A Duchess Confined: Womanhood, Motherhood, and Birth in The Duchess of Malfi
Written by Sammy Glover, Resident Director of The Duchess of Malfi with illustrations by Liv Page.
The Duchess (Lydia Wilson) and Cariola (Ioanna Kimbook) in rehearsal at the Almeida.
An Audience at The Globe in the 1600s. It could seat around 1500 people, and a female monarch can be seen in the Gallery, although in reality Elizabeth I would have watched the plays at indoor playhouses for her pleasure.
Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) and The Duchess (Lydia Wilson) in rehearsal.
A waistless maternity dress from Elizabethan England.Lydia Wilson in rehearsal.
‘I have not gone about this to create
any new world or custom’ (The Duchess of Malfi, Act II. Scene III, 1623)
The oversimplification of womanhood, motherhood and the process of pregnancy and childbirth is all too common a phenomenon in western theatre: the obvious fact that our plays have been written predominantly by men for hundreds of years, with an incredible imagination for the surreal, but less of an imagination for understanding the female experience means that now, in the 21st century, we are tasked with recovering the stories of women in epic tales. The Duchess of Malfi is no exception. This particular production has at its heart the ambition of telling the story of a true, complex woman, and her attempt at finding freedom away from the corruption of her world.
But who gives it? And to whom is it given? Certainly it doesn't feel like giving...there is scant gentleness here, it’s too strenuous, the belly like a knotted fist, squeezing, the heavy trudge of the heart, every muscle in the body tight and moving...No one ever says giving death, although they are in some way the same events, not things. Thus language, muttering in its archaic tongues of something, yet one more thing, that needs to be re-named. (Margaret Atwood, ‘Giving Birth’ 1977).
Within the rehearsal process, much of the energy has focused on portraying the Duchess as real. This might seem an obvious ambition, but the character of the Duchess has so many times previously been portrayed as impenetrable, impervious to outside forces, a hero, unquestionably authoritative, single minded, reckless. The Almeida’s Duchess is something different. It is hoped that the depiction of a woman in power as complex, messy, vulnerable and flawed, will contribute to the growing spectrum of female characters that can be found on our stages. She is a force to be reckoned with, still, but a character grounded perhaps more in the true challenges of being a mother, sister and wife in a world set up for men, both in the 1600s and now.
‘it becometh not a maide to talke, where hir father and mother be in communcacion abut hir mariage, (Juan Luis Vives, Conduct book for Christian women, 1557).1
During the time in which The Duchess of Malfi was written there had been a surge of female rulers across Europe which might go some way to explaining Webster’s decision to write a central female protagonist: Mary of Guise had ruled as regent of Scotland, her daughter was Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine de Medici was regent of France, and then two female queens in quick succession, ‘Bloody Mary’ and then Elizabeth I. Their reigns were accepted but controversial. John Knox, the Scottish Protestant reformer notoriously denounced the ‘monstrous regiment’ of women as contravention to divine law.
What was even more radical than a woman in power however, was a woman making her own choices in her personal life. To choose a husband for oneself, to be independent of male relatives, to choose a man of lower social class, to have a sexual appetite would have been seen as preposterous. During the time of Websters writing, pregnancy and motherhood for those of high birth was one of the most significant threats to patriarchal authority. Female bodies had a sort of magic: an ability to produce offspring that could either secure or destroy a respective lineage would’ve been terrifying for an audience.
What is more, before 1603, it was rare to see pregnant characters on English stages. The increasing anxieties over Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir explains why theatre makers at the time would have decided upon pregnancy as a no go zone. After 1603 however, there were more than 22 plays in England with pregnant women at the helm who drove the action of the plot in some significant way.2 The staging of pregnant women in the 16th century required male actors to wear Jacobean pregnancy gowns which were often cast-offs from powerful aristocrats donated to the acting companies.3 Stages then were not only presenting previously ‘invisible’ pregnant women, but taking powerful aristocrats' clothing and using them for their own theatrical purposes in what might be seen as an unintentional challenging of the power of elite classes by reclaiming their clothes to tell the stories of women.
It is a funny thought that an attempt to tell a story of what happens to a woman when she defies societal norms and patriarchal rules - interpreted perhaps as a warning, or a horror story by audiences at the time - can now be seen as such a radical act of staging a female experience, and subverting normative theatrics by representing pregnant women in former aristocrats clothing in public places.
My life is still not that different from the lives of centuries of women who have raised children before. But the small differences are significant. I have some time to write and think, even if it is not enough. And I can be honest. If we who are raising children now speak the truth, finally we will be able to see. - (Susan Griffin, Notes on Feminism and Motherhood, 1974)
It is an interesting observation Playwright Kefi Chadwick made in 2012: where are the depictions of motherhood on the modern stage? Not neglectful, failed mothers - homogenous, one dimensional terrible mums - but complex, multifaceted, mothers who struggle that represent accurately the trials and tribulations of what it is to be a mother.
Webster’s view of the world might be a bleak one, but there is hope in giving a voice to the female experience. It is for the audience to decide whether the Almeida’s version, and the significant changes it has embodied in Rebecca Frecknall’s version, pushes the debate further and into new territories of what a real, complex and divided mother, sister and partner looks like on stage.
3Hyland, Peter. Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011, p. 3-4.