Martin Wiggins Argues That, in the Jacobean Era, ‘Female Honour Was Associated Largely with Female Chastity.’ and That ‘Second Marriages Troubled the Male Imagination.’ by Comparing Shakespeare’s and Webster’s
English and Literature
Submitted By Jenny5991
A recurring theme in both Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the concept of female honour and chastity, even though the women of the plays are secondary to the main plot. A woman’s necessity to marry is a negative message in Hamlet, and proves to be the hubris of the Duchess- it is her marriage that, in part, leads to her eventual death. Ergo, Wiggins’ statement about ‘second marriages troubling the male imagination’ is certainly true from the outset. The second scene of Hamlet opens onto a celebration, but in Hamlet’s first soliloquy, he distains his mother, for her ‘frailty’ in needing a new husband, likening her to worse than a ‘beast’ wanting ‘discourse of reason.’ Bearing in mind, the contemporary society where women spinsters and widows were stigmatized, yet, according to these plays, a woman’s remarriage was socially unacceptable. However, such is the misogyny and class based prejudice that a high-ranking woman is not socially stigmatized but merely gossiped about in private. However, the famed serial monogamist Henry VIII married six times; even introducing divorce, yet Hamlet is troubled by his mother’s single remarriage, even before learning of his uncle’s treachery, despite the fact that his father is dead. Perhaps then, it is the line ‘or ere these shoes were old’ that demonstrates his trouble with the hastiness of the remarriage, rather than the concept of the marriage itself.
Throughout, the Duchess is defined not through her ideals, as noble as they may be, but through Webster's characters' twisted definitions of the Jacobean patriarchy. Perhaps then, it is also fitting that Gertrude appears to have swapped her husband’s control for his brother’s, bypassing her son altogether. It could be this that impacts Hamlet so deeply, not that she insulted her former husband -‘she married. O, most wicked speed, to post, with such dexterity...