The limits of allusion #6: The Duchess of Malfi and Clarissa 
Wednesday, February 29, 2012, 08:11 PM
Posted by Administrator
Iíve been thinking about parallels between The Duchess of Malfi and Richardsonís Clarissa, and thought these were perhaps almost too obvious to discuss under the heading Ďthe limits of allusioní. But Google didnít seem to throw up any discussions of this possible link.

Perhaps it was the Duchessí apparent threat to commit suicide by fasting which first made me think of Richardsonís heroine, whose anxiety to know just how little she can eat without being deemed a suicide casts doubt on her commitment to life. ĎThe church enjoins fasting:/ I íll starve myself to deathí says the Duchess to her tormentor Bosola. Both heroines defy their families over the question of marriage, undergo terrible physical and mental suffering, are kept prisoner, and demonstrate great courage. Both texts end with a protracted aftermath as characters react with horror to the deaths of their central characters, repenting too late the parts they played in the tragedy.

There is a similar sense of domestic claustrophobia at the beginning of both texts. The Duchess is hemmed in by her sinister brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Clarissa is similarly beleaguered. Her whole family, particularly her envious brother, is determined that she should marry the odious Solmes. Both women's relatives covet the heroine's private fortune, a legacy from a godparent in Clarissa's case, her inheritance as a wealthy widow in the Duchess's. Webster's heroine escapes through a secret marriage to the man she loves, Antonio her steward. Clarissa escapes through flight with Lovelace, a rake. Both women demonstrate some recklessness, but donít forfeit the readerís/authorís sympathy.

Decent, loyal Antonio has nothing in common with the disreputable Lovelace. It is perhaps in Bosola, the playís ambiguous malcontent, that we find the character closest to Richardsonís villain. He murders the Duchess, on her brotherís orders, but suffers remorse and dies by the sword, repenting the part he played in her death, as does Lovelace. Like Lovelace, his tragedy lies in the way good and evil are mixed in his character. Both men, like Ovidís Medea, see the better path but follow the worse.

Perhaps these parallels are just chance ones. But they do invite the reader to wonder exactly why James is so anxious that his sister Clarissa should be forced to marry a man she could never love. (It is generally acknowledged that Ferdinand's feelings for the Duchess are to some degree incestuous.) The Bosola/Lovelace parallel, on the other hand, doesn't make me identify a sexual element in his feelings for the Duchess - if anything it draws attention to the unusual absence of sexual charge in the tense and painful scene they share before her death.
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