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.