A brief exploration of the Duchess as a character constructed by the male gaze in Webster's ‘The Duchess of Malfi’.
Critically analyse the Duchess as constructed by the male gaze in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’
John Webster’s seminal play The Duchess of Malfi was controversial on its debut (circa 1612-1613). The ‘male gaze’ is a concept which refers to the depiction of women in popular culture, art and fiction through the eyes of men, usually involving them being presented as an object of male pleasure rather than a person in their own right. At the start of the play, she is a young widow. Despite her brothers’ warnings, she falls in love with Antonio and defies his wishes in order to marry her lover. In fury at her disobedience, the brothers arrange to have her strangled. Her death is ultimately as a result of provoking displeasure from the men in her life, whose antics the play predominantly focuses on; the Duchess is, then, constructed to an extent through the male gaze. She is described as being sweet and kind, typically desirable female traits, although her intelligence and wit is noted as being equal to that of her brothers. The Duchess’s brothers want her to submit to their control and to refrain from re-marrying, as this will seemingly allow them to inherit her estate (and it is also hinted that Ferdinand harbours an incestuous lust for her). She asserts her independence by marrying Antonio, and so must pay by sacrificing the life from her body. Even in her dying moments, she asserts her strong identity by proclaiming ‘I am the Duchess of Malfi still’ (Webster, 2009, Act 4, Scene 2). Women throughout the novel are treated as disposable – for instance, The Cardinal murders his mistress with a poisoned bible simply for the crime of hearing him confess his murderous plot – but The Duchess is afforded a level of admiration by Bosola, her executioner. The corruption he sees in her brothers afterward ultimately moves him to avenge her by murdering her brothers and thus restoring order to Malfi; despite this, the Duchess’s female body still needed to be sacrificed to enable a male figure to destroy her brothers.
Webster, J. (2009) The Duchess of Malfi. Oxford: Oxford World Classics.