How Does Webster Reframe Concepts of Gender?

Mary Peake

This essay explores how Webster's writing challenges the discourses of medical theorising and the notion that 'Woman as the imperfect male', how the audience witness an inversion of separate spheres of gender, and how the play begins to dismantle them.


In 1580 Sir Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation of the globe and the world suddenly looked different; its limits could be mapped out and crossed by sailing alone.[1] Reflecting this, Shakespeare tapped into the idea of the world being a stage, naming his theatre 'The Globe'. Literature begins to map out the human experience, echoing its fractious nature. There is a repositioning of what it means to be human as writing examines individual lives and expectations within a changing society. Written in 1614, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi reflects this mapping of human experience through its investigation of gender. The play begins to reframe conceptions of gender and asks the audience to do the same. Webster creates images of the male and female body and begins to explore how they are conceptualised on stage. Through his portrayals of how the male and female body split, merge and define each other, Webster bares the discourses of the gendered body and in doing so begins to reframe its characterisations. During the Renaissance period, medical theorising separated male and female physiology, the Aristotle-Galen mode of thought highlighted the differences between genders. Aristotle ascertained that men were the holders of a 'powerful' sperm that contained the key to life, women however were simply the 'seed bed'.[2] Females were recognised to have inverted organs incapable of functioning effectively, deeming them the 'infertile man'.[3] This internal structuring inevitably communicates with the external, Gail Kern Paster observes that 'By giving the authority of theoretical discourse to [...] bodily habitus and social distinction, medical writers [...] naturalize theories of social difference as theories of physiological difference'.[4]


Webster begins to reframe such conceptions through the twinned relationship of the Duchess and Ferdinand. The play seems to react to the defining of gender through separate spheres of physiology by creating a double gendered body on stage. The dynamics of this relationship create a fluid gender identity in which the pair share an intrinsic connection not only physically as twins, but through representations of sexual experience and incestuous impulse. Webster initiates a sexual coupling when Ferdinand seems to experience his sister's sexual acts, the character envisions her love making in detail as if it were his own. The audience are presented with a kind of 'shared body' which begins to flatten out gender differences considering the way that Ferdinand inserts himself into the Duchess's body and experience:


FERDINAND    Or my imagination will carry me

         To see her in the shameful act of sin.

CARDINAL   With whom?

FERDINAND      Haply with some strong thighed bargeman,

         Or one o'th' wood-yard that can quoit the sledge,

         Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire

         That carries coals up to her privy lodgings (2.5. 40-45).[5]


By bringing together the male and female body into one through Ferdinand's insertion into the Duchess's experience, Webster begins to dismantle the usual framing of male and female by proposing a fluid gender. The suggestion of a body without gender boundaries would communicate with Webster's audience; Early modern society saw tensions rising surrounding the idea of male and female existing on a continuum. Women were seen cross-dressing in protest whilst men's fashion was perceived as increasingly effeminate. [6] Thus the play not only deals with conceptions of gender, but deconstructs them, and urges the audience to do so too by positioning them within this misogynist discourse.[7] Webster makes visible the instability of gender by revealing this sexual coupling. Looking at how this idea of the 'shared' body plays out on stage, the audience see exactly how Ferdinand inserts himself into his sister's bedroom and sexual experience:


      You have cause to love me: I entered you into my heart

         [Enter Ferdinand behind]

      Before you would vouchsafe to call for the keys

      We shall oneday have my brothers take you napping

      Methinks his presence, now being in court,

      should make you keep your own bed (3.2. 61-65).


Ferdinand navigates himself into his sister's sexual experience by physically concealing his presence within her private chamber. The timing of his entrance coupled with the Duchess's words seem crucial here; Ferdinand enters in between the line 'I entered you into my heart' and 'Before you would [...] call for the keys'. The prince inserts himself at the heart of his sister's passion, but also imagines himself as the recipient of its 'key', able to enter into her body. The space in which the scene is set reinforces this idea; Ferdinand enters the Duchess's private room, the space in which she and Antonio were beforehand discussing their sexual activity. Again, he seats himself within his sister's innermost privacy and therefore its as if he imagines himself within her body.


However, this merging of bodies doesn't just create a fluid gender, it also comments on the enclosure of the female body. Arguably, Webster reveals this sexual coupling to his audience to deconstruct male and female boundaries, yet this platform seems more disempowering in terms of the female body. One reason for this may be that Webster creates a social commentary on the enclosure of woman's body, looking at the maintaining of institutional forms in avoiding class contamination.[8] Considering again how the prince positions himself as the holder of his sister's 'key', it would appear that he wishes not just to enter her body, but to 'lock' and regulate it.

By invading and becoming one with the Duchess's body, Ferdinand can imagine himself controlling her sexual mobility, he attempts to fossilise the aristocratic female body and in doing so avoids class disparity. The audience witness the rigorous enclosure of the female body in maintaining the blood, which as Alison Findlay argues, takes on two meanings: nobility and passion.[9] By inserting himself into her sexual passions, Ferdinand can avoid outside interception, as Whigham informs, 'by [men of lower status] coupling with the Duchess, they couple with him and contaminate him, taking his place'.[10] It seems appropriate then that Ferdinand imprisons his sister where only he can enter before her death, surrounding her with inanimate objects, the 'dead' man's hand and wax family members, which cannot touch or contaminate the female. Through this twinned relationship then, Webster not only begins to dismantle separate gender spheres by creating a 'shared' body, but also comments on the enclosure of aristocracy and its disempowering effects on the female body. Webster arguably develops and marks these misogynist discourses to later deconstruct them; the audience witness that, despite Ferdinand's enclosure, the Duchess continues to reign over her own body in rejecting his ideals.


However, this 'shared body' positions the characters as two duplicates, or two halves of one body. This in turn creates the image of the 'original' and the 'copy'. Martha Ronk Lifson explores this issue of the play's symbolic duplicates within her essay,  describing the text as,


A dizzying visual play, in which one is aware of the physical aspects of things and of the ways in which items turn themselves into their copies or opposites [...] The audience are forced into a painful arena in which items appear both similar and different.[11]


The play is packed full of painted faces, wax figures, mirrored images and echoes. Those watching are placed at the centre of this array where doubling works physically on stage and in the audience's imagination. For example, the Duchess is seen conversing with herself in front of a mirror, describing how 'When I wax grey, I shall have all the court/ Powder their hair with orris, to be like me' (3.2. 60-61). Therefore, we see her 'doubling' herself on stage through a mirrored image and also within her mind, whilst her words encourage the audience to imagine the rest of the court transforming themselves into her in their minds. As Lifson argues, this splits the character into different 'selves'. However, it is the splitting that issues from the Duchess's and Ferdinand's 'shared body' that designates the characters as two 'halves'; one is positioned as the 'original' and the other as the 'copy'. Looking at her supposed inferior female physiology and status as a 'dysfunctional male', the Duchess would presumably be the 'copy' of her brother.[12] This would register with Webster's audience considering the medical theorising of the time; Galen argues that, 'within mankind the man is more perfect than the woman, and the primary instrument [...] it is no wonder that female is less perfect than male by as much as she is colder than he'.[13] Interestingly however, Webster seems to challenge this notion of the male body as the 'primary instrument' when the Duchess claims the original experiences. Ferdinand makes a copy of these experiences, as seen when he reproduces the Duchess's sexual encounter in his own mind. The evidence for this notion of the copy and its replicate is seen through Webster's characterisations of Ferdinand. Looking at the doctor's diagnosis, we begin to see his status as his sister's 'copy':


In those that are possessed with't there o'erflows

Such melancholy humour, they imagine

Themselves to be transformed into wolves,

Steal forth to churchyards in the dead of night,

And dig dead bodies up (5.2. 8-12).


Ferdinand's 'lycanthropia' (5.2. 6), psychologically becoming a wolf, seems to indicate that he has always been the Duchess's 'copy' through the notion that, on her death, he can no longer function as a fully formed self. The doctor describes how Ferdinand has been seen to 'dig up dead bodies'. This act seems incomprehensible, yet it is almost as if he desires another body to become one with, or to insert himself within. The audience see how Ferdinand fails to live solely as a 'whole' after killing the Duchess and concepts of male and female superiority are inverted.


Further, Ferdinand himself seems distinctly aware of his unravelling identity. The audience witness him trying to 'throttle' his own shadow. The scene plays on the theme of 'shadowing', indicating that Ferdinand has physically been a shadow of the Duchess. His frustration in trying to rid of this image suggests that he is aware of his inability to live as a fully formed self, 'Stay it, let it not haunt me' (5.2. 36). Thinking about the images produced by the scene, Webster reiterates this notion when the audience imagine Ferdinand stealing 'forth to the churchyards in the dead of night'. The graveyard 'at the dead of night' paints a gothic scene which we associate with haunting shadows. By integrating the character within this gothic, even supernatural scene, we are reminded that Ferdinand has himself become a haunting shadow, a copy of something else original or alive. Ferdinand is again linked to the image of shadowing when the Cardinal reveals his conclusions on his 'strange distraction': 'Such a figure/ One night [...] Appeared to him [...] Since which apparition [...] I much fear/ He cannot live' (5.2. 92-98). These images of 'shadows' and 'apparitions' that surround Ferdinand seem to indicate that he has become inhuman or a duplicate of another identity. As Antonio describes, Ferdinand lives through others: 'He speaks with other's tongues, and hears men's suits/ With other's ears [...] Rewards by hearsay' (1.1. 164-168). Webster again places his audience's minds within a dizzying array of shadows and split selves which, in this case, seem to reposition concepts of woman as the 'accident' of man by indicating that Ferdinand is the 'copy' of the Duchess.


Following on Webster's use of 'doubling', he places Antonio as a 'good' male double to Ferdinand. Throughout the play Antonio thinks and interacts with the female body in a more egalitarian way. Unlike Ferdinand, he does not wish to regulate the Duchess's sexuality and does not fear her want of pleasure:


That sure her nights, nay more, her very sleeps,

Are more in heaven than other ladies' shrifts.

Let all sweet ladies break their flattering glasses,

And dress themselves in her (I.I. 194-196).[14]


Antonio's words admire the Duchess, throughout the play he seems undaunted by her ability to match his own sexual word play, yet his words still create a discourse within the aristocratic female body.  The Duchess's sexual activity is essential in continuing monarchy, yet her sexual pleasure links her to licentiousness.[15] The result then, is a deconstructing of the female body, necessary passion and disembodied chastity form a split which physically dismembers the Duchess. This notion of woman's body as dismantled seems to be reflected in the itemising of female body parts on stage and within society. Within the Renaissance period, Ludovic Mercatus' 'On the irritation and hysteria of the womb' echoes this notion: 'this distemper lies in the part of the womb where the appetite is strongest [...] the whole neck of the uterus and most strongly its mouth'.[16]  The fact that the womb is personified with its own senses is disempowering to woman by reducing her to body parts, an image which is replicated on stage:


FERDINAND   [Aside]   How greedily she eats them! [...]

DUCHESS   I thank you, Bosola, they were right good ones-

      If they do not make me sick.

ANTONIO         How now, madam?

DUCHESS   This green fruit and my stomach are not friends.

   How they swell me! (2.1. 140-149).


The scene produces images of the Duchess's 'greedy womb' according to Bosola; her body 'swells' whilst its pregnant physicality on stage points towards the appetite of her womb, reducing her to body only. The audience see how the female body is brought to the very centre of the play, only to be split or dismembered by male characters. In this way Webster positions those watching within the female body and its discourse; we begin to realise the impossibility of woman's body in finding its place within a misogynist society, its dismantled parts, its passion and broken chastity cannot be reconciled.[17]


This image of the splitting body permeates the text, the centrality of the female body directs a divorce between woman's head and body. Considering conduct literature around this time, this divorce is crucial; Juan Luis Vive instructs that 'For in wedlock man resembleth the reason, and the woman the body. Now reason ought to rule, and the body ought to obey if man will live [...] The head of the woman is man'.[18] This becomes particularly poignant considering Ferdinand's method of murdering the Duchess. Despite efforts to deconstruct her, the female character manages to navigate a merging of head and body, the audience witness her playing a highly influential role, wooing Antonio, and disregarding her dynastic boundaries.[19] Considering this radical female behaviour, Ferdinand desires to redefine her as 'body only' when he chooses to kill her through strangulation. In this way he physically creates a barrier between head and body, this being the only way he can reconstruct the Duchess and reclaim his own position as the 'head'. This is pertinent to reconstructing his gendered identity, as Alison Findlay points out, 'throughout the play [...] Ferdinand has struggled to reconstruct her as a reflection or projection onto himself'.[20] Again Webster replicates the dismembering of the female body, positioning the audience within this discourse where they can witness the inability of man to place woman's body as reconcilable or whole.


The Duchess of Malfi then, investigates and challenges conceptions of gender. Webster examines how the female body is framed in relation to its moral judgement. The writing challenges the discourses of medical theorising; the audience witness an inversion of separate spheres of gender, faced with the sexual coupling of the Duchess and Ferdinand. Yet the text doesn't just deal with such issues, it begins to dismantle them. 'Woman as the imperfect male' is again inverted when Ferdinand replicates his sister's sexual experience and fails to function as a fully formed self on her death. Yet, throughout the text, the narrative of the female body remains a central trope, its examination places it in a vulnerable position. The text navigates a deconstruction of the female body, we see an inability to reconcile female pleasure and disembodied chastity.  Importantly however, Webster reveals this discourse of woman's body to his audience, commenting on its enclosure and regulation. As we will see in the following chapters, it is not solely physiology and representations of bodies on stage that component constructions of male and female, yet images of the human body create a basis for unravelling something as complex as gender identity. This remains crucial even in today's modern society. Medical literature continues to create separate spheres for men and women, and in doing so defines external behaviour and justifies intervention, as Paster notes, 'conceptualisation of bodily states is inseparable from moral judgement'.[21]

[1] Neil MacGregor, 'England goes Global', in Shakespeare's Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects, (London: Penguin, 2012), p. 3.

[2] Aristotle, 'The Generation of Animals', in Kate Aughterson, ed., Renaissance Woman: A sourcebook Constructions of Femininity in England, (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 43.

[3] Ibid., p. 46.

[4] Gail K. Paster, 'Laudable Blood: Bleeding, Difference, and Humoral Embarrassment', in The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.167.

[5] John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.138. All references will be to this edition and all citations will be included in parenthesis within the text.

[6] For a physical example of this social anxiety see 'John Chamberlain on women's dress'; Chamberlain delivers the concerns of James I regarding contemporary female fashion with its masculine facets: 'their wearing of broad brimmed hats, pointed doublets, their hair cut short or shorn, and some of the stilettoes or poignards'. John Chamberlain, 'John Chamberlain on Women's Dress' in Kate Aughterson, ed., 'Gender and Sexuality', in The English Renaissance: An anthology of sources and documents, (Abingdon: Routledge, 1998), p. 458. 

[7] Rebecca Merrens highlights this struggle for cohesive masculinity and femininity that society experienced within the Renaissance: Most analyses of the seventeenth-century tragedy [...] fail to acknowledge [...] the disorder and fragmentation- indeed, the tragedy- within patrilineal communities in crisis [...] plays try to obscure [...] the inability of masculine authority to present itself as cohesive and stable[7]: Rebecca Merrens, 'Unmanned with Thy Words: Regendering Tragedy in Manley and Trotter', in Broken Boundaries: Women & Feminism in Restoration Drama, (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996), pp. 30-31.

[8] Frank Whigham argues that 'Ferdinand's incestuous rage is not the achievement of sexual relations but the denial of institutional slippage through contaminating relations': Frank Whigham, 'Sexual and Social Mobility in 'The Duchess of Malfi'',  Modern Language Association, 100: 2 (1985), <> (accessed 03 May 2014), p. 169.

[9] Alison Findlay,  A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p.100.

[10] Whigham, 'Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi., p. 170.

[11] Martha R. Lifson, 'Embodied Morality in "The Duchess of Malfi"',  Pacific Coast Philology, 23:1 (1988), <> (accessed 20 March 2014), p. 47.

[12] Helkiah Crooke, 'Of the difference of the sexes', in The English Renaissance: An anthology of sources and documents, ed. By Kate Aughterson, (Abingdon: Routledge, 1998), p.463.

[13] Galen, 'On the usefulness of the parts of the body', in Kate Aughterson, ed., Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England,(London: Routledge, 1995), p. 47.

[14] The equal sexual wordplay that ensues between Antonio and the Duchess throughout the play is a much more egalitarian representation of female pleasure considering that advice of Renaissance conduct books: 'must she provide that her words be utterly estranged from all wantonness, jesting, filth speaking, and whatsoever may offend chaste cares, according to this commandment of the apostle: let no filthy communication proceed out of your mouth' By revealing the Duchess's natural sexual appetite through her jesting, her body is split and displaced onto the figure of the 'whore': Thomas Becon, 'The duty of a married woman toward her husband', in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England, ed. By Kate Aughterson, (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 112.

[15] Findlay argues how Antonio's words still 'split' the Duchess's body: In the dynastic family model, active sexuality is displaced onto the figure of the whore. Since female orgasm was considered a vital element in conception, aristocratic woman's passion was necessary for dynastic renewal but could not easily be reconciled with the ideal of disembodied chastity [...] Antonio's admiring words break the Duchess into two halves: Alison Findlay, A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p.100.

[16] Ludovic Mercatus, 'On the irritation and hysteria of the womb' in Kate Aughterson, ed., Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England, (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 53.

[17] The disempowerment of woman's body through its dismembering registers in other early modern texts such as Jonathon Swifts' A Young Nymph Going to Bed in which Swift anatomises her body: 'Press down the Lumps, the Hollows fill,/ [...] and off she slips/ The Bolsters that supply her Hips': Jonathon Swift,  'A Young Nymph Going to Bed', (Gender and Sexuality: Early Modern Writing, 2014), p. 18, lines 26-28. Again, Olivia in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night lists her appearance in terms of 'two lips [...] two grey eyes [...] one neck, one chin', this deconstruction reduces the female body to its parts and therefore it seems unable to form a 'whole': William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, (London: Thomson Learning, 2001), I.V. 250-252 (p.34). These examples, just like the dissection of the Duchess, seem to act as ironic 'reverse' blazons, this anatomising does not construct a 'whole' body, but instead situates the female as fragmented and irreconcilable.

[18] Juan Luis Vives, 'Instruction of A Christian Woman' in Kate Aughterson, ed., Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England, (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 137.

[19] As Findlay informs 'The Duchess is [...]"an exogamous family pioneer", navigating by the compass of her own will and pleasure': Alison Findlay, '''I Please myself'': Female Self-fashioning',  A Feminist Perspective on Renaissance Drama, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), p. 101.

[20] Alison Findlay, A Feminist Perspective, p. 103.

[21] Gail K. Paster, 'Complying with the Dug: Narratives of Birth and the Reproduction of Shame', in The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), p.169.



Mary Peake


brightONLINE student literary journal

18 Nov 2014