Social Stratification in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi, a play written by John Webster, examines the issues in the gap between the nobles and the masses. John Webster was a contemporary poem of William Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, Christopher Malowe and others. They were all prominent in the Elizabethan dramatic era. In their plays, social stratification was one of the predominant themes and subject matters, as they consistently communicated their immediate society to the world in their writings. 

Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ era was saddled with some social class issues, such as; patriarchy, discrimination, economic classification, class war, exploitation, just to mention a few. To be precise, it was a time that capitalism outweighed the then popularly accepted classless society. It was the time of  industrialization in England and its affiliate countries. 

The Duchess of Malfi presents the reality of social stratification in the 16th century. It presents a noble family of three, who are; Duchess, Ferdinand the duke and The Cardinal. 

Bosola, the ordered notorious murderer,  says that Ferdinand and the Cardinal are like plum trees rich with fruit, but only fed on by crows, magpies, and caterpillars. This indicates that Ferdinand and the Cardinal use their wealth and power to eliminate anybody that comes their way. At the first showing of Bosola in the play, it becomes obvious that he just concluded a murder ordered by the Cardinal. Ferdinand and the Cardinal always use their economic strength and political position to suppress and even eliminate their seemingly supposed antagonists. 

To add a verisimilitude, Bosola states that Duke Ferdinand might have become the Pope if he had not bribed some people to become the duke. Both Ferdinand and the Cardinal believe that they have the power to get anything done or get people to do their bidding with money and influence. 

Patriarchy is another phenomenon that underscores the subject of social stratification in the play. The protagonist, the Duchess of Malfi, finds herself in a time when men dominate the society. The ideas of women are inexpressive and they should allow their feelings to wither in them. The Duchess falls in love with Antonio, a faithful servant. However, due to her gender status in the society, she cannot make her feelings known to the man of her desire. 

In the same vein, Antonio, who belongs to the lower class in the society, has an enormous feeling for the Duchess, but he also hides the affection in order to avoid any calamity on him. He is advised to let go of any affection he has for the duchess. The action of Antonio clarifies that men ought to marry women that are of or below their standard, while the action of the duchess suggests that women have no voice, no will and no affection in the society. 

As a result of the social stratification that occurs in the play, Duchess and Antonio have a secret wedding, have three children, which are unknown to others. However, their confidential doings quickens their sudden tragedy, and eventual death.  

Men, who hold patriarchy in high esteem, believe that women should not attain prominence in the society. Ferdinand and the Cardinal believe that the wealth and possessions of the Duchess should belong to them when she dies. Hence, they do not want her to get married again after her husband’s demise. They oppose every step of hers to get married again. And when they know that she is married with three children, they try to exterminate her immediate family. In the process, she dies with her two children; Antonio also dies when he hears the news of his wife’s and children’s deaths. Only a child is a survivor. 

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