Thursday, July 26, 2012

Duchess of Malfi - Architecture

Liane Lefaivre describes “the single most extraordinary feature” of the medieval Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as “the series of buildings and gardens that the hero keeps encountering throughout the narrative” (8).  For Lefaivre, the eroticism in this abundant architecture challenges the desacralized body of the Christian tradition, privileging the sensuality of architecture, form, and actuality.  The Duchess of Malfi similarly abounds with architectural imagery, from pyramids and alabaster statues to chambers, coffins, palaces, and the famous glasshouse (2.2).  However, in Duchess, this architectural imagery participates in the devalued body, so easily destroyed and so little regarded. 

The duchess herself rebels against this devaluation of bodily desire, but a contrary thread in the play suggests that only when the walls of the body have been broken down by death can the soul be set free.  As Bosola taunts her, “Our bodies are weaker than those paper prisons boys use to keep flies in – more contemptible since ours is to preserve earthworms.  Didst thou ever see a lark in a cage?  Such is the soul in the body.  This world is like her little turf of grass; and the heaven o’er our heads, like her looking glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison” (4.2.124-30).  According to this philosophy, freed from the body by violent death that literally strangles the breath from her, the duchess translates into the cassandrine Eccho that rings from her burial grounds near ancient ruins “very like my wife’s voice,” as Antonio notes (5.3.27).

Images of entrapment and encasement pen the duchessin  throughout the play, just as familial strictures confine her in a rigid role of ducal widow.  Her role as a widow plays a part in this confinement, as the duchess seeks to marry again for her own pleasure.  As though once more a young virgin to be wed, she has no control over her marital prospects; her brothers seek to circumscribe her movement within the bounds of propriety.  She herself condemns this philosophy, declaring amorously to Antonio, “This is flesh and blood, sir; / ‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster / Kneels at my husband’s tomb” (1.1.454-56).  Though man and wife were one entity in law, the Italians do not practice sati.  The duchess has passions and desires because she is not yet bodiless.

Essentially materialist, The Duchess of Malfi seriously undermines ideals of bodily mortification, submission, and purification, just as the sensual voyage of the Hypnerotomachia recasts the journey into abstraction of the Christian Commedia.  When Bosola declares, “Mine is another voyage,” he sets himself in opposition to the world of men living in fear of death (5.5.123).  He passes the bounds of death fearlessly, like the duchess before him.  

The brothers who seek to enforce societal strictures on the duchess also suffer from their imprisonment in these grooves of thought.  Bosola, moving from vicious assassin to a Hamlet-like revenger by play’s end, pronounces judgment thus on the Cardinal: “I do glory / That thou, which stood’st like a huge pyramid / Begun upon a large and ample base, / Shalt end in a little point, a kind of nothing” (5.5.91-94).  This architectural metaphor encapsulates not only the Ozymandian arrogance of the Cardinal and Ferdinand, but, in its shape, precisely traces the lineaments of their malfeasant psychology.  Grandiose and fatuous embodiments of Medici and Mafia strains, these whited sepulchres prate of reputation and church doctrine while committing various sins and crimes.
Bosola’s materialist coda – “We are only like dead walls or vaulted graves / That, ruined, yield no echo” (5.5.115-16) – contradicting, as it does, the Eccho of 5.3 – celebrates again, at the very end, with the authority of a Hamlet or Lear, the essential sensual body of Duchess.  The architectural body is a symbol of death and lifelessness, against which the Duchess struggles throughout, for example.  With its various false bodies (alabaster figure or spiritual Echo), The Duchess of Malfi defies the typical body-soul dichotomy to suggest a deeply materialist understanding of the universe.


Lefaivre, Liane.  Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: Re-Cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissance.  Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.

No comments:

Post a Comment