Study Guide

The Duchess of Malfi Marriage

By John Webster

Marriage

Diamonds are of most value,

They say, that have passed through most jewellers' hands (1.1.92-93)

In the face of her brothers' insistence that she not remarry, the Duchess shoots back that women are like diamonds that accrue value by being hitched. So there.

Ferdinand: Let not youth, high promotion, eloquence—

Cardinal: No, nor any thing without the addition, honour,

Sway your high blood.

Ferdinand: Marry? They are most luxurious

Will wed twice. (1.1.288-291)

First, you have the Cardinal, telling the Duchess that she can't let her "blood" be swayed. This has a double meaning: in one hand he's warning her about the sway-ability of her "blood," using the word to refer to her sexual desires and passions; on the other hand, he's also referring to her blood as her aristocratic lineage, which can be jolted off-course by the Duchess's choosing to remarry and mix her blood with somebody else's. Second, you have Ferdinand, talking about the "luxury" of widows who remarry, playing off the idea of widows as being lecherous and uncontrollable.

Shall this move me? If all my royal kindred

Lay in my way unto this marriage

I'd make the my love foot-steps, and even now,

Even in this hate, as men in some great battles,

By apprehending danger have achieved

Almost impossible actions—I have heard soldiers say so—

So I, through frights and threat'nings will assay

This dangerous venture. Let old wives report

I winked and chose a husband. (1.1.333-45)

The Duchess has clearly got impressive reserves of chutzpah. She's just calmly told her brothers that, yeah, no worries, she won't remarry without their say-so, only to turn around and baldly announce that she'd walk over the bodies of them and the rest of her lineage to get to the altar with Antonio. She's not merely transgressive here; this is downright audacious. The other neat thing to notice is her reliance on masculine, heroic language here; the Duchess is talking about soldiers and great battles to authorize her decision to remarry. She's a prince, damn it, she's gotta do what she's gotta do.

The misery of us that are born great,

We are forced to woo because none dare woo us:

And as a tyrant doubles with his words,

And fearfully equivocates, so we

Are forced to express our violent passions

In riddles and in dreams and leave the path

Of simple virtue which was never made

To seem the thing it is not. (1.1.433-40)

It's hard out here for a Duchess. She's down to mingle, but no guy would dare put the moves on her because of her rank. Even the virtuous Duchess, then, has to resort to deceit to get the wheels turning. Notice that she doesn't once identify herself as a woman here. Her dilemma, as she conceives it, springs solely from her identity as a sovereign, a position that has put her squarely into the role of the man in the courtship process.

I do here put off all vain ceremony

And only do appear to you a young widow

That claims you for her husband; and like a widow,

I use but half a blush in't. (1.1.448-51)

The Duchess, as you may have noticed, is not big on "vain ceremony" in general, and definitely not when she's doing her level best to get Antonio to marry her. Notice here that she's trying to divorce herself from her political and social position as much as possible, and to only embody the identity of "young, available, and, btw, not virginal."

That last bit is developed throughout the play into one of the Duchess's most distinctive characteristics. The Duchess uses her sexual experience as a source of power in kind of the opposite way that Queen Elizabeth used her virginity. This is a lady who's been around the block, which not only adds to her case for Why I Want Antonio, but also authorizes her to choose her husband in a way that wouldn't have been allowed a single virgin.

These words should be mine,

And all the parts you have spoke, if some part of it

Would not have savoured flattery. (1.1.464-66)

Hey, that's my line. Antonio's words are spoken directly in response to the Duchess's promise that he doesn't need to worry about her brothers, but they apply equally to everything that's gone down in the past several hundred lines.

Throughout this scene, the Duchess has been the one doing all of the traditional man's work in the courtship process: she came on to him, she persuaded him, she told him all of the reasons that their marriage was a good idea, and now Antonio's all, "wait, isn't this supposed to be my job?" This idea of the Duchess taking the dominant, conventionally masculine role in their role continues throughout the play, despite her initial pronouncement that she wishes to make Antonio her "overseer."

Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman

Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows

A fearful madness. (1.1.492-94)

While Cariola serves as the sole witness to the Duchess and Antonio's marriage and promises to keep their secret, she thinks this whole thing is cray-cray. She's utterly loyal to the Duchess, but doesn't know what to make of her decision to secretly marry her social inferior.

What do you think Cariola means by the "spirit of greatness or of woman"? A possible interpretation is that Cariola doesn't know whether to impute the Duchess's decision to her role as prince ("I do what I want!") or as a woman ("I want a husband!"). Either way, it definitely freaks her out.

Oh fie upon this single life! Forgo it:

We read how Daphne, for her peevish flight,

Became a fruitless bay-tree, Syrinx turn'd

To the pale empty reed, Anaxarete

Was frozen into marble, whereas those

Which married, or proved kind unto their friends,

Were by a gracious influence transshaped

Into the olive, pomegranate, mulberry,

Became flowers, precious stones or eminent stars. (3.2.23-31)

Antonio's telling Cariola that she shouldn't stay single, citing a bunch of examples from Ovid's The Metamorphoses where women who insisted on chastity were transformed into barren, empty things, while women who chose marriage and sexual union were transformed into things of much greater value.

Something kind of neat about Antonio's particular examples is that married ladies get transformed not only into things which illustrate their value as the bearers of children (olives, pomegranate, and mulberry trees as symbols of fruitfulness and generation), but also "precious stones or eminent stars," which don't correlate with women's reproductive capabilities.

Why should only I

Of all the other princes of the world

Be cased up like a holy relic? I have youth,

And a little beauty. (3.2.136-39)

The Duchess wants to know why Ferdinand's so adamant about harshing her remarriage groove, and she's doing it in an interesting way. First she demands to know how anybody can tell a prince that he/she can't remarry. Then, in a move very characteristic of her interactions with Ferdinand, the Duchess changes tact and approaches the question from a totally different angle: she's a young, single woman, it's only natural that she marry. Both of these appeals to convention fall on deaf ears. Ferdinand doesn't care that she's young or that she's an independent political ruler; first and foremost the Duchess is his sister, and he wants to control her.

You violate a sacrament o'th'Church

Shall make you howl in hell for't. (4.1.38-39)

This line, spoken by the Duchess right after Ferdinand calls her children bastards, is fabulous: the Duchess, who's been oppressed by patriarchal power throughout the play, is here authorizing herself and her marriage through the patriarchal power of the church; essentially rebelling against Ferdinand by submitting to rule of Man Power. Also, given what happens later, the Duchess's promise that Ferdinand will "howl in hell" makes it sound like she's cursing him to turn into the werewolf he eventually becomes. How fierce is the Duchess? So fierce.

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