Female Powerlessness in The Duchess of Malfi and a Streetcar Named Desire

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About this sample


Words: 1692 |

Pages: 3.5|

9 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1692|Pages: 3.5|9 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Power is the underlying current that runs through both Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, a 17th century revenge tragedy, and Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, a 20th Century modern domestic tragedy. Both plays offer stark representations of power’s tendency to corrupt, a corruption that often leaves women low in the social hierarchy, with little or no authority. Mens’ thirst for control makes female characters powerless to their authority in fear of punishment if they retaliate. However, women are also depicted as powerless to their own desires and psychological state, a theme that interestingly prevails more apparently in Streetcar than Malfi.

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Both Williams and Webster use symbolism and plastic theatre to evoke a cogent sense of female powerlessness. Julia naively ‘kisses’ the Cardinal’s ‘poisoned’ bible, then swiftly dies. The Cardinal’s servants have made their exit before this particular action unfolds, leaving the Cardinal and minor character Julia isolated centre-stage. These proxemics ensure that the pair are at the scene’s cynosure, yet more importantly highlight Julia’s lack of power, as her opportunity to receive help from others is now utterly non-existent. Historians have noted the popular Jacobean stereotype of Italians as vengeful and bloodthirsty, and the juxtaposition of the Cardinal’s insuperable figure over his diminished concubine illustrates this, whilst also being a prominent display of male prowess, thus female weakness. Pathos at Julia’s tragic demise and physical powerlessness may be felt by the audience, yet surprise would not, for violent death is a theme that prevails throughout the revenge tragedy genre- and in this instance portrays the Cardinal’s Machiavellian rancour. The scene’s lurid satire can be wholly appreciated only by a Jacobean audience, who understand the ‘poisoned bible’ as an attack on Catholic revivalism. Protestant Britain responded to the Catholic’s failed explosion of Parliament (1605) with resentment and genuine fear, therefore this crude mockery would have been more than welcomed. The prop also reveals that even faith (a virtue generally perceived as pure) is powerless in the corrupt society of Malfi, where high-status males ultimately dictate what is good or bad, leaving little political power for females, who were left to endure whatever dogma had been decided upon. Whilst the primary cause of Julia’s powerlessness is the malcontent of male superiors, Stella’s helplessness and lack of authority can be blamed on her own insipid spirit and fear of the past, which roots her in New Orleans. However, that there is no male dominance over Stella would be false: whilst Julia is never allowed to rise higher than her status as a mistress, Stanley ‘pulls’ Stella from the ‘pillars’ of her Southern Belle status down to his own social class, demonstrating an inescapable power that forces her to adjust into his lifestyle.

Williams also uses symbolism and plastic theatre to underline Stanley’s brutality and ultimately create a sense of female powerlessness: The radio prop is ‘snatched’ by Stanley before he ‘tosses’ the instrument out of the window ‘with a shouted oath.’ The words ‘snatched’, ‘tosses’ and ‘shouted’ create a semantic field of brutish imagery, which exaggerates the sense of Stanley’s aggressive vigour and the machoism he is so eager to promote. This can be seen as an example of the ‘plastic theatre’ that Williams worked to develop in the 1940’s. Williams felt that the visual and audible aspects of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ should not be disregarded for excess dialogue, as both were equally important in communicating the psychological states of the characters to the audience, as well as developing the themes of the play. One could imagine Stanley (who, interestingly, is also powerless to the male stereotype he must embody) bellowing the ‘oath’ with threatening relish, suggesting Stella’s powerlessness, as any apparent act of authority on her part could be met with a similar outburst of dangerous emotion. In this way, the prop acts not only as a prolepsis for Stanley beating Stella, but also for Blanche’s tragic demise- the rape. The ironic destruction of the ‘radio’ (an object often associated with music) by philistine Stanley symbolises Blanche’s powerlessness to the working class lifestyle as she is unable to orchestrate her ‘finer-thinking’ as a former English teacher onto the household. This character contrast could be seen as a microcosm for the post-war class conflict between the emerging working class and the Old South- a civilisation shaped by wealth and slave labour. The use of plastic theatre also suggests that Stanley’s powerful physique will never be overpowered by the physically weaker sisters, which quickly becomes a pivotal theme. Through the characterisation of Ferdinand, Webster also foregrounds a sense of foreboding for female characters. The imagery within the peremptory ‘take fire when I give fire’ immediately brands Ferdinand, like Stanley, as exhibiting a dangerous desire for control, a tendency which leaves the Duchess powerless due to her lower social status. However, although his incestuous passions ultimately sap the Duchess of any authority, as Stanley’s completely diminish Blanche, Ferdinand himself is powerless to his passions, which act as a vehicle for his crushing demise.

Both playwrights use dialogue to draw attention to the theme of powerlessness: the exclamation ‘Yes- I was flirting with your husband Stella!’ takes place directly after a congratulatory remark regarding Stella’s pregnancy. The exclamation mark suggests a register of ecstasy, connoting Blanche’s thrill when still treated as desirable, tying into the theme of passion pointed in the title and reminding Blanche of her sexual power. This could perhaps reflect post-war American society in which it was frequent for women, so treasured in their youthful beauty, to be discarded as mere objects after a certain age when their comeliness began to decline. Not only was it their looks, but also their sexual purity that would have been treated as nonexistent post this age. Blanche’s eagerness to flaunt her sexual authority is obvious- a pitiful attempt to reassure herself as much as Stella that the male ego is still something she can manipulate. The non sequitur diversion from the prior topic of Stella’s pregnancy suggests the opposite; a newborn would prolong Stanley’s lifestyle for all of it’s upbringing, leaving Blanche no chance to rescue Stella from her husband’s abusive clutches. Alternatively, Blanche’s reference to the romantic dialogue with Stanley, and the non-conventional engagement with Stella’s pregnancy, could connote a sense of her own selfishness, and power over Stella- a hint at her presumed ease at which she could disrupt the Kowalski lifestyle. A darker side to Blanche is revealed when we remember her past exploits of prostitution that funded every ‘one night’s shelter’, and we see how her relaxed ‘flirt{ation}’ serves as a desperate appeal to Stanley for stability, proving her powerless to his will. Imperatively, the scene serves as an ironic prolepsis to Blanche’s final degradation in which sex ultimately leads to her downfall (peripeteia) and complete loss of power. The Duchess is another protagonist whose demise is catalysed by controversial sexual attitudes, however, whilst Blanche is forced to rely on lust as a survival method, the Duchess’ appeal to sex demonstrates her regain of control and indomitable spirit.

Webster also uses dialogue to draw attention to the theme of female powerlessness. At the start of Act 3, the verbal exchange between the play’s antagonists is used to immediately highlight the brothers’ disgust as they discuss an apt punishment for the Duchess’ promiscuity: ’Her fault and beauty, Blend together like leprosy.’ This rhyming couplet highlights the distorted Jacobean misogyny that links together female genitalia and the Catholic ideas of Hell- an association which automatically diminishes the Duchess’ remaining sexual power to a base sin, and ties in with the play’s revivalist motif. One can imagine the bitter spitting of these monosyllables in a 17th Century production of the play- probably mirroring the audience’s disapproval of rewed widows. This disgust- so intense that widows were often blockaded from social circles- manifested from the threat of an economically independent woman with previous sexual experience, who, lacking the authority of a rational male, was at risk of running sexually rampant. The simile of leprosy encapsulates this revolt, and also constitutes Ferdinand’s incestuous jealousy, (which ironically, he himself is powerless to). This emotion will later drive him to lock up his sister, an act that diminishes her social authority and forces a dependance upon him. ‘Leprosy’ perhaps also symbolises Ferdinand’s own malcontent, and the blending of ‘beauty’ being his poisoning of the Duchess’ reign and pioneering spirit. However, the scene not only implies ‘incestuous passion’ but also ‘naked patriarchal power’ (Brian Gibbons); after a brief diversion of dialogue, the brothers discuss their sibling’s banishment to the ‘state of Ancona’ with turn-taking. This display of bleak control forces the Duchess into a place she can be monitored, ensuring that any power to move freely or preach her unconventional social ideology is removed. Whilst perhaps being the play’s most unforgivable moment to a contemporary crowd, this attitude would not be met with surprise by a Jacobean audience whose society deemed female relations as property to be owned by male family members. Similarly, Blanche’s status as a widow leaves her powerless to Stanley’s intolerance, who flippantly asks: ‘You were married once, weren't you?’ However, whilst Stanley’s inimical actions remain unpunished, Malfi’s antagonists undergo an apt exhibition of karma in their physical deaths.

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Both playwrights aim to present their female characters as dominated by the distorted misogyny of the respective societies. Interestingly, Williams divulges a far weaker image of the female sex; both Stella and Blanche eventually succumbing to patriarchal ideals. Whilst the Duchess’ indomitable spirit and haughty resilience distinguish her- even at her deathbed- as an idol worthy of the title, Blanche’s pathetic naivety can only mark her out as powerless: we pity her as the doctor leads her ‘from the portieres’, yet we do not admire. Feminist critics have attacked Williams for this victimising view of women, but I would argue that it is this weakness that allows us to establish human connections; we find ourselves reflected in Blanche’s faults. Whilst Malfi offers a more exultant protagonist, Williams’ motif of powerlessness gives an effectively disturbing insight into the internalised misogyny of 1940s America.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Female Powerlessness in The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire. (2018, April 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 7, 2023, from
“Female Powerlessness in The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire.” GradesFixer, 15 Apr. 2018,
Female Powerlessness in The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 7 Dec. 2023].
Female Powerlessness in The Duchess of Malfi and A Streetcar Named Desire [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Apr 15 [cited 2023 Dec 7]. Available from:
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