“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Material culture allows us to ‘investigate the values that have been attached by the people who originally made or used the object’ (Williams 10), as objects reflect and embody cultural beliefs.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

#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.