gate.gif (15817 bytes)

'why should i, of all the other princes in the world, be cased up like a holy relic ?'


The idea of entrapment and confinement is represented throughout the play. The soul is seen as a prisoner of the body, which will only be liberated in death. It is like a caged bird, and THE DUCHESS OF MALFI is entrapped as men catch birds with nets and their cunning practices.

By hiring Bosola to spy on the Duchess, the Cardinal and Ferdinand set a trap to ensnare the Duchess as men set traps to capture wild creatures in order to kill them. The Duchess is warned that if she being caught, would be killed, thus Ferdinand's warning to her that 'your darkest actions, nay, your privatest thoughts will come to light'. The Cardinal's comment 'the marraige night is the entrance to some prison' are not prophecies, but threats. Bosola's task is therefore set out, to first entrap the Duchess and then to secure her in her imprisonment.

Even though Bosola's intelligencing takes years to produce the results required by the brothers, their threats have an immediate fulfillment in the life of the Duchess : their determined wills and the atmosphere of her own poisoned court limit her activities. Her marraige ceremony is literally confined within the walls of her chamber. In this sense, her marraige night is indeed, 'the entrance to some prison'. Like a prisoner, her movements and emotions are restricted. Even the imagery in her words to Antonio convey the idea of imprisonment 'this lowly roof of yours is too low built' and her speaking of not being 'the figure cut in alabaster, kneels at my husband's tomb'.

Indeed, one sees the Duchess as one not only imprisoned physically by her brothers, but also one trapped in her role 'we are forced to woo because none dare woo us'. The imagery of the wooing scene suggests, prophetically, not only restraint, but madness and violent death. Nevertheless, a happier instance of the image of confinement occurs in the Duchess's reply to Antonio's question about her brothers 'Do not think of them, all discord without circumference, is only to be pitied, and not feared' This may be interpreted as a reference to the wedding ring that she has given to Antonio, or to the confinement of the wife's arms as she embraces her husband.

The idea of betrayal through violent entrapment is present in Antonio's recognition, after the birth of his 1st child, that Bosola is trying to undermine him. The concept of something precious being contained in something frail, parallel to that of the soul being imprisoned in the body, is reflected in Ferdinand's cry 'Foolish man, that ever will trust their honour in a bark, made of so slight, weak bulrush, as is woman, apt every minute to sink it.'

When her brothers know that the Duchess and Antonio have fallen into the trap of a secret marraige Ferdinand goes to take them both in her lodgings. Their married happiness is seen to include Antonio's teasing, which leads to his leaving his wife alone. So the poniard which might have killed Antonio is presented by Ferdinand as a warning - or as a hint to commit suicide to Antonio's wife. Ignoring the hint, the Duchess plans to secure life and liberty, first for her husband and then for herself and her children. In doing so, she rashly accepts Bosola's advice, which in itself is a snare. He suggests a 'feigned pilgrimage', but the Duchess and her family make a properly pious devotion at the shrine at our Lady of Loretto; her brother the Cardinal, on the contrary, resigns his religious vestments to be acoutred as a soldier before banishing the Duchess and her family. Witnessed by pilgrims who comment on his cruel bearing, the Cardinal vents his rage upon his sister by tearing off her wedding ring.

The idea of the Duchess as a trapped bird is alter underlined by the way that Ferdinand toys with her before having her killed. Immediately after being captured she asks Bosola 'to what prison' she must go to, but he insists that he brothers 'mean you safety and pity'. The Duchess by now knows better. The trapping net becomes a symbol of necessary evil which will reveal good; just as death is an evil, which at the Last Judgement will reveal the good of the soul. This appears in the conclusion of the Duchess's fable of the Salmon and the Dogfish (Act 3 v133-38)

Images of imprisonment occur most frequently in Act 4. The Duchess treatment within her own palace suggests the she is confined as a punishment and restrained as if she were mad. Cariola assures her that she will like 'to shake this durance off', but the Duchess mind turns again to contemplate the snared bird - which is how Bosola has taught her to think of herself 'the robin red breast and the nightingale, never live long in cages'. Earlier, the Duchess had envied the bird's ability to 'choose their mates and carol their sweet pleasures to the spring'.

The final symbol of the Duchess's confinement is the coffin itself, her 'last presence chamber' and her final thought is of a confinement that leads immediately to liberty. So she exalts her executioners for an instant 'yet stay, heaven gates are not so highly arched as princes palaces; they tht enter there must go upon their knees'. 'straight is the gate and narrow is the way' The implied conrast is with the space, the broad way that leads to perdition. Though the Duchess dies in Act 4, the image which has hiterto been so closely associated with her persists. Bosola. who ensnared her for her brothers is able to confine the Cardinal to the room in which the Duchess's death is to be avenged. So caught, the Cardinal cries 'shall i die like a leveret without any resistance ?'.

Hence, the theme of imprisonment is indeed an important one in the play. It is not only the Duchess who is imprisoned but most of the characters in the play. Ferdinand as much as he imprisons the Duchess in her chambers, is also imprisoned by his anger which takes over his reasoning 'why do you make of yourself so wild a tempest?' Indeed, the idea of the characters each being confined by themselves is a predominant idea in the play.

Your opinion on this argument is welcome. Please send me your comments via e-mail. I would be glad to include it on this site.

an essay by Amanda Elizabeth Koh 20/8/98  (no part of this essay may be reproduced without permission.)

e-mail.gif (8652 bytes)     guestbk.gif (8460 bytes)    links.gif (8310 bytes)    home.gif (8564 bytes)

| E-mail Amanda | Sign the Guestbook | View the Guestbook | Good Links | Go to Amanda's Cyberturf Homepage|