Women In The Duchess Of Malfi And The Changeling

1853 words - 7 pages

Missing Works Cited
The Duchess in John Webster’s tragic play, The Duchess of Malfi, and Beatrice Joanna in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling, are both strong women living in a male-dominated society. The two women attempt to free themselves from this subordination by choosing to love that they desire. Both pay with their lives for this chance at freedom, but differ in their moral decisions about how they attempt it. Beatrice Joanna’s plan involves murder, whereas the widowed Duchess merely lives the life she chooses, then plots to leave Malfi. Both women are forced into their actions, but, whereas Beatrice Joanna is Machiavellian in her actions, the Duchess is morally superior.
Webster based his play on a real-life 16th Century scandal where a widowed Duchess remarried for love and did so beneath her class. The widowed Duchess had certain advantages and freedoms that the younger and unmarried Beatrice in The Changeling did not. The Duchess had significant wealth and independence, and she need not answer to a father or a husband. She no longer had the burden of protecting her virginity and the stigma attached if it was lost. Beatrice, on the other hand, had little sexual freedom, and she had to answer to her father and to the man to whom she was engaged. However a the Duchess, and Beatrice were doomed to subject to a patriarchal and male-dominated society. Upon her capture the Duchess declares: “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.2.141). She is a duchess only in name. In the end in both tragedies, it is the men –fathers, brothers, suitors, and the Church—who rule by physical force and by law.
Moreover, both women are driven by their passions and further choose to defy society by attempting to love whom they desire. Like Beatrice, the Duchess’s ambitions lead to her destruction. The Duchess, however, never resorts to murder and her plot to save herself and Antonio does not cause physical harm to anyone. It is her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who are murderous and immoral in their plot to save the family reputation and inheritance. It is they who are consumed with aristocratic pride. It is their sibling jealousy and male pride that causes them to kill the Duchess.
From the onset of the play the Duchess is described as noble and virtuous. Antonio says:
Her days are practiced in such noble virtue
That sure her nights –nay, more, her very sleeps—
Are more in heaven than other ladies’ schrifts (1.1.201).

She is sexually confident and outgoing, and views marriage as a positive, loving venture. On the contrary, her brothers see marriage as a prison for women and a playhouse for men. The Cardinal believes “The marriage night/Is entrance into some prison” (1.1.326), and Ferdinand views it as the males’ time for sex when he says “And those joys,/Those...

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