One can begin the discussion on the theme of incest in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ by understanding the social conception of ‘incest’. Talcott Parsons says-“ it is not so much the prohibition of incest in its negative aspect(maintaining sexual relations) …(Instead) Incest is withdrawal from the obligation to contribute to the formation and maintenance of supra-familial bonds on which major economic, political and religious functions of the society are dependent.”
Ferdinand’s incestuous behaviour towards the duchess follows the similar pattern pointed above ,i.e., Ferdinand’s aim is not the achievement of sexual relations with his sister. One may like to contest this reading by highlighting Ferdinand’s highly erotic language for the duchess, such as-
“And women like that part, which, like the lamprey,
Hath nev’r a bone in’t.”[1.ii.255-256].
But, at the very basic plot level the argument stands refuted when despite incarcerating the duchess and visiting her in darkness, Ferdinand’s intentions are never the ones of violating her.
Thus, clearly, incest has different, problematic roots in the play. Critic Frank Whigham categorically points out that it is Ferdinand’s ‘status narcissism’ which figures as incest in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. To understand the phrase one needs to look at the social framework of Jacobean England. Whigham points out that by the time Webster was writing, English social structure had become highly differentiated, i.e., owing to the rapid mercantilism a new social class was emerging. The aristocracy was aware of the threat the new rising class could pose ,and was posing, in terms of usurping their privileged position. In the face of such a threat, marriage within an equal status group was the way by which the aristocrats maintained a distinctive group status. The character of Ferdinand feels similarly threatened in the play and frightened by the ‘contamination’ of his social rank. It is due to this threat from the outside that Ferdinand takes up the posture of an incestuous brother- obsessed with the blood and body of his sister, and going to the extent of surreptitiously entering her room.
Ferdinand’s intentions are thus- to control the sexuality of his sister and thereby, making her the vessel of his honour. Whigham here rightly notes that Ferdinand’s incest turns itself into a paranoia as he does not stand satisfied with the duchess’ marriage within an equal status group but denies her any form of marriage, or rather, contamination through sexual indulgence. The vulgar...