SPEA Insights: Thinking about gender in “The Duchess Of Malfi”

By Rinjisha Roy

rinjroyrinjisha565-jpegRinjisha Roy is graduate student in the Arts Administration program at SPEA and a graduate assistant for IU Theatre’s marketing department. She is from Calcutta, India and was a literature major as an undergraduate at St. Xaviers College in Calcutta. Her interests include writing, poetry, Shakespearean theatre and classical music. This is her second semester at IU and she is very excited to be a part of the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.

On an ordinary Saturday morning, I saw the world make history again. In what was one of the largest post inaugural global protest, people (regardless of their gender) from all walks of life — teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, human rights advocates — came together in solidarity to peacefully protest the new leadership on grounds of disrespect and humiliation. As women came forward to voice their concerns, I was impressed with how rationally women could assert their independence and make their claims for equality of opportunities in a freely-thinking society. My question, however, on seeing this was would my grandmothers in their youth have been allowed to stage similar protests on being suppressed?

The answer, doubtlessly, is no. Women who lived in the past were subjugated to greater social pressures, reflected largely in the history and literature of that period. Take for example the tale of the duchess in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, currently being staged by the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. In the play, the Duchess is bound by laws governing royalty, setting them apart from inferiors like the steward Antonio. In addition to that, as a woman she is expected by her brothers to be submissive and obedient to them, so that they could ultimately protect their social status as ‘powerful’, male descendants of a royal family.

Emily Sullivan (The Duchess) The Duchess of Malfi. IU Theatre. 2017 (Photo by Jeremy Hogan)

Emily Sullivan (The Duchess) The Duchess of Malfi. IU Theatre. 2017 (Photo by Jeremy Hogan)

However, unlike traditional compliant female characters, Webster chooses to make his duchess different. The Duchess of Malfi is intelligent, daring, sensitive and independent. She proposes marriage to Antonio and later assures him of finding a way to explain their relationship to her brothers. Towards the end, she is tortured to death by her brothers but even then, she puts up a brave resistance and claims her true nobility — “I am Duchess of Malfi still” — making her sympathetic to audiences.

Thus, if historically women did not enjoy freedom of speech and decision-making, why is a duchess belonging to the 16th century portrayed differently? One of the reasons for that could be the former reign of an actual female monarch in England. Dr. Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy, performance faculty member at Northern Arizona University, remarks about the influence of Queen Elizabeth the First’s rule. “Of course, England at this time had just had a female ruler, and one of the strongest and most stable rulers they’d seen in a while,” says Gutierrez-Dennehy. She adds, “Elizabeth I was not, however, universally praised, and there were large questions about how a woman — and particularly a woman who chose to remain unmarried and thus to retain her own power than ceding it to a king — would be able to rule.” The queen’s rule induced a lot of questions among people, she believes. “I think we can say that the notion of a female in power was not one that was universally accepted OR universally condemned. Rather, it was an issue still very much in the minds of the people who saw that play.”

By Unknown - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 2082

By Unknown – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 2082

Queen Elizabeth’s impact upon people can also be traced to the unconventional female characters seen in the plays of Shakespeare, who was writing a few years prior to Webster. Some of his well-known characters are Lady Macbeth, Viola, Rosalind and Juliet, who continue to inspire audiences today. Did Shakespeare’s women, then, also inspire a new method of representing women? Gutierrez-Dennehy shares an interesting perspective on that, reminding us of the people playing these women characters. “I think the thing to remember is that Shakespeare knew he was writing for male actors. So often, those male actors are playing women who wind up dressing as men.” She cites Rosalind in As You Like It as an example, and deduces, “because of how often this happens, I think he may be inviting us to think about gender and how it’s constructed, i.e. what makes someone ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. He’s writing for actors who are used to playing gender like they’d play any aspect of a character’s identity– it’s simply part of the character”, she concludes.

According to Gutierrez-Dennehy then, playwrights like Webster and Shakespeare, through their women characters, have been able to challenge the notion of defining an individual’s identity on the basis of gender, even if it was unintentional on the writer’s part. And as a 21st century citizen, I believe that such a way of writing paved the way for considering other issues, such as the gap between appearance and reality in the people we see every day (this is especially true in case of Bosola), a society apprehensive of alliances with foreigners like Antonio and the consequences of greed and ambition.

Gutierrez-Dennehy, in this regard, mentions a theatre project she is currently working on. “I’m currently working, for example, on a Henry V in which Henry is played by a woman as a FEMALE king. My argument is that re-gendering Henry highlights Henry’s struggles with his own legitimacy. These struggles are readily apparent to British audiences and to those who know Henry’s story, but not necessarily to American audiences (again, in a broad generalization)”, she states. As a director, she feels that it is a theatre director’s job to tell a story that resonates with a particular audience that would reflect the time and values of the period the audience belongs to, at the same time retaining the stories of the texts they choose to tell. By being contextualized in a modern setting, Webster’s play is relevant in acting as a trigger that allows us to question our identities not as men or women, but as human beings capable of being and becoming the change we wish to see in the world around us. And in serving that role, The Duchess of Malfi truly serves a purpose.

The Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance appreciates the valuable contributions of IU’s SPEA arts administrators to the cultural life of Indiana University and the Bloomington community. We look forward to seeing how they continue to be powerful advocates for the arts, here and abroad.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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