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Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”: Mad, Mad Ferdinand

Much of John Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” centers around the subversions and perversions of Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brother. Ferdinand is an immensely disturbed man who has been driven to insanity by his inability to control his sister, and his resultant inability to control his own life. His incestuous desires, though subtle, fill him with the need to wield power over her, even though this leaves him unable to rule his land, his real dominion. When he realizes that he cannot rule the Duchess, he begins to use legal rhetoric, situating himself verbally, if not physically, as her judge. When this ractic fails him, and he relinquishes even more control, Ferdinand loses a grip on his sanity. He develops the belief that he is a werewolf, and cannot maintain a definite self. All of these events begin, however, with his unnatural sexual longing for the Duchess.

The reader realizes that something is amiss with Ferdinand’s sexuality when he learns that Ferdinand is not sexually active. Ferdinand is the only character in the play who should be sexually active, and yet he is not. The Cardinal is a holy man who has made a vow of celibacy, but is having an affair with Julia; he doesn’t even seem to have any qualms about the shameless disregard he shows his vows. The Duchess marries Antonio and bears him children, implying that she is quite sexually active. However, because she is has been widowed, because her brothers forbid her to remarry, and because she promises to obey them, she should not have wed again. Even Julia engages in wrongful sexual activities: she is married, and is allowed to sleep with her husband, but instead chooses to sleep with others. Ferdinand, whose duty it is to sire children who will rule in his place when he dies, fails to do so. The reader first recognizes that Ferdinand’s unspent sexual energy is directed at his sister when he discovers that she has had a lover. He imagines quite vividly that she has indulged in the “shameful act of sin” with

Some strong-thighed bargeman,

Or one o’th’woodyard, that can quoit the sledge

Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire

That carries coals up to her privy lodgings. (II.5.43-46)

Ferdinand also talks of destroying her territory as effectively as she has shattered her honor:

I might toss her palace ’bout her ears,

Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,

And lay her general territory as waste

As she hath done her honors. (II.5.18-21)

Ferdinand even goes so far as to talk about cutting the Duchess to pieces, and then giving her child his handkerchief to wipe up the blood. He is not merely talking about punishment or retribution – he is talking about total annihilation. This reaction is given even more strength in contrast with the Cardinal’s response. The Cardinal hardly seems upset at all – in fact, he wonders at Ferdinand’s rage, and tries to calm him, telling him that his anger is intemperate and unnecessary. The Cardinal’s only insult is aimed at the deceitful nature of women in general; he does not take the Duchess’ actions as a personal injury, and does not resort to violence in any form. The difference in the brothers’ responses is staggering, and the fact that the two respond in such opposing manners is quite telling, particularly because we are told in the first act that the brothers are like twins in their natures (I.1.172). Here, we see that they are in fact quite disparate – Ferdinand, unlike the Cardinal, feels particularly powerful and passionate emotions toward his sister.

Another bond that Ferdinand feels with his sister that the Cardinal does not share is that he and the Duchess are twins. He speaks several times as if her blood is his blood – as if because she is sullied, so is he; it is almost as if they are the same person. When he has her imprisoned, Bosola pities her and asks the Duke if they can give her a prayer book and prayer beads so that she can repent. Ferdinand denies her this. He says that “[that] body of hers, / While that my blood ran pure in’t, was more worth / Than that which thou wouldst comfort, called a soul” (IV.1.123-25). The Duchess’ body, once soiled, cannot be cleaned like a soul can be purified through prayer. Once her body has been tainted, his has been, as well. Because he wishes to control her (and through her, himself), the Duchess’ actions upset Ferdinand’s life. When he suddenly discovers that she has been used by another, is in fact owned by another, he feels that he too is being controlled by someone else. The irony lies in the fact that it is in Ferdinand’s blood to be in control, to rule, but he fails to rule his sister, and therefore fails as a duke, as well.

Ferdinand also fails to recognize what is in himself. While the reader realizes that Ferdinand’s actions hinge on jealousy, it is not clear whether Ferdinand himself understands this. When he pays Bosola to spy on the Duchess, he refuses to give a reason. After she is dead, he laments, “I must confess, I had a hope, / Had she continued widow, to have gained / An infinite mass of treasure by her death; / And that was the main cause [of my anger]” (IV.2.282-285). The question remains, however: do we believe him? More importantly, does Ferdinand believe his own words? Whether his denial is real or feigned for Bosola’s benefit, he will not admit to the desires within him. At this point, Ferdinand also admits the Duchess’ innocence, and acknowledges that he made a mistake in sentencing her. He says, “I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits, / Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t” (IV.2.278-279). If he won’t recognize his unnatural desire for his sister, at least he acknowledges his mistake in having judged her wrongly. This is a clear admission that he has lost control, even over his own thoughts. Many of Ferdinand’s actions henceforth are attempts to regain that control – to make himself feel, once again, as though he is in charge.

Ferdinand accomplishes this aim by immediately taking on the air of a judge – the one position in his life where he cannot be usurped. In his own courthouse, he is the judge and the commander by law. He uses this position to his advantage, however unjustly. Delio says that “the law to him / Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider: / He makes it his dwelling and a prison/ To entangle those shall feed him” (I.1.177-180). He becomes the self-appointed judge of his sister, imprisoning her and then condemning her to death. After he has had her killed, he reverts to using legal language to reassure himself of his innocence in the matter. He says to Bosola, “Was I her judge? / Did any ceremonial form of law / Doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury / Deliver her conviction up i’th’court?” (IV.2.300-304) With these words, Ferdinand disclaims responsibility and lays the blame for the murder on Bosola. He judges one man guilty, while at the same time admitting that he is not in control – he is not the judge. The Duchess never went before a judge, and if she had, she would have been found innocent. The Duchess committed no crime worthy of punishment by law, and certainly not punishable by death. Here, Ferdinand is trying to say that he did not judge her – however, he neglects to see that nobody had the right to judge her, because she did not err. Ferdinand’s “proof” that she did in fact do wrong, was her husband. In his eyes, the existence of a lover was more than enough to sentence her. Ferdinand has an obsession with proof – evidence, no matter how trivial, allows him to justify his wrongful actions.

Ferdinand’s obsession began with the naming of the father of the Duchess’ children. Though he found out very early that she had borne a child, he waited several years and three children later to confront her about it, because he was waiting until he had the name of the father. This was quite unnecessary, but Ferdinand needed the reassurance. He imposes his need for evidence upon others as well. To prove to the Duchess that he has murdered Antonio and two of her children, he has an artist contrive wax figures of them posed in death, and hides them in her cell. Though his word would have been sufficient for her to believe them dead, he feels the need to show her, to provide her with visual confirmation. The Duchess’ body, to him, is proof that their blood is ruined. For this reason, he refuses to look at her once he has confronted her on the matter of her supposed indiscretions. If he does not see her, he cannot prove to himself that she has done what she has. Even after her death, he says to Bosola, “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle; she died young” (IV.2.2); he does not want to see her, or acknowledge what he has done to her. He says that “she died young”, as if she died of natural causes; this is because he is already in a state of denial, already refusing to take responsibility. Once the Duchess is dead, he tells Bosola that “the wolf shall find her grave and scrape it up, / Not to devour the corpse, but to discover / The horrid murder” (IV.2.310-312). By this, he means that her body will stand as evidence that she was wrongfully slaughtered. This also foreshadows Ferdinand’s sickness: he believes himself to be a werewolf, and digs up the graves of dead men. Without proof, Ferdinand has no control. His feeling of helplessness is the cause for this obsession with proof – he is constantly searching for something true, something that will prove he is whole.

Our initial impression of Ferdinand presents him as disjointed, not unified. The first time he is mentioned, Antonio says of him, “The Duke there? A most perverse and turbulent nature. / What appears in him mirth is merely outside; / If he laugh heartily, it is to laugh / All honesty out of fashion” (I.1.169-172). The idea of a difference between the “outside” and the “inside” of the Duke is key – it is not only what others see, but what he feels. “Madness is conceived as a disordering or disruption of the normative meaning of the body, signifying a disorder within both subject and State since the head and the monarch share the same rule according to the metaphor of the body politic” (Salkeld 60). Ferdinand is subject to this disorder of mind and body, and this plays itself out in his insanity. Madness is a sign of sovereignty in crisis, whether it be sovereignty of monarchy or of reason (Salkeld 60) – with Ferdinand, it is both. Ferdinand feels that the monarchy is in crisis because the Duchess has married below her rank, and his reason is in crisis because he desires her but cannot have her. He loves her, and yet he must have her killed: he has divided intentions, and because these intentions are not reconciled, he is left mad.

This split in Ferdinand’s psyche reveals itself in several ways. In his letter to Antonio, he writes with double meanings. He says, “I want Antonio’s head in a business” and “I would rather have Antonio’s heart than his money” (III.5.28,36). Through these lines, he says both what can be taken at face value and what can be read beneath – that he wants Antonio in pieces. The Duchess sees through his duplicity, and sends her husband fleeing. When Ferdinand gives his sister the dead man’s hand in place of his own, this is also a representation of his split self. The ring on the corpse’s finger is a wedding ring, the ring that united her with her past husband and with Antonio. Now this ring unites her and Ferdinand. He hands it to her, and she accepts it. This symbolizes a displacement of Ferdinand’s sexual desires for his sister. Symbolically they are united, but they cannot be – will never be, because the union is wrong.

The result of Ferdinand’s indecision is that the split in his psyche becomes even more pronounced. He attacks his own shadow, saying that it haunts him and that he must catch it. In his mind, his shadow is a replica of his self – there are two of him, and he must get rid of one. More significantly, this divide in Ferdinand manifests itself as Lycanthropia, a disease in which those possessed imagine “themselves to be transformd into wolves, / Steal froth to churchyards in the dead of the night / And dig dead bodies up” (V.2.10-12). Ferdinand becomes literally split: man by day, wolf by night, smooth on the outside, hairy on the inside. There is a matching up of his mental disorder with his physical confusion, as “the language of the body made sense of the soul” (Salkeld 66). The doctor describes Ferdinand’s actions to the soldier Pescara:

Two nights since

One met the Duke ’bout midnight in a lane

Behind Saint Mark’s Church, with the leg of a man

Upon his shoulder; and he howled fearfully;

Said he was a wolf, only the difference

Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,

His on the inside; bade them take their swords,

Rip up his flesh and try. (V.2.12-19)

It is important to note that Ferdinand feels deformed inwardly. His conscience has gotten to him – even his soul feels “hairy”. Ironically, the soul is the very thing that he says the Duchess need not have saved because her body is already ruined. Here is an inversion – the Duchess had a clean soul and a “soiled” body, while Ferdinand has a pure body and a hairy soul. He acknowledges that his soul is soiled, just as he felt his sister’s body was. As a wolf, he digs up bodies in the graveyard at Saint Mark’s church. Saint Mark is the patron saint of notaries (a type of legal secretary). Here, again, we find the law. Ferdinand is used to twisting the law in order to pass judgments as he wishes, and knows that this is wrong. By choosing Saint Mark’s church, he is again creating disorder in the realm of the law. Though he told Bosola that the wolf would find his sister’s corpse in her grave to prove the murder, as a wolf he chooses not to do this. It is male legs he carries upon his shoulders, not female ones; not the Duchess’. He is not attempting to prove her murder, nor trying to condemn himself. Just as he would not look upon her in death, he will not dig her up to prove to himself that he has killed her.

In his final scene, Ferdinand dies with his sister’s name on his lips: “My sister, oh my sister! There’s the cause on’t. / Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust” (V.5.86-88). He dies both because of his sister – for she was his undoing – and because of his own desires. The image of being “cut” also reinforces the discord between Ferdinand’s mind and his body; both his own desires and the actions of his sister caused this deep wound. Though Ferdinand initially appears to be one of the characters with the most agency in the “The Duchess of Malfi”, it is ultimately revealed that he is entirely powerless to control either his fate, or the fates of others.

Secondary Sources

Salkeld, Duncan. Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.

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