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I am Duchess of Malfi still’: A Review of The Duchess of Malfi, directed by Maria Aberg, The Royal Shakespeare Company (Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 2018)

Jyotsna G. Singh


Compte rendu de la mise en scène de The Duchess of Malfi, dirigée par Maria Aberg pour la Royal Shakespeare Company (Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon), vue le 10 Juillet 2018.

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1‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’: This iconic statement from John Webster’s Jacobean play is re-infused with new power and contemporary relevance in the recent RSC production. The program notes declare:

Maria [Aberg…] wanted to focus the production on masculinity and madness… It really felt important to look at this tragedy full of dangerous and violent men through a contemporary feminist lens in order to analyze what drives these men to such violent extremes and how this resonates with the violence and brutality we see on a daily basis around the world.

2It is quite remarkable and also regrettable that old misogynistic attitudes still strike a chord in our own times. Watching this production made me understand how sexism and misogyny are structured into societal norms regarding gender roles—as they were in the 17th century and continue in different mutations today. However, it is important not to collapse or elide different periods in history, while implying that attitudes are ideologically fixed and static. Misogyny can be pliable and align itself with different modes of domination. The constraints placed on the Duchess reflect a specific situation, loosely drawn from historical sources, and reflecting class and gender attitudes of Webster’s time. However, history is refracted and distorted in ways that also hold up a mirror to our times, but without strictly adhering to the clichéd notion of “history repeating itself.” As in Webster’s play the RSC production also takes us into a morally corrupt, violent, and misogynist world but the events play out through a primal, seemingly timeless, energy literally in blood and violence, leaving us psychically and temporally disoriented. We leave the theatre with queries about the nature of violence, especially in its gendered forms, although once the destruction is unleashed the evil characters also destroy each other. The selection of production photos on the RSC website gives us an idea of this violence.1

3In Webster’s original play, we never learn the Duchess’s first name. The subtitle of the story as he took it from William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (1567) described it as “The Infortunate Marriage of a Gentleman Called Antonio Bologna with the Duchess of Malfi, and the Pitiful Death of Them Both.” (Painter 127) Her tragedy clearly reflects the constraints placed on the couple within the prevailing social hierarchies. As again the program clearly states, for this production: “the key word is ‘gentleman,’ a class term denoting someone not of aristocratic rank and therefore an inappropriate consort for the Duchess.” But the Duchess’s transgression in marrying him—or rather seducing him into marrying her—is also a violation of a desirable chastity in women, including widows. It is to Webster’s credit that he changes the terms of the original story taken from Painter in which the Duchess is faulted for marrying Antonio not for love or legitimate desire, but for the “ticklish instigations of her wanton flesh.” (Painter 132) Webster’s widowed Duchess is not condemned for her choice to remarry. In fact, she has impressed audiences for generations in asserting her desire, sexual agency, and freedom to choose a second husband despite opposition from her controlling and corrupt brothers, Ferdinand Duke of Calabria and the Cardinal. Furthermore, the Duchess belongs to a roster of memorable, bold women characters, also asserting their sexual agency, in other Jacobean and Caroline tragedies by Webster and his contemporaries: Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling (Middleton and Rowley), Annabella in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (John Ford), Vittoria in The White Devil (John Webster), and Anne Frankford in A Woman killed with Kindness (Thomas Heywood), among several others. Trapped in corrupt worlds, these women characters themselves are led into committing moral lapses—adultery and even murder—for which they must pay doubly. Webster’s Duchess, however, is innocent of any sin other than marrying a husband outside her own class and in secrecy from her brothers, though she too must pay for her designated transgressions by being strangled—in bloodied slow-motion in this production. Her virtue shines in contrast to her brothers and her union with Antonio reinforces that fact.

4The RSC interpretation goes with a defence of the Duchess’s marriage and independence, but it offers a more complex picture of her “virtue;” it is less static and more decisively aligned with her sexual desire in her marriage proposal to Antonio. Played by a vibrant Joan Iyiola, the Duchess is not beyond the “ticklish instigations” of her desire, boldly celebrated in this production. The seduction scene in which she declares her feelings to Antonio has none of the marks of coy and pleading femininity, as is too often the case in other productions. We clearly get a sense of a kind of “crazed” desire in exciting ways. Iyiola’s interpretation of the Duchess’s motivations in her relationships with her brothers, especially Ferdinand, also evokes her energies of resistance, and her implicit “complicity” in his impending insanity, as she explains in an interview, available online.2

5The play opens with movements in unison by an ensemble of men, in a kind of fist-pumping street dance, evoking the Duchess’s court as a place of virile, seemingly unharnessed, sexual drives in which we will see the Duchess partake, although with love and marriage as the end. Central to the opening scene are the speeches of her brothers, Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and the Cardinal (Chris New) exhorting her not to take another husband, so the action gets compressed at the outset and moves rapidly onward. In her brothers’ quest to destroy her, “this violent revenge tragedy asks how anyone can survive in a world where masculinity has become toxic” (Program).

6When one reviewer, Matthew Salisbury, faults Aberg’s The Duchess of Malfi for “lacking any semblance of a nuanced production,” I believe he entirely misses the point.3 The goals of the production are to create a world in bold, stark (not nuanced) terms, as vividly described by the designer of the show, Naomi Dawson:

In our research, we looked at spaces and architecture that were very masculine and male dominated and which had a brutal, harsh, physical and competitive quality to them. Our pool was large and varied. The next stage was layering together three of the most poignant spaces: a brutal looking underground gym, an old derelict and crumbling sporting stadium and an abattoir […]. Central to this idea is the carcass of an oversized and abstract bull, which symbolically sits in the space throughout the piece. A creature of enormous power and strength, yet trussed up and dragged through the space […]. In contrast to the all-encompassing male environment is the Duchess’s bed […] a private space, which is increasingly violated. (Program)

7The trussed-up carcass of the bull casts an ominous anamorphic presence on the action throughout the first half of the production, turning into the truly most dramatically exciting feature of the production. What happens post-intermission is truly a spectacle of both horror and poignancy. Though the same critic describes it with a sneering tone, he nonetheless captures the scene very aptly:

The Henry Moore cow-pig thing gets sliced open and the blood flows. And flows. A decent spreading stain becomes a puddle and, as the act continues, a thick crimson coating filling most of the stage. This arresting image then takes over the whole production to the point where it is literally larger, better developed and more fluid than any other character on view. When finally, someone steps in it and treads bloody footprints over the floor and onto the nearby bed’s enticingly white sheets, the flood gates (make that blood gates) are well and truly opened. (Salisbury)4

8All the action following the “blood-letting” past the intermission is cast in a more threatening valence, as the characters die covered in the mire of the blood, not only the Duchess herself, but both the brothers and Julia, played with force and substance by Aretha Ayeh. Her death at the hands of the Cardinal seems particularly violent, since she is forced to kiss the Bible on a bloodied stage.

9In sum, what was the impact of this production of The Duchess of Malfi, literally a bloody spectacle, a horror event, or bordering on the absurd and macabre? The reviews were somewhat mixed as were the responses of the audiences. But this particular rendering of Webster’s play was decidedly singular in driving its point home, though the signification of “real” blood flowing on the stage was fluid in its meanings, evoking female bodily blood of childbirth and menstruation, rape, and other forms of violence inflicted on women in Webster’s time and our own. Yet, given that modern audiences are used to the daily diet of gratuitous violence, horror, and misogyny, does this play resonate with any deeper meaning for us? Do we admire the Duchess even more? Are we filled with righteous anger to right the world’s wrongs? Do we understand both the power and destructive potential of sexuality and sexual desire, even through the perverse and incestuous “love” of Ferdinand for his sister, the Duchess? The power and success of this production lies in these unanswered questions which remain with us beyond the performance.

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Jyotsna G. Singh, « I am Duchess of Malfi still’: A Review of The Duchess of Malfi, directed by Maria Aberg, The Royal Shakespeare Company (Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 2018) »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 26 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2019, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Jyotsna G. Singh

Michigan State University

Jyotsna G. Singh is a Professor of Renaissance Literature at the Michigan State University. She teaches and researches early modern literature and culture, colonial history, travel writing, postcolonial theory, early modern histories of Islam, and gender and race studies, often exploring the intersections of these different fields. Her published work includes The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, co-edited with Dympna Callaghan and Lorraine Helms (Blackwell, 1994), Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: ‘Discoveries’ of India in the Language of Colonialism (Routledge, 1996), Travel Knowledge: European ‘Discoveries’ in the Early Modern Period, co-edited with Ivo Kamps (Palgrave, 2001), A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion (Blackwell, 2013), and The Postcolonial World, co-edited with David D. Kim (Routledge, 2016).

Jyotsna G. Singh est Professeur de Littérature de la Renaissance à Michigan State University. Sa recherche porte sur la littérature et la culture de la première modernité, l'histoire coloniale, la littérature de voyage, la théorie postcoloniale, les histoires d' l'Islam de la première modernité et les gender and race studies, et explore les intersections entre ces différents champs. Ses publications incluent: The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, co-édité vec Dympna Callaghan et Lorraine Helms (Blackwell, 1994), Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues: ‘Discoveries’ of India in the Language of Colonialism (Routledge, 1996), Travel Knowledge: European ‘Discoveries’ in the Early Modern Period, co-édité avec Ivo Kamps (Palgrave, 2001), A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion (Blackwell, 2013), and The Postcolonial World, co-édité avec David D. Kim (Routledge, 2016).

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