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Enfers et délices à la Renaissance

Franck Lessay
François Laroque

III - Enfers et délices : de Chaucer à Webster

Mothers From Hell: Medea and the Duchess of Malfi

Naomi Liebler


Dans La Duchesse de Malfi, de John Webster, lorsque le personnage-titre décide (en bravant l’interdiction de son frère) d’épouser son majordome Antonio, elle procède selon le monde à l’envers du carnaval pour mieux se retrouver en enfer. Derrière cette tragédie de la Renaissance tardive, on retrouve l’influence de Sénèque déjà très présente chez Kyd et chez Marlowe, tandis que le personnage de la duchesse n’est pas sans évoquer la Médée antique. Dans un cas comme dans l’autre, c’est leur condition de mères blessées dans leurs sentiments profonds qui en fait de grandes héroïnes tragiques, des femmes descendues aux enfers.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Mothers in Mourning, trans. Corinne Pache, Ithaca and London, Cornell UP, 1998, pp. 9-10.
  • 2 Mothers..., p. 49.
  • 3 Ibidem, p. 58 note 3.

1Writing about the connection between grief and anger in the Greek city-state and the relation of both to the feminine, Nicole Loraux notes that “the city, as a well-organized collectivity, enacts a series of laws and regulations against the danger of unbridled passion... If we are... interested in what the city rejects... we should seek what the city fears”1. Her subject is the order-toppling power latent in maternal mourning, and how such “unbridled passion” is manifested in both the real life of the city and the dramatic fictions it produces on the stage. A grieving mother constitutes a serious threat to the polis: “More cruel yet than the fate of divine mothers in tragedy is that of mortal women: they are always wounded in their motherhood... [M]ourning that has already been transformed into wrath becomes vengeance in deeds. And mothers kill”2. (In a note to this observation Loraux adds that “A father does not kill his son, even in tragedy, unless he is seized by a fit of madness like Heracles”3. It would appear that the fury of a woman wronged in any significant way has always posed a threat to “the city” sufficient to occasion laws, customs, and rites of circumscription designed to prevent this feminine rage from exploding into the social framework.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 58.
  • 5 Coppélia Kahn, Roman Shakespeare, London and New York, Routledge, 1998.
  • 6 Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater.” In The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver, New York, Columbia UP, (...)

2In Greek tragedy, “Murder is a woman’s crime and counts as one of the model feminine crimes: as such, murder is worthy of appearing in the tragic catalogue of gunaikeîa érga that choruses recite from time to time”4. This “model feminine crime” was an integral component of what Renaissance English dramatists inherited from Seneca along with his five-act structures, and through him, from the Greeks. For reasons having to do with the absorption and adaptation of Roman cultural and primarily patriarchal values, the image of the violent woman was suppressed and nearly effaced from the functional mirroring framework of early modem English drama5. It was supplanted by a valorized image of the mater dolorosa which, as Kristeva notes, “appears to crown the efforts of a society to reconcile the social remnants of matrilinearism and the unconscious needs of primary narcissism on the one hand, and on the other the requirements of a new society based on exchange and before long on increased production, which require the contribution of the superego and rely on the symbolic paternal agency”6. Nevertheless, as if enacting a kind of pre-Freudian “return of the repressed,” the tragedies of early modem England sustain their heritage from fifth-century B-C Athens and its later Senecan counterparts. As Juliet Dusinberre observes:

  • 7 Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (1975), Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1996, pp. 274-75.

When Thomas Newton collected together the Elizabethan translations of Seneca’s Tenne Tragedies he provided Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights with a gallery of women enmeshed in the male world of politics... Seneca’s women suffer atrocious violence, but they also commit it... Seneca... made accessible to Shakespeare and his contemporaries that astounding array of heroines in Greek classical drama who consistently contradict male images of female weakness, mental and physical.7

  • 8 Susan C. Staub, “Early Modem Medea: Representations of Child Murder in the Street Literature of Se (...)
  • 9 Op. cit., p. 334.
  • 10 Op. cit., p. 335 et 346 n 6.
  • 11 Ibidem, p. 335.
  • 12 Marilyn Francus, “Monstrous Mothers, Monstrous Societies: Infanticide and the Rule of Law in Resto (...)

3Taking my cues from both Loraux and Dusinberre, and considering the very special and especially conflicted sense during the early modem period of the significations of maternity, I wish to consider two notorious icons of motherhood in English Renaissance drama—Medea and the Duchess of Malfi—in regard to their respective negotiations of what one American feminist critic has recently described as a “pervasive cultural anxiety about motherhood”.8 “The figure of the murdering mother appears repeatedly in early modem drama, broadsheets and news pamphlets, and became popular at the same time that domestic literature was busily redefining the mother’s role” as one obliged to “nourish“children’s bodies and “suckle” their minds, with an attendant greater authority than earlier mothers had.9 The intersection between “real-life” instances of infanticide and filicide in early modem England, and the ballads and pamphlets that responded to them, disclose the apparent contradictions between those real-life episodes and the dogmatic tract-sponsored beatification of the maternal we find so abundantly in the print lore of the time. Most striking of all is the fact that infanticide was itself only newly criminalized during the period, and prosecuted vigorously in law and in the popular press only when committed by unmarried women, in whose cases the “crime” was at least understandable though unforgivable. Class, too, was often a factor in these demonizations—infanticide by genteel or aristocratic married women was considered sufficiently bizarre to promote the investigation of its motives10 and to treat the aristocratic infanticides with large degrees of sympathy. It was found that “most of these women commit their crimes out of their sense of duty as mothers,” and that “these mothers killed their children in order to save them from religious falsehood, from starvation, and occasionally, from the mother’s own desperate psychological State”11. The contradictory signals of powerful motherhood and subservient wife-hood in themselves often produced a desperate psychology; at the same time, as a number of scholars have noted, “the roles of wife and mother frequently—perhaps usually— required the erasure of the self”12, a point to which I shall return.

  • 13 Kristeva, op. cit., p. 321.

4Not surprisingly, concurrent models in the drama reflect their community’s deep concern with such contradictions and complications. I begin with a rather commonplace observation about the two heroes of my study—Medea is conventionally viewed as a kind of anti-mother, the inversion or perversion of all that is supposed to be both implicit and explicit in concepts of the nourishing mother. Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, in contrast, is often understood as the very epitome of the mater dolorosa, a handy Protestant replacement for a disfavored mariology wherein the Duchess is seen as a Griselda, a female Job enduring excruciating losses, real and staged, without the restoration granted her medieval or biblical predecessors. This model of the “grieving mother” is denied in Loraux’s figure of the Mother in Mourning found in classical texts; it is not the stuff of tragedy. Kristeva writes that “Marian pain is in no way connected with tragic outburst”; she finds instead that “joy and even a kind of triumph follow upon tears”13; but joy and triumph are precisely part of tragic outburst, at least one if not both may be seen in Medea, and if the Duchess of Malfi doesn’t laugh at the end of her play, we can still detect a quiet triumph in her persistent declaration of enduring identity: “I am Duchess of Malfi still.” What sets these figures apart from Kristeva’s model is their ultimate refusal to permit—distinct from her notion of a refusal to accept—loss. In this paper, I will argue against both conventional views of Medea and the Duchess; in my view, and in the sense suggested by the research on early modem maternal infanticide, it is easier to exculpate Medea; she agonizes, literally, as much about the fate awaiting her children under Jason’s and Creusa’s roof as about her own betrayal, and as much again over her decision to kill them. By contrast, the Duchess can hardly be bothered to think or speak of her four children (the eldest by her first husband) except in one passage that has become both notorious and exemplary—and false in regard to the rest of the play. I will argue that The Duchess of Malfi embeds versions of Seneca’s Medea in several important ways, and that elucidating a relation between the two plays sheds light on both, and on the construction of maternity in Renaissance English drama.

  • 14 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1981, p. 9.

5Intertextuality is a thorny matter with countless branches. Is it a matter of language, of quotations-within-quotations, of verbal semaphores and sign-posts that render a dramatic work (designed to be seen and heard before read, in most instances) already from the first a multiplicity of texts? Fredric Jameson says it is exactly that: “we never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself. Rather, texts come before us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or—if the text is brand-new—through the sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions.”14

  • 15 “Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: the discursive con-texts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shake (...)

6Echoes and signals of those “sedimented layers of previous interpretations” consist not only in words but also patterns of action, character and character “types,” in fact, all manner of antecedents. The hunt for the Intertext cannot require only direct correspondence; it encompasses inverse reference as well, and what Francis Barker and Peter Hulme have called “con-texts” (with a hyphen): “[S]ource criticism, which might seem to militate against autotelic unity by relating the text in question to other texts, in fact only obscures such relationships... In general, the fullness of the play’s unity needs protecting from contextual contamination, so ‘sources’are kept at bay except for the odd verbal parallel. But occasionally...that unity can only be protected by recourse to a notion of source as explanatory of a feature otherwise aberrant to that posited unity.” The authors explain their formulation in an endnote: the hyphenated form, “con-texts,” signifies “a break from the inequality of the usual text/context relationship. Con-texts are themselves texts and must be read with: they do not simply make up a background.”15 If we only track “sources” in the conventional way, seeking only “the odd verbal parallel,” we end up with a list of correspondences that reveals one author’s awareness of another, and perhaps little else that matters.

  • 16 Barker and Hulme, p. 197.
  • 17 “What Is an Author?” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Do (...)
  • 18 See, for instance, Marianne McDonald’s fascinating essay, “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding th (...)

7Barker and Hulme’s formulation of the “discursive con-text” allows us to avoid the traps inherent in such conventional approaches, the most silencing of which is the requirement of demonstrating not only that one author could have read another but also actually did with “the odd verbal parallel” to prove it. Recognizing discursive con-texts activates an awareness that “each individual text, rather than a meaningful unit in itself, lies at the intersection of different discourses... [T]he text must still be taken as a point of purchase on the discursive field—but in order to demonstrate that, athwart its alleged unity, the text is in fact marked and fissured by the interplay of the discourses that constitute it.”16 Put a bit differently, such a recognition constitutes what Foucault called “returning to” a particular discourse: “it is always a return to a text in itself, specifically, to a primary and unadorned text with particular attention to those things registered in the interstices of the text, its gaps and absences.” Foucault's essay concludes with a checklist for literary inquiry: “New questions will be heard: ‘What are the modes of existence of this discourse?’ ‘Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?’ ‘What placements are determined for possible subjects?’ ‘Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?”’17These questions too are required in the pursuit of the intertext, because we no longer understand anything at all in dramatic literature without at least some consideration of the contexts and con-texts of its production. This would be as true for modem revivais of particular plays as for their unrecoverable original performances.18

  • 19 See, for instance, F. L. Lucas, Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy, Cambridge, 1922, J. W. Cunliffe, T (...)
  • 20 Classical scholars mention a Medea by Ovid which has not survived: see Diana Robin, “Film Theory a (...)
  • 21 Brower recognized in a limited and general way the strength of Senecan females—“With few exception (...)

8Tracking the “odd verbal parallel” trail to intertexts has probably taken us as far as it can toward hearing in the sound of early drama the echoes of an earlier one. As a path between classical Latin texts and Renaissance English ones it will hardly do at all, unless what is being tracked is a kind of inversion—this despite the long-ago recognized influence of Senecan tragedy on that of the English Renaissance.19 Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi offers a challenging case for tracing a Senecan intertext in Medea. Although The Duchess of Malfi more closely resembles Euripides’Medea in representing the social contingencies of the protagonist’s situation, only Seneca’s was available in English, translated by John Studley in Thomas Newton’s edition of 1581.20 But if Euripides gave later generations a thoroughly victimized Medea who elicited an Aristotelian “pity,” Seneca gave them a formidable and powerful one21 who stood her ground and acted against masculine deception and betrayal, and something worse: the attempt to eradicate her identity—in other words, a tragic hero, and one who in this respect is traceable in Webster’s Duchess, and again to the real-life mothers historically identified in the studies referred to earlier.

  • 22 Robin, p. 107.
  • 23 Robin, p. 108.

9Seeking Medea in the Duchess of Malfi only on the basis of verbal parallels is a task of dubious value and unlikely success. Seneca’s language itself has raised questions about its performability, but as one recent commentator has written, the voice “played a key role in Senecan tragedy; since the actors wore masks in the performance of tragedy, every emotion, shift in feeling, or reaction had to be vocally registered.”22 Thus language alone and per se is not the basis for assigning intertextuality; vocal registers (in so far as these are discernible in the words) or affects also establish a relation of model to successor. In the case of the Duchess, however, if we look (or listen) very carefully to the vocal register we can find in the Senecan model, if not an exact correspondence, a redistribution of character construction. Interestingly in this respect, in the Medea, Seneca himself reversed or inverted the normal patterns of his Greek models: ”In Greek tragedy, men weep, groan, and mourn openly... Unlike Euripides’s choruses, which are predominantly female, Seneca’s male choruses neither sing dirges nor do they [usually] sympathize with the female protagonists in their plays. Jason and [the Agamemnon’s] Theseus are the exceptional cases. In Seneca, woman alone remains the figure for raw nature, for feeling and emotionality unimpressed by the constraints of philosophy.”23

10Seneca’s Medea has been vilified and demonized by most modem readers, but not, as Webster might have read her, by Seneca himself. Here is the Chorus’s first assessment (“altered by the Translatour”) of Medea’s predicament, and of Jason’s consistent dishonesty:

The cause that brought false Jason out of Greece
To come unto her fathers fertile Land,
Is not her love, but love of golden fleece.

  • 24 Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies Translated into English, ed. Thomas Newton anno 1581, with an Introduct (...)

The honyed Lyppes, the tongue in suger dept
Doe sweete the poyson rancke within the breast,
In subtle shew of paynted sheath is kept,
The rusty knife of treason deemed least:..,24

  • 25 Modem translations from Seneca as well as quotation from the Latin in this paper refer to the bili (...)

11This “alteration” is most interesting because the Act I Chorus is Studley’s only significant departure from the Senecan text (although his relentless fourteeners substantially lengthen it throughout). He rejected Seneca’s (digressive? ironic?) happy epithalamium celebrating the marriage of Jason and Creusa, where the only suggestion of the trouble that lies ahead is this warning at the end of the passage: “Let her pass in silent gloom who steals away to wed with a foreign husband.”25 The Chorus refers, of course, to Medea who has already been abandoned by that “foreigner”; the implication is that Medea got no less than she deserved by Jason’s betrayal. Instead, Studley‘s “alteration” is a long complaint against Jason by the Chorus on Medea’s behalf. In the English version the male chorus announces from the outset its sympathy toward the hero. At worst they think her foolishly gullible, love-blind, to have trusted such a notorious liar:

Thoughtst thou Medea his eyes to bee the glasse,
Wherein thou might the Face of thoughts beholde?

Did thou suppose that nature (more then kinde)
Had placde his heart his lying lyppes betweene,
His lookes to be the mirrour of his minde?
Fayth in fayre Face hath sildome yet ben seene.
(Act I, p. 59)

12If I may digress here just for a moment, it’s tantalizing to note striking parallels between Seneca’s language and that used variously in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Obvious similarities occur here to Duncan’s “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”; I note also Medea’s invocation of Hecate and other underworld spirits (Act I, p. 55) in regard to Lady Macbeth, Medea’s detailed Chemical concoctions in regard to the Weird Sisters, her observation regarding revenge: “I would the wretch a brother had: but what? he hath a Wyfe./Goe cut her throate, with ghastly wounds bereave her of her lyfe” (Act I, p. 60), which anticipates Lady Macbeth’s mad song about the Thane of Life who had a wife, and this: “How oft in haynous bloud have these my cruell hands bene dyed?” (Act II, p. 61). My personal favorite is this description of the poison Medea mixes for Creusa’s robe: “the slibber slobber sosse of chauntments” (Act III, p. 80). Clearly these “odd verbal parallels” establish Macbeth as a middle term in the relation between Medea and The Duchess of Malfi. And while I have Lady Macbeth in view, I want to add that her infamous line about dashing her baby’s brains out, all too often recalled in discussions of Medea (see Staub’s essay), has nothing at all to do with infanticide, real or otherwise. Lady Macbeth is using a point of comparison to underscore the supreme value of keeping one’s promises: I would, she says to her husband, have done even so horrific a thing “had I so sworn as you have done to this.” I now return to my Senecan text.

13The whole of the Chorus’s speech concluding Act I (pp. 58-9) continues to hammer away at Jason’s ingratitude and treachery. Like many women in love, Medea is more than willing, at first, to shift the blame to someone else besides her husband and mitigate his betrayal:

Lyve still my Jason as he was: but if not Jason myne,
Yet caytife suffer Jason live, though Jason none of thyne:
Who being mindefull still of us some favour let him shoe,
For these good turnes that our good will could earst on him bestowe:
King Creon is in all the fault, and onely worthy blame,
Who puffed up with Scepter proude, unable for to frame
His fickle minde to modesty, made breach twixt us agayne,
Whome Hymens bands, and link of love had made but one of twayne,
By whom eke from her tender brats the mother (wretch) is drawne,
Hee breakes the vowe, that gaged is with such a precious pawne.
(Act II, p. 61)

14The Nurse advises her to keep her own counsel, the better to exact her revenge when the time comes (p. 62); in fact it is the Nurse who suggests revenge to Medea in the first place, and who announces the hopelessness of Medea’s situation: “Thy Countrey cleane hath cast thee of, to let thee sinke or swim, / As for thy husband Jason hee, ther is no trust in him” (Act II, p. 62). Regardless of what later commentators have made of Medea, in Studley’s translation she is more sinned against than sinning. It may be that in making this significant change Studley was thinking of Euripides’s generally more sympathetic (and 500 years older) version of Medea; if so we would need to consider the Euripidean text as yet another intertext occurring between Seneca and Webster. Furthermore, if we take into account the verbal parallels between Studley’s translation and Shakespeare’s Macbeth indicated earlier, then the continuum of intertextuality maps out a path from Euripides to Seneca to Studley to Shakespeare to Webster.

  • 26 I am reminded here of Jonathan Goldberg’s argument-from-Derrida in his essay “Speculations: Macbet (...)

15An imaginary dotted line connecting Medea to The Duchess of Malfi traces a complicated but telling (in)version of this model story of masculine treachery and feminine revenge. It hardly needs to be said that this is not by any means a direct line, nor is the path it follows a straight one. It is not easy to connect the dots, but I want to argue that the dots are there, though seldom in the form of “odd verbal [i.e., logocentric] parallels.” What they trace is a set of after-images like those left in certain kinds of photographs: they indicate something that was once there but is no longer in the frame of the developed print, something that by a series of optical inversions the camera’s internal mirrors have produced as a reverse in the negative, which then is re-inverted in the positive print.26 The model for the recovery of these present absences then, to use another modem analogue, is not so much intertext as hypertext, stacks-within-stacks of files of reference and cross-reference.

16On this model, Webster gives Medea’s most excessive behaviors and actions to the Duchess’s male nemeses, her brothers and Bosola: Medea’s occult talents, the main cause of her demonization, are transferred and transformed to Ferdinand’s obsession on the one hand and his lycanthropia on the other. Medea’s infanticide is given to Bosola, by the Cardinal’s order (V.2.266-68). The brothers’motive for destroying the Duchess, however it has been explained by critics as punishment for her defiance of their patriarchal authority, is plainly disclosed by Ferdinand as material:

What was the meanness of her match to me?
Only 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. Her marriage,
That drew a stream of gall quite through my heart;....

  • 27 The fact that the Duchess had another son by her first husband does not appear to threaten Ferdina (...)

17Interestingly, this materialistic motive is withheld by Webster until nearly the end of the play.27 For most of the play, we are led to believe that Ferdinand is moved by a psychotic overidentification, and that his fury springs from a type of narcissistic-incestuous hatred and possessiveness of both himself and his sister that first erupts when he hears of the birth of the Duchess’s and Antonio’s first child:

I could kill her now,
In you, or in myself, for I do think
It is some sin in us heaven doth revenge
By her.

18Like Medea he alternates wild furious ravings with quieter reflections; his insane outburst here might have come from the Senecan play:

I would have their bodies
Burned in a coal-pit, with the ventage stopped,
That their cursed smoke might not ascend to heaven.
Or dip the sheets they lie in, in pitch or sulfur,
Wrap them in’t, and then light them like a match.
Or else boil their bastard to a cullis,
And give’t his lecherous father, to renew
The sin of his back.

19When the Duchess and her two youngest children by Antonio are dead, Ferdinand confirms his identification with her:

She and I were twins;
And should I die this instant, I had lived
Her time to a minute.

20and moments earlier in the preceding scene:

Damn her! 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. 1.121-23)

  • 28 When he tried to prevent her flight from Colchis with Jason, Medea killed her brother Absyrtus, di (...)

21If Ferdinand is half-Duchess and half-Medea, Bosola, I would argue, likewise redistributes aspects of both, though from a different perspective. Like the Duchess and Medea, he too is thoroughly and consistently disenfranchised throughout the play, from beginning to end the victim of the Calabrian brothers. His complaints most closely align him with Medea—she and he both murder on behalf of ungrateful and dismissive patrons: Bosola for the Cardinal and Ferdinand, Medea (who killed her brother prior to the action of her play) for Jason.28 Bosola committed his First murder, also extradramatically, at the behest of the Cardinal, for which crime he spent two years in the galleys. When we first meet him, he is complaining to the Cardinal for the latter’s failure to acknowledge, much less reward, his “service”:

I fell into the galleys in your service, where, for two years together, I wore
two towels instead of a shirt with a knot on the shoulder, after the
fashion of a Roman mantle. Slighted thus? I will thrive some way....

22Interestingly, Delio remembers the sentence as seven years (I.i.72)—all the more reason for Bosola to feel he has made an unrequited sacrifice. At the end, for the murders that occupy our attention in this play, he is similarly dismissed by Ferdinand, and complains again in the same vein:

Let me know,
Wherefore I should be thus neglected? Sir,
I served your tyranny: and rather strove
To satisfy yourself, than all the world;
And, though I loathed the evil, yet I loved
You that did counsel it, and rather sought
To appear a true servant than an honest man.

23Ferdinand walks off, wrapped in his own thoughts, just as the Cardinal did in the first instance. Bosola is merely their tool, as Medea was Jason’s; like her he committed his crimes, as he says, for love, and like her, after serving his purpose he is cast aside. This rejection finally springs his turn of “conscience,” though it is worth noting that what he turns from in this reversal is what Ferdinand finally admitted was his motivation too—material gain. Bosola says:

What would I do, were this to do again?
I would not change my peace of conscience
For all the wealth of Europe.

24Material issues are often overlooked in studies of both plays, doubtless because the murders of women and children are seen as more interesting than—and different from—mere matters of greed. But perhaps they are more closely related as social issues for both Seneca and Webster. As Martha Nussbaum points out in a brilliant essay on Seneca’s play, “the prize for the Argo’s voyage was Medea, a danger worse than the sea” (241). Ferdinand says the reason for his vengeance upon his sister is her “infinite mass of treasure.” Her body, he says, is a valuable commodity, “more worth” than her soul. The bribe offered Bosola by both brothers is payment, though what he wants from them seems to be acknowledgement more than material reward.

  • 29 The context of this assertion is interesting. The Nurse has just advised her that she is bereft of (...)

25Medea’s fury belongs to Ferdinand; her abused employment and infanticide are given to Bosola. But her identity as mother and autonomous subject, no matter how victimized, link her to the Duchess. “Medea superest” (1. 166); Medea remains,29 or in Studley’s terms, “Medea yet is left, (to much)” (Act II, p. 62), and again in Act V, “Medea am I made” (p. 94) (“Medea nunc sum; crevit ingenium malis”—“Now I am Medea. my wit has grown through suffering”: 1. 910). So too the Duchess to Bosola, who is employed by Ferdinand to drive her to despair: “Am not I thy Duchess? /... I am Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.2.133-42). Exactly what is this “Duchess” and this “Medea”? Each is identified repeatedly as essentially a Mother. But Medea remembers a life before maternity. “Mother” is what she is in relation to others, as the Nurse and Jason respectively remind her (Act II, p. 63; Act III, p. 75); indeed, as both a biological and a social construct, motherhood depends upon the existence of at least two “Others,” a father and a child. That contingency is required for the definition; without father, without child, there is no “mother.” Medea knows that her motherhood is inseparable from her crisis in the play: “Yee see by whom, and how,/A wretched Mother I am made” (Act II, p. 63). At the end, she reminds Jason of who she was before his intervention in her life produced the conditions that created her tragedy:

Avaunt, now hence thou pesaunt prowd employ thy busy payne,
To repe the fruites of virgins bed, and cast them of agayne
When mothers they are made....

O ruthfull giddy greefe,
This is the onely sacrifice that I can thee provide,
Unthankfull Jason hether cast thy coyesh lookes aside.
Loe heare dost thou beholde thy wyfe? thus ever wonted I.
(Act V, p. 98)

26Medea was Medea, first a virgin, then a wife, before she was a mother. Flying off in her dragon-drawn chariot, she chooses her original identity; she becomes her old self again, leaving Jason to comment bitterly upon a godless universe.

27The Duchess’s complex identity is distributed a bit differently from Medea’s, though the only times she speaks to or about her children are when she bids farewell to her eldest who departs with Antonio for Ancona (III.5.64-66)— but even in this scene most of her attention and her speech are focused upon Antonio—and at the moment of her death when she asks Cariola (poignantly but also pointlessly, given that the latter too is about to die): “I pray thee look thou givest my little boy/Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl/Say her prayers ere she sleep” (IV.2.204-206). Surprisingly like Medea in this regard, her maternal status seems more to signal her function for others in the play than it does her own sense of self: in II.i, she is “troubled with the mother” (125), i.e., suffering the symptoms of pregnancy; Antonio describes/defines her to Delio in III. 1 as “an excellent/Feeder of pedigrees; since you last saw her, / She hath had two children more, a son and daughter” (5-7). His parting words to her also invoke her maternal status: “If I do never see thee more, / Be a good mother to your little ones,/ And save them from the tiger” (III.5.81-83); but her own representation of the children, made to Bosola a few moments later, is only that “since they were born accursed,/Curses shall be their first language” (III.5.114-15). When she is shown the wax tableau of Antonio and the children, peculiarly she seems to focus only on her husband’s figure: “If they would bind me to that trunk again” it would be a mercy, she says, and then invokes the classic image of a devoted wife: “Portia, I’ll new kindle thy coals again,/And revive the rare and almost dead example/Of a loving wife” (IV. 1.72-74). She does not mention the children at all. She does not seem to see them. It would appear that she is “mother” as others in the play see her, but this is not how she sees herself. And of course her motherhood specifically is what provokes Ferdinand to his frenzied “revenge.”

28In both plays, maternity isolates and situates the respective catastrophes.

29Not only to punish Jason’s betrayal but also because his marriage to Creusa will displace her children s birthrights altogether, and also because leaving her children with Creusa, she says, will contaminate them by contact with the base-born (Act III, p. 78), Medea is the agent of her children’s deaths. Conversely the Duchess’s children, simply because they exist, are the de facto agents of their mother’s death as well as their own: their uncles separately ordered the children’s murders, Ferdinand to gain their inheritance, and the Cardinal to destroy the issue of Antonio’s base blood. The Duchess’s children are seen by their uncles as dis-integrating elements—contaminants of a “pure” and exalted bloodline, siphons of an otherwise intact material legacy. The maternal here is contested by the material and loses to it. The survival of Antonio s and the Duchess’s eldest son “redeems” only the play’s material emphasis: Delio will “establish this young hopeful gentleman/In’s mothers right” and let the rest of the play’s events disappear out of memory, as he says, to melt away like a footprint in the snow (V.5.112-17).

  • 30 Although Aristotle specifies agon as one of the hallmarks of the tragic hero, it is too often over (...)
  • 31 Nussbaum, Martha C. “Serpents in the Soul: A reading of Seneca’s Medea.” In Clauss and Johnston, e (...)

30The “Integer vitae” of Delio’s closing lines ironizes the end of this play in which the only “integrity of life” was the Duchess’s—“I am Duchess of Malfi still”—not wife, not mother, the identities for which she is killed. All of these identities are of course socially constructed—even as “Duchess,” she complains to Antonio, she is not permitted to woo him openly. When she speaks the resonant line, Antonio and the children are still alive, and she is still a wife and mother in the outward fact of social contingency. “Duchess of Malfi,” however, is the identity by which she knows herself. This finally is what links her with Medea; this is the Duchess’s “superest.” Both assert their identities as uncontingent, self-constructed (although it should be noted that the Duchess of Malfi only became the Duchess of Malfi by marriage to her first husband. We know nothing of her, not even her Christian name, before that. Alas). Naming herself, claiming and maintaining her own identity against all external efforts to define and manipulate it, is the agon that engages each of these female protagonists. It is what makes them tragic heroes.30 “What we have discovered,” Nussbaum observes, “is that there are two selves, two pictures of selfhood in the world, two pictures even of morality, and that we must choose between them. This choice is not simple, but tragic. If we go for eros and audacia we get crime and murderous anger; if we go for purity, we get flatness and the death of heroic virtue. We get the death of tragedy too, since what tragedy is, we recall, is ‘the sufferings of human beings who have been wonderstruck by external things’”.31

31This paper raises questions that cannot at the moment, here and now, be answered. Among them is one suggested by Nussbaum’s incisive hypothesis that returns to the point where I started. I began with a commentary upon crime, which would seem to require that I conclude with some reference to punishment. What in the world was Seneca thinking of when he let Medea fly off in that dragon-drawn chariot after flinging the children’s bodies down to Jason? What was Euripides thinking when he has Medea instead refuse Jason the bodies; she promises to bury them herself in Corinth, legitimizing their deaths by establishing an annual feast of atonement (an atonement to be undertaken by Corinthians!) while she goes off to live in Athenian sanctuary under the protection of Aegeus. Where in either play is the punishment for her “crime”? Conversely, why is the Duchess of Malfi subjected to a series of punishments, and ultimately killed, for having committed no crime at all other than loving, marrying, and bearing her steward’s children?

  • 32 Tina, Passman, “Out of the Closet and into the Field: Matriculture, the Lesbian Perspective, and F (...)
  • 33 For a further discussion of such matrilinear cultures, see Kathryn Schwarz’s splendid essay, “Moth (...)

32Another question raised by my subject is whether maternity as socially situated is just as culturally contingent, as constructed, as all other social relations have been shown to be in recent anthropological, historical, and social criticism of early literature. I think it is, and perhaps never more so than today, as daily news items about maternal infanticide, single-motherhood, medical, legal, and social interventions on behalf of childless individuals as well as couples, often-desperate efforts to conceive or adopt, etc., occupy and preoccupy the American populace, for whom motherhood (and just recently, fatherhood) remains perhaps the last uncontested beatitude. If maternity is a social estate or institution, by whom and for whom is it defined? Kristeva suggests that “we live in a civilization where the consecrated (religious or secular) representation of femininity is absorbed by motherhood. If, however, one looks at it more closely, this motherhood is the fantasy that is nurtured by the adult, man or woman, of a lost territory; what is more, it involves less an idealized archaic mother than the idealization of the relationship that binds us to her,... an idealization of primary narcissism” (308). “Could it be,” she continues, “that... the taming of that economy (of the Maternal or of primary narcissism) is a requirement for artistic, literary, or painterly accomplishment?” (310). Questions such as these are implicit in the work of feminist classicists, also, such as Tina Passman who calls for the reconsideration of a “feminist myth of a matricultural origin for the West... that challenges the basic values and assumptions of Western patriarchy”32, among which surely is this very contingency that requires the splitting or erasure of the feminine self and its redefinition by relation to others.33 Both Seneca’s Medea and Webster’s Duchess invoke this fantasized return—not of the repressed, as Freud famously insisted, but of the oppressed. Even as she kills their two children, Medea announces to Jason that she might be pregnant with another by him, and if so, she will kill that one too; in killing all of these, she recovers, as she says, the integer vitae of her identity before Jason entered her and altered her; she has turned back time:

Now, now my Scepter guilt I have recovered once agayne:
My Fathers wronges revenged are, and eke my brother slayne:
The goulden cattels Fleece returnde is to my native land,
Possession of my realme I have reclaymed to my hand:
Come home is my virginity, that whilome went astray.
(Act V, p. 97)

  • 34 Op. cit., pp. 231-32.

33Integrity is, of course, more than a moral quality; it is also a physical one. Bodily integrity is the first thing that goes when one loves, says Nussbaum. “Any person who loves is opening in the walls of the self a hole through which the world may penetrate... Seneca’s language... reminds us that a life given over to love cannot avoid having holes in it. And once there is a hole there is, as Medea says, ‘a space wide open for a wound’ (550)”34. Medea and the Duchess both are tragic directly because they are mothers—to return to a line from Loraux with which I began, they are “wounded in their motherhood”— but only Medea agonizes over and dilates upon her maternity and the rent it has made in her selfhood; the Duchess merely curses it. So deadly is the tear that love has made in the self—love for a man, love for children—that life itself cannot go forward; it can only go backward through time, through memory, to a prior integer vitae—Medea superest; I am Duchess of Malfi still.

  • 35 “McDonald, Marianne. “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future.” In Medea: (...)

34I would like to close with a line of which I am reminded both by the title of this conference and in an essay by Marianne McDonald35 on modem versions of the Medea histoire; it comes from that great French renegade Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’enfer,” he said in Huis clos, “c’est les autres.” Oui. Peut-être c’est les mères; peut-être les fils, peut-être les hommes.


1 Mothers in Mourning, trans. Corinne Pache, Ithaca and London, Cornell UP, 1998, pp. 9-10.

2 Mothers..., p. 49.

3 Ibidem, p. 58 note 3.

4 Ibid., p. 58.

5 Coppélia Kahn, Roman Shakespeare, London and New York, Routledge, 1998.

6 Julia Kristeva, “Stabat Mater.” In The Portable Kristeva, ed. Kelly Oliver, New York, Columbia UP, 1997, 308-31.

7 Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (1975), Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1996, pp. 274-75.

8 Susan C. Staub, “Early Modem Medea: Representations of Child Murder in the Street Literature of Seventeenth-Century England.” In Maternai Measures: Figuring Caregiving in the Early Modem Period, eds. Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh, Burlington (VT), Ashgate, 2000, p. 333.

9 Op. cit., p. 334.

10 Op. cit., p. 335 et 346 n 6.

11 Ibidem, p. 335.

12 Marilyn Francus, “Monstrous Mothers, Monstrous Societies: Infanticide and the Rule of Law in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth Century Life 21:2 (1997) quoted in Staub, ibid., p. 341.

13 Kristeva, op. cit., p. 321.

14 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Ithaca, Cornell UP, 1981, p. 9.

15 “Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: the discursive con-texts of The Tempest,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, London, Methuen, 1985, pp. 195-96; 236, n. 7.

16 Barker and Hulme, p. 197.

17 “What Is an Author?” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1977, pp. 135-38.

18 See, for instance, Marianne McDonald’s fascinating essay, “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future,” in James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, eds., Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1997, pp. 297-323. Also see the text of the theatre babel [sic] production of Medea by the Scottish writer Liz Lochhead, which premiered in Glasgow in March 2000, “adapted” to a modem Scots dialect. Early 2001 saw two more “new” productions of Medea: in Deborah Warner’s London production starring Fiona Shaw, and in Jacques Lassalle’s Paris production starring Isabelle Huppert. All of these were based, more and less, on Euripides’ version of the story, which Lassalle is quoted as having characterized as more “feminist” than Seneca’s (see Alan Riding’s review of both productions in the New York Times, (February 4,2001), p. 18.

19 See, for instance, F. L. Lucas, Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy, Cambridge, 1922, J. W. Cunliffe, The Influence of Seneca on Elizabethan Tragedy Macmillan, 1893, and Reuben A. Brower, Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Hernie Tradition, Oxford, Clarendon, 1971.

20 Classical scholars mention a Medea by Ovid which has not survived: see Diana Robin, “Film Theory and the Gendered Voice in Seneca,” in Feminist Theory and the Classics, ed. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin New York, Routledge, 1993, p. 106.

21 Brower recognized in a limited and general way the strength of Senecan females—“With few exceptions, the more convincingly noble characters in Seneca are women... They are of course noble in the extreme, supernaturally calm at the approach of death, if not actually eager to die” (p. 153), but Medea specifically remained for him a “‘princely’ and virile heroine” (p. 159); “Seneca’s Medea is all witch, a super-devil who flies away, escaping from the destruction she has left behind for everyone else” (p. 164). It will not escape notice that his categories for female heroism in Seneca are suicidal, masculine, or demonic behavior, all of which tend to undermine the concept of heroism, and none of which, except of course for the term “virile,” would be applied to a masculine hero. Brower, incidentally, is the only critic I have come across who notices any connection between Seneca and The Duchess of Malfi, and that is a single, and for my purposes insignificant, sententia from Seneca’s Epistle LXX (see Brower, p. 147).

22 Robin, p. 107.

23 Robin, p. 108.

24 Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies Translated into English, ed. Thomas Newton anno 1581, with an Introduction by T. S. Eliot. 2 vols., New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1927, vol. 2., p. 58. Quotations from Studley’s translation refer to this edition by act and page numbers, as lines are unnumbered.

25 Modem translations from Seneca as well as quotation from the Latin in this paper refer to the bilingual edition by Frank Justus Miller, Seneca’s Tragedies, 2 vols., Cambridge, (Mass.), Harvard UP, 1960, vol. I; the quotation here refers to lines 114-115. There are no Act divisions, and the translation is made into prose.

26 I am reminded here of Jonathan Goldberg’s argument-from-Derrida in his essay “Speculations: Macbeth and Source”: “The emphasis now is on the re in representation, the haunting specter of duplication that unmoors texts and events from a positivistic view of history or literature. What is real, then, is the re, perhaps itself a recovery of the nothing into which things slide. Latin rem lies behind French rien” (in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, New York and London, Methuen, 1987, p. 247.

27 The fact that the Duchess had another son by her first husband does not appear to threaten Ferdinand’s prospects for her money. This son, now the Duke of Malfi, presumably has already inherited his portion and what remains to the Duchess evidently wuold not go to him upon her death. We are told in III.3.68-70 that Ferdinand intends to enlist as an ally againts the Duchess.

28 When he tried to prevent her flight from Colchis with Jason, Medea killed her brother Absyrtus, dismembered his body and scattered his pieces over the ocean. She also tricked Pelias’s daughters into cutting up their father and boiling him in order to rejuvenate him; this too was done on Jason’s behalf, as Pelias (Jason’s uncle) had displaced Jason’s father from the throne of Iolcus. Medea refers repeatedly to her fratricide as the crime she most regrets having done for her husband’s sake.

29 The context of this assertion is interesting. The Nurse has just advised her that she is bereft of all support: “The Colchians are no longer on thy side, thy husband’s vows have failed, and there is nothing left of all thy wealth.” Medea replies, “Medea is left—in her thou beholdest sea and land, and sword and fire and gods and thunderbolts.” These are the words of a woman who will not be defeated, who bereft of all external suppport finds the powers of the natural and divine worlds securely in herself.

30 Although Aristotle specifies agon as one of the hallmarks of the tragic hero, it is too often overlooked by critics of tragic drama—even by recent anti-traditional ones who substitute for it terms such as contestation, a misleading term because in a contest there are always winners and losers, whereas in tragedy there are no winners. Neglecting the centrality of agon to tragedy has led some feminist critics of Renaissance drama to claim that transgression rather than heroism is the mark of the female protagonist, and that “There is no need for a female hero nor should feminists try to create a new critical paradigm in order to accommodate one. Heroes are merely the chief characters of plays, not the timeless representatives of the bravest and best...” (Dympna Callaghan, Woman and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy: A Study of King Lear, Othello, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, Humanities Press International 1989, p. 68). Obviously I disagree.

31 Nussbaum, Martha C. “Serpents in the Soul: A reading of Seneca’s Medea.” In Clauss and Johnston, eds. 219-49.

32 Tina, Passman, “Out of the Closet and into the Field: Matriculture, the Lesbian Perspective, and Feminist Classics.” In Feminist Theory and the Classics. Eds. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin, New York, Routledge, 1993, pp. 182-83.

33 For a further discussion of such matrilinear cultures, see Kathryn Schwarz’s splendid essay, “Mother Love: Clichés and Amazons in Early Modem England”, in Miller and Yavneh, eds., pp. 93-305.

34 Op. cit., pp. 231-32.

35 “McDonald, Marianne. “Medea as Politician and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future.” In Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, p. 315.


Montclair State University (New Jersey, Etats-Unis)
Professeur à Montclair College (New Jersey) aux Etats-Unis. Elle a publié de nombreux articles et son livre Shakespeare’s Festive Tragedy. The ritual foundations of genre a été publié en 1995 chez Routledge. Elle termine un ouvrage consacré aux héroïnes tragiques dans le théâtre élisabéthain et jacobéen.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2003

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