Themescentral to John Webster’s The Duchess ofMalfi include entrapment, animalism, and the objectification of women areall closely intertwined in the tragedy. The idea of entrapment and confinement is representedthroughout the play. By hiring Bosola tospy on the Duchess, the Cardinal and Ferdinand set the trap to ensnare the Duchessand thus become the men who capture wild creatures in order to kill them. We can see this as the first step leading tothe Duchess’ death and the first step to the Duchess’ true imprisonment. Another instance of entrapment was theDuchess’ marriage itself. When theDuchess first proposed the idea to Antonio of getting married, she had to do itin the seclusion of her chamber out of fear that one of her servants would findout.
This fear led to her marriageceremony being confined within the walls of her chamber as if it were an entranceto some prison. Entrapment can also beseen in Ferdinand’s character. Ferdinandbecomes trapped inside his irrational and bestial rage against his sister forviolating their family chastity. Hestruggles to be free of her and move on with his life which ultimately leads tohis insanity. He, furthermore, becomesmore imprisoned inside his own body as his madness eats away at his soul. Hence, the idea of the characters beingconfined by themselves is a predominant idea in the play.
Another important theme in this play is the reference tothe plant and animal images. Little can be said for the references to plants,as they match the predominant mood of the play. For example, Bosola describes the brothers as “plum trees that growcrooked over standing pools; they are rich and o’erladen with fruit, but nonebut crows, pics, and caterpillars feed on them” (I, i, 53-56). Much more significant are the many animals ofthe play.
Owls, vipers, adders, andrats, perform the same function as the references to disease and decay do whileothers seem to be of more significance to the theme of appearance andreality. There are cockatrices,basilisks, salamanders, and of course, the wolfman. Maybe these animals are simply extensions ofthe dark mood of the play. Aside fromthe dark mood of the play, there are many references to birds in the play. Some of these are birds of darkness and servethe theme of evil which runs throughout the work.
Notably, the owl is exploited as the omen ofevil and death. Its appearance in thatrole is foreshadowed by Ferdinand’s words to the Duchess after he learns of themarriage “The howling of a wolf/Is music to thee screech-owl” (III, ii,89-90). The owl reappears in his role ofthe evil bird when the madmen sing “of beasts and fatal fowl/As ravens,screech-owls, bulls and bears” (IV, ii, 345). The bird imagery parallels the most realistic interpretation of theplay’s major conflict: the Duchess and Antonio are the captive birds and thebrothers control the bird cage’s doors. Focusing more closely on the wolfman, werewolvesrepresented the societal anxieties about the relationship between a human’sbody and mind. In the time period inwhich this play was written, lycanthropy was understood most frequently as amental illness in which the patient believes he had transformed into ananimal. Although Ferdinand alludes towolves frequently throughout the play, he is not diagnosed by the Doctor untilthe final act: “A very pestilent disease, my lord,/They call lycanthropia” (IV,i, 33).
Assuming that Ferdinand’slycanthropy is induced by an excess of sadness, it can be argued that hisillness began after the Duchess’s murder in Act Four. Although Ferdinand ordered Bosola to murderhis sister, he gets angry at him after the fact. This delves further into Ferdinand’s madnessand the theme of both animalism and Ferdinand’s entrapment in his own body.Itis evident from the beginning of the play that men hold women to a lowerstandard, even those of good social standing like the Duchess. Ferdinand and the Cardinal worried about thefact that the Duchess could be swayed easily into a new marriage and that shewould become that man’s possession, as is what happens in the Renaissancedynastic marriage.
Thus, as Ferdinand andthe Cardinal felt justified in controlling the biological uses of the Duchess. While it is understandable that they weretrying to protect the body of their sister, they treated her like a tradearticle rather than a part of their family. Her rebellion against their wishes of her keeping her chastity leads toFerdinand’s obsessive sexual interest. To him, she is now one of those diseased women whose “livers are morespotted/than Laban’s sheep” (I, i, 290-291), or a whore, or witch who “givesthe devil suck” (I, i, 302). However,the Duchess is able to escape and rebel against his obsession and controllingnature with her marriage to Antonio because she enters into it irregularly andwithout her brothers’ consent (Jankowski). It is in direct contrast to thecustomary rule that is women are placed under the control of their male familymembers. Perhaps Webster is trying toshow that women of the Renaissance time period were nothing like the Duchess’character and that more should be like her.
Theunderlying theme between entrapment, animalism, and the objectification ofwomen, all present in this play, is the Duchess was a woman who struggled withmaintaining her integrity in the dark world surrounding her. It may be the case that Webster was trying representwhat the ideal woman of the Renaissance time period should be but also show howthey were treated and how they were expected to conduct themselves.