You are not currently logged in. Please create an account or log in to view the full course.

Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

1. Women in Renaissance Drama

This is the course trailer. Please create an account or log in to view this lecture.

  • Description
  • Cite

About this Lecture


In this module, we think about the presentation of women in Renaissance drama, focusing in particular on: (i) the negative stereotype of women in Heinrich Kramer's Malleus Maleficarum (1486/7), and the justification for such a stereotype in the Book of Genesis; (ii) the challenge to such negative stereotypes put forward by writers such as Emilia Lanier; (iii) the relationship between the ideal representation of women in (male-authored) Renaissance texts and what women were really like; (iv) the interaction between people say about women and what women are actually like: the character of Mother Sawyer in The Witch of Edmonton (1621); (v) the interest in female language, especially its ability to persuade, charm, tempt, etc.: Lucio's recognition of Isabel's powers of persuasion in Measure for Measure (1604); (vi) the importance of the Duchess' voice in The Duchess of Malfi, the one part of her that persists after she dies ("Many have suppos'd it is a spirit / That answers"); (vii) the reduction of female characters to the physical organs of speech, e.g. the description of Isabel in Measure of Measure as "the tongue of Isabel"; and (viii) the fact that female characters would have been played by male actors, and the fundamental unreality of the femininity we see on stage.


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 - Women in Renaissance Drama [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Smith, H. "Webster: The Duchess of Malfi – Women in Renaissance Drama." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 24 Mar 2021,