“You’ll weep shortly”: Diamonds and Pearls in The Duchess of Malfi

“Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust / Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.” Marie-Therese Pang‘s essay considers John Webster’s seminal work, the Duchess of Malfi, from within the framework of cultural materialism. Pang navigates the complex web of female sexuality and symbolism through a comprehensive analysis of the jewels and precious stones that made up the rich panoply of Renaissance nobles at court. In interrogating “the striking visual imagery of jewellry”, Pang explores the seemingly intentional chaos and inconsistency of Webster’s work, shedding light on the ways in which he questions the materiality of the female body, and providing us with a gem of an article.

British cultural critic Raymond Williams coined the term “cultural materialism” in 1977, as an approach to studying of literature within the analytical frameworks of Marxist theory (2). Recent critical discourse surrounding the female body in The Duchess of Malfi draw attention to how the materialist approach in studying John Webster’s play informs a range of cultural discourses. Early Modern English Theater critics such as Sara Morrison (2013) emphasize the division of the Duchess’s ‘body natural’ and ‘body politic’ that ultimately end in the blazonic dismemberment of her body (78), whereas Sid Ray (2007) contends that the Duchess’s pregnancies unify her body natural and body politic, to ‘naturalize and legitimize female rule’ (28). Despite the disparate opinions on the materiality of the Duchess’s body, Webster’s use of a female as the focal point of dramatic action allows the feminine center to serve as a glimpse into the abundant social commentary with which the play is truly concerned.

In this essay, I wish to return to William’s fundamental idea of “cultural materialism” by interrogating how the material objects, specifically, the Duchess’s jewellery, can illuminate the socio-economic, political and cultural contexts of the play. Furthermore, the verbal and visual imagery of diamonds and pearls are also intrinsically tied to the Duchess’s identity, paralleling her rise and fall. I will develop the argument further by demonstrating how the materiality of the jewellery and the body intersect to simultaneously complicate and illuminate ideas of the Duchess’s body.

Material culture allows us to ‘investigate the values that have been attached by the people who originally made or used the object’ (Williams 10), as objects reflect and embody cultural beliefs. By drawing on the significance of jewellery in the early 17th century, it is possible to elucidate how the inherent and attached value of jewellery are tied to the Duchess’s identity, delineating her position as a female political figure. The stage directions in the footnotes state that ‘The Duchess will remove her jewellery and brush her hair in preparation for bed’ (III.ii.0). The visual imagery of jewellery on stage forms a part of her costume that closely identifies the social class and position of the Duchess. This is important in a highly stratified society where jewellery is not merely an accessory but a symbol of her position and power.

Acosta’s book, The naturall and morall historie of the East and West Indies (1604), draws on evidence then to conclude that diamonds were the most precious stone, and pearls were the second (250) where ‘none but royall persons were suffered to weare (pearles)’ (252). Hence, the Duchess’s jewellery is indicative of her aristocratic and royal associations. However, the removal of her jewellery in her private chamber also signals a separation of the political and domestic space, and by extent, a separation of her body politic and body natural. The duchess instructs Antonio to ‘Bring me the casket hither’ (III.ii.1). The jewellery is only worn during the day, when she is exposing her body politic as a ruler, but the removal of her jewellery at night signals her submission of her body natural to Antonio, as Antonio playfully asserts that his ‘rule is only in the night’ (3.2.7).

Although the striking visual imagery of jewellery parallels the height of the Duchess’s nobility and status as a ruler in the play, the verbal imagery of jewellery mirrors the Duchess’s fall from grace, leading towards her tragic death. The jewels represent beauty, which is dangerous in a world dominated by greed and the desire to possess. Diamonds and pearls were frequently used for trading in the early 17th century due to their rarity and economic value (Acosta 62). The materiality of the jewels and the trade value ascribed to the Duchess reduces her to her socio-economic worth, as a jewel to be possessed and traded. Her body natural is discounted, removing her intrinsic value and autonomy in a world where men conduct economic relations.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s discourse are staunchly aristocratic in the first scene, emphasizing the Duchess’s “high blood” (I.i.289) and noble birth. But then Ferdinand taunts her saying “they are most luxurious (lecherous)/ Will wed twice” (I.i.290-1) and that “Their livers are more spotted/ Than Laban’s sheep” (I.i.292-3). Such a harsh view on remarriage and emphasis on chastity is possibly due to the nature of Renaissance dynastic marriage, where a woman becomes an object of commerce that is passed from father to husband, sealing a bargain of greater or lesser economic significance (Sedgwick 38). The materiality of the Duchess’s body is seen as an object of trade to be owned by her father, brothers or husband. The lack of chastity of the Duchess’s body – or worse, the production of illegitimate children – would decrease her value as a trade article for her family. Thus, the argument over the marriage can be seen as a dynastic argument concerned with the Duchess’s body politic.

However, the Duchess herself problematizes the idea of women as trading objects by admitting to women’s value as something produced through social relations rather than an inherent trait. In response to Ferdinand’s assumption about her secretly libidinous nature, the Duchess claims that ‘Diamonds are most value/ They say, that have passed through most jewellers’ hands’ (I.ii.220-221). These words merely augment the brothers’ suspicions about her potential misconduct. The Duchess also uses the vague authority of “they say” rather than affirm her brothers or assert her own opinion even though she has created both metaphors. Ferdinand recognises the rebellion in her words and his harsh response ‘Whores, by that rule, are precious.’ (I.ii.222) wrenches away the authority she has assumed in creating her own comparison. Besides diamonds, the words “rings” and “jewel” in Webster’s plays commonly refer to chastity (Schuman 254), and the phrase ‘gem of chastity’ was equivalent to maidenhood (OED 2a). Hence, not only is the Duchess commodified through the socio-economic exchange, the Duchess’s “diamonds” (jewel) are used metonymously to describe her worth.

This problem is further amplified as the Duchess reinforces her sexual identity as central to the identity she gives herself. She points to the materiality of her body when wooing Antonio, saying “This is flesh, and blood, sir,/ Tis not the figure cut in alabaster/ Kneels at my husband’s tomb” (I.ii.375-77). The death of her first husband makes her sexually experienced to woo her steward, “like a widow […with] but half a blush” (I.ii.373-74). The Duchess is no doubt the “lusty widow” (I.i.331) Ferdinand accuses her of being, especially after she goes against her proclamation that she “(wi)ll never marry” (I.i.294). Although Ray argues that ‘the Duchess’s maternity does not hinder or compromise her authority but instead ratifies it’ (19), the Duchess’s maternal body highlights her erotic identity that removes her authority as a ruler in the eyes of the people. Delio reports that the Duchess is hailed as “a strumpet” (III.i.25), highlighting her lack of chastity and virtuous widowhood. She thus becomes unfit to wear the “coronet of state” of either “diamonds” or “pearls” (III.v.13-15).

In many of Queen Elizabeth’s portraits she is seen wearing this “heavenly” gem to symbolize her purity and virginity. Queen Elizabeth’s cultivation of her image as a virgin queen gave her power to rule, as “a body and an identity which had somehow successfully eluded successful appropriation by the masculine” (Berry 6). However, the Duchess cannot be aligned with the metaphoric jewel of chastity. The Duchess’s pregnancy during her rule undermines her body politic while privileging her body natural. The Duchess enters Act II visibly pregnant – “her stomach seethes, / The fins of her eyelids look most teeming blue, / She wanes i’th’cheek, and waxes fat i’th’flank” (II.i.65-68). This verbal and visual awareness of the Duchess’s pregnancy underlines the centrality of the Duchess’s erotic identity, implying an active sex life under the subjugation of a man.

Nevertheless, despite the crude reduction of the materiality of the Duchess’s body and clandestine marriage, Webster still presents the Duchess as spiritually pure.  In the final moments before her death, the Duchess rejects the jewellery as merely material objects, disassociating herself from this corporeal world and embracing the spiritual realm instead. Webster’s sympathetic tone towards the Duchess is overt as she maintains her dignity despite her imminent death.

What would it pleasure me, to have my throat cut
With diamonds? or to be smothered
With Cassia? or to be shot to death, with pearls? (IV.ii.212-214)

But here, the Duchess does not desire a ‘beautiful death’; rather, the Duchess is mocking pearls and diamonds as mere lumps of matter, no different from bullets or other weapons. The rhetorical questions she poses to Bosola clearly elucidate how she values jewels as worthless compared to human life.

Hence, the Duchess’s salvation comes from the rejection of the material world and the submission to the will of heaven. The Duchess prays for forgiveness for her brothers, “I have so much obedience in my blood,/ I wish it in their veins, to do them good” (4.2.165-66) and dismisses Bosola’s attempts to frighten her by questioning “Who would be afraid on’t,/ Knowing to meet such excellent company/ In th’other world?” (4.2.201-3). Cariola is deliberately placed as a juxtaposition of the Duchess, as she “bites and scratches” (IV.ii.241) and screams “I am not prepared for’t! I will not die!” (IV.ii.234).

In contrast, the Duchess does not cry out or beg for mercy as she welcomes death as a reunion. Her stoic dignity and courageousness portray the Duchess as a heroine, as Webster applies what has ‘traditionally been masculine, often martial, conceptions of heroism to his heroine’ (Pacheco and Johnson 113). Hence, the audience’s sympathies are aligned with the Duchess, despite the fact that her private life has transgressed the established order. Furthermore, the artistic function of the lines “I pray thee look thou giv’st my little boy/ Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl/ Say her prayers ere she sleep” (4.2.193-5) exposes her maternal tenderness and nurturing quality, and is heart-warming for the audience. Webster thus exploits orthodox notions of female virtue to authorize his protagonist.

The Duchess’s authority is further cemented through her association with light and goodness, distinguishing her from her brothers who are frequently associated with darkness and evil. This is featured even more prominently after the Duchess’s death. Upon seeing the Duchess’s dead body, Ferdinand says ‘Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle: she died young’ (IV.ii.254). Critics have praised this as the “climax of the play, the watershed, the dividing line” (Price 739). The power of this line is certainly amplified as Ferdinand expresses regret for the first time. Ferdinand condenses his agonies of remorse into abrupt, short phrases, in an almost matter-of-fact line. He attempts to remove himself from culpability of the Duchess’s death through the emotionally alienated “she died young”.

However, a closer analysis of this line reveals currents of deeper, understated emotion. At first glance, this line seems like a regular iambic pentameter with a feminine ending— however, the final light syllable is heavy, adding to the metrical chaos of the line, perhaps mirroring the chaos in the Duke’s own mind. The violent trochaic substitution, “dazzle”, also stands out as an anomaly. This could be interpreted as tears of remorse or that Ferdinand is temporarily blinded by the light of the Duchess’s radiance. Either way, the sight of the Duchess’s dead body causes Ferdinand to be physically affected, and this marks an involuntary reversal of power. The Duchess exerts control over Ferdinand physically and mentally, since her death also marks the start of his descend into madness. In contrast, Ferdinand possesses control over the Duchess’s material body, but the Duchess still retains her clarity of thought and speech, as the torture he inflicts on her “affrights not me” (IV.ii.162).

Ultimately, the play is less concerned with the Duchess’s purity than the consequences set in an Italian court rife with corruption. Whether the materiality of the Duchess’s body natural and body politic is seen to be divided or unified at the end of the play is still contestable, but analysing the play through cultural materialism allows jewels to illuminate the historical and political context in which the play is set. Webster calls the materiality of the female body into question by reinforcing typical early modern anxieties about the female sexual body that call for surveillance of it, while simultaneously offering a more revolutionary and ultimately heroic view of female sexuality. Like the Duchess’s body, the contradictory meaning of diamonds and pearls that signify purity and lust, illicit admiration and scorn, cannot be fully explicated. However, the troubling idea behind Webster’s imagery of diamonds and pearls remains – they signify sadness and eventually lead to destruction and death.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Acosta, José De (et al). The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies.: Intreating of the Remarkeable Things of Heaven, of the Elements, Mettalls, Plants and Beasts Which Are Proper to That Country: Together with the Manners, Ceremonies, Lawes, Governements, and Warres of the Indians. London: Printed by Val, 1604. Print.

Berry, Philippa. Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen. London: Routledge, 1989. Print

Boyle, Robert. An Essay about the Origins Virtues of Gems. London, 1672. Print.

“gem, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 9 March 2016.

Karim-Cooper, Farah. ” The Duchess of Malfi: Darkness and Light.” BBC Arts. Web. 01 Mar. 2016. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/37mmHnp3Pwf4TrT9GT8Ywtn/the-duchess-of-malfi-darkness-and-light>

Morrison, Sara. “Embodying the Blazon: Performing and Transforming Pain in Measure for Measure and The Duchess of Malfi” Ed. Deborah Uman and Sara Morrison. Staging the Blazon in Early Modern English Theater. Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. 67-84. Print.

Pacheco, Anita, and David Johnson. The Renaissance and Long Eighteenth Century. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011. Print.

Price, Hereward T. “The Function of Imagery in Webster.” PMLA 70.4 (1955): 717. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Ray, Sid. “‘So Troubled with the Mother’: The Politics of Pregnancy in The Duchess of Malfi.” Performing Maternity in Early Modern England. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.

Webster, John, and Leah S. Marcus. The Duchess of Malfi. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2009. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977. Print.

Whigham, Frank. “Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi.” PMLA 100.2 (1985): 167. JSTOR. Web. 03 Mar. 2016.


MARIE-THERESE PANG is currently pursuing an MSc in Modern and Contemporary literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is particularly interested in postmodernism, contemporary American fiction, and any literature that is reflective of our social reality. When she is not struggling to finish her essays, she can be found wandering the aisles of Tesco or Sainsbury’s (grocery shopping makes her inexplicably happy). A huge fan of Korean dramas, musicals and a firm believer in the power of food and literature to bring people together.

Photo Credit: Jerome Lim

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