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. Clearly, this is foreshadowing Antonio’s death with the use of the words “dead” and “flesh” which both show this semantic field of death and pain. Throughout this part of the play it appears the Duchess is unaware of the danger she is putting herself and Antonio in, which was suggested by the Cardinal before “The marriage night// Is the entrance into some prison.”, alluding to the Duchess’ demise in prison by her brothers. However, it could also be argued that the Duchess is truly aware of the danger to come “So I through frights and threatenings will assay//This dangerous venture” but is willing to risk everything for her happiness, which is overlooked by her brothers and most likely, the patriarchal Jacobean audience, who would’ve seen the Duchess as the unacknowledged problem of the play, as it wasn’t always common to marry for love as it was for family honour and wealth.
Throughout Act 1 there is an obvious semantic field of death and pain which develops further during the marriage of the Duchess and Antonio. Specifically, the Duchess’ use of the ominous Latin phrase “Quietus est.” or ‘he is quit’ is implying that through marriage Antonio will suffer and ultimately die, this is line is also a direct foreshadow of Antonio’s demise. Furthermore, the Duchess also foreshadows her own death with her reference to burial sheets, “In a winding sheet?”. During the time, it was fashion for women to be buried in the sheets from their wedding night, implying that this marriage will leave her lamented. Webster also suggests that passion and love cause pain, “Being a-cold, would thrust his hands I’ the fire// to warm them” this idea of cold being linked to loneliness and heat to love and passion complies with the semantic field of love and marriage causing pain, which in the Duchess’ and Antonio’s is a deadlier pain, quite literally. Similarly, a parallel metaphor arises during the conversation between the Duchess and her brothers. The metaphor being that unloyalty leads to downfall, specifically with the Duchess because her ‘unloyalty’ to her previous husband and her families high honour eventually leads to her death. When discussing the value of diamonds, the Duchess uses the phrase “that have pass’d through most jeweller’s hands” which implies that the most precious women are the ones who are the most sexually experienced, specifically with other men, this alludes to the unloyalty mentioned before. The image of an “hour-glass” suggests that women are frail and have no backbone, therefore have tendencies to cheat and lie. Finally, we’re given the line “And it end both together”, unloyalty and women end in death and downfall. For the Jacobean audience, this would’ve been a significant factor as the Duchess is conforming to the stereotypical lecherous widow who uses her sexuality to gain attention of all men in a desperate race to remarry which was far less likely to occur than a man remarrying.
Contrastingly, Webster also presents marriage as a way of finding protection and wealth which is arguably the only positive image that Webster actually paints of marriage for his audience. We see that Antonio believes his role in their marriage is to protect her reputation just like her late husband “Truth speak for me; I will remain the constant sanctuary of your good name” although, this is also adding to the semantic field of death with the “sanctuary” being linked to a cemetery thus being a reference to her husband’s tomb and therefore Antonio is hinting that he will protect her reputation just as a holy place protects a person who seeks sanctuary and safety. Consequently, the audience now sees Antonio and the marriage as a form of safety for the Duchess, which is contradicted at the end of the play, and so we are pulled in to a false sense of security within this relationship as though Webster is trying to protect his own audience through this imagery of marriage. During the Jacobean era women were seen as subordinate, much like Shakespeare, Webster seems to be a ‘feminist’ with his use of female protagonists in both The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. As we see, the Duchess is strong and courageous, bending all the rules put in place by her brothers and walking over them to get to the top. The plural pronoun, “We are forced to woo because none dare woo us” could is suggesting that women of high status, “we”, don’t get to choose their husbands and they should since they’re of importance in society. This also links to the not so positive idea of the corrupt court and hierarchy, as women at the top during this era were pretty much on a separate level to men of the same status just because of their gender. For a Christian audience this is a direct foreshadowing of what is to come because it would’ve been seen as preposterous for women to make decisions and their own choices because of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve makes the mistake of listening to ‘the devil’ and therefore women were seen as unreliable and untrustworthy, so usually a male relative would choose a woman’s husband. But, of course the Duchess goes against that when she chooses to marry Antonio. So, we see that Webster tricks his audience into believing that there could be hope for the Duchess within her marriage, but unfortunately, nothing good comes from a woman making a decision in a male dominated era.
In conclusion, through his contrasting approach to marriage Webster has shown a dominating woman in a marriage that would’ve entertained and perplexed his male dominated audience. His presentation of a woman proposing and choosing her own husband against the wishes of her brothers illustrates how powerful women could be but his constant alluding to death and suffering following this marriage contradicts that perfectly. The imagery of a “sanctuary” being the only positive idea guides the audience into a false sense of security which is then contradicted by the Duchess’ death in Act 4 way before the play actually ends which suggests that the downfall of women is disobedience. For a current audience this is far from the truth but I personally believe that Webster was trying to show women in strength but at the same time fit to the social standards of his era much like William Shakespeare. Therefore, I believe that the ways in which Webster presents marriage from a woman’s perspective during the era really show the corruption of the Jacobean era.