Timothy Fox

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 recreate.

        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:

Bosola Why do you do this?

Ferdinand To bring her to despair (IV.ii.116-17)

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:
[…] 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)
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.

        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:

Edward You that are noble born should pity him

Warwick You that are princely born should shake him off (4.80-81)

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:
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)
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.

        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 achieves greatness:

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
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 somewhat confused.

        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.

  1. Ornstein, p. 129.  >back
  2. Brooke, p. 50.  >back
  3. Calderwood, p. 286.  >back
  4. Ibid.  >back
  5. Hazlitt, p. 80.  >back
  6. Ribner, p. 165.  >back
  7. Ornstein, p. 140.  >back



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        New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Bluestone, Max and Norman Rabkin, eds. Shakespeare’s Contemporaries.
        London: Prentice Hall, 1970.

Calderwood, James L. "The Duchess of Malfi: Styles of Ceremony."
        Shakespeare’s Contemporaries. Max Bluestone and Norman Rabkin, Eds.
        London: Prentice Hall, 1970.

Ellis-Fermor, U. M. Christopher Marlowe.
        Connecticut: Archon Books, 1967.

Hazlitt, William. "Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth."
        Marlowe: The Critical Heritage. Millar Maclure, Ed.
        London: Routledge and Kegan, 1979.

Maclure, Millar, ed. Marlowe: The Critical Heritage.
        London: Routledge and Kegan, 1979.

Marlowe, Christopher. Edward the Second.
        Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsey, Eds.
        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."
        Shakespeare’s Contemporaries. Max Bluestone and Norman Rabkin, Eds.
        London: Prentice Hall, 1970.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. John Russell Brown, Ed.
        Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Text copyright ©2002 Timothy Fox. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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