In The Duchess Of Malfi Webster Portrays The Downfall Of The Duchess Explore And Examine The Key Scenes Where These Transitions Take Place
In The Duchess Of Malfi Webster portrays the downfall of the Duchess. Explore and Examine the key scenes where these transitions take place.
From the onset of the play the audience do not have to wait long until we are made aware that some sort of downfall towards the Duchess is going to take place when Ferdinand makes his motives clear, “She’s a young widow, I will not have her marry again”. However, before the downfall can take place, Webster cleverly builds up the Duchess’s status and portrays her as having a patriarchal, powerful air around her, which is shown through her bold declaration and profound statement that those that are “born great” are “forced to woo”. It is this climax of power that is needed to occur by Webster to enable a downfall to happen, without the suspense built up by Webster, the downfall of the Duchess wouldn’t have nearly as great an effect on the audience.
We are made aware of the transition of the Duchess’s downfall in Act 1, Scene 1 when the Duchess makes the first advances in bringing about her own downfall when she chooses love with Antonio causing the divide in their conflicting statuses which will have adverse effects on both there lives, which society in the Jacobean period would have regarded as an immoral relationship. So, although it would seem most likely to argue that the other macabre characters such as the evil Bosola and the conniving Ferdinand were the main catalysts in bringing about the Duchesses downfall, it seems that the Duchess actually sparks the transition herself without realisation. Although, the Duchess is the hero in the play she also has a tragic flaw which is the main cause of her downfall. It could be argued that her flaw is her persistent need for power and her love for Antonio could be just a way of not conforming to the expected role she is meant to fill, which is reflected in her powerful discourse with Antonio, “raise yourself or if you please my hand to help you so”. It is this gender role reversal that Webster makes so subtly, yet shocking to the reader of both contemporary and Jacobean eras, yet clearly show that such a transition will occur, creating a sense of dramatic irony to the audience. This seen cleverly portrays the Duchesses downfall in her speech in which she claims how difficult it is to be virtuous as she is ‘forced to express our violent passions in riddles and in dreams’. Furthermore, Webster’s pun on the word ‘woo’ forcing us as an audience to think of ‘woe’ creates a sense of foreshadowing darker times to come as the juxtaposition of male/female dominance in society shows.
Another key scene where the Duchess’s fall from power is shown is Act 2, Scene 1 where Bosola deceivingly feeds the Duchess apricots which bring on a sudden illness causing her to be physically unwell, therefore limiting her power and giving Bosola a perfect opportunity to gain some. This Duchess claims that ‘this green fruit and my stomach of not friends. How they swell me!’ the ‘green’ of the fruit is a technique used by Webster where colour has associations to emotions. For example, ‘green’ can be linked to jealously which Bosola clearly has for the Duchess’s power, amplifying his desire to be powerful, although forever held back by working for corrupt and powerful masters. Also, ‘green’ can relate to the Duchess’s feelings of sickness and enforce the idea of pregnancy which is created by Webster to create feelings of suspense which grip the audience causing them to want to know more. Antonio’s trick of bringing about the Duchess’s labour earlier causes her to become less focused, more petulant, intolerant and distracted by fashion. In this scene Webster brings in ‘Adam and Eve’ imagery, but reverses it as it is ‘Adam’ who offers ‘Eve’ the forbidden fruit, thus mirroring the gender role reversal between the Duchess and Antonio. The image of ‘horse dung’ shows an image of corruption and brings on her labour and betrayal.
In Act 3, Scene 2 Ferdinand plays a large part in trying to bring about the downfall of the Duchess when Antonio and Cariola suggest a game of hide and seek. However, the Duchess, unaware of their absence, carries on talking when Ferdinand enters, holding the same dagger he did when he first warned her not to remarry. We are now introduced to another character that is keen on stealing power from the Duchess, making it even more likely that she will fall. The fact that Ferdinand is her twin brother heightens the suspense and shows just how far people will go to achieve their desires. However, the Duchess does not fail to show why she is the heroine of the novel and doesn’t seem too fazed by her brother’s attempts to defy her. Her strong juxtaposition with the common stereotype of Jacobean women is quickly shown when she invites him to kill her. The Duchess wonders why should she ‘of all the other princes in the world, be cased up, like a holy relic?’ The Duchess refers to herself as a ‘prince’, which shows her masculinity and would tell an audience of this time that she is a dominant woman, therefore heightening the suspense as the struggle the other characters will have to undergo to succeed in their macabre actions will not be as easy as would be expected in overthrowing a ‘woman’. This scene is pivotal as it clearly shows the Duchess’s demise, which is reflected in the strong change of tone when Ferdinand enters. However, even under threat the Duchess still acts accordingly to how she believes a ‘prince’ should behave in public. The imagery of Ferdinand handing the Duchess the dagger mirrors that of Bosola offering her a knife to pare the apricots, which she also refused, but the same mirrored scene marks another spark of her downfall. The moralistic fable that Ferdinand tells the Duchess marks a poignant moment in this scene as it foreshadow the rest of the Duchess life as it talks of Reputation, Love and Death, this creating a sense of dramatic irony to the audience as the Duchess has already lost her reputation, it seems inevitable that she will go through Love and Death.