The Duchess’s marriage to Antonio is not just remarkable because she was the pursuer and because she married against her brothers’ will. It is also remarkable because she married someone of a lower class. During their courtship, Antonio is careful not to appear to ambitious, which is considered dangerous for someone in a lower class. Further, in the marriage scene, the Duchess laments the misery of being high born, which forces her to woo because no one dares to woo her. Such a marriage would have been progressive and scandalous at the time. The significance of this marriage is not lost on Bosola, another one of the play’s lowerclassmen with upward mobility. When Bosola finds out about the marriage, he is stunned. He asks if in such an ambitious time, is there really a woman who would marry a man simply for his worth, without all of his wealth and honors. And when she confirms the marriage, Bosola launches into a speech about how praiseworthy the Duchess is for marrying Antonio, saying that she shows that some benefits in the world can still come from merit.
The marriage and Bosola’s reaction to it, when paired with other details, suggest the play’s treatment of class in general. First, we can note that Webster himself was not noble born; he was the son of a tailor. Next, we can note that Delio, a minor character and friend of Antonio (with whom he shares a social class), speaks the play’s opening and closing lines. While Shakespeare, for example, often gave closing lines to the character of the highest status, Webster inverts this tradition, in part to emphasize the fact that most upper class characters have died. Class is shown, on the one hand, to be binding and restricting (as it is one of the reasons the marriage is so scandalous and ends so tragically), but Webster’s play also suggests that class is fluid, that figures can rise and fall in status, and that true worth and merit should be given a greater value than birth, wealth, and social status.
Class Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi
A prince's court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver drops in general; but if't chance
Some cursed example poison't near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.
And what is't makes this blessèd government
But a most provident council, who dare freely
Inform him the corruption of the times.
With all your divinity do but direct me the way to it. I have
known many travel far for it, and yet return as arrant knaves
as they went forth, because they carried themselves always
along with them.
Believe my experience: that realm is never long in quiet where
the ruler is a soldier.
Some such flashes superficially hang on him, for form; but observe his inward character: he is a melancholy churchman. The spring in his face is nothing but the engendering of toads. Where he is jealous of any man he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules, for he strews in his way flatterers, panders, intelligencers, atheists, and a thousand such political monsters.
The Duke there? A most perverse and turbulent nature;
What appears in him mirth is merely outside.
If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh
All honesty out of fashion.
He speaks with others' tongues, and hears men's suits
With others' ears; will seem to sleep o’th' bench
Only to entrap offenders in their answers;
Dooms men to death by information,
Rewards by hearsay.
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.
Make not your heart so dead a piece of flesh
To fear more than to love me. Sir, be confident.
What is't distracts you? This is flesh and blood, sir;
'Tis not the figure, cut in alabaster,
Kneels at my husband's tomb.
You may thank me, lady.
I have taken you off your melancholy perch,
Bore you upon my fist, and showed you game,
And let you fly at it. I pray thee, kiss me.
When thou wast with thy husband, thou wast watched
Like a tame elephant - still you are to thank me.
Do I not dream? Can this ambitious age
Have so much goodness in't as to prefer
A man merely for worth, without these shadows
Of wealth and painted honours? Possible?
Damn her! That body of hers,
While that my blood ran pure in't, was more worth
Than that which thou wouldst comfort, called a soul.
It may be that the sudden apprehension
Of danger - for I'll go in mine own shape –
When he shall see it fraught with love and duty,
May draw the poison out of him, and work
A friendly reconcilement. If it fail,
Yet it shall rid me of this infamous calling;
For better fall once than be ever falling.