband's tomb" (1.1.445-47). She's also not shy about telling Antonio that, hey, she's already been married once; no need to pretend she's a blushing virgin who doesn't know what she's doing.
So, the Duchess's sexuality is definitely a Thing, and you should keep your eye on how the play deals with it. At one extreme you have Ferdinand, who is famously obsessed with his sister's sexuality. Once Bosola reports to him that the Duchess has given birth, Ferdinand has a conniption fit, where he imagines his sister to be a nightmarish amalgamation of every old-school fear about women's sexuality. Instead of logically concluding "yeah, she's clearly had sex with somebody, ergo newborn baby," he jumps all the way to:
She hath had most cunning bawds to serve her turn
And more secure conveyances for lust
Than towns of garrisons, for service.
[…] my imagination will carry me
To see her in the shameful act of sin…
Happily with some strong-thighed bargement;
Or one o'tho'woodyard that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar…[continuing list of various sexy but low-born guys] (2.5.9-11, 40-45)
Ferdinand's calling upon the popular early modern concept of the "lusty widow" (which is something he literally calls her [1.1.332]), the socially and sexually liberated woman who disposes of her body as she will… all over the place, with hunky bargemen, in Ferdinand's imagination. To him, if the Duchess is in any way not totally celibate and devoid of desire she becomes this really scary, indiscriminate Sex Monster. Hey, dude's crazy, remember?
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Duchess herself, who really sees nothing wrong with sex (and her having it) as long as it happens within marriage. A good example of these two attitudes clashing is the boudoir scene in Act 3 when Ferdinand sneaks into her room and confronts her about how she's apparently been having kids with somebody.
In this scene, the Duchess clearly thinks that the problem is that Ferdinand doesn't know that she's married, and keeps trying to bring home the point that, since she has in fact gotten married, it's all kosher. She doesn't seem to get that Ferdinand's flying off the handle for a deeper reason: he could care less that she's married, that she's engaged in any kind of sexual activity that he can't control is more than enough to warrant the worst possible punishment.
There's a lot of talk about the Duchess's body, from its changing shape (because of her pregnancies) to its age, beauty, generative powers, and especially the Duchess's own comfort with it. When Ferdinand finally imprisons the Duchess in Act 4, he doesn't try to hurt her body; he doesn't physically torture her. Instead, he does his level best to drive her insane—in essence, to dislocate her from her body.
It doesn't end up working, though; the Duchess stays so firmly within her body, so resolutely sane, that her body becomes her prison, an idea that she and Bosola dwell on a lot in the movements leading up to her death. For more on this body-as-a-prison business, go check out "Setting."
It's not all husbands and babies for the Duchess, though. Keep in mind that this woman is in fact a ruler (she gets referred to as a "prince" multiple times).
While the Duchess is described as being, in contrast to her dirtbag brothers, a really great person, you kind of have to wonder about her effectiveness as a prince. She's plenty smart, but is also really swayed by her passions, and she doesn't sound like a stellar judge of character—the Duchess way underestimates her brothers' capacity for evil (thinking that "time will easily / Scatter the tempest" [1.1.263-64]), and lets Bosola into her court and in on her deepest secret with minimal work on his part. Maybe a little more caution would have done her some good.
The only time we really get a solid indication of her status as a ruler is when things start going downhill: even though her marriage with Antonio is going well, the secrecy that it requires has taken a toll her political standing, and her people are spreading nasty rumors about her. It may sound harsh to come down on the Duchess for being unpopular, but keep in mind that it's her job to effectively rule her people. Even though we definitely root for Team Antonio and Duchess (TAD!) you can easily interpret the Duchess's marrying Antonio as her failing to live up to her duties as prince.
Something to keep your eye on is how the Duchess's roles as wife and mother diverge, criss-cross and overlap with her role as a ruler.
Take, for instance, the boudoir scene we were talking about above. Ferdinand comes into her bedroom (a domestic space) after she's been flirting with her husband and getting ready for bed (playing up her role as a domestic figure), and the first thing out of her mouth when she sees him is "For know, whether I am doomed to live, or die, / I can do both like a prince" (3.2.69-70). She steps fluidly, immediately into her role as sovereign. This is a girl who knows how to juggle.
You should ask yourself whether the Duchess is ever "totally a wife" or "totally a prince"—even in that really intimate bedroom scene with her husband, you have to remember that we never actually learn the Duchess's name; she's only ever referred to by her aristocratic title. In our heads, we call her Susie.
You could say that the Duchess's tragedy is the result of the disastrous collision of her various social roles—her position relative to her brothers it totally at odds with her position relative to Antonio (who, don't forget, is both her husband and her employee), to her children, and to her subjects.
In short, this is a lady with a lot of different hats to wear, and some critics actually argue that the play's main tragedy is the Duchess's inability to balance them all on top of her head at the same time. She can't manage to maintain her family life with Antonio on the down-low while also ruling her duchy as a public figure and acting as the Head Baby-Maker of her family's bloodline.
The deck is definitely stacked against a woman like the Duchess, and she's required to perform a kind of juggling act with all of her different political and social responsibilities. A key question to be asking is if the Duchess is doomed because a moral person doesn't stand a chance in the hopelessly corrupt and cruel world Webster writes about, or if she's brought down by her own choices as a strong, independent woman.