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Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

3. Bodies and Spaces

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In this module, we think about the theme of bodies and spaces in the play, focusing in particular on: (i) the play's concern with the insides and outsides of spaces, rooms, and chambers – but also of people; (ii) Ferdinand's joke about "a captain … full of wounds", and the comparison between the human body and a piece of fabric; (iii) the idea that the Duchess has taken "that massy sheet of lead" that surrounds her late husband's body and has "folded it about [his] heart"; (iv) Bosola's metallic metaphor to describe the 'malleability' of those around him ("I have this cardinal in the forge already"); (v) the idea of the Duchess as a holy relic; (vi) the relationship between interiors and exteriors: Antonio's credulity, Bosola's scepticism, Ferdinand's cynicism; (vii) the importance of the Duchess' physical body in the discovery that she is pregnant; (viii) the Duchess' insistence that she is "flesh and blood", and not a "figure cut in alabaster", and the resonance of these words later in the play; (ix) the play's interest in sickness and disease, especially love-sickness; (x) the gendered nature of medicine: the Duchess' interest in curative medicine, the male characters' interest in poisons and other destructive medicines ("We must not now use balsamum, but fire"); and (xi) the return, at the moment of the Duchess' death, to the image of a body "hew'd … to pieces".


In this course, Professor Helen Smith (University of York) explores John Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi'. In the first module, we think about stereotypes about women in early modern England and their presentation on stage. After that, we introduce the Duchess of Malfi itself – when it was written and first performed, its key preoccupations, etc; – before turning in the third module to the theme of bodies and spaces in the play. In the fourth module, we think about the theme of secrets and secretaries (the words are etymologically related), before turning in the fifth module the play's critical history, from contemporary reactions of the play to the most recent scholarship.


A graduate of Glasgow and York, Helen taught at St Andrews and Hertfordshire before returning to York in 2004. Her wide-ranging interests embrace Renaissance poetry, drama, and prose; history of the book; feminist literary history and theory; religion and conversion; the history of reading; and materiality.

Helen has published more than thirty articles and chapters on topics ranging from the printing of Shakespeare’s early plays to the links between reading and digestion, the cultural and domestic presence of animals, the imaginative connections between physical illness and spiritual trial, and the many uses of early modern paper.

Her first monograph, Grossly Material Things: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2012) was awarded the Roland H. Bainton Literature Prize and the DeLong Book History Prize. Helen is co-editor of Renaissance Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback 2014), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, c. 1530-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2015; awarded the Roland H. Bainton Reference Prize), and Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2017).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Smith, H. (2021, March 24). Webster: The Duchess of Malfi - Bodies and Spaces [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Webster: The Duchess of Malfi – Bodies and Spaces." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Mar 2021,

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