“What strikes us most forcibly is the essential powerlessness of women”.

In the light of this quotation, explore connections between The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire.

The tragic fate imposed on the women in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ demonstrates their essential powerlessness and inferiority in a patriarchal society. Both Williams and Webster present the female characters of each play as being the antithesis to their male counterparts by their thwarted expression of sexuality, economic dependence, and tolerance of violence. This presentation of traditional gender roles in the 17th and 20th century is a predominantly striking theme for a contemporary audience in each play.

The female protagonists, Blanche DuBois and the Duchess, seem to experience an oppression and victimisation as a result of their tragic flaw; instinctive expression of sexual desire. Both women demonstrate their lustful temptations, for instance, by Blanche’s idiom, ‘you make my mouth water’, towards the paperboy in scene five. While, the Duchess’s sexual innuendo, ‘what joy can two lovers find in sleep?’ in act three, scene two, demonstrates desire for her husband, Antonio, and directly challenges the demands of her brothers in her forbidden remarriage. These highly suggestive sexual behaviours pose a threat to the male characters in each play who pursue callous actions to catalyse the downfall of the women and restore the order of the patriarchal society. In the 1600s and 1940s, a woman who openly expressed sexual desire was perceived as being dangerous and in need of control. This assertion of power is shown in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ when Stanley punishes Blanche for her past of promiscuity and challenging his masculinity by carrying her ‘inert figure’ into the bedroom in scene eleven. The stage direction ‘inert’ emphasises the contrast between female vulnerability and male dominance, therefore strongly implying an establishment of male power through the act of sexual abuse. Blanche’s failure to counteract this ruthless act of cruelty implies an ultimate submission to her fate which Stanley claims be have been ‘mapped out for her’ by her own promiscuity and nonconformity to the societal standards of female behaviour. It is reported that in early productions of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, contemporary audiences cheered at the rape of Blanche as her ordeal was thought to be a deserved punishment for her transgression against social boundaries. In a similar way, the Duchess is subjected to imprisonment, torture and execution as a brutal punishment for her marriage to Antonio in opposition to the demands of her brothers. The brutal murder of the Duchess by strangulation suggests her ultimate subjugation, yet her defiant statement ‘pull and pull strongly for your able strength’ seems to, unlike Blanche, diminish this perceived weakness and demonstrate bravery with the repetition of the imperative ‘pull’.

The societal attitude of the virgin-whore dichotomy seems to be reflected within both plays as the value of women is determined by their purity, innocence and conformity to the idealised role of femininity. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Mitch denounces Blanche as ‘not clean enough’ for marriage yet makes sexual advances towards her in an attempt to get what he has ‘been missing all summer’ suggesting his sense of entitlement in regards to sleeping with her. This presents the vulnerability and societal entrapment of Blanche by her inability to escape from her promiscuous past, despite her attempts at concealing her sins by excessive bathing and avoidance of light. The contradictory attitude towards the male and female expression of sexual desire seems to support Samuel Tapp’s critical analysis that Blanche is ‘a victim of the mythology of the Southern Belle’. This idealised example of female subservience, purity and innocence viewed as desirable in the 1940s as a past ideal, yet still highly resonates in modern society as the women perceived as ‘clean’ are often thought to be most suitable for marriage. Williams’s projection of this virginal appearance and identity onto Blanche employs the motif of appearance versus reality as Blanche is described as arriving in New Orleans ‘daintily dressed in a white suit’, while the reality of her promiscuous past in Laurel acts as a direct contrast to this model of femininity. Similarly, in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, the value of women is addressed by Ferdinand’s construction of a metonymy which equates the purity of women to jewellery. The Duchess responds mockingly by declaring ‘diamonds are of most value, they say, that have passed through most jeweller’s hands’, yet Ferdinand’s retort ‘whores, by that rule, are precious’ is significantly more degrading as a harsh retaliation against the Duchess’s implied libidinous nature. The 17th century trade of diamonds for their rarity and economic worth seems to reflect the objectification of women as trading items and displays the greed and possessive behaviour of men. This striking imagery of jewellery is extended throughout the play as a symbol of the Duchess’s beauty, sexuality and hierarchal status which emphasises her downfall when she poses the rhetorical question to Bosola, ‘what would it pleasure me, to have my throat cut with diamonds… or be shot to death, with pearls?’. The Duchess demonstrates a sense of irony and cynicism towards wealth and status as a death by diamonds and pearls is equalised to a death by knives or bullets due to the same fatal outcome. Therefore, a modern audience may view the Duchess as superior in her ability to diminish the importance of social status as supported by her marriage to her social inferior, Antonio. This motif of jewellery is further presented in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ when Stanley ‘pulls up a fistful of costume jewellery’ and repeatedly exclaims ‘pearls! Ropes of them!’ and ‘bracelets of solid gold, too!’ in an attempt to ridicule Blanche’s value. The ‘costume jewellery’ is significant as it reinforces Blanche’s deluded fantasy of wealth and status.
Both Webster and Williams emphasise the essential powerlessness of women by their construction of a hostile and brutal atmosphere containing overtly violent male characters in each play. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Stella’s submissive nature is emphasised by the recurring motif of domestic abuse which Stanley uses as a means to assert his masculinity and dominance. The alpha male character actively objectifies and boasts his ownership of Stella when he publicly gives a ‘loud whack’ on her thigh and laughs mockingly when she responds ‘that’s not fun Stanley’. This unquestioned expression of boisterous and callous behaviour towards women reflects the attitudes of acceptance and tolerance which were commonly held towards domestic abuse in the 1940s. This expression of physical violence is intensified by Stanley’s unleashed fury at Stella for using the epithet ‘drunk-animal thing’ to describe him in an attempt to end the rowdy poker party. This challenge to his masculinity provokes an immediate reaction of violence as he ‘charges after Stella’ until the ‘sound of a loud blow’ is heard and ‘Stella cries out’. The verb ‘charges’ dehumanises Stanley as a vicious, impulsive animal and influences a sense of pathos amongst a contemporary audience as the normality of Stanley’s abusive behaviour towards his pregnant wife seems to reflect the vulnerability of women during the 1940s. However, this violent behaviour is converted into a torturous cruelty in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ which reflects the macabre and gratuitous violence of Jacobean theatre and emphasises T.S Eliot’s claim that ‘Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’. For example, Julia is condemned by the Cardinal’s corruption when he subjects her to the blasphemous poisoning with his holy Bible. The Cardinal’s coercive imperative ‘kiss it’ demonstrates the confidence of his power, while his boasting ‘I have bound thee to’t by death’ confirms his brutal and violent nature towards women.
The essential powerlessness of women is amplified within both plays in their economic dependence on their male counterparts. In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Stanley attempts to assert a judicial power over Stella by controlling her inheritance and inquiring if she has ‘ever heard of the Napoleonic code’. It is evident that Stanley intends to intimidate his wife by the shift from colloquial and monosyllabic lexis to standard English as demonstrated by the phrases ‘according to which’ and ‘vice versa’ in contrast to the reasoning of his argument, ‘I don’t like to be swindled’, and his initial speech ‘catch…meat!’. Contextually, men in the 1940s were expected to dictate financial affairs reflecting their respective positions in the public and private spheres, while women were assigned the domain of domestic chores and the welfare of their children. This societal expectation of female dependency and ignorance to the economy is displayed by Stella’s hyperbolic remark ‘my head is swimming’ which abruptly ends the conversation and emphasises her domestic role in the relationship. Similarly, in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, the Aragon brothers are profoundly opposed to the remarriage of their sister as it provokes a dilemma for their inheritance. This is demonstrated when Ferdinand tells Bosola that he ‘would not have her marry again’, while the Cardinal warns his sister to not ‘take your own choice’ in marriage. The Duchess’s transgression against the demands of her brothers may characterise her independent strength and power as she succeeds in proposing to Antonio and ‘raises him’ both physically, in stagecraft, and metaphorically, in status, moving him into a higher class to equalise their social distance. In the Jacobean era, a marriage of such unequal societal positioning was entirely unconventional and viewed as a social misdemeanour as Antonio, a servant of the Duchess, becomes entitled to her estate. Subsequently, the Duchess is condemned to death by the fraternal cruelty and envy of Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Ferdinand’s fury is shown to be partially fuelled by the promise of economic gain when he admits to Bosola ‘I had a hope, / Had she continu’d widow, to have gain’d/ An infinite mass of treasure by her death’. Therefore, the economic dependence of women in both plays enhances the function of the patriarchal society by providing the male figures in society with a means of economic control and power over women. Arguably, without the male economic advantage, Stella would have had sufficient financial stability to leave Stanley in the denouement of the play and the Duchess would have had the liberty of an unchallenged remarriage.

In conclusion, it is evident that the essential powerlessness of women is a prominent theme throughout both ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by each playwright’s sharp focus on the sexual identity of their female protagonist. The Duchess is assigned the harsh epithets ‘lusty widow’ and ‘notorious strumpet’, while Blanche is portrayed as having had ‘many intimacies with strangers’. This social misconduct defines the women as tragic heroines who have their fate determined by the malicious actions of men. The ultimate dependency of Blanche ‘on the kindness of strangers’ and her incarceration in a mental institution provokes a sense of pathos amongst a contemporary audience in a similar way to the ‘violent death’ of the Duchess. This defenceless and vulnerable nature of the women within each play emphasises their inferiority and powerlessness in the patriarchal society.

Thanks for reading!

This essay was submitted to Cambridge University as part of my application and was good enough for me to be invited for an interview. Any thoughts would be appreciated. 

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