#foreveralone versus #togetherforever

Presentations of Marriage and Singlehood in The Duchess of Malfi, Act 3 Scene 2

Caroline Sng’s essay on The Duchess of Malfi approaches the text through a refreshingly atypical lens. Rather than emphasizing the literary technique of the playwright, Caroline explores Webster’s advocacy of a traditionalist view of marriage vis-à-vis singlehood and his clear positioning of marriage as preferable to singlehood. The 21st-century reader, approaching the text with “a modern sensibility and a feminist streak”, is presented with the challenge of Webster’s binary presentations of the worth of marriage and singlehood, and must confront the continued relevance (or irrelevance) of the playwright’s 17th-century ideology.

Set within the intimate confines of the Duchess’ bedchamber, this scene presents a conservative take on the views of marriage and singlehood that interestingly run counter to our modern sensibilities and values. In this day and age where choosing singlehood is a mark of one’s independence and empowerment, Webster sticks to a traditionalist stance and clearly positions marriage as a more preferable option to singlehood – even if this marriage is destined to be a passing, transient thing, bereft of longevity.

Webster presents the marriage union as one that is blissful and harmonious, and this is evinced by the Duchess and Antonio’s affectionate and playful banter in this scene. This is perhaps one of the rare moments of conjugal bliss that we would witness before the Aragonian brothers’ revenge takes center stage; an eventuality that would threaten the couple’s relationship and expose the fragility of their unorthodox marriage. Unlike the courtship scene that presents the Duchess in a position of power as she takes the initiative to woo Antonio, we see a more equal partnership between the two here as they relate with ease and comfort in their private roles as husband and wife.

The scene opens with the Duchess and Antonio indulging in flirtatious and amorous provocations as the Duchess playfully tells Antonio that he would “get no lodging here tonight”. Her denial of his entry into her bedchamber is refuted and challenged by Antonio who asserts that he “must persuade one”. This coy banter reveals the shift in power between the Duchess and Antonio in their private lives as the Duchess relates to him now as her husband and equal and not as a lowly courtier as social convention in the public sphere would dictate. Antonio’s confidence in his position as husband is displayed as he firmly states that he “must lie here”. The use of the imperative clearly shows his power and authority and this is further evinced when Antonio bids the Duchess to “sleep together”, an act that boasts of his boldness and his possession of her as the bed becomes a symbol of conjugal bliss and matrimony where two partners come together as one entity. The Duchess herself is not one to be outdone as she too boldly displays her passion and “stops his mouth” by kissing him not once, but twice. Their display of open affection in front of Cariola serves to show the blissful conjugal union that they both enjoy and this furthers Webster’s agenda of presenting their marriage as wholly fulfilled ­­- a means to sway the audience to align our sympathies to the couple as they face the castigation of the Aragonian brothers.

Webster does allude to this impending punishment and fracturing of marriage in the scene. The Duchess’ exclamation of “when were we so merry?” presents a bittersweet picture of temporal and transient bliss, as this marriage is short-lived. We see this being hinted at as the Duchess remarks that Antonio is the “lord of mis-rule” but alas, “only at night”. Antonio’s admission here is that his power and authority as husband are limited only to the bedchamber; the private abode of the Duchess under the secrecy and disguise of the night shows that he is neither recognized nor acknowledged as her equal outside this private sphere. The fact remains that their union is not sanctioned, and the social transgression of the Duchess’ private act of choosing a man for love as opposed to fulfilling her public role and its ensuing responsibilities puts this relationship in a precarious and dangerous position. The dangers and anxieties of the concealment of this union begin to unfold and unravel in the later part of the play, placing their relationship under threat. Yet even with the admission of a marriage doomed to fail, and with the foreshadowing of tragedy about to befall, Webster’s writing still seems to display a bias against singlehood.

Antonio is positioned as Webster’s mouthpiece as he exhorts the values and virtues of married life to Cariola through allusions to Greek myths and nature imagery. Antonio discourages a resolute Cariola from choosing singlehood, asking her to “forgo it” by alluding to stories of Greek figures in mythology such as Daphne who “became a fruitless bay-tree” because she rejected marriage. This image implies the barren emptiness of singlehood, a punishment that is a consequence of spurning love. He then alludes to Syrinx turning into a “pale empty reed” and Anaxarete “frozen into marble.” His retelling of their cruel fates serve as a cautionary tale to Cariola that the life of singlehood is hollow and cold; a fate that is in no way, shape or form, desirable. In contrast to the cruel fates of Daphne, Syrinx and Anaxarete, the married are likened to images of abundance and fertility as they are “transhap’d into the olive, pomegranate, mulberry, flowers, precious stones or eminent stars,” an implication that the married are rewarded and remembered as objects of beauty and value. These intertextual references and allusions demonstrate Webster’s intent to espouse the virtues of married life, especially considered against the desolate image of singlehood.

Webster’s bias is perhaps most clearly displayed through his depiction of characters that remain single. Cariola does not buy into Antonio’s “vain poetry” and she perhaps stands in clear juxtaposition and hence, opposition to the representation of the happy, blissful marriage that the Duchess and Antonio stand for. The disparaging remarks made by the Duchess in response to Antonio’s question about why “hard-favour’d ladies… keep worse-favour’d waiting-women/To attend them, and cannot endure fair ones” seem to be a veiled insult directed at Cariola’s lack of good looks. Her lack of desirability is referenced in the comparison of an “ill painter” with an “excellent picture-maker”. The insinuation here is that women who are favoured and desirable would not wish to keep fair and beautiful waiting women in employment as they would pose as a threat when their looks are compared. Thus, the disparaging remarks about Cariola’s lack of desirability serve to justify her vehement “never” in response to Antonio’s question of marriage: that she resolves to be single because unlike the Duchess, she does not have the alluring qualities to nab a good man. Tellingly, Cariola’s singlehood is not a choice – Webster robs her of any active agency to control the course of her love life; that she remains single is a passive byproduct of her superficial flaws, making her undesirable as a marriage partner. Clearly, we see Webster’s withering view of singlehood and how he posits the more preferable option: blissful marriage.

The Duchess of Malfi is most commonly read as a revenge tragedy and we seldom think about the nuggets of insight that it could provide us: in this instance, the presentation of love, marriage and singlehood in Jacobean times. It would perhaps be illuminating to read and make meaning from this text with new eyes, a modern sensibility and a feminist streak – do we accept Webster’s binary presentations on the worth of marriage and singlehood? Or is there more to the value of a character than a temporal union eventually split apart? The challenge for the twenty-first century student of The Duchess of Malfi therefore lies not only in identifying seventeenth century social commentary, but also in deciding whether those views should apply to our lives today as well.


CAROLINE SNG graduated from NUS FASS with a major in literature. She started her teaching career teaching literature at Victoria JC, where she taught Graham Swift’s Waterland – a book she can only describe as life-changing. She’s recently commenced teaching lit and language arts at Temasek JC, and professes a love for cats, a good latte and a good book.

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