Antithetical Approach To Marriage In 'The Duchess Of Malfi'

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Webster has depicted an antithetical approach to marriage within his Senecan play, The Duchess of Malfi. The play was written in the Jacobean era which, at the time, was a patriarchal society and so by creating a dominant female protagonist, who did just about whatever she pleased Webster has managed to incorporate a semantic field of death and pain to fit alongside his juxtapositions of a typical Jacobean marriage.

To begin, Webster uses the idea of marriage being equal to ownership and power over another. As a widow the Duchess has the potential to wield power independently of a husband and sever her allegiances to other male kin, for instance her misogynistic brothers. The first way she exerts this power is through her declarative marriage proposal to Antonio “a young widow// That claims you for her husband”. Through the use of the transitive verb “claims” Webster has made the Duchess seem strong and dominant, asserting her power of ‘high blood’ over the steward Antonio. This power scares Antonio, understandably so, as his role in a marriage would usually be the dominating one and typically the husband ‘owned’ the wife, specifically through the law of ‘feme covert’, so far, we see that the Duchess tries to draw Antonio up to her level of status thus aligning with ‘feme covert’ (her legal identity is being subsumed by him). However, Antonio does fear this “You do tremble: Make not your heart so dead a piece of flesh” and is therefore intimidated by the assertive Duchess.

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