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Gender Roles in Donne and the Duchess of Malfi

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"Gender roles throughout history have been clearly defined, with men reigning superior over women."

In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers present women and attitudes to women. In your answer, compare one drama text and one poetry text.

Both Donne and Webster explore gender roles and show an interesting variety of female characters and attitudes to women in their work. The Duchess of Malfi has a strong female in the eponymous character, though other characters - particularly her brothers - try to control her and reign over her. Webster also shows weaker females in Cariola and Julia. Donne shows a range of views about women in his poems, from the cynical and possibly misogynistic 'Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star' to the celebratory but perhaps possessive 'Elegy 19: To his Mistress Going to Bed'. Both writers explore this theme in interesting ways with a particular focus on women's sexuality, but their own attitudes are ambiguous.

In 'The Duchess of Malfi', there are very negative attitudes towards women shown by the Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola. The brothers try to control the duchess, forbidding her to re-marry and implying that only overly sexual women do so: "They are most luxurious / Will wed twice" - luxurious at the time meant lustful and this attitude reflects a stereotype of the time that widows were sexually voracious as they "know already what man is" unlike the usual innocent bride. They imply that they have absolute power over her, trying to scare her into submission: "Your darkest actions, nay your privat'st thoughts / Will come to light". Since they are setting Bosola to spy on her, this becomes true. The imagery is ironic as the truly dark actions - spying, murder and corruption - belong to them.

Donne's view of women and sexuality is often much more positive. He revels in sex and shows voracious women as a positive force in many poems. In his own life he was a notorious womaniser when young until he fell passionately in love with his wife, Anne. Even in some of the more negative poems like 'Woman's Constancy', he shows the woman as a strong and worthy opponent; he also undermines the misogynistic message at the end when he implies that men are just as inconstant: "For by tomorrow I may think so too." This suggests that he may have intended the tone to be playful rather than bitter. In 'Elegy 19: To his Mistress Going to Bed' Donne celebrates the anticipation of sex and describes the woman as more beautiful and powerful when she's naked: "Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals". Though some of the language could be seen as proprietorial: "O my America, my new found land", this could just suggest his excitement about discovering uncharted territory: her body. This echoes the excitement of the colonisation of new lands which the Elizabethans revelled in. He does ask for permission: "license my roving hands" and the subtext of concern about whether his erection will last - he envies her corset "That still can ... stand so nigh" - actually suggests that women are more powerful than men because they don't have to worry about this.

Webster certainly does not seem to condone the attitudes of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. The audience are much more likely to empathise with the Duchess and Antonio, who are shown as a loving, playful couple, than the corrupt churchman or the probably incestuous



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