Bloodshed in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology

Last week, we discussed Foucault’s ideas concerning the significance of blood during the Middle Ages. According to Foucault, to a society concerned about death, “blood was a reality with a symbolic function” that held significance to both human biology and the organization of medieval structures of power (Foucault 147). Comparatively, modern society is concerned about life and procreation, and sex now plays the role blood once did. In this post, I would like to focus on a certain aspect of blood, namely the notion of “bloodshed,” and examine how it is represented in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women, as well as what implications these representations may have for sexuality.

The plot of The Duchess of Malfi is based around a struggle for control over a bloodline. Ferdinand and the Cardinal attempt to dissuade their widowed sister, the Duchess, from remarrying and thereby continuing her own branch of their shared bloodline. When their efforts fail, they begin to target her and her family, attempting to blockade the channels of blood she has produced through her marriage to Antonio and through their offspring. To do this, Ferdinand and the Cardinal resort to having them killed, a literal cessation of blood flow. Thus, in The Duchess of Malfi, control over blood and its flow is synonymous with power, in accordance with Foucault’s thoughts regarding the cultural value of blood.

Bloodshed (or rather, lack thereof) also plays a role in the plot, but its significance does not seem as straightforward. The two brothers attempt to regulate the Duchess’s bloodline, but without “spilling” any of her blood. Initially, they try to coerce the Duchess not to remarry through intimidation rather than violence; they try to quarantine her instead of immediately disposing of her. Even when she is ultimately killed, it is through strangulation—no blood is actually drawn, even though Ferdinand has earlier threatened her with his father’s knife (1.3.38) and given her a poniard with which to kill herself (3.2.69). This decision regarding the method of her execution appears to be deliberate and meaningful. In her critical piece, “Drowned in Blood,” Ariane M. Balizet discusses how Ferdinand views the Duchess as a “contamination” to his own bloodline that he must “purge” (Balizet 32). Perhaps, then, this bloodless execution is performed to contain the alleged bad blood within its impure vessel, safeguarding Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s bloodline from their sister’s infected blood. Contrarily, before her execution, the Duchess says, “I have so much obedience in my blood, / I wish it in their veins to do them good” (4.2.148-149). She claims that her own blood is pure, and her brothers are actually the one who possess the impure blood. If this is true, then her brothers’ decision to kill her without bloodshed may instead be motivated by a fear that any exposure of her blood will reveal her as innocent and them as contaminated.

The notion of bloodshed also appears in other medieval texts, but in non-medical contexts, such as in Aemelia Lanyer’s Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Referring to Pontius Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, Lanyer writes, “Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul / To seek the death of him that is so good, / For thy soul’s health to shed his dearest blood?” (Lanyer 94-96). She argues that such a fault as sending Jesus to his death would be just as great as Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit. As such, it ought to restore the equality between man and woman once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Man, as represented by Pilate, would refrain from this bloodshed, then, not to avoid contamination, but condemnation.

I argue that in both of these cases, exacting bloodshed results in a loss of power on the part of the executor. Moreover, if, as Foucault claims, the “symbolics of blood” have transitioned into an “analytics of sexuality,” then the medieval significance of bloodshed has certain implications about modern conceptions of sexuality (Foucault 148). To draw or spill blood was to reveal its visible and tangible nature, which, like sex, was accepted only under certain settings and within certain discourses. The costs of violating these accepted discourses was a loss of power or social standing. Today, we can see similar consequences being imposed upon those who draw sex from out of the recesses of privacy and into public view.


Works Cited

Balizet, Ariane M. “’Drowned in Blood’: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El médico de su honra.” Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 23-49. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.

Lanyer, Aemelia. Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1433-1436. Print.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.

5 thoughts on “Bloodshed in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology

  1. This is an extension of Chester’s post, particularly on the section focusing on the bloodshed, or lack there of, in the murder of the duchess by her brothers. Chester was astute in pointing out that, though they threaten it, the brothers do not shed their own, socially high blood but rather strangle their sister as a means of “purging” their families blood (Balizet, 32). I also agree with Chester in his assertion that the reasoning behind this lies in the fact that spilling the blood, and revealing its tangible nature, would result in a power and loss of social standing—how would one find another’s blood “powerful” when seeing it in its actual, solid state? Like sexuality, when put out into public view, blood loses its power and shows that it is, by nature, not a means of controlling power.
    Therefore, using Chester’s argument, how should we interpret Antonio’s nosebleed in Act 2, Scene 3? How does the fact that Antonio’s blood is shown first and plainly for all to see fit him in to this argument of the private nature of one’s blood? Following the birth of his son (the first “abomination” of the bloodline), and under the watchful eye of the murderous Bosola—who, because of his blood (and perhaps spilling of blood through previous murder) is also at the mercy of those higher on the blood hierarchy—Antonio’s nose begins to bleed. Seemingly minor and unlike the noble blood of his wife which, through birth, is being spilled offstage, his blood is spilled and shown. Though the marriage was meant as a way of equalizing Antonio’s blood with that of the Duchess (Balizet, 41), and a way to rise him up so that, like her, his blood would from that day forward be a means of private power and be cherished and hidden, this nosebleed stands as a representation that, in a society run by the symbolics of blood (Foucault, 148), their plan did not work. Antonio’s blood is tangible; the nature of it IS seen—unlike the duchess and her brothers, he has no reason to hide it or worry of it being spilled, because for him it holds no power. The power of the blood is evident—on a handkerchief that displays his initials have been “drowned in blood” (2.3.64). His blood can be spilled and as result Webster seems to use the nosebleed, as Chester suggests, to show the powerlessness of Antonio and that, despite the joyous occasion, because his blood CAN be spilled, it WILL. And it is—unlike his wife, in Act 5 Scene 4 Antonio’s demise is bloody, as he is stabbed, albeit accidently, to death. This blood is shed not by one of “high” blood, i.e. Ferdinand or the Cardinal, but rather by Bosola, who’s blood seems to be on par with Antonio.
    Balizet would disagree with the argument I have made here—in her article, she claims that Antonio’s blood is made visible not to highlight his lower social status (45) but as a way to foresee his martyrdom. However, I disagree. With the birth of his son (the tangible piece of evidence that the bloodline has been corrupted) coupled with the differences in blood loss in he and his wife’s deaths, I think the public nosebleed serves as a way of emphasizing the power difference between the two, one that no marriage, no sex, and no child can save. The power of blood runs deep not only to the brothers but also to others in the play (42), and the fact that Antonio’s can so easily be spilled draws a line between him and his wife. Strengthening my argument, later, when Ferdinand shows his sister a bloody tableau of the slaughtered family (4.1.55), he is emphasizing the fact that not only Antonio but any children spawned from Antonio are lowly enough that their blood, which should be remain hidden, private, and cherished, can easily be displayed to show the lack of power it holds. Only when the blood is meant to EXEMPLIFY power is it shameful and detrimental to show. The birth of his son, what should have been a joyous moment for Antonio, is marred by an undeniable fact—the son is of his blood, blood that’s powerlessness, in his case, can and will be displayed.
    Hope this aids the argument and has implications for modern sexuality.
    Works Cited
    Balizet, Ariane M. “’Drowned in Blood’: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El médico de su honra.” Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 23-49. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
    Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.
    Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.

  2. I would like to write an extension post following in the footsteps of Chester and Adam. While bloodshed does seem to determine who loses power, I’m more perplexed by who is to gain? With so many characters spilling blood, the loss of life hangs heavily over the reader towards the end of the play. By Chester’s logic, do those who refuse to spill blood gain by their choice? I think to some extent they do, but I also think the bloodletting is linked very much with identity, which is an issue that returns in the final judgment of the characters’ actions.

    Technically, as Chester points out, Ferdinand and the Cardinal resort to strangulation (albeit via proxy) in disposing of the Duchess. Despite acting as two of the most diabolical villains in the play, and causing much blood to be spilt, they do not spill blood themselves. It might be argued that their will to do harm alone warrants their ultimate destruction and loss of power; however, the use of the wax figures seems a suitable stand in for their bloody desires. Ferdinand tosses a dead man’s hand at his sister, saying “I will leave this ring with you for a lovetoken, / And the hand as sure as the ring; and do not doubt / But you shall have the heart, too” (4.1.47-9). His offer of the severed hand, and the gruesome threat of following this gift with that of her husband’s heart, is a perfectly bloody and thoroughly physical manifestation of his desire, which is otherwise fulfilled through others. This idea of “stand ins” is also carried out here through Bosola, who acts in place of the Cardinal. At the opening of Act 4, Ferdinand asks Bosola, “How doth our sister duchess bear herself / In her imprisonment?” (4.1.1-2). Ferdinand talks to Bosola as if they are brothers, and in this way the Cardinal is linked to the same bloody desire despite not being present for its fulfillment.

    The main characters that do stand to gain, then, from their lack of bloodletting are the Duchess, Antonio, and his firstborn son. Given the fact that two of these characters die and the third survives as an orphan, it also seems unlikely that any of them gained something meaningful. I do think, however, that these characters get what they want in the end.

    When Bosola clutches the momentarily returned Duchess in his arms, her last word is “Antonio” (4.2.327). She wants more for Antonio than she received, and in gasping his name over any other word, she reaffirms her own identity first and foremost as a wife. This comes as a fulfillment for her desire, one long in the making which first started when she decided to remarry and risk ruining her social standing. But what does Antonio want? If her last words reflect her desire for his well being, are they fulfilled? Antonio, though, cares not for himself, but for his children. On hearing of their deaths, he claims that he has “no use / To put my life to” (5.5.63-4). He is a parent above all else, a father who, on hearing he still has one son left, says “And let my son fly the courts of princes” (5.5.73). This wish is fulfilled in Delio’s final statement, where he hopes collectively that the living may “join all our force / To establish this young hopeful gentleman / In’s mothers right” (5.5.107-9).

    With that said, bloodletting seems more to me than just a loss of power or control, but a loss of identity. Bosola knows this all too well, for he claims his murders were “’gainst mine own good nature, yet I’ th’ end / Neglected” (5.5.82-3). He realizes before his death that killing did not allow him the role he wished for himself. The innocent are then redeemed by contrast, and die knowing their roles were fulfilled.

    Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.

  3. I’d like to extend Chester’s discussion in a different direction from those that Adam and Bob took. I’ll also be expanding on my post from last week.

    Chester began and ended his discussion of bloodletting in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology with Foucault’s understanding of blood and sexuality. Foucault says that in medieval society, “a society in which the systems of alliance, the political form of the sovereign, the differentiation into orders and castes, and the value of descent lines were predominant; for a society in which famine, epidemics, and violence made death imminent, blood constituted one of the fundamental values” (Foucault 147). And indeed blood is shown to be very important throughout The Duchess of Malfi, as Chester, Adam, and Bob have shown.

    Last week, Eleanor mentioned that “…female sexuality, individual and communal, needs guarding and policing” (Eleanor). From there I extrapolated that “any sexuality—and indeed, any category, like gender, sex, class, etc.—tends to be guarded and policed” (Marisa).

    I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the way that blood is policed in The Duchess of Malfi and the way that “nunnish virginity” (a sexuality) is policed in The Nun of Watton.

    In The Duchess of Malfi, when Ferdinand and the Cardinal police their family’s blood, the imagery is mostly one of contamination and purging. For example, Ferdinand plans “apply desperate physic” (2.5.23) in order to “purge infected blood, such blood as hers” (2.5.26). In doing so, as Ariane Balizet points out, he is “taking on the position of a surgeon intent on killing his patient” (31). This image is especially significant because, at the time, surgeons were absolutely steeped in blood: Balizet cites Marie-Christine Pouchelle, who tells us that “diagnostic procedures demanded [the surgeon] dip his hands in blood to test its consistency, retain blood to observe its congealment, and even taste his patients’ blood for sweetness or bitterness” (31).

    Of course, in the end, Ferdinand and his brother nearly succeed in stamping out the ‘contaminated’ blood that so plagued them, killing their sister (who chose to contaminate their blood), her two younger children (manifestations of that contamination), and finally her husband (the source of contamination himself). Interestingly, they do not succeed in stamping out the contamination entirely, since the eldest child lives on at the end of the play. More on that later.

    Let’s take a step back to The Nun of Watton. We have discussed the ways in which the nuns police their communal virginity. They try to indoctrinate all of the young women (rather like Ferdinand and the Cardinal trying to convince the widowed Duchess to remain unmarried). When that indoctrination fails, i.e. when the transgressive nun loses her virginity, she has essentially ‘contaminated’ the nuns’ communal virginity (like the Duchess marrying and reproducing with Antonio). The Nun of Watton doesn’t explicitly relate the other nuns to surgeons, but their punishment functions as a (particularly sadistic) form of purging all the same.

    So, to my mind, The Duchess of Malfi and The Nun of Watton are communicating the same basic idea: that categories (be they blood- or sex-based), once defined, are heavily policed by their members.

    That being said, there is one intriguing difference between the way that policing works in The Duchess of Malfi and in The Nun of Watton. That is, in The Duchess of Malfi, the characters doing the policing are the antagonists; their “view is to be understood as hypocritical and corrupt” (Balizet 41). The brothers are punished with death at the end. The audience’s sympathy lies with the contaminators, i.e. the Duchess and Antonio. And despite the spouses’ deaths, their “contaminated” blood ultimately wins out because their eldest child survives.

    Contrastingly, in The Nun of Watton, Aelred of Rievaulx presents those characters doing the policing as the protagonists, while the transgressive nun is the antagonist. The “seething mass of outraged nunhood” ultimately wins out, bringing the transgressive nun back into their fold (Salih 158). So the purging is successful, and the category is maintained.

    What this all means, I’m not exactly sure. One basic conclusion is that, in The Duches of Malfi, we can already see the importance of the “blood” category breaking down; contrastingly, in The Nun of Watton, the “sex/sexuality” category has already begun and remains strong.

    Works Cited
    Balizet, Ariane M. “’Drowned in Blood’: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El médico de su honra.” Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 23-49. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
    Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.
    Salih, Sarah. “The Nun of Watton.” Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England. Cambridge: Brewer, 2001. 152-65. Print.
    Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.

  4. This is an extension post of sorts, but I also want to pull in Ameilia Lanyer’s piece a little more and look at how Lanyer and Webster dealt with the symbolics of blood. Bob’s argument that the murders of Antonio and the Duchess are somehow avenged when “the innocent are then redeemed by contrast” made me think that the symbolics of blood are more complicated than blood simply symbolizing family, death, etc. Webster and Lanyer are writing for “the post-Reformation English stage” (Balizet 23); Lanyer’s piece was published in 1611, Webster’s in 1612. Both authors were Protestant members of the English middle class who chose to comment on their 17th Century English Protestant culture by setting their writing in non-Protestant religious traditions. Webster writes about the corrupt, evil, and sinful world of Catholic Italy (with Catholic Spanish heritage—the family is from the Aragon and Castile line). Lanyer, a woman of Italian-Jewish descent, refers to the virtues of women from Jewish myths and writes a defense of Eve, a main character of the Torah.

    Protestant English religion, though unique in terms of the symbolics of blood, relies upon the same Holy texts, full of bloodshed and complicated family lines, that inform Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish traditions. These authors attempt to elevate the Protestant family and the virtuous Protestant woman by layering over the older traditions, but because the symbolics of blood undergo a major shift for post-Reformation religion, the message becomes slightly confused when applied retroactively. I hope to explore what I see as the paradox of bloodshed (the necessity of death for life to prevail) in pre-Reformation traditions and see ways that this paradox changes when the symbolics of blood change post-Reformation.

    In her prose section, “To the Virtuous Reader,” Lanyer calls upon the virtue of Judith and Ester, women who either directly or indirectly murdered evil men who posed a threat to the Jewish community. Why does Lanyer not mention Sarah or Ruth, two virtuous women in the Jewish texts who never shed blood? Because the virtuous act of saving the Jewish race and purifying the land of evil men was accomplished when Judith beheaded Holofernes and Ester ordered the impalement of Haman. This paradox of bloodshed, that peace can only be accomplished through war, that death saves life, that blood cleanses, is a vital aspect of the Judeo-Catholic traditions—the eldest son in each Egyptian family needed to die to free the Israelites, and Jesus needed to die to free humanity from the yoke of sin.

    This paradox reacts interestingly when the old symbolics of blood are brought into texts written by and for members of Protestant culture. Lanyer elevates the murderous women of the Old Testament to virtuous women, but if blood is symbolic and not real, then the literal bloodshed loses value. The value of these murders to the Jewish community was like that of the ritual expiatory sacrifices at the Temple; blood literally cleansed the community. When blood becomes merely symbolic, the original sense of virtue is lost. When Lanyer discusses the character of Procula, “thy most worthy wife, / Who sends to thee, to beg her Saviours life” (Lanyer), she paints Procula as a virtuous woman who tries to save Christ’s life, when Procula’s vision was allegedly a visit from the Devil who wanted to prevent Christ’s death to prevent the salvation of humanity. Lanyer attempts to reimagine this situation in a Protestant light by portraying Procula as a companionable, “worthy” wife, who carries the “murder=bad” message to her husband. However, this completely flips the entire premise of Christ’s passion and destroys the foundation of Christianity. Lanyer’s interpretation of Procula abandons the idea of Christ’s martyrdom as a bloody sacrifice for humanity in which the spilling of the blood (and, according to Catholics, the drinking of the blood) was a vital aspect of the tradition.

    The Duchess’ bloodless death also incorporates the concept of the symbolics of blood with the sharp friction between pre- and post-Reformation values. Her strangulation makes sense in the Protestant tradition if the reader views her as a woman who chose a companionable marriage and a happy family (embodiment of what could be seen as Protestant values) over the purity of her royal blood (what was portrayed throughout the play by Ferdinand and the Cardinal as a Catholic value). The Duchess, like the Protestant imagining of Jesus, is martyred for love, and, like Jesus, her blood is symbolic and not literal. This reflects “the reimagined [Protestant church] ceremony [which] hinged on the symbolic presence of God and rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation,” placing “the emphasis on symbolic rather than real blood” (Balizet 24-5). Antonio is not a martyr, because his death was accidental. Additionally, because Antonio did not choose a “Protestant life” over a “Catholic life,” as he was a servant and had no royal Spanish blood to protect, I think that the Duchess and not Antonio is seen as a stand-in for the new Protestant imagining of Christ-like sacrifice.

    Webster is able to write a Protestant value system into a Catholic context because he creates his own narrative. He is able to write the Cardinal and Ferdinand as greedy, cruel, bloodthirsty, and possible incestuous because they are characters invented by his own mind to serve his own purposes. Lanyer, however, revisits established Jewish and Catholic narratives and attempts to reimagine these narratives in terms of Protestant virtue with Protestant symbolism, in which I argue the paradox of bloodshed becomes tangled amongst the shifting symbolics of blood.

    Works Cited
    Balizet, Ariane M. “’Drowned in Blood’: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El médico de su honra.” Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 23-49.
    Lanyer, Aemelia. Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012.
    Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012.

  5. I’d like to extend on this lively discussion of “the symbolics of blood,” though this may turn more into a second launch post. As everyone has excellently demonstrated, “blood was a reality with a symbolic function” in early modern times (Foucault 147). In The Duchess of Malfi, it is apparent that the bloodline and the preservation of the bloodline was an extremely important symbol of purity and power. So much so, that it ironically caused mass bloodshed by the end of the drama. I thought Bridget’s point about how bloodshed works as a paradox was extremely astute and interesting.

    However, another question still stirs me: If the symbolics of blood are so prevalent in the foreground of The Duchess of Malfi and its era, then what does that mean for attitudes about sex? Are we still able to read sexuality in Webster’s play? Should we even attempt to? According to Foucault’s argument, society moves from a “symbolics of blood” to an “analytics of sex” (Foucault 148). Quite precisely, he notes that the “blood relation long remained an important element in the mechanisms of power, its manifestations, and its rituals” (Foucault 147). He realizes that the politics and symbolism of blood do not just disappear once sex takes control. However, his argument about sex is less precise and I find this somewhat lacking. Foucault specifies that the “analytics of sex” spread for four main reasons, and each was a way of “combining disciplinary techniques with regulative methods” (Foucault 146). Essentially, societal institutions were telling people how to have or not have sex and how to talk or not talk about sex, in order to keep them in line. To a point I agree with Foucault, this ‘sex boom’ was extremely regulatory and was able to justify policing techniques with health and safety. However, it’s the ‘boom’ of this ‘sex boom’ that presents my problem. Although he never explicitly states it, Foucault gives the impression that sex just appeared out of nowhere in this transition from blood to sex. Instead of detailing changing attitudes toward sex, he simply mentions that it “became a crucial target of… power… around the management of life rather than the menace of death” (Foucault 147). Yet, even this can be interpreted in a few ways. Is he referring to ‘la petite mort’, the little death, a common euphemism for orgasm during the medieval and early modern era? A French expression that clearly shows that sex did not just appear on the scene due to this transition. Or is he referring to the volatile health climate of the times, and the tendency to death from “famine, epidemics, and violence” (Foucault 147)?

    In The Duchess of Malfi, although blood is the most prevalent symbolic layer of the text, I would argue that sex and sexuality are tied right with it. Despite Foucault’s argument, I draw parallels between the way Ferdinand and the Cardinal obsess over the purity of the Duchess’ blood and the way we’ve seen virginity guarded in The Nun of Watton. Similarly, it’s very difficult to ignore reading incestuous desire behind Ferdinand’s crazed threats to kill his sister with the poinard (Webster 1.3.38). Yet, by strangling her, the Duchess’ brothers keep the blood sealed within her, which also draws parallel to metaphors of virginity. Although no character ever says it, it could be argued that The Duchess of Malfi is even more concerned with sex than it is with blood. The brothers’ most immediate concern is the purity of the bloodline, and how is that ultimately contaminated? By sex.

    Regarding Foucault, I’d like to request that he amend his argument. To my mind, it would be much more plausible to say that the symbolics of blood worked together with sex, or perhaps as an expression of the implications of sex, rather than instead of the analytics of sex.

    Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.

    Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012.

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