I apologise in advance if you really like this play. Because this is just an incoherent rant about why I don’t. But then again, maybe I’m just reading all of this wrong and need someone to tell me to be quiet.
I like plays. And I really like Shakespeare. And I like tragedies. I love Hamlet and Macbeth. So it’s not like I just have an opposition to the genre. But this play just rubs me up the wrong way and I don’t particularly have a definite list of why this is. It’s more just that ideas that run through my head continuously when I think about this play end up making me feel frustrated. And I get it, okay. John Webster and all that stuff. Yeah, good stuff. Literature, culture, English. I don’t care.
So why am I ranting about this you may ask? Well, I had to suffer during certain periods this week. And by suffer I mean that I had to read The Duchess of Malfi. I read it, watched it and then had to analysis it and annotate a scene from it. Personally, it was a pretty painful experience.
Now I’m not saying it’s written badly, that the characterisation is weak or that the themes the play explores aren’t important – because the play does do all of this pretty well and more. But I didn’t actually like any of the characters in this play, so I didn’t root for any of them. I didn’t care about any of them, and the play just dragged on for me. I was ready for it be be over by the end of Act 1 and I just couldn’t get invested in the storyline at all. I mean, I understand where all the praise for this work comes from. And I understand that the Duchess is considered to be amazing.
Whoopdeedo. I don’t give care, as I was too busy trying to not groan every five seconds, for the following reasons:
- She didn’t actually do anything during her life-time that was groundbreaking for marginalised groups. She had to wait until she died to have any impact on anyone because she choose to keep her marriage a secret.
Sure, the play itself is a challenge to patriarchy and she wanted her domestic space and private life. The Duchess tried to self-fashion and although she failed, she did give it a go. So kudos to her.
And obviously this sort of challenge would be great to watch as viewers of the play, especially during the time period. But it’s not like she actually does anything beneficial to help other people that she would have had to govern over in the context of the play. Bosola’s overly-dramatic (and successful) attempt to get the Duchess to trust him involves him flattering her and talking about how her marriage will be ‘an inspiration to women with no dowry’ and like, yeah, I get it. But does she actually manage to do anything to inspire them? No, not really. You could argue that her legacy does, but honestly… I think that she could at least tried to have helped more women and encouraged women to create their own domestic space while she was still alive. You know, like a support group or something?
And I know that her marriage being public would make her vulnerable, weaken her authority and other things like this that would have disadvantaged her… And that being associated with this sorts of ideals would have been less no desirable for her. But what’s the point in doing something like this then? For me, if you’re going to do something like challenge patriarchy during her era, then you need to be willing to risk some things in order to help others. And her public reputation was already in jeopardy because her marriage wasn’t public – so people just assumed that she had been sleeping around. She had domestic happiness, but she didn’t do necessarily do anything throughout the play to help other women achieve this dream.
I understand why the Duchess is viewed as being admirable. I’ve sat through lectures and gone through readings that tell me why. But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with what she did. For me, anyone can do things in secret and preach about ideals in private. But to live it out and advocate for these ideals??? That’s a whole different game.
- The characters so weird???
Bosola keeps harping on about morals but then every chance he’s given he goes against them (excluding the closing scene). Then he feels guilty and swears to the the right thing the next time, but then doesn’t! Is it really that hard to realise that you’re going to feel terrible about what you did afterwards? Can’t you just use your conscience and gut feeling a bit more? I understand Bosola was the other character who focused on inwardness and self-fashioning in this play but for a guy who’s supposedly meant to be ‘self-aware,’ he doesn’t really seem to know himself all that well or even learn from his mistakes all that much
And there’s no way that only two people could know about this marriage for years and never say anything to anyone else! That’s definitely not how it works!
And Julia? Just… WHY?
- Webster forgot about the Duchess’ first son
He was featured in the beginning of the play, and was explained to be her first son to the Duke of Malfi. This is why the Duchess was looking after Malfi, as she was just waiting until her son was old enough to take over the estate. But then at the end of the play, this son just disappears?! It’s just the son she had with Antonio that’s left behind?! And for some reason he’s the one who’s going to now inherit the title of Duke of Malfi?! Because logic isn’t needed in this play.
So, in conclusion, I would rather not watch The Duchess of Malfi again. I’m sorry John Webster. I’m sorry all English literature enthusiasts. I’m sorry.