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Compare and contrast the presentation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. Your study should refer to relevant contextual material and also include appropriate readings of the plays by other critics: The Duchess of Malfi (Main Text)

In Jacobean England (1603-25) the theatre enjoyed enthusiastic royal support and the period was notable for some of the greatest plays ever written. Webster was already part of the ‘second generation’ and Shakespeare was already one of the most revered dramatists of his time. Both Webster and Shakespeare produced remarkable plays in this period, which gave dramatic prominence to complex tragic women. The Duchess of Malfi (1612) and Antony and Cleopatra (1607) are two plays that explore the contradictions of social and sexual relations in a patriarchal and misogynistic period of England as seen through the presentation of there two heroines The Duchess and Cleopatra, and also through the different forms of linguistical and structural methods employed by both writers that ultimately highlight the two women’s similar yet opposing natures. Essentially both plays are Jacobean tragedies of gender politics where the Duchess and Cleopatra seek freedom of action and desire but are defined and shaped by patriarchal oppression and thereby doomed for their perceived subversive sexuality.

Through language both writers present their two heroines’ as powerful women who challenge the traditional male restrictions. The Duchess is representative of purity and goodness throughout the play and immediately her virtue is seen through Antonio’s commentary in Act 1 Scene 1 “Her days are practiced in such noble virtue that sure her nights, nay more her very sleeps,” Antonio is admirable of her in contrast to her Machiavellian and corrupt brothers. His register is almost saintly and using adjectives ‘noble virtue’ personifies The Duchess’s integrity. Such words spoken so early on in the text invites the audience to admire her for all her morality and later her courage which will also demand respect. Queen Elizabeth’s 45 year reign had a limited impact on the inequality of women of any social position and this was due to the patriarchal values ingrained into the political and legal systems. In Jacobean England Women had restricted political power and finical independence, and were often subject to the concept that they were the property of men. The Duchess of Malfi reflects the social contexts when Webster’s heroine who is deemed the property of her Machiavellian brothers (The Cardinal and Ferdinand) states to Bosola “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” The Duchess’s statement is important. She believes that her dukedom has been stripped of her and her family is dead yet her tone is assertive and her insistence that she is still the Duchess presents her as prideful. Webster maintains that The Duchess is representative of female vitality and Independence but also as resilient to the male oppressor in light of the patriarchal conformities that women faced during the period. Barbara Todd explains; “The remarriage of a widow confronted every man with the threating prospect of his own death and entry into his own place.” The Duchess assertion of female independence with complete disregard for her brother coercive advice depicts her to be imperious and defiant as she states “Shall this move me I’d make them my low footsteps.” The Duchess is demonized as a ‘lusty widow’ as her statement is contrary to her brother’s plight for her to marry within her social class thus enabling the approved circulation of assets. Marrying a man below her does not surrender her position but represents an instance of women’s disruptive behavior and a reversal of her expected role within her family and society. By comparison Shakespeare characterizes Cleopatra as powerful and disruptive to male control through her expressions of passion and desire. Cleopatra’s mercurial emotions are seen to lead to chaos and unrestrained natural forces when Enobarbus remarks “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale Her infinite variety Other women cloy I The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry I Where most she satisfies; for vildest things I Become themselves in her, that the holy priests I Bless her when she is riggish” Enobarbus’s proclamation refers to citations of maternal creation taking place and Cleopatra’s ‘infinite variety’. His description of Cleopatra refers the concept that she gives birth to those ‘vildest things’ through her infinite variety alluding to her sexual passions and her tendency to evoke chaos that grow and form from inside of her. Cleopatra’s infinite variety is testament to her contradictory behavior and is often subject to racial condemnation from Roman males. The Roman soldier Philo states in Act 1 scene 1 “His captain’s heart, Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper And is become the bellows and the fan To cool a gypsy’s lust.” Although Philo talks about Antony’s love to Cleopatra She is described as a ‘gypsy’ and this reoccurring racial imagery adheres to the emergence of British global empiricism in the 17th century as does the pre conceptual attitudes to races of the new world. For Jacobean audience’s Cleopatra embodied historical conceptions of the Egyptian Queen and Philo’s use of crude sexual innuendos is contemptuous of Roman attitudes towards Egypt but also further characterizes Cleopatra in a intriguing and exotic way from the opening lines of the play contrasting to the positive view shed upon the Duchess. A.C Bradley’s Edwardian view criticizes Cleopatra’s influence over the relationship with Antony “she destroys him” was typical of the Edwardian gender prejudice. The modern critical interpretation from feminist Linda Fitz argues that many “male critics have felt threatened by Cleopatra.” Essentially feminist readings of the text have questioned and argued whether Shakespeare intended to submit masculine values to dramatic critique. Cleopatra’s threatening nature and prime example of her social superiority and unforeseeable behavior would have excited the predominantly male audience’s of the time despite yet shocked them because of her gender as she castigates the male messenger “strike him!” Having found out about Antony’s relationship with Octavia her sudden rage suggests that she is jealous and additionally Neil Norman concludes that this is part of her battle for sexual dominance over Antony, which has “more excessive power and excitement.”
Webster and Shakespeare use some very dramatic imagery to reveal both positive and negative male attitudes towards their two heroines. Regal Imagery is used by Webster to convey the Duchess’s sovereignty by comparing her to diamonds when her dying brother suggests “Whether we fall by ambition blood or lust: like diamonds we are all cut with our own dust.” The representation associated with a diamond connotes both resilience and beauty yet emphasizes The Duchess’s devotion to female liberty from the plight of patriarchal values in the Jacobean period. To the contrary the words ‘fall’ and ‘diamonds pass through many hands’ explores the complexity of the nature of the Duchess. Additionally the objectification of the Duchess through the diamond imagery is imbedded into the cultural perceptions of Renaissance gender relations. Igna Stina Ekelab observes that the Duchess is presented as an “exemplum horrendum to all women contemplating second marriage” as she is imprisoned by the social contradictions of Jacobean society she is also figuratively confined by the enclosing definitions of womanhood and by Webster’s use of animal imagery when she states “The robin-redbreast and the nightingale never live long in cages.” The bird is representative of freedom and resonates with the fragility of the animal just like The Duchess. Moreover Linda Woodbridge argues that in The Duchess of Malfi the images of the characters as prey and predators is seen through The Duchess’s allegory “a salmon as she swam unto the sea met with a dog fish.” The Duchess is characterized through the image of the salmon and is presented as the prey to the male. The repetitive nature of presenting The Duchess as a helpless captive or as Frank Whigam argues a ‘tragic’ heroine who is doomed by desire emphasizes her disruptive behavior and reversal to the traditional female archetypical roles.

In contrast Shakespeare uses some striking imagery to link Cleopatra to her sexual nature and to her role as Queen of Egypt. Shakespeare’s use of the imagery of the serpent reinforces the symbolisms of fertility and seduction when Cleopatra describes herself as “serpent of the old Nile” the serpent represents both vitality and fertility however there is also a dark undercurrent to an association with such a reptile as it contrives images of Cleopatra as evil and cunning as Shakespeare was writing this play for Christian England would affiliate Cleopatra with Eve and the serpent paradigm. Similarly regal imagery is also used by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra as seen in The Duchess of Malfi. Shakespeare use’s stark visual metaphors when Enorbabus through his hyperbole vividly describes Cleopatra using colors “poop was beaten gold; purple the sails.” Rich colors such as purple and gold encapsulate Cleopatra’s opulence and grandeur and affiliate Cleopatra with royalty and wealth. Enorbarbus continues to dignify Cleopatra’s character by suggesting that “she over pictured Venus” personifying her as even more beautiful than the God of love and beauty Venus. Edith Hamilton recounts: “The Goddess of Love and Beauty who beguiled all gods and men alike; the laughter loving goddess who laughed sweetly or mockingly at those her wiles had conquered; the irresistible goddess who stole away even the wits of the wise.” Like Venus, Cleopatra is beguiled.

The structure of both plays allows for the texts to be set in exotic and strange foreign locations. This allows both writers greater dramatic freedom to challenge the issues of the perversion of inequality aimed at females and present both heroines as political and influential figures. Webster sets his play in Malfi, which was a politically important Italian city essentially, ruled by the kingdom of Naples. Leah Marcus contends, “Early seventeenth century audiences would have remained patriarchal.” As seen Webster’s male characters exhibit contemporary attitudes to women in act 1 scene 1 when Ferdinand remark’s to the Duchess “This was my fathers poniard do you see?/I’d be loath to see’t look rusty cause twas his.” Ferdinand is representative of the levels of corruption existing within the court of Malfi and conforms to the view that Jacobeans had of Italy. The plays treatment of women is potentially subversive as Webster’s spirited and independent portrayal of the Duchess who is a woman of high social ranking was still chastised for her objections to traditional feminine virtues. Further more Bosola states to the Duchess that she faces her “last presence chamber.” Catherine Belsey observes, “Webster often differentiates between the political and domestic spheres.” The confinements of the indoor environment politically isolates and domestic and diminish the Duchess’s character. This is consequent of her rebellious attitude and abdication of her responsibility as ruler. The male oppressions of the world of Malfi destroys her and confines her to the claustrophobic settings presenting the consequences of being rebellious and abdicating from her duties and responsibilities as both a leader and as being conventional to her feminine virtues.

In comparison through the representations of Egypt as the setting Cleopatra is unconventionally seen as the dominant ruler reflecting the influence she has over the East. In contrast to the Duchess, Cleopatra does not marry her lover. As a dramatic device Shakespeare creates a binary opposition of Rome Vs. Egypt. Set when Rome was the centre of an expanding military and economic empire it represented the values of restraint, duty and bravery at war. Cleopatra is characterized as both a sensual lover and political figure through the hedonistic luxury and erotic pleasure of Egypt. Antony states “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space, Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike Feeds beast as man” reflects his decline through melting imagery and emphasizes Cleopatra’s influence over her him. Antony’s past versus his present also defines Cleopatra’s as an enchantress who has weakened and debauched a symbol of the Jacobean conception of honour. This idea of ‘patriarchal gender ideology’ is criticised by Coppelia Kahn who argues that Cleopatra is ‘demonised’ and that “such male prejudice results in the idea that the woman who hold or try to hold political power will end by robbing the male of both political and sexual power.” Similarly to the Duchess Cleopatra is also a disruptive figure to the political ideologies of the West. At the battle of Actium Cleopatra boast’s “A charge we bear I’th war and As the president of my kingdom will appear there for a man speak not against it. I will not stay behind.” Cleopatra’s demonstration of masculinity through her strength and dominance is unconventional of feminine virtuousness and would have reminded Shakespeare’s contemporaries of Queen Elizabeth 1st and the political threat that both women imposed. Through Webster and Shakespeare’s use of structure in terms of staging, both the Duchess and Cleopatra die as tragic heroines. Death in both plays holds great significance for obvious reasons. Webster subverts the conventions of the 5-act structure when he kills his heroine in act 4; her execution is a grand affair when the Duchess embraces death and rises to tragic when she state’s to her executioner “pull down heaven upon me. Yet stay heaven gates are not so highly arched as princes palaces they enter there must go on their knees.” The Duchess is presented as humble and holy and as the antidote to her brothers’ evil through the imagery of heaven and light. The Victorian view of Alegorno Charles Swimburne is testament to the changing perceptions of women in Renaissance drama when he describes such heroines as “shining in the darkness.” The Duchess exemplifies classic stoic courage in the face of death and is representative of the heavenly light for her grace and morality when addressing her executioner who makes heaven as her destination clear when she dies. Additionally in acts 4 and 5 Webster explores the after effects of the Duchess’s death on other characters. Her death seems to have a profound effect on Bosola and Webster embeds the dramatic technique of the ‘echo’ to explore the theme of retribution and vengeance and incorporates the concepts of supernatural phenomena, which interested 17th century audiences when he state’s “the weakest arm is strong enough that strikes the sword of justice now my revenge is perfect.” By foregrounding the male characters, it attempts to contain all of the subversive aspects of the Duchess's rule and restore patriarchal order.

In contrast Shakespeare’s narrowing of focus, stages Cleopatra’s death in the final act as opposed to act 4 as seen in The Duchess of Malfi concentrating particularly on Cleopatra’s nobility and her social position as Queen of Egypt. Cleopatra’s death takes place in Act 5 of the play leaving a lasting impression on the audience. Similarly in The Duchess of Malfi the death of Shakespeare’s heroine is also a grand affair as she dies wearing a ‘robe, crown, sceptre and other regalia’ however it is responsive to her love and devotion to Antony when she says “to excuse their after wrath: husband, I come: Now to that name my courage prove my title!” Christina Luckyj observes, “True love seems only achievable in death.” Cleopatra adheres to Luckyj’s point when she refers to Antony as ‘husband’, and despite the fact that she is not married show’s her permanent love for him in her final moments as well as canceling out previous perceptions of her being a ‘strumpet,’ as in-turn she is presented as a noble Queen. Shakespeare ensures that Cleopatra achieves full tragic status. Comparatively to the Duchess Cleopatra accepts death with unqualified bravery “separate me from life with your sharp teeth poor poisonous fool be angry and bite” her death adds depth to the character and deepens her dramatic impact in the play. Cleopatra’s manner of death represents triumph and conquest over Roman values, prompting Caesar to comment, “She shall be buried by her Antony. No grave upon the earth shall clip in it a pair so famous.” Additionally her death retains a different kind of nobility and integrity in comparison to the death of the Duchess leading to the ‘restitution’ of the social and political order albeit with a ‘Jacobean bloodbath.’

To conclude both playwrights used women to explore the harsh cultural and gender inequalities that existed in Jacobean England. Through Webster and Shakespeare’s different use of techniques presents their two heroines as ‘tragic figures’ but in very different ways. Cleopatra ‘punished’ for her sexuality and sensuality and the influence she exerted on a ‘noble Roman “the triple pillar of the world transformed
Into a strumpet's fool” and the Duchess as a tragic victim of patriarchal conventions of the 17th century.

WC: 1,996


The Duchess of Malfi

Christina Luckyj - The Duchess of Malfi a Critical Guide
Phillip Allan Literature Guide - The Duchess of Malfi
Oxford Student Text - The Duchess of Malfi
John Eric Marriot - Challenging cultural stereotypes: Women Tragic Protagonists In Jacobean Drama
Rex Gibson- Shakespearean and Jacobean Tragedy
Paul Masters - Rebellion of Identity
Joseph Walls- Webster and Women
Carol Leach - Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama 1590-1640 (In Context)
Antony & Cleopatra
Rex Gibson - Shakespearean and Jacobean Tragedy
Cambridge Student Guide - Antony and Cleopatra
Keith Sagar - Antony and Cleopatra
John Eric Marriot - Challenging Cultural Stereotypes: Women Tragic Protagonists
Enotes Study Guide - Antony and Cleopatra
Eva Scholar - Manipulative Seductress or Skilled leader
Michael J Cummings - Cummings study guide
Hui-Pin Kuo - Binary Oppositions in Antony and Cleopatra
Carol Leach - Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama 1590-1640 (In Context)

[ 1 ]. Barbra Todd- The Duchess of Malfi: A Critical Guide
WC: 347
[ 2 ]. Bradley - A&C Cambridge Student Guide
[ 3 ]. Fitz - The Shakespeare Handbook
[ 4 ]. Norman - The Omnivore: A&C Theatre review 2011
WC: 731
[ 5 ]. Ekelab - The Impore Art of John Webster
[ 6 ]. Woodbridge - DoM A Critical Guide: Christina Luckyj
[ 7 ]. Whigam - DoM A Critical Guide: Christina Luckyj
[ 8 ]. Hamilton - The Olympians: Aphrodite Venus
WC: 1,136
[ 9 ]. Marcus - DoM A Critical Guide: Christina Luckyj
[ 10 ]. Belsey - The Subject of Tragedy: Identity in Renaissance Drama
[ 11 ]. Kahn - A&C Cambridge Student Guide
WC: 1,542
[ 12 ]. Swimburne - A Study of Shakespeare
[ 13 ]. Luckyj - DoM A Critical Guide: Christina Luckyj
WC: 1,857

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