A Discussion of Morality and Horror in The Duchess
of Malfi and Edward II
According to Robert Ornstein,
we should expect a Renaissance tragedy to display "a depth of vision that
penetrates the surface violence or anarchy of life to illumine the underlying
pattern and meaning of man’s fate".1 Ornstein infers that Renaissance drama
should a reveal a sense of divine morality and purpose beneath the exterior
confusion of life. However, is it necessarily true that Renaissance playwrights
desired to exhibit such a virtuous texture, or did they perhaps wish to
shock us with the suggestion that horror penetrates deeper than the skin?
This is certainly a view
implied by The Duchess of Malfi : "Why do you laugh? Methinks you
that are/ courtiers should be my touchwood […]/ laugh when I laugh. Ferdinand
demands that his courtiers laugh only when he deems it appropriate; a desire
that is itself laughable. He is attempting to assert his position as a
Machiavellian prince, but his words undermine him and he is instead cast
as a figure of jest. However, this apparent harmlessness is a facade: "What
appears in him mirth is merely outside" (I.i.170). Antonio declares that
the humour of Ferdinand’s character is actually only a shell. Once this
is broken, the audience will be able to see his true personality. Contrary
to Ornstein’s belief, Antonio suggests that horror is not superficial.
Instead, what might initially appear amusing, can in fact be terrifying:
"You are my sister-/ This was my father’s poniard. Do you see?/ I’d be
loth to see ’t look rusty" (I.i.330-33). Ferdinand’s threat to murder his
sister if she should remarry might be perversely amusing, yet it exposes
the sinister and perhaps even incestuous nature of the play. Ferdinand
and the Cardinal are determined that only they should possess the Duchess,
a fact that is borne out most vehemently by the imprisonment and grotesque
torture of her: "Here’s a hand/ To which you have vowed much love; the
ring upon it you gave" (IV.i.43-44). Ferdinand gives the Duchess what she
thinks to be the hand of Antonio, tricking her into believing that both
her husband and her children have been murdered. The Duchess’s ‘crime’
in marrying her steward surely does not befit such cruelty. "It has often
been pointed out that there is a violation of the correct ‘order’ which
is supposed to have affected Jacobean audiences with the moral force of
a tragic ‘flaw’ but […] the play entirely assumes the audience’s complicity
and therefore approval of the Duchess’s action".2 If the Duchess’s punishment
is not intended by Webster to be a moral lesson to the audience, teaching
them not to break social boundaries, then what is its purpose? As the Cardinal’s
reaction to her marriage intimates, it is perhaps still related to her
disregard for their noble blood: "Shall our blood/ The royal blood of Castile
and Aragon/ Be thus attainted?" (II.v.22-24). The Cardinal makes this statement
before he knows the identity of his sister’s lover. He therefore cannot
be aware that she has married a person of lower birth. He is therefore
concerned only with the fact that her blood has been poisoned by someone
outside of her family. It might be argued that the Duchess’s first marriage
renders this argument void, but we know nothing of her original husband
or the circumstances of his death. Instead, the hint of incest is reconfirmed
by Ferdinand: "I could kill her now/ In you, or in myself, for I do think/
it is some sin is us heaven doth revenge" (II.v.63-65). James L. Calderwood
suggests that Ferdinand’s outburst represents an identification of "his
latent desire with her realized desire"; that Ferdinand associates his
sister’s sexual fulfilment with his unconscious yearning for her.3 Indeed,
it might even be suggested that Ferdinand not only longs for a incestuous
relationship, but that he and his siblings are the product of one: "You
never fixed your eye on three fair medals/ Cast in one figure" (I.i.188-89).
Much is made of the fact that the Duchess and her two brothers are startling
similar in appearance. Whilst this alone does not confirm an incestuous
family history, we might wish to reinterpret Ferdinand’s original threat:
"You are my sister-/ This was my father’s poniard […]/ I’d be loth to see
’t look rusty" (I.i.330-33). Ferdinand’s warning infers a sexual relationship
between his father and the Duchess: a relationship that he threatens to
How though, do Ferdinand’s
bizarre sexual desires relate to his horrific torture of his sister? According
to Calderwood, Ferdinand "seeks the purgation of his own tainted blood
in the purging of hers".4 He is repulsed by the realisation of his desire
and so wishes to cleanse the perceived sins of the Duchess so that he might
also cleanse his own. I would suggest the opposite. In imprisoning his
sister Ferdinand is attempting to fulfil his lust:
With the most disturbing line of the play, Ferdinand declares his intention
to deprive the Duchess of hope. He desires her complete subjection to his
will. He is not purging his sins, but indulging in them: "Damn her! That
body of hers" (IV.ii.122). Ferdinand cannot escape his monstrous passion
for the Duchess as his desires overcome him entirely:
Bosola Why do you do this?
Ferdinand To bring her to despair (IV.ii.116-17)
In tormenting his sister with frolicking madmen, designed to keep her awake
at night, Ferdinand is envisaging his own rape of the Duchess. By "seeing
the skull beneath the skin", Webster has not found morality, but the ultimate
horror and taboo.
[…] let them practise together, sing and dance,
And act their gambols to the full o’th’ moon.
If she can sleep the better for it, let her (IV.ii.129-31)
The Duchess of Malfi closely
resembles Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second: "let us leave
the brainsick King/ And henceforth parley with our naked swords" (1.124-25).
Mortimer Junior, like Ferdinand, desires to be a Machiavellian prince.
It is clear from the beginning of the play that he is not prepared to tolerate
the "base minion" (1.132) that is Gaveston, and so commits himself to usurping
Edward. Mortimer and his noble followers wish to punish Edward for daring
to threaten the social hierarchy:
As with the Duchess, Edward challenges traditional social conventions by
expressing his love for a person of lower birth. Moreover, this person
is of course French and male: "I’ll bandy with the barons and the earls/
And die or live with Gaveston" (1.136-370). Clearly Edward is not an innocent
victim of Mortimer’s scheming. He has betrayed his status as a king by
declaring his love for a foreign male peasant, yet more importantly he
threatens the stability of his nation:
Edward You that are noble born should pity him
Warwick You that are princely born should shake him off (4.80-81)
Edward does not care for the future of his realm, but only for Gaveston.
His faults though are those of a poor king, not of a man who deserves to
be murdered: "They seize Edward and hold him down, laying the table on
him. Lightborne murders him with the spit. He screams and dies" (24). The
brutal rape of Edward - a confirmation yet also extinction of his sexuality
is, like that of the Duchess, a punishment that does not fit his crime.
Make several kingdoms of this monarchy,
And share it equally amongst you all,
So that I may have some nook or corner left
To frolic with my dearest Gaveston (4.70-73)
The parallels between Edward
the Second and The Duchess of Malfi imply that Webster’s play,
or at least its conclusion, is a re-enactment of Marlowe’s: "Know that
I am a king" (24.88). Edward’s attempt to reassert his position is clearly
the futile gesture of a broken man. Yet, it is through his fall that he
Edward is able to achieve a degree of self awareness, recognising that
he has caused the death of his friends. For this, he is prepared to accept
his fate. It is tempting therefore to place Edward in the role of a tragic
hero, his death creating as it does "the sense of human weakness, claiming
pity from utter helplessness and conscious misery".5 Edward’s pain can easily
be seen as a moral lesson, a view that would reinforce Ornstein’s belief
that Renaissance tragedy should find a pattern of fate beneath its violence.
However, according to Irving Ribner, "Marlowe […] does not see in history
the working out of any divine providence".6 Edward the Second is
not attempting to apply a moral judgement to history. It is instead a reworking
of the past in which fate is decided purely by action. This abandonment
of virtue highlights the crucial difference between Marlowe’s play and
that of Webster, whose Duchess is surely a deliberate ‘mis-creation’ of
Edward: "I am Duchess of Malfi still" (IV.ii.141). The Duchess' speech
mirrors that of Edward. However, whilst Edward is clearly defeated, the
Duchess’ reaffirmation of her position is perceived as a sign of strength
and resolve. "Her self possession in the face of death is a spiritual victory
rather than a glorious defeat".7 Ornstein almost compares the Duchess to
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, inferring that, in death, she can transcend the
immorality of life. Yet whilst the Duchess is virtuous "I forgive them"
[her executioners] (IV.ii.206) we must not overlook the fact that we do
not learn her true name. The Duchess is denied an identity even when she
is seemingly a symbol of absolute virtue. Her moral "victory" then, is
O Gaveston, it is for thee that I am wronged;
For me both thou and both the Spencer’s died,
And for your sakes a thousand wrongs I’ll take
The ambiguity that pervades
morality is expressed by the respective murderers of Edward and the Duchess:
"These hands were never stained with innocent blood/ Nor shall they now
be tainted with a king’s" (24.80-81). Lightborne’s apparent attempt to
reassure Edward is purposely vague. It might be suggested that he is deceiving
Edward, for evidently he will murder him. Such an interpretation though,
would force us to apply a moral reading to Lightborne’s actions, when what
he says is not actually false. At this moment in the play, Edward is no
longer king. Lightborne’s hands will not be stained with the blood of a
monarch, but with that of a common man. The morality of Lightborne is of
no concern. He is merely playing his part in the play and in history. In
contrast, Bosola does deceive the Duchess "Come, be of comfort; I will
save your life" (IV.i.86). Although Bosola questions Ferdinand’s treatment
of the Duchess and intends to protect her, he is unable to fulfil his vow.
He might not appear in his "own shape", but Bosola is still the Duchess’s
executioner: "I am come to make thy tomb" (IV.ii.114). His disguise cannot,
must not, excuse him from her murder. Despite wishing to find the virtues
of the Duchess in himself, Bosola still allows horror to conquer. The failure
of morality is finally highlighted by Bosola’s accidental killing of Antonio:
"The man I would have saved ’bove mine own life!" (V.v.53). Although attempting
to revenge the wrongs of himself, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, Bosola shows
that ultimately, virtue can never be victorious.
Therefore, is "the skull
beneath the skin" the vision of a moralist or a purveyor of horror? This
is perhaps best answered by the conclusions of the plays themselves. Both
end with the rightful heir taking their place. However, in Edward the
Second, King Edward III has a voice: "Accursed head!/ Could I have
ruled then as I do now/ Thou hadst not hatched this monstrous treachery
(25.95-97). Edward III promises to be a strong ruler. In a play that dramatises
violence but apparently eschews morality, there is still hope. Marlowe
clearly displays the horrors of life yet, in refusing to seek justification
for them, he finds nothing worse. In contrast, the son of Antonio and the
Duchess can make no speech. He is left an orphan, to be the prey of more
powerful men. The Duchess might have achieved a spiritual victory, but
horror has not been vanquished. Instead, by penetrating the surface anarchy
of life we find, not a divine moral pattern, but a cycle of terror.
- Ornstein, p. 129. >back
- Brooke, p. 50. >back
- Calderwood, p. 286. >back
- Ibid. >back
- Hazlitt, p. 80. >back
- Ribner, p. 165. >back
- Ornstein, p. 140. >back
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Bluestone, Max and Norman Rabkin, eds. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries.
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Calderwood, James L. "The Duchess of Malfi: Styles of Ceremony."
Max Bluestone and Norman Rabkin, Eds.
London: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Ellis-Fermor, U. M. Christopher Marlowe.
Connecticut: Archon Books,
Hazlitt, William. "Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of
Marlowe: The Critical
Heritage. Millar Maclure, Ed.
London: Routledge and Kegan,
Maclure, Millar, ed. Marlowe: The Critical Heritage.
London: Routledge and Kegan,
Marlowe, Christopher. Edward the Second.
Martin Wiggins and Robert
London: New Mermaids, 1999.
Morris, Brian. John Webster.
London: Ernest Benn, 1970.
Ornstein, Robert. The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy.
Wisconsin: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1975.
Ribner, Irving. "Marlowe’s Edward II and The Tudor History Play."
Max Bluestone and Norman Rabkin, Eds.
London: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. John Russell Brown, Ed.
Manchester: Manchester University
Text copyright ©2002 Timothy Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.
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