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Red Bull Theater's reading of John Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI will premiere LIVE in person at 7:30 PM ET on November 14, 2022. The performance will be simulcast online that evening and the recording will be available until Sunday, November 20 at 11:59 PM ET. Get full details here.

In Renaissance tragedy, women who assert their sexual independence often meet a bad end: think of Juliet, Gertrude, Desdemona, and Cleopatra. Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, who secretly marries her steward in defiance of her brothers’ commandments, could be placed in this company, but she also has a unique status as a titular tragic hero, a status she earns through the conviction of her right to act on her erotic desires. This is not to claim that The Duchess of Malfi (1614) is concerned with sexuality alone. If Webster is drawing from love tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet and Othello, he is also drawing on the theatrical styles and ideological concerns of violent revenge tragedy such as Hamlet, of sentimental domestic tragedy such as Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, and of political tragedy such as King Lear. In the Duchess’ bold assertion of will—“If all my royal kindred / Lay in my way unto this marriage, / I’d make them my low footsteps”—Webster even echoes Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the archetype of aggressive masculine ambition.

The rich theatrical legacy Webster weaves into his tragedy contributes to the fascinating complexity of the Duchess’ character. Citing the Renaissance stereotype of the “lusty widow,” some have found that the play condemns the Duchess for indulging her imprudent passion for a servant. Although the Duchess conceals her marriage to Antonio for many years, her subjection to private surveillance and public scrutiny undermines her political authority, taints her family’s honor, and exposes her husband and children to danger. In the play’s characteristically treacherous and competitive Italian court, rumor thrives: after the birth of her third child, the Duchess’ subjects regard her as a “strumpet” and her children as bastards. Nonetheless, others have found the Duchess courageous and sympathetic. The Duchess’ corrupt brothers, Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who hypocritically keeps his own mistress, tyrannically impose their will upon her. Ferdinand, in particular, is no less a creature of passion than his sister: at one point, he whips himself into a violent frenzy at imagining the pleasure she would take in having sex with a sturdy laborer. Most importantly, the play belies the simplistic stereotype of the lusty widow by revealing the Duchess’ genuine affection for Antonio: the tender, playful intimacy she shares with him explains why she would risk so much to marry beneath her rank.

Webster’s characteristic fascination with death adds atmospheric intensity to the threat of ruin that hangs over the Duchess. Beneath the glittering surface of the court, with its ordered ceremonies, rich attire, and elegant language, lurk confusion, decay, and deformity. The glorious palace sits above the dungeon in which the Duchess will suffer grotesquely cruel torments. A bitter philosopher of mortality, Bosola ponders the “rich tissue” that adorns the courtier’s body, “eaten up of lice and worms,” and instructs the Duchess to regard her flesh as no more than “a little curded milk, fantastical puff-paste.” Ferdinand’s suspicion that the Duchess has “witchcraft in her blood” not only associates female sexual vitality with the hidden physical abnormalities typically attributed to witches, but also suggests that the very blood of the royal family is tainted with madness or sin. Tormented by guilt over the Duchess’ death, Ferdinand will fall victim to lycanthropy, thus ironically losing hold of the very aristocratic identity whose purity he had tried to restore by violently purging his sister of her sexual transgression.

As in Hamlet and King Lear, by the last act of The Duchess of Malfi corpses have rapidly accumulated and the future of the state remains uncertain. Dying, Ferdinand articulates a grim philosophy of passion as a self-destructive force: “Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.” Ferdinand’s bleak sentiment, however, must be counterpoised against the play’s suggestion that passion can also motivate honorable and compassionate actions—actions that are worthy even when impure or ineffective. Regretting his role in the Duchess’ demise, Bosola belatedly determines to vindicate her by seeking “just revenge” against her brothers and by protecting Antonio from their wrath. Howsoever we might judge Bosola’s imperfect morality and imperfect success, Webster’s tragedy asks us to pause before condemning as self-destructive those actions that might reflect a more considered form of self-awareness or even self-sacrifice.

Mario DiGangi | Lehman College and The Graduate Center, CUNY

Mario DiGangi specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, with an emphasis on gender, sexuality, and embodiment. He is the author of two books, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge, 1997) and Sexual Types: Embodiment, Agency, and Dramatic Character from Shakespeare to Shirley (Pennsylvania, 2011). He is the editor, with Amanda Bailey, of Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts: Politics, Ecologies, Form (Palgrave, 2017). He has edited three plays of Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale (Bedford), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Barnes&Noble) and Romeo and Juliet (Barnes&Noble). His recent work (in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. and Women, Sex and Gender in the Early Modern Anglophone World) develops his long-standing commitment to feminist scholarship. His current projects address intersectionality (particularly of race and sexuality) in early modern English literature and criticism.


Red Bull Theater's reading of John Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI will premiere LIVE in person at 7:30 PM ET on November 14, 2022. The performance will be simulcast online that evening and the recording will be available until Sunday, November 20 at 11:59 PM ET. Get full details here.


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