The Duchess of Malfi explores love and male authority in a traditional society in which women are subjected to the wills of men. The Cardinal’s illicit relationship with Julia provides an example of a woman successfully controlled by a man. Julia is depicted according to the stereotype of a fickle woman, while the Cardinal is the constant figure of authority. Webster even uses animal imagery to describe their relationship: the Cardinal is metaphorically a falconer who tames Julia, the falcon. Later, when Julia becomes infatuated with Bosola, she begs for him to tell her to do something so that she can prove that she loves him—clearly, she understands love to be an experience controlled by men.
The Cardinal and Ferdinand also try to exert their male authority over the Duchess. In order to preserve her honor and reputation (supposedly) and to take her fortune, the brothers seek to prevent her from remarrying. They deliver a rehearsed argument, in which they characterize marriage as a prison and forbid her from marrying again. Once she does so behind their backs, they use all of their power to correct the situation and get revenge on her. We should also note that Ferdinand’s initial argument for the Duchess not to marry has undertones of incest.
The Duchess, however, inverts the pattern of male authority over love. Refusing to remain a widow, she covertly goes against her brothers’ order and marries for love. What’s more, she does so outside of the normal confines of courtship in which the man pursues the woman; in part due to her high birth, she is “forced to woo” Antonio. This marriage between Antonio and the Duchess is figured as a true partnership; the Duchess married Antonio purely out of love, in spite of custom and opposition, as he had no special status or nobility.
Throughout the play, the Duchess continues to defy male authority and assert her own agency, for love, for the sake of her children, and for her own self interest. Even facing her own execution, she remains proud and unafraid, and she undercuts the power of the men executing her by ensuring that her body will be cared for by women after her death. Even so, the Duchess’s final, dying thought is that her husband is still alive. This gestures towards the fact that male authority is still powerful, despite the Duchess’s assertions of her own power, for which she is being executed. The Duchess, then, can be seen both as a proud example of a woman exerting her will and a tragic example of society’s refusal to relinquish the power of male authority.
Love and Male Authority ThemeTracker
Love and Male Authority Quotes in The Duchess of Malfi
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.
You live in a rank pasture here, i'th' court.
There is a kind of honey-dew that's deadly:
'Twill poison your fame. Look to't. Be not cunning,
For they whose faces do belie their hearts
Are witches ere they arrive at twenty years,
Ay, and give the devil suck.
Your darkest actions - nay, your privat'st thoughts –
Will come to light.
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.
I would have their bodies
Burnt in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopped,
That their curs'd smoke might not ascend to heaven;
Or dip the sheets they lie in in pitch or sulphur,
Wrap them in't, and then light them like a match;
Or else to boil their bastard to a cullis,
And give't his lecherous father to renew
The sin of his back.
Do you think that herbs or charms
Can force the will? Some trials have been made
In this foolish practice, but the ingredients
Were lenitive poisons, such as are of force
To make the patient mad; and straight the witch
Swears, by equivocation, they are in love.
The witchcraft lies in her rank blood.
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?
Thou dost blanch mischief;
Wouldst make it white. See, see, like to calm weather
At sea, before a tempest, false hearts speak fair
To those they intend most mischief.
Thou art happy that thou hast not understanding
To know thy misery; for all our wit
And reading brings us to a truer sense
That's the greatest torture souls feel in hell:
In hell that they must live, and cannot die.
I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in't 'gainst my will.
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.
BOSOLA: Doth not death fright you?
DUCHESS: Who would be afraid on't,
Knowing to meet such excellent company
In th'other world?
I know death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits; and 'tis found
They go on such strange, geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways.
…Tell my brothers
That I perceive death, now I am well awake,
Best gift is they can give or I can take.
Only, I must confess, I had a hope,
Had she continued widow, to have gained
An infinite mass of treasure by her death,
And that was the main cause: her marriage -
That drew a stream of gall quite through my heart.
For thee - as we observe in tragedies
That a good actor many times is cursed
For playing a villain's part - I hate thee for't,
And, for my sake, say thou hast done much ill well.
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.
BOSOLA: O good Antonio,
I'll whisper one thing in thy dying ear
Shall make thy heart break quickly: thy fair Duchess
And two sweet children -
ANTONIO: Their very names
Kindle a little life in me.
BOSOLA: - are murdered!
ANTONIO: Some men have wished to die
At the hearing of sad tidings. I am glad
That I shall do't in sadness. I would not now
Wish my wounds balmed nor healed, for I have no use
To put my life to.