The Duchess's "New World" : marriage and its consequences in "The Duchess of Malfi"

UNCW Author/Contributor (non-UNCW co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Michelle A. Prendergast (Creator)
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW )
Web Site:

Abstract: John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a dramatization of the unsanctioned marriage and disappearance of an Italian Duchess approximately one hundred years before the play’s 1613 performance in England. Although Webster had numerous sources for his production, he made significant modifications in his version of the story that are reflective of anxieties surrounding the cultural, economic, and political changes in seventeenth-century England. In particular, the playwright augmented the marriage scene between the Duchess and her steward – Antonio – which had been overlooked in other accounts of the Duchess’s life. Through Webster’s treatment, the Duchess and Antonio invoke growing trends in Protestant philosophy that emphasize companionate marriage over the arrangement of financially motivated nuptials. Furthermore, the loosening of restrictions for gaining entrance into the gentry because of King James’s lenient view of preferment led to aristocratic anxiety regarding position. The relaxed standards for preferment combined with the changing perspectives on marriage are reflected in the play, particularly by the Duchess’s bold marriage to her steward and her subversion of both her family and the church’s authority over her. The consequences of the Duchess’s independence and her violation of cultural taboos are brought about by her brothers’ vengeful punishment and execution of her. While the historical record does not recount the Duchess’s fate, Webster’s presentation of the highly ceremonialized emotional torture of the Duchess prior to her murder underscores the social instability brought about by the irregular marriage. Finally, the fact that the son of Antonio and the Duchess ascends to the duchy at the conclusion of the play is another significant alteration by Webster as it reflects the new order that the social changes have established.

Additional Information

A Thesis Submitted to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirement for the Degree of Masters of Arts
Language: English
Date: 2009
Webster John 1580?-1625? Duchess of Malfi--Criticism and interpretation
Webster, John, 1580?-1625? Duchess of Malfi -- Criticism and interpretation

Email this document to