Animal Imagery to Convey Plot and Characterization in The Duchess of Malfi

Scott Beard

Biological inquiry was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  Most thinkers of the Enlightenment began to flirt with the studies of biology and anatomy in order to better understand man’s relationship with God, as well as with himself through what Andrea Carlino terms “anatomic ritual;” that is, “the methodology of animal dissection as a way of disclosing the secrets of nature” (272).  Coincidentally, this flirtation went pretty far, for the application of anatomical knowledge extended into the constructs of the Renaissance artists.  For example, Leonardo Da Vinci was recorded to have “dissected human bodies and made detailed drawings of everything, from muscle structure to the heart, increasing the knowledge of anatomy exponentially, helping physicians to understand where the organs were in the body and start to speculate upon their function” (Blakstad 2011).  The playwrights of the period incorporated this “anatomical tradition” into their discipline as well.  Artists portrayed characters’ motives and actions predicated upon the manifestation of some precarious affliction, whether physiological or psychological—the most popular of these being the behavior of the melancholic, or, malcontent.  The impact of the melancholic character has garnered much scholarship over the years, but due to its ambiguity, this impact has been unclear.  However, the incorporation of biological imagery within the dialogue of the melancholic character is a trend that pervades much of the Renaissance literary canon.

By analyzing the nature of melancholy, melancholic characters, and the dialogue where animal imagery is used, this paper will reflect upon the characterization of John Webster’s Bosola, Cardinal, Duchess, and Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi (1623).  Furthermore, by comparing the imagery and characterization incorporated in The Duchess of Malfi with the imagery of the non-related melancholic character of Malevole in John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604), and the imagery used in Ben Jonson’s Volpone or, The Fox (1606), the discourse will propose that a correlation exists between the use of animal imagery and discuss the subsequent impact it has on the thoughts and actions of the aforementioned characters.  This analysis will illuminate the impact the imagery creates: that the character will take on certain behavioral traits of the animal imagery presented in the dialogue in order to effectively convey characterization and plot in the subsequent plays, consequently making the character an embodiment of the desired physical effect.

In order to effectively analyze the imagery Jacobean plays incorporate to characterize the melancholic characters, it is important to identify a deeper understanding of the type of characters who incorporate animal imagery in their dialogue.  The prototype of this melancholic character originated in the Greek tragedies of the third and fourth centuries B.C.E., from the works of Aeschylus and the scientific inquiries of Hippocrates.                 

Hippocrates has been credited with “separating the discipline of medicine from religion, believing and arguing that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits, based in the liver” (Strong and Cook 2007).  He ascertained that this condition was caused by an excessive production of black bile in the liver.  This classical knowledge of Humanist and natural medicine was acknowledged and expanded upon during the Renaissance in Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), from which we established a relevant description and definition of the melancholic: “that…transitory disposition…which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dulness [sic], heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing forwardness in us, or a dislike” (Burton 17).  He continues with a physiological exposition of the temperament stating that “melancholy, cold and dry, thick, black, and sour, begotten of the more feculent part of nourishment, and purged from the spleen, is a bridle to the other two hot humours, blood and choler, preserving them in the blood and nourishing the bones” (Burton 148).  These observations reaffirm Hippocrates’s conjecture that the source of this malady stems from the abundance of black bile stored in the liver.  

The pervasiveness of melancholy was not just limited to the medicine and literature of the Renaissance.  In Greek literature, we find fragments of Burton’s affective states in Aeschylus’s Eumenides: “Over the beast doomed to the fire,/this is the chant, scatter of wits/frenzy and fear, hurting the heart,/song of the Furies/binding brain and blighting blood/ in its stringless melody” (341-370).  In Medieval literature, poignant allusions can be found in Mallory, for example, when Sir Percivale relates that “never had so great a sorrow as I have had for losing of yonder knight” (695).  

Although these passages speak to Burton’s “heaviness of spirit,” they appear to marginalize the emotional impact the melancholy has upon the character.  An explanation for this clearly was the lack of medical understanding of the ailment, for medicine at the time of Greeks—and even up to the period of Mallory—could only analyze and detect symptoms, but not effectively prognosticate proper treatments for them.  Scholar Nancy Sirasi notes that:  “between the fifteenth and the early seventeenth century medicine became notably more attentive to empirical knowledge. A new level of observation and description is evident in many areas: in the enhanced role of anatomy, of course; but also in the proliferation of descriptive narratives of disease, both individual cases and epidemics; the development of new techniques in surgery for a new age of military technology; the intense interest of medical teachers and practitioners in materia medica; and the hands-on expertise of some of them in alchemical/chymiatric techniques” (499-500).  As “progressive and accessible” as Sirasi claims medical knowledge to be during the early Renaissance, it was not until Burton’s work on contemporary medicine and the literary works of the late Renaissance that artists began to illuminate the impact of melancholy on individual characters. Burton lends some insight into the physical manifestations of the disease, claiming that when afflicted with melancholy, some men believe they are “cocks, bears, apes, [or] owls” (255), and “are turned to wolves…or from men to asses, or any other shapes” (255).  Burton further observes that these “melancholy men…conceive so many phantastical visions, apparitions to themselves, and have such absurd suppositions, as that they are…heavy, light, transparent, great and little, senseless and dead, and can be imputed to naught else but to a corrupt, false, and violent imagination” (255).  

Having an understanding of the medicinal, physiological, and psychological impact melancholy was observed to have had on individuals, the focus of this discourse will shift from the brief anatomy and history of melancholy to how it manifests itself within the literary texts of the Jacobean literary period.  Having a medicinal understanding of the signs and symptoms along with a brief overview of its literary predecessors, it is important to first look at the nature of the melancholic and the pervasiveness of animal imagery in literature from the Elizabethan and Jacobean Periods.  The remainder of the discourse will attempt to illuminate that a connection exists between the use of melancholic animal imagery within the dialogue and the personification of characters as embodying those animals’ characteristics, ultimately in an attempt to convey characterization.   

Perhaps the earliest work from the Jacobean theatre that incorporated animal metaphor was Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or The Fox (1606).  Volpone, a crafty nobleman, is discontented by a host of avaricious and sycophantic benefactors hoping to seize assets predicated upon his allegedly impending demise.  These characters press Volpone to give his inheritance away through a series of meetings with the nobleman and his duplicitous sidekick Mosca.  More relevant to this discourse is Jonson’s incorporation of Italian animal vocabulary to effectively name the key sycophantic benefactors in the play.  Subsequently, Jonson cleverly characterizes these figures consistent with the biological and scientific behaviors and traits of animals used to describe them.  Volpone (Italian for fox), for instance, is the clever schemer who must circumnavigate a series of traps set by his adversaries. Jonson embodies Voltore (a minor antagonist) as the metaphorical manifestations of a vulture.  Voltore embodies a vulture as he is the first one to arrive at Volpone’s “death bed,” drawing on the traditional biology of the vulture to detect death in potential prey.  Mosca reinforces the metaphoric imagery of the vulture by reassuring Voltore that “he [Volpone] commands his love, and you [Voltore] do wisely to preserve it with early visitation…” (V.1.3.2-4).  Again, the desired metaphorical effect is accomplished here in that the vulture waits for his victim to die, which is literally what Voltore is doing.    

Although the example from Volpone applies character traits to dramatic personae in the play, it does not function as imagery in the traditional sense.  In Volpone the imagery and characterization are applied and confined to the metaphorical implications of the character’s name.  This use of imagery varies considerably from the later Jacobean stage in which the melancholic character is not a metaphorical embodiment of the image, but is used as an emblem to convey characterization through animalistic imagery.  

A prototype of the Jacobean melancholic can be found in the less heavily-criticized literature of John Marston’s The Malcontent (1604).  We are introduced to the sullen Malevole, (the Duke in disguise) as the melancholic gentleman holding disdain for the corruptness of the court in act one, scene two, by the abrasive Pietro: “Come down, thou ragged cur, and snarl here.  I give thy dogged sullenness free liberty” (T.M.1.2.10-11).  The image of a dog is clearly conveyed, and Marston uses the imagery to carry Malevole’s lines: “I’ll fall into water to suck up, to suck up.  Howl again” (T.M.1.2.15-16)!  Marston craftily conveys the imagery to portray Malevole as a dog, lapping up water and howling.  The impact of Malevole’s melancholic characterization here is two-fold: first, it supports Burton’s supposition that the melancholic—in this case Malevole—is a character whose “disposition causes anguish” (Burton 167).  This claim is supported by Pietro’s observation that “his [Malevole’s] highest delight is to procure others’ vexation, and therein he thinks he truly serves heaven, for ’tis his position, for whosoever in this earth can be contented is a slave and damned; therefore does he afflict all in that to which they are most affected” (T.M.1.2.21-25).  Malevole plays the part of agitated corrupter, attributing his flashy melancholic diction as a device from the devil: “Let him possess thee, he’ll teach thee to speak all languages most readily and strangely” (T.M.1.3.30-31).  The allusion here supports Burton’s theory that “Devils are those lares, genii, fauns, satyrs, wood-nymphs, foliots, fairies, Robin Goodfellows, trolli  [trolls], etc., which as they are most conversant with men, so they do them most harm” (192).  With the imagery of and references to the devil, Marston deviates from the traditional melancholic villain and incorporates a more sinister manifestation of the melancholic that will be more closely conveyed and analyzed later in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

After leaving the audience with a grim foreshadowing of what Malevole is capable of, Marston seems to reel his melancholic intelligencer back in considerably for the remainder of the play.  Marston does not deliver on the devilish inclinations Malevole seems capable of.  Malevole employs his illustrious imagery for less sinister conquests.  For example, in act two, scene two, when he entertains the company of the promiscuous Maquerelle and Bianca as they mock the cuckolded Bilioso: “Look ye crabs, guts baked, distilled ox pith, the pulverized hairs of a lion’s upper lip, jelly of cock-sparrows, he-monkeys’ marrow, or powder of fox stones” (TM 2.2.19-22)?  Malevole is clearly identifying Bianca’s promiscuity as something less-than-desirable.  The impact of this is that Malevole, being the Duke in disguise, seems able to suppress his melancholy and maintain some moral sensibility at the end of the play.  In this sense, the melancholic prototype varies tremendously from the later Jacobean melancholic characters of the Duchess, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.  The discourse will move to identifying the use of animal imagery in Webster’s play, and the impact it has upon the characterization of its melancholic characters.

After establishing the use and effectiveness of animal imagery in works preceding and contemporary to those of Webster, it is important to analyze similarities and differences in how Webster incorporates imagery to convey characterization of the major characters of the play.  As Catherine Belsey notes: “the imagery, both visual and verbal, often functions in a way that is emblematic rather than realistic, arresting the movement of the plot and placing the emphasis on significance rather than experience. The effect is a play that presents an anatomy of the world rather than a replica of it” (117).  Belsey’s observations suggest that Webster took his understanding of anatomy into consideration as a sort of emblem for the play in order to uniquely convey plot.  The evidence of this effect is uncanny throughout the entire play.  In order to maintain a consistent and organized analysis, this discourse will move chronologically from act one through the end of the play citing key passages .in an attempt to quantify the proposal put forth earlier, that the four main characters take on the anatomical characteristics of certain animals, and in so doing, convey plot and characterization. 

In an attempt to better frame the prevalence and use of animal imagery, it is important to have a linear and chronological understanding of the amount, location, and deliverer of the imagery used.  A close reading of the play was undertaken in order to collect data on the amount of animal references present in the play.  Considering Belsey’s observations about visual and verbal images above, the analysis included both direct references to animals to create an image, as well as when animal vocabulary was used metaphorically—whether the imagery conveys characterization or not.   For example, when Bosola, spying on Antonio near the chapel in act two, scene three, tells us that what he hears “twas the melancholy bird…/The owl, that screamed so”(D.M.2.3.7-9), no characterization is being conveyed.  He is narrating action that is happening.  However, Webster does incorporate an animal, and therefore, it was tallied in the table.  Consequently, the analysis took into account all dialogue, and noted where an animal image presented itself in the text.  The table lists the character, act and scene, as well as the number of total animal references each character made.  Total animal references made in each scene are tallied across on the right hand side, and total references made by character are across the bottom.  Finally, the total number of animal references in the entire play is tallied on the bottom right of the table.  The data can be found in Table 1 below:



Table 1 – Animal References by act, scene, and character

*Character not in scene

Animal Imagery Table_Scott Beard

The information provided in table one offers a glimpse at some trends and anomalies that occur in regards to the imagery in the play.  Although Webster infuses one hundred and seventy-eight animal or biological references into the play, some of them have more impact than others.  Bosola leads the cast with seventy-one followed far behind by the lycanthropic Ferdinand.  The less affected characters of the Duchess and the Cardinal make eleven and twenty-one animal references respectively.  The final category is composed of forty-four animal references, with Antonio and Delio making nine and eight of those respectively.  The remaining twenty-seven are divided between the madmen (nine), Malateste (seven), the Doctor (six), and Pescara (five).  There is no doubt that the number of animal images calls for some scrutiny as to Webster’s intent and desired effect in incorporating them so heavily.  As scholar Samuel Schuman notes: “A progression from verbal to visual imagery may be found in Webster’s use of animal motifs.  The imagery to describe human behavior and emotion is, of course, not limited to Webster. It is a technique used to great effect by Shakespeare and Jonson. But, imagery in The Duchess of Malfi is unique” (92).  In order to understand and unpack the play’s unique imagery, the discourse will do a chronological analysis of the most poignant examples of animal imagery used.  The paper will attempt to quantify the suggestion put forth at the beginning of this discourse:  that the imagery specifically conveys plot and characterization.

At the opening of the play, Antonio warns of the corrupt French and Italian courts: “but if’t chance/some cursed example poison’t near the head,/Death and diseases through the whole land spread” (D.M. 1.1.13-15).  The references to death and disease (as abstract as they are here) are manifested by the entrance of the Cardinal.  Scholar Hereward T. Price explains that: “Webster introduces here the hidden corruption of the play.  Thus in the first eighty-four lines of the play Webster has done far more than introduce certain characters, he has established the idea of treachery, poison, and slow corruption working in individuals and in the state” (730-1). 

The validity of Bosola’s melancholic observations is confirmed in his opening conversation about the Cardinal with Antonio:  “He has denied thee some suit?/He and his brother are like plum trees that grow/crooked over standing pools; they are rich and o’erladen/with fruit but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed/on them.  Could I be one of their flatt’ring panders I would/hang on their ears like a horse-leech till I were full, and/then drop off” (1.1.49-54).  Belsey notes that: “the plum trees and the stagnant pools are stationary, their relative positions fixed in an image which functions like an emblem, simultaneously delineating and commenting morally on the world of the play” (119).  The images of the two, sick, and unshapely plum trees suggests the corruptness of Ferdinand and the Cardinal.  The melancholic Bosola is demonstrating the astute social awareness that Malevole displays about Pietro referenced earlier in the discourse.  Bosola’s description embodies Ferdinand and the Cardinal as “crooked,” and “standing” (stagnant) to clue the audience to interpret the brothers’ behavior as foul and corrupt.  Furthermore, Webster gives credence to Bosola’s stagnant pool image, as we later find the Cardinal looking into his stagnant fish pond in act five, scene, confessing that: “When I look into the fishponds in my garden,/Methinks I see a thing armed with a rake/That seems to strike at me” (5.5.6-7).  More convincingly, Webster has Bosola return to the leech/blood-sucking imagery in act three, scene two, when he asks the Duchess, referring to her brothers: “And do these lice drop off now” (3.2.239)?  In order to give validity to Bosola’s melancholic conjectures, Webster brilliantly extends the animal imagery using the leech to embody the sycophants that surround Ferdinand at the court, in essence “sucking up” to Ferdinand to advance their own social standing.  Other animal characterizations of Ferdinand are developed in the same scene, for instance, when Delio explains that “the law to him (Ferdinand)/Is like a foul black cobweb to a spider:/He makes it his dwelling and a prison/To entangle those shall feed him” (1.1.177-80), but will be looked at more closely later in the discourse.  The Cardinal reinforces the idea of encasement or entrapment when he and Ferdinand confront the Duchess: “The marriage night is the entrance to some prison” (1.1.326-7).  This threatening imagery comes to fruition in act four, scene one, when Ferdinand traps the Duchess and imprisons her near the Loretto Chapel.  

The early examples of animal embodiment does not limit its effect to the Ferdinand and the Cardinal.  Webster quickly portrays Bosola through a similar animalistic lens, particularly through the melancholic observations of Antonio.  Perhaps the most poignant animal images Antonio uses to characterize Bosola are the snake and the subterranean rodent, the mole.  These images arise after we learn that Bosola has been hired by Ferdinand as an intelligencer, seeking to subvert Antonio and the Duchess’s relationship.  Bosola accosts Antonio on his way to the chapel. Antonio speaks aside that “This mole doth undermine me” (2.3.14).  Bosola plays the part, seeking to uproot Antonio’s secret marriage to the Duchess and the fathering of his children.  This idea of digging underground—or in the dark—is further illustrated in Bosola’s soliloquy at the end of the scene, when he searches for the paper that Antonio drops.  Furthermore, Webster brilliantly builds Bosola through the rest of the play as a subterranean decomposer, bringing on the decay of all those he interacts with.  This motif of decomposition is reinforced when Bosola is forced to interact and take action on other characters in the play.  If we reference Table 1 presented earlier in this discourse, of the twenty-one animal references Bosola makes in the final two acts of the play, eleven of them entail elements of death through decomposition.  The most poignant of these can be found in act four, scene two, as he manifests himself as defiler and death-dealer to the Duchess: “Thou art a box of wormseed, at best but a salvatory/of green mummy…A little crudded milk/fantastical puff paste.  Our bodies are weaker than those/paper prisons boys use to keep flies in—more contemptible,/since ours is to preserve earthworms” (4.2.122-6).  Price asserts that: “Here we see Webster’s technique, the Duchess’s beautiful body must be likened to a box of worm seed,” (737) along with a host of defiling imagery.  This defilement is then tragically fulfilled when the Duchess is executed by Bosola’s henchmen, sending the Duchess into her prophetic and final physical decomposition. 

With seventy-one animal references, Bosola clearly is the fore-running example of a character that incorporates animal images into his dialogue in the play.  The significance of this can best be encapsulated in the following: “Bosola has been, in effect, an actor, playing a role. If he has been playing a role, then, necessarily, he has not been himself” (Thayer 168).  His role is fulfilled with his melancholic allusions to biology that Burton suggests is present in malcontented and melancholic figures: “Nerves [in the melancholic]…carry the animal spirits for sense and motion” (149).  More succinctly, the imagery Bosola uses coincides accurately with the actions that he finds he and characters taking in the play.    

Returning to Table 1, it is interesting to note that of the four main characters who make animal references, the Duchess only delivers eleven of them. Given this surprising juxtaposition of title character and minimal melancholic animal references, it is important to understand the delivery and impact of the Duchess’s imagery in relation to the larger animal references in the play.  The Duchess’s imagery is unique in that most of it conveys a specific animal theme.  She is clearly the least melancholy of the four characters, and this is indicative by her rather marginal delivery of eleven animal references in the play.  Of the eleven, six of her animal images are birds, particularly ones that man has had a history of domesticating.  The Duchess’s primary internal conflict in the play is the idea of personal freedom versus the suppression of male, patriarchal control, as is evident in her lines in act one, scene one: “For I am going into a wilderness/Where I shall find nor path nor friendly clew/To be my guide” (1.1.360-2).  Obviously her brothers do not want her to remarry and therefore the imagery of the wilderness and caged birds implies that her suppressive brothers have likened her to an animal.  Webster consistently uses a trapped or caged bird to characterize the Duchess.  For example, in act three, scene two, the Duchess is surprised by the obscured entrance of Ferdinand.  He commands her to “die then, quickly” (3.2.73).  The Duchess is startled and attempts to accuse Ferdinand of totalitarianism: “your shears do come untimely now/to clip the bird’s wings that’s already flown” (3.2.86-7).  Essentially, the Duchess has flown (escaped) the clutches of Ferdinand and has successfully married and given birth to three children.  A more immediate example of this can be found in act three, scene five, during her final discussion with Antonio: “The birds that live i’th’field/On the wild benefit of nature live/Happier than we; for they may choose their mates” (3.5.18-20).  The motif of caged birds here is reiterated by the Duchess in act four, scene two: “The robin redbreast and the nightingale/Never live long in cages” (4.2.12-13).  Webster brilliantly characterizes the Duchess as a caged bird who must choose between her personal freedom to marry Antonio, or conversely face the punishment in accordance with her brothers’ wishes.   Interestingly, Paula Berggren observes: “Webster paradoxically reverses the terms of the spatial contest between containment and independence.  Although the play subjects its protagonist to madness and imprisonment, the imagery…here implies hope for salvation” (293).  Webster continues to maintain suspense with the ambiguous imagery.  However, the Duchess continuously reaffirms her impending death as she manifests herself through her bird imagery: “With such a pity men preserve alive/Pheasants and quails when they are not fat enough/To be eaten” (3.5.112). The ultimate effect of this bestial preservation—antithetical to Berggren’s conjectures—is the slow but promised demise of the “caged bird” as she is subsequently banished, tormented, and murdered.

                If Webster makes a strong case for animalistic embodiment with the way in which Bosola, the Cardinal, and the Duchess are characterized, he brings the animal motif to perfection in characterizing the melancholic and lycanthropic Ferdinand.  Webster’s central animal motif focuses on Ferdinand, as he gradually transforms from man to werewolf as the play progresses.  Returning to Table 1, Ferdinand ranks second only to Bosola with the number of animalistic references with thirty-one of them.  Similar to the Duchess, there exists some interesting trends within Ferdinand’s imagery that are essential to the focus of the essay, namely, that Ferdinand’s imagery seems to overtake his character, and his animal imagery becomes dually a manifestation of himself and his emotions as well as a convenient and entertaining way to create conflict for the Duchess and Antonio. 

Ferdinand’s motivations seem straightforward, as Albert Tricomi argues: “(His) behavior springs…from the Duke’s fixation on maintaining the endogenous purity of his royal family, to the point where he becomes obsessed by his sister’s blood, her royal blood, which he is trying to protect from exogamous pollution”  (357).  This desire for hereditary purity would seem natural from a sociological argument, if only it was not infused with the suggestive incestuous obsession the Duke seems to have for the Duchess, claiming that “Those lustful pleasures, are like heavy sleeps/Which do forerun man’s mischief” (1.1.328).  The implicit message here is twofold:  that the Duchess risks mortal peril by pursuing it, but it also suggests an evil dichotomy in Ferdinand that he lusts after the Duchess on one hand, and loathes her on the other.  This conjecture is supported by Tricomi: “As the imagery…comes to organize itself around the tormenting and tormented Ferdinand, its function deepens and ironically assumes a new literalism” (358).  This “new literalism” is the manifestation of Ferdinand actually succumbing to his animalistic desires, and is the focal example of a character embodying the animal imagery that he references throughout the play.  From the figures in table one, Ferdinand makes thirty-one animal references throughout the play.  Of the thirty-one, eleven of them are to dogs, or dog anatomy.  What is even more brilliant is that as the play progresses, Ferdinand takes on dog-like qualities in his interactions with other characters.

 Perhaps the most poignant example of this can be found in act four, scene one, where Ferdinand confronts the Duchess with the dead man’s hand.  Prior to this, it is important to note that Ferdinand progressively alludes to the Duchess as a dog, or with dog-like imagery before the ominous confrontation.  Webster tantalizes the audience, as Antonio fears that his “brothers have dispersed bloodhounds abroad” (3.5.50).  An earlier conversation between the siblings results in Ferdinand telling the Duchess that: “The howling of a wolf/Is music to thee, screech owl” (3.2.91-2).  These references validate Ferdinand and his agitation.  Upon discovering the marriage and subsequent delivery of her three children, he refers to the Duchess as an “Excellent hyena” (2.5.39)!  Ferdinand extends the lycanthropic and dog anatomy to the Duchess’s offspring, in act four, scene one, when he asks her “Where are your cubs” (4.1.33)?  The impact of the wolf references is almost inevitable, as Webster transforms his melancholic antagonist into the animalistic lycanthrope in act five, scene two, when the Doctor informs us that Ferdinand has “A very pestilent disease, my lord,/They call lycanthropia/In those that are possessed with’t there o’erflows/Such melancholy humor they imagine/Themselves to be transformed into wolves” (5.2.5-10).    

Notice here Webster’s juxtaposition of lycanthropy with the attribution of affective melancholy.  The conjecture put forth by this scholar at the beginning of the discourse suggested that characters, when afflicted with melancholy, “are turned to wolves…or from men to asses, or any other shapes” (Burton 255).  Webster confirms Burton’s conjectures about the disease in the lines mentioned above and gives great validity for interpreting the characterization of the play’s main characters by analyzing the imagery they use.    

A final topic in this discourse concerns the implications of the famous dead man’s hand scene in act four, scene one.  By this point, the Duchess has given birth to three children, and has been successfully banished and held captive by her brothers.  Ferdinand seems to administrate over her as he visits with her on three occasions.  Ferdinand presents a dead man’s severed hand to her during the second of these meetings, claiming: “I have come to seal my peace with you.  Here’s a hand” (4.1.44).  Webster’s ambiguity and humor here is noteworthy, in that it leaves suspense as to the nature of the hand that Ferdinand gives the Duchess—whether it be a handshake, or something more menacing.  The desired effect is clearly to instill terror in the Duchess, but instead of the hand confirming a truce or arrangement, it emphasizes Ferdinand’s severing and dissolution of any sympathy or compassion he alleges for her.  Furthermore, this scene strengthens the proposal put forth in this paper that characters are once again assuming animalistic roles, rather than simply referring to them in a metaphorical sense: “The line also provides a firm link between Ferdinand’s lycanthropic obsession with body parts and other sections of the play. In this respect…[it] corroborates a reading that makes sense of Webster’s tragedy [as] a discourse on lycanthropy, including the torture scene. By this reckoning, critics have been right to argue that the dissevered hand foreshadows Ferdinand’s behavior in the fifth act, where he becomes an out-and-out lycanthrope, digging up graves and bearing the leg of a dead man on his shoulder” (Tricomi 355). 

Inquiry into man’s affective states has been an area of interest since the beginning of time.  The portrayal of these emotional states has been an important theme beginning with the origin of the Western literary tradition in the works of Aeschylus, and has maintained validity through the Middle Ages with the works of Mallory.  The Renaissance saw pioneering into the fusion of science and the emotional impact of biology on literary characters, specifically, the impact of the Melancholic, as studied and elaborated upon by the works of Robert Burton.  With a fresh understanding as to the nature of melancholy and an understanding of animal biology, many Renaissance writers incorporated this knowledge into the plot and characterization of their literary works.  Characterization and plot development through the use of biological imagery began with the prototypical works of Jonson and Marston and culminated in the perfection of it in John Webster’s masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi.  Webster’s innovation provided characterization not only through dialogue and action, but in the very nature of the character, as he took the anatomical and biological studies of the Renaissance into an art form no other writer has accomplished.  Webster’s unique biological imagery fused with the effective conveyance of characterization will continue to illuminate his work as a unique and ingenious product of the English literary canon.   



Works Cited

Aeschylus.  The Eumenides.  458 B.C., Trans. Richard Lattimore, Chicago:  University of

Chicago Press, 1953.  Print.

Belsey, Catherine. “Emblem and Antithesis in The Duchess of Malfi.”  Renaissance Drama,

New Series, vol. 11, 1980, pp. 115-134.  Web.

Berggren, Paula. “Spatial Imagery in Webster’s Tragedies.”  Studies in English  Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 20, no. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 287-303.  Web.

Blakstad, Oskar.  Renaissance Medicine.  2011, Web.


Burton, Robert.  The Anatomy of Melancholy.  1621.  New York:  New York Review Books,

                2001.  Print. 

Carlino, Andrea.  “History, Medicine, and the Traditions of Renaissance Learning.”  Bulletin

                Of the History of Medicine, vol. 83, no. 3, Fall 2009, pp. 601-03.  Web. 


Jonson, Ben.  Volpone or, The Fox.  1606.  English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology,  ed. David Bevington, W.W. Norton & Company. 2002, pp. 673–773.  Print.

 Mallory, Thomas.  Le Morte d’Arthur.  1470.  New York: The Modern Library. 1999.  Print.

Marston, John.  The Malcontent. 1604. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington, W.W. Norton & Company. 2002, pp. 545-613.  Print.

 Price, Hereward T.  “The Function of Imagery in Webster.”  Modern Language Association, vol.  70, no. 4, September, 1955, pp 717-39.  Web.           

Randall, Dale B.J.  “The Rank and Earthy Background of Certain Physical Symbols in The Duchess of Malfi.Renaissance Drama, New Series, vol. 18, 1987, pp. 171-203.  Web.

 Schuman, Samuel.  “Theatre of Fine Devices” — The Visual Imagery of Webster’s Tragedies.” Renaissance and Reformation, vol 1, no. 4, 1980, pp. 87-94.  Web.

 Sirasi, Nancy G.  “Medicine, 1450–1620, and the History of Science.”  History of Science Society, vol. 103, no. 3, September, 2012, pp. 491-514. Web.

 William Strong and John Cook. “Reviving the Dead Greek Guys.” Global Media Journal, Summer, 2007, Web.

Thayer, C.G. “The Ambiguity of Bosola.”  Studies in Philology, vol. 54, no. 2, April, 1957, pp. 162-71.  Web.

 Tricomi, Albert H.  “The Severed Hand in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 44, no. 2, Spring, 2004, pp. 347-58.  Web.

 Tricomi, Albert H. “Historicizing the Imagery of the Demonic in The Duchess of Malfi.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 34, no.2, Spring, 2004, pp. 344-72. Web.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. 1623. English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington, W.W. Norton & Company. 2002, pp. 1749-1832.  Print.




Scott Beard has both a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from Wichita State University. His writing has appeared in The Report, LEVITATE magazine, Dime Show Review, and is forthcoming in Please See Me. He enjoys fishing, hiking, reading, writing, traveling, and ice hockey. He can be reached at