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Both Williams and Webster present female sexuality as a destructive force. One example of this being the case in The Duchess of Malfi is with the Duchess herself as it is her desire and ability to be sexually free due to her status that leads to her death as she rebels against the brothers who prohibit her from marrying again as they, mainly Ferdinand, hope to inherit her wealth after her death, “I had a hope – had she continued widow – to have gained an infinite mass of treasure by her death”. This may represent the inferior status of women in Jacobean England as the Duchess is in a position of higher status than Ferdinand but the belief at the time was that women should obey their fathers; after the father passed away, they were expected to obey their brothers. Christy Desmet states, “(The Duchess) represents the plight of women in rough masculine times”, supporting the theory that she, and all other women at the time, lived lives inferior to men despite their social statuses.
In the case of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche’s need for companionship is what leads to her being sent away by Stanley and Stella as she “relies on the kindness of others” to survive. This may be because Blanche grew up in a very wealthy family and typically in pre-civil war America, rich fathers would try to marry their daughters off to other rich families. This was the case with Blanche when she married Allan and after he committed suicide she was left with Belle Reve, funerals, and herself to pay for, which, as Blanche states, “I couldn’t pay for all of it, not on a teacher’s salary”. This links to The Duchess of Malfi in the way that Blanche is treated differently than men due to her gender, she wasn’t brought up to be a manual worker, she was taught how to be a pretty wallflower. This then leads to her losing Belle Reve to debts and staying in ‘Hotel Tarantula’, where she would share intimate moments with men who were able to buy her pretty things, “That’s where I took my victims. I had many intimacies with strangers after the death of Allan”.
Nicola Oynett suggests, “Blanche becomes a social outcast because she refuses to conform to conventional moral values.” This may ring true in the story as it is when Stanley finds out about her many intimacies, Mitch is no longer interested in marrying her as she, “isn’t clean enough to bring home to (his) mother”. This demonstrates views of women in 1940s America as they were considered second class citizens who should only look after children and ensure the house was tidy.
I think in The Duchess of Malfi, female sexuality is presented as a force that works against women as opposed to in their favor. The Duchess may be a prime example of this as, despite knowing the consequences she would face for marrying again, she chooses to anyway, even with the concern of Antonio, “But for your brothers?” This may show the Duchess’ rebellious side as she attempts to gain more control over her own body, possibly showing female empowerment. However, it may also highlight stereotypes of the time that women were weak to temptation and this is what causes the Duchess to marry and have children.
Throughout the play, the Duchess is presented as being witty and in control, showing no hesitation in her desires for Antonio, demonstrated by her allowing him to wear her wedding ring, “There needs a small conjuration, when your finger may do it: thus, is it fit?”, as well as her sexual desires, “I would have you lead your Fortune by the hand unto your marriage bed.” Alison Findlay argues, “the ring (like the vagina) is open, a hole penetrated by lower-class fingers like Antonio’s”. This emphasizes that she takes control over who she has sex with through choosing to propose to Antonio. Through choosing someone of a much lower class than herself, she goes against the male authority of a male-dominated society, especially Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who would’ve disapproved of this choice. Her choice to marry Antonio may also be a statement of power as through marrying someone of a lower class, she gains control over her husband, who would generally be the ruler of the relationship. Furthermore, through the imagery of the vagina, it could be suggested that the Duchess isn’t ashamed of her desire for sex and Antonio.
This may relate to Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire as she was willing to share many intimacies with different strangers after the death of her husband, even a pupil at the school she taught at, as revealed by Stanley in scene seven, “A seventeen-year-old boy – she’d gotten mixed up with”. This may show that she is similar to the Duchess in that she isn’t afraid to show her sexuality. Furthermore, at the end of scene five, Blanche flirts with a young man collecting donations for the ‘Evening Star’, “I want to kiss you … I’ve got to be good and keep my hands off of children”. This may again indicate that Blanche isn’t afraid of showing her sexuality or being flirtatious. In terms of the “many intimacies with strangers”, it has been suggested that she allowed these to happen as they were able to buy her pretty clothes and accessories, “presents from an admirer”. However, in the cases of the young men, they aren’t able to pay for things for her so it could be suggested that she flirts with the paper boy and the student just because she wants to, possibly as a confidence booster as we know Blanche is very self-conscious about her looks and age, “You’ll see I have awful vanity about my looks even now that my looks are slipping”. As it is Stanley who exposes Blanche for her past, J.M McGlinn may be right in saying, “(Stanley) wishes to destroy (Blanche’s) composure to make her recognize that she is the same as he is, a sexual animal.” It could be suggested that Julia’s sexual force also has a negative impact on her life, much like Blanche and the Duchess. This could be because she is the Cardinal’s mistress and falls in love with Bosola, “Which of my women ‘twas you hired, to put love-powder in my drink?” Bosola then manipulates Julia’s promiscuity in order to get information from the Cardinal, “I shall work upon this creature.” Muriel Bradbrook suggests that, “(Julia) is a foil to the Duchess, who takes a man as she feels the impulse”, this rings true as, despite already having a husband in a different town, and a lover in the Cardinal, Julia still chooses to flirt with Bosola, which leads to her death due to her inability to keep what the Cardinal told her a secret. Bradbrook’s opinion is also true for the Duchess as she seems to rush into her marriage to Antonio without a second thought.
Stella is quite different to Blanche in that she only sleeps with her husband but her sexuality is still a dominant force against her. As we see in scene four she goes back to Stanley after he abuses her and they have sex, “Why, you must’ve slept with him” … “I’m not in something I want to get out of.” This may suggest that Stella is happy living the way she does in a kind of cycle where her and Stanley have a fight and she is able to fix anything with sex and has Stanley in the mindset that he can do the same as the morning after he hits her, everything is back to normal and they love each other again. J.M. McGlinn suggests, “Stella ignores the needs of others and eventually adopts her own illusion. Life with Stanley-sex with Stanley-is her highest value. Her refusal to accept Blanche’s story of the rape is a commitment to self-preservation rather than love”. This may support the theory that Stella may only stay with Stanley because of her sexual desire, despite the negative impacts it has on her and her unborn child pointed out by Blanche as Stanley hits Stella, “My sister is going to have a baby!”.
To conclude, I think both Williams and Webster present female sexuality as a dominant force that works against women as it seems that many of the female characters that display their sexualities in these plays face more negatives than positives. For example, the Duchess is able to have many children with her new husband but her brothers find out and kill her and all but one of her children, “Some other strangle the children”.
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