The world according to the Duchess Essay

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The world according to the Duchess

This paper attempts to explore and analyze how the use of animal imagery in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi brings out the themes and exposes the persona of characters like Duke Ferdinand, the Cardinal and their accomplice Bosola. The animal imagery gives natural expression to the basic (animal) instincts that dominate the play from beginning to the end. The world according to the Duchess is a “tedious theater”, but to Ferdinand, the abject villain, it is “but a dog-kennel.

The most violent criminal is named Bosola which literally means “bloody beast”. He dies after murdering the major characters. To justify his strangling of the Duchess, he calls her “a box of worm-seeds” (4. 2. 120) mocking her illegitimate children. He associates Cardinal’s cunning to an old fox’s. When the time comes to betray his wicked masters he uses the appropriate image of an opportunistic rodent and imitate: “the mice/ that forsake falling houses,”

Ferdinand, Bosola and the Cardinal evoke most contemptuous images by referring to despicable animals. Images of predators fill the speeches in this play: In a play dominated by lust, greed and violence, the animal imagery becomes a tool in the hands of the playwright to create the desired atmosphere of dark conspiracy and violence. In contrast the Duchess refers to beautiful birds to express her turmoil. In utter frustration she tells her tormentor : “Alas! Your shears do come untimely now/ To clip the bird’s wings that’s already flown.

”(3. 2. 74-75) Driven to the wall, Duchess at times asserts her freedom: “Why should only I…Be cased up, like holy relic? I have youth/ And a little beauty. ”(3. 2. 127-29) Though the she asserts her status “I am Duchess of Malfi still. ” (4. 2. 136), her despair finds poignant expression in avian imagery: “The birds that live in the field/ On the wild benefit of nature live/ happier than we: for they may choose their mates,/ And carol their sweet pleasures to the spring. ”(3. 5. 17-20).

As the predator imagery used by the villains outnumbers the avian imagery of the Duchess, so also her chances of a happy marital life are crushed by the power seekers. The Duchess slowly realizes the truth that she can not hope to escape the long reach of their treacherous brothers and reacts sarcastically to Bosola’s mock-assurance of safety and pity: “With such a pity men preserve alive/ pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough/ to be eaten. ” A critic has explored the “problematic relationship between power and sex, in which female ‘liberty’ was seen as a threat to the social order.

” and later has commented: “Measure for measure and The Duchess of Malfi may be read as questioning the right of the state authority to concern itself with matters of private sexual conduct…”(Braunmuller. 106,109) In agony and despair she also asserts her will-power and fortitude: “But come, whither you please. I am arm’d ‘gainst misery;/ Bent to all sways of the oppressor’s will:” (3. 5. 140-41) The patriarchal Elizabethan society proves to be a stumbling block to her freedom and happiness. Animals are referred to in literature and daily life to highlight the bestiality of depraved human behavior.

Men use the animal names to abuse his fellow men and indicate their base demeanor. In The Duchess of Malfi the most villainous characters like Ferdinand and his accomplice Bosola use the animal images in reference to the Duchess, her husband and their children. Her brother, the Cardinal is no less a malevolent character than Ferdinand. Even in trivial matters of superstitions of daily life animal images are used: : “How superstitiously we mind our evils!… the stumbling of a horse,/ Or singing of a cricket… To daunt whole man in us. ” (2. 2. 69-72)

The plot of the play moves about in a world of predators who survive by mercilessly killing the weaker species. Similarly the powerful persons in the play destroy a widow in weak position by their engaging mercenary. Anarchy and bloodbath follow the death of the husband of the Duchess of Malfi. Hungry for power, her two brothers – Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal – hound her to death with the help of a beastly slave Bosola. They conspire to prevent her from remarrying to retain their control of absolute power and wealth of their widowed sister.

Most of them use some kind of mask to cover up their dark deeds which is hinted in Antonio’s speech: “All black malcontents: and their close rearing,/ Like moths in cloth, do hurt for want of wearing. ”(1. 1. 82-83) They subject the Duchess to all sorts of humiliation and mental torture including the setting on lunatics on her to satisfy sadistic instincts. Webster’s view of human nature is illustrated by the use of animal images evoked in the first scene of Act I where Bosola described the unhealthy atmosphere: “black-birds fatten best in hard weather: why not I in these dog-days?

(1. 1. 39-40) In addition to comments on the present state of affairs this speech also hints about the dark future. He also talks disparagingly of Cardinal and Ferdinand as devils who, though laden with fruit, “none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them. ”(1. 1. 51) The evocation of images of scavenging birds indicates the depravity of the two villains with capacity for unrelenting violence. M. C. Bradbrook comments: “When Ferdinand howls he is an animal; the action itself modulates between the national and strong suggestions of the supernatural. ”(Bradbrook. 188)

The sinister atmosphere of constant spinning conspiracy finds an appropriate simile used by Delio: “Then the law to him/ Is like a foul, black cobweb to a spider,– ” (1. 1. 184-85) Duke Ferdinand’s incurable disease of lycanthropy in the end comes as a poetic justice for his relentless violence to his own sister, the Duchess and her lover Antonio and their children like. Lady Macbeth’s incurable somnambulism and compulsive obsessive disorder of washing of hands is another case of such retribution. He justifies the killing of his sister’s children: “The death/ of young wolves is never to be pitied.

 Ironically, he becomes obsessed with wolf and fears “The wolf shall find her grave, and scrape it up/…to discover/ the horrid murder. ”(4. 2. 305-07) Later he becomes a patient of “lycanthropia”, and imagines himself a wolf and digs dead bodies up. Ferdinad’s language becomes cynical as he loses his mental balance: “you are all of you like beasts for sacrifice: there’s nothing left of you but tongue and belly, flattery and lechery. ”(5. 2. 77-78) Brutal revenge becomes more horrible when it is accompanied by the Machiavellism of Ferdinand, the Cardinal and Bosola.

Antonio foresees the dark design of Ferdinand and Bosola which he compares to the reptile associated with temptation and Adam’s fall from grace: “You are an impudent snake indeed, sir:/ Are you scarce warm, and do you show your sting? ”(2. 3. 39-40) The mental torture heaped on the Duchess by Ferdinand with the help of Bosola is unparalleled. Verbal assaults are no less virulent than the physical: “Thou sleepest worse than if a mouse should be forced to take up her lodging in a cat’s ear:” (4. 2. 131-33) Ferdinand adds insult to injury: “Methinks I see her laughing –/ Excellent hyena!

.. my imagination will carry me/ to see her in the shameful act of sin. ” (2. 5. 38-41) A religious man of the church, the Cardinal mocks the happy conjugal life of the Duchess by invoking the image of tame elephant: “When thou wast with thy husband, thou wast watched /Like a tame elephant” (2. 4. 32. 33) His strong hatred for Antonio seems to stem not only from greed for power and wealth, but it smacks of deep-seated incestuous desire for his sister: “The howling of a wolf/ is music to thee, screech owl:”

He is determined to obliterate Antonio’s name from the earth as he vents his hatred: “Let not the sun/ Shine on him till he’s dead; let dogs and monkeys/ only converse with him and such dumb things/ to whom nature denies use to sound his name: Do not keep a paraquito, lest she learn it;”(3. 2. 93-96) In his secret conversation with the Cardinal his language becomes increasingly sexually explicit: “I’ll go asleep. / Till I know who mates my sister, I’ll not stir: That know, I’ll find scorpion to string my whips.. ”

Antonio spends his life in the shadow of threat from the attack of the predators who are capable of heinous plot. “My brothers have dispersed/ Bloodhounds abroad; which till I hear are muzzled,/ No truce. ” (3. 3. 47-49) Having little hopes of saving the life of the Duchess and his own, he finally hands over their children to Duchess’ maid to protect them from the wrath of his brothers-in-law who is as ferocious as tiger: “Farewell, Cariola, …Be a good mother to your little ones, / And save them from the tiger.

”(3. 5. 81-84) Even minor characters are affected by the vicious atmosphere and speak out their mind impinged by the thoughts of predators. Pescara says: “These factions amongst great men, they are like/ Foxes, when their heads are divided,/ They carry fire in their trails, and all the country/ about then goes to wreck for’t”(3. 3. 36-39) Later he talks about the wicked Ferdinand as a fire-breathing creature: “Mark Prince Ferdinand:/ A very salamander lives in ’s eye/ To mock the eager violence of fire.

”(3. 3. 48-49) The Duchess retorts to Bosola’s reference to Antonio as a base low fellow with the tale of an encounter between a Salmon and a dog-fish and to the latter’s snobbish remark says: “Thank Jupiter we both have passed the net! / Our value never can be truly known/ Till in the fisher’s basket we be shown. ”(3. 5. 133-35) Two close studies of Shakespeare’s imagery have been independently done by Caroline Spurgeon and W. H. Clemen show how the themes of a play are embedded in the imagery.

Consciously or unconsciously, the playwrights use metaphors and symbols to convey the hidden meanings and reinforce the themes. John Webster’s tragedy of unrelenting violence and conspiracy has been enhanced by the use of reiterative animal imagery in the play. Works Cited Bradbrook, M. C. Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. London. Cambridge Un. Press. 1980 Braunmuller, A. R. and Hattaway, Michael. (eds. ) The Cambridge Companion to English Renaisssance Drama. N. York. Cam. Un. Press. 1990 Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. ed. Monica Kendall. Essex. Pearson Longman. 2004 June 29, 2008

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