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The Princely Powers of the Duchess of Malfi

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The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy, originally published under this name in 1623, is a Jacobean drama written by John Webster in 1612-13. The play starts off as a love story with the Duchess secretly marrying the steward of the household Antonio; a man beneath her class who she has fallen in love with. This marriage immediately shows the Duchess’ “princely powers” by defying the wishes of her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, to not marry again after being widowed. Webster portrays her brother Ferdinand’s power as a corrupted duplicate of an ideal. An ideal that the Duchess reaches through the drag of patriarchy. However the play ends as a tragedy with the deaths of almost all the major characters in the play. The Duchess of Malfi contains a lot of stage violence and horror especially in the later scenes which attracted many visitors. However this is not the reason Webster’s play is a great English renaissance drama. The poetic language usage by Webster and the complex characters should ultimately receive the credits. The focus in this paper will be on the complexity of the Duchess’ character and especially on her comment in Act III, scene 2: “For know, whether I am doomed to live or die, I can do both like a prince.” (Webster 1603). Furthermore the exploration of the theme of entrapment which plays a predominant role throughout the play, with the Duchess being caged up like a bird and a prisoner in her own body. “Why should only I, of all the other princes
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