Roaring Boys and Weeping Men: radical masculinity in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

Kate Aughterson

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Webster’s tragedies have been anatomised for the dramatist’s incisive flaying of Jacobean patriarchal ideology. The binary construction of woman as other and the hierarchical assertion of an aristocratic masculine power binding status and gender in the naturalised double helix of Stuart Patriarchalism are demonised by the characterisation of the aristocracy in the plays and a dramaturgy which displays wounded femininity as heroically resonant. However, what kinds of masculinities does Webster offer in place of the decadent aristocratic institutions, discourses and practices? This article argues that the play suggests alternative masculinities to those formulated within patriarchalism (dominance and service) and is proleptic of the articulation of civic autonomy and democracy in the later seventeenth century. Webster shows how re-definitions of masculinity are an essential part of the dismantling of old patriarchalism: an insight arguably lost in subsequent debates about political theory. From the opening lines of The Duchess of Malfi two alternative outsider perspectives are proposed by Antonio and Bosola, one as service to a gynocrat, one as service to patriarchalism. Parallels between their situations, decisions and actions enact the play’s central political debates. Antonio’s praise for the French court’s patronage of virtuous non-aristocratic men as credible and effective political advisers, and counterweights to absolutism constructs male professional identity and public service as a new masculinity and as defining a new democracy. Antonio’s admiration for the Duchess is for her political egalitarianism and her beauty: democracy and the erotic are intertwined. An alternative masculine self emerges through their uxorious relationship: initiated and explored in carnivalesque inversion of contemporary gender stereotypes. Webster’s new man parallels contemporary advice books: he weeps at the thought of children, manages financial affairs, provides advice to his wife, is playfully and lovingly erotic in the bedroom, virtuous in public life, and a respected member of a commonwealth. The very name “Antonio” (a marker of outsider sexual status in contemporary drama), signals Webster’s political critique of binary gender and erotic discourses. Bosola appears in almost all scenes, speaks the most lines, headed Webster’s cast-list (very unusually for a low-status character), is the only character not in the source-story, and is the single through-line for the plot: yet his significance is often over-looked in both political and gender-inflected criticism. The Jacobean malcontent’s language is conventionally misogynist: political radicalism is thus tainted by misogyny. Wesbter confronts this problematic directly. Bosola’s conversion to the Duchess’s cause (“This is manly sorrow”) in act 4 simultaneously re-calibrates his masculinity from patriarchal service to active support of the new order. The plot rewards these new masculinities: virtuous public service destroys aristocratic patriarchalism, and enables the succession of the Duchess’s son and proleptically envisages a redefined radical political order and masculinity, literally marked by femininity (“in ’s mother’s right”). Bosola’s social and spiritual emotional conversion mirrors the audience’s. Middleton’s verses (no viewer “could get off under a bleeding eye”) offer Bosola’s new-manly weeping as an exemplum for Webster’s re-gendered audience.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLiterary Politics: The Politics of Literature and the Literature of Politics
EditorsDeborah Philips, Katy Shaw
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781137270153
ISBN (Print)9781137270139
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2013


  • Education
  • General
  • Literature and Language
  • British & Irish Literature
  • Education Policy and Politics
  • Literature
  • Cultural Theory
  • Literary Criticism and Theory


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