Fortune and Virtue in The Duchess of Malfi


Leslie Thomson


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Duchess: I now am blind.

Antonio: What's your conceit in this?

Duchess: I would have you lead your fortune by the hand, Unto your marriage bed:-1

With these words, John Webster has the Duchess of Malfi evoke emblematic images which doubtless would have resonated in the minds of many in the seventeenth-century audience for which he wrote his play. Today, a spectator might hear the still common metaphor of "blind Fortune," but is quite unlikely either to grasp the immediate implications or to realize the significance of the imagery of fortune which echoes through the play. Since, however, this imagery centers on the woman who first uses it, and has-or should have-the effect of complicating and qualifying any positive responses to her, the iconography that Webster evokes in these words from the Duchess is a necessary context for understanding what happens to her, and why. Furthermore, because, as the play's title indicates, the focus of the action-its cause and consequence-is the Duchess, her death precipitates the falls of virtually all the figures who have mattered in her world. Her fortune is their fortune, as the emblemquoting dialogue repeatedly emphasizes.2

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