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Theme of Control and Authority in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’

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The instinct to control others is indeed natural for characters in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Both Webster and Milton explore the control one exerts over women through Ferdinand and Adam’s desire to control the females, the control of those at a lower status illustrated through the religious figureheads of both works, the Cardinal and God. However, it can be argued that the instinct to control is not a natural inclination especially for women, but rather their desire to break free from patriarchal restraint is more of a defining characteristic in both works. Overall, it is clear that, Webster and Milton explore the ideas of control and authority in a variety of ways.

One of the most fundamental aspects of both Webster and Milton’s works is their presentation of the dominant, controlling force of patriarchy, which during the 17th century, illustrating the control of women to be a natural course of action to take. In ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, women were seen to be “cursed creatures” who were “unequal in nature” with their “heart so far upon her left side”. As far back as the Zohar, a foundational text of Jewish mysticism, Judeo-Christian religions attributed the left with femininity and inferiority, as Eve appeared on and developed from Adam’s left side. From the beginning of the play, Ferdinand and the Cardinal attempt to prevent the Duchess from marrying again, telling her that “those must luxurious will wed twice”, so that she would remain in obedient to them instead of another man. Ferdinand, upon realizing that the Duchess disobeyed her brothers and re-married, calls her a “strumpet” and is shown to actively criticize her, with the derogatory language stemming from his inability to successfully have the Duchess under control. The play, as Jankowski outlines, illustrates the “conflicting claims of the Duchess’ body natural and body politic”, and this is illustrated in Ferdinand’s irrational, obsessive desire to control the Duchess. His anger, despite being primarily motivated by lust and incestuous obsession, perhaps reflects the dissent of the parliamentarians who, in light of the ascension of female rulers such as Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, were dissatisfied and doubtful as women, who were considered to be “weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish”. Knox (1558) were placed above them as the monarch. An example where physical control is exerted over the Duchess is during her imprisonment, whereby her words “Pity! With such a pity men preserve alive pheasants and quails, when they are not fat enough to be eaten”, expresses her frustration towards her inferior stance as a female that leads to the control that her brothers are able to exert over her. Whilst Webster explores control exerted over an actively defiant female, Milton presents instances where men are criticizes for not being able to exert control over women. In ‘Paradise Lost’, Adam is described to have been “in delight both of her (Eve’s) beauty and submissive charms” and “smiled with superior love”. Adam, in accordance to the Great Chain of Being, was placed above Eve in the hierarchy, and therefore, his inability to control her and guide her as the more rational and superior gender incites criticism from God. He, when Adam was “fondly overcome with female charm”, tells Adam: “Thou didst resign thy manhood, and the place wherein God set thee above her made of thee”. Despite Milton’s emphasis of having “intimate and speaking help”, and the benefits of a “ready and reviving associate in marriage' in ‘A Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’, he was not advocating for equality, instead suggested that this “reviving associate” was illustrated under the basis of women still inherently being inferior to men. Female inferiority is established in God’s words after the Fall: “to thy husband’s will, thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule”, and his emphasis on the gender hierarchy illustrates the complete control and authority men have over women, but for Adam, God’s words could also serve as a reminder for Adam to exert his proper control and authority over Eve to prevent further corruption and destruction taking place. Overall, it can be argued that the control and authority exerted over females was a typical course of action to take during the 17th century as men believed this to be their natural right in light of their intellectual superiority over females.

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Another way in which Webster and Milton depict control and authority in their works is by illustrating the control and authority that religious figureheads seem to hold within both works. Webster sheds light on the power that the Cardinal holds, as a religious figurehead who somewhat parallels God in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. The Cardinal, throughout the play, contrasts with Ferdinand in showing his calm but manipulative character, that Antonio describes as “plum trees” that “lay crooked over standing pools which are rich, and o'erladen with fruit”, whereas “none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them”. The Cardinal’s corrupt character is expressed in his manipulation of Julia, where he tells her: “thy curiosity Hath undone thee: I knew thou couldst not keep my counsel, I have bound thee to't by death”, and killing her with a poisoned Bible. Antonio comments that the “Prince’s court” is “like a common fountain” and “if't chance some cursed example poison't near the head, death and diseases through the whole land spread”. This notion can be relayed onto Webster’s illustration of the Cardinal, who, as the ‘cursed example’, was created by Webster to embody the stereotype of cruel, hypocritical, corrupt Catholics as articulated in Martin Luther’s ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ in 1517. There were great conflicts over Catholicism during Webster’s lifetime such as the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and King Charles’ fight against Catholic powers in Europe before 1630. Catholic priests would take in the tithing money and keep it to themselves. Whilst Webster illustrates the power and authority a corrupt religious figure has, Milton sheds light on the power of God, who, despite not being human, acts as the divine authority who is able to control and judge his creations. God’s role as the divine authority in ‘Paradise Lost’ is presented in an interesting way, especially in light of the Fall of humanity caused due to their free will. The God of Christian theology is viewed as an omnipotent, omniscient being, and his power is exemplified through his illustration as a figure behind ‘clouds’ with a shrouding ‘light’, magnifying his divine authority that distances himself from humans. God’s authority over Satan, the catalyst of the Fall, is illustrated as Satan and his followers turn into serpents who create a “dismal, universal hiss” after recognizing that “a greater power (God) now ruled him”. God’s power over Satan through his metamorphosis is demonstrated. Whilst his punishment of Satan may be just, it can be questioned to what extent God is able to exert his authority over his creations, and whether this authority is justified at all. Milton presents a complex, seemingly just but questionable image of the divine authority, and to a more secularized, contemporary audience, the illustration of the dissent towards God’s authority and control can be justified, especially in light of the debate between free will and determinism. Milton’s portrayal of God, at times, reflects his views on the monarchy itself, as his belief in the freedom of speech, often conflicted with Charles I’s extremely constrictive, restraining rule where he limited Parliament’s access to the King and limited the Church in their spendings and services. Instead of portraying God to be an infallible authority figure, Milton’s interesting illustration of God, perhaps reflecting his critical views on the Divine Right of Kings that James I emphasized: “Kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, but even by God himself they are called Gods” (1609). As Milton expressed his dissent towards the monarchy, ‘Eikonoklastes’ was written as a rebuttal of Charles' Eikon Basilike, where Milton argues that if the King does not portray attributes of a 'good' king, then the people have the right to take him down from the throne. Milton claimed in ‘Eikonoklastes’ that all monarchs had the potential to become tyrants, no matter how benevolent they may appear, contrasting with the sympathy that was aroused through Charles’ Eikon Basilike that illustrated the monarch to be a noble martyr. ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates’ in 1649 (which was not published until after his death) urged the abolition of a tyrannical kingship and the execution of tyrants. Milton echoed this argument consistently throughout his time, and in his ‘Defense of the English People Against Salmasius’ (1651), he carries forward the notion that the execution of a monarch is supported by authorities from Classical antiquity to the early modern era, and the tyrannical nature of Charles I's sovereignty justified his death. Whilst Milton wrote ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘justify the ways of God to man’, it is evident that, in his portrayal of divine authority that conflicts with free will, his depiction of God can be considered as an alternative interpretation to the omniscient, all-perfect God of Christian theology. Overall, Milton and Webster’s interesting portrayals of powerful, authoritative religious figureheads demonstrate that the instinct to control free beings is indeed natural.

However, it can be argued that Webster and Milton present an alternative illustration of authority and control, presenting their females, such as the Duchess and Eve, to not actively seek for control but to break free from male control. The Duchess pursues freedom from her brothers’ control by marrying Antonio in secret, telling him, “Do not worry”, and that the tempest, being her brothers, shall reside. It can be argued that the Duchess’ pursuit of freedom offers a utopian alternative of social transformation against the scandalous marriage between Princess Elizabeth and Prince Frederick in 1613. Though dependent on context and reception, it can be argued that contemporary audiences are more likely to view the Duchess as a feminist icon, proving that ambition may be noble. The English Civil War and the Interregnum also that prompted female royalists and revolutionists to take on new roles in absence of husbands. The Duchess’ active desire for freedom through rem-marriage parallels’ that of Elizabeth I’s exertion of power by her refusal to marry, declaring that “I am already bound unto a husband which is the Kingdom of England”. This was an example of her commitment to ruling the country and her refusal to follow the traditional ideas about womanhood, where marriage was seen as natural and obligatory. Elizabeth’s words that, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, parallels Bate’s notion that the widow, then was the joker in the pack, the wild card who was not obliged to play by the sexual and social rules. In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, this character is a free agent. She acts instead of being acted on; she delights in setting a plot, where both women are shown to exert their control and declare their freedom through sexual autonomy. Similar to the Duchess’ active defiance of the control and authority exerted on her, Eve’s desire for greater intellectual capacity can be translated into her attempting to overcome the natural control that Adam is able to exert over her through intellectual inferiority. Eve, after eating the fruit, contemplates and asks whether she should “keep the odds of Knowledge in my power without Copartner?”, and despite her desire for power partially coming from her desire to gain Adam’s affection, she believes that by eating the fruit herself it would “render me (her) more equal”, which is “a thing not undesirable, sometime superior”, adding “For inferior who is free?”. Eve’s defiance of Adam is also highlighted in her words, “Was I to have never parted from thy side? As good have grown there still a lifeless Rib. Being as I am, why didst thou the Head command me absolutely not to go?”, which illustrates Eve’s acknowledgement of Adam’s greater power.

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Theme of Control and Authority in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Theme of Control and Authority in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Theme of Control and Authority in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Theme of Control and Authority in John Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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