Making Glass Malleable: Female Face-Fashioning and Specular Agency in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’

Valentina Finger is a doctoral candidate at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, currently working on her dissertation project, Specular Shakespeare: Mirrors in Ear­ly Modern Plays and Playhouses (working title). She studied Fashion Journalism and Media Communication, and Comparative Lite­r­a­ture in Munich and at King’s College London. Mainly focussing on Shakespeare and English Renaissance drama, her research interests include sar­torial culture, particularly crossdressing, as well as concepts of femininity, beauty, and sovereignty in early modern literature and culture.

This post offers a case study of performing women in front of mirrors. My phrasing here is deliberately ambivalent. Firstly, the woman I choose to reflect upon – the unnamed Duchess of Malfi of the eponymous tragedy – is no woman at all, but a female character created by a male playwright and performed by a boy actor on the Jacobean theatre stage.[1] Secondly, the Duchess indeed performs in front of her mirror: not only is her specular moment part of the stage action; it is also important to consider that any interaction with one’s reflection involves a performative exchange between an actor and a spectator, who are both combined in the same person.

Speculating on the mirror scene in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613),[2] I argue that it marks the turning point that leads to the downfalls of the play’s female protagonist. The scene does not, however, affirmatively repeat the popular notion of a face-painting woman as a sinful tableau of vanity.[3] Rather, I show that staging this woman’s demise as part of a dressing-table scenario creates a powerful microcosmic image of how men’s anxiety about women’s transgressive agency unleashes male vio­lence in order to prevent female self-fashioning. Accordingly, the mirror in this play does not reflect what is considered damnable, but rather what is feared as being dangerous about femininity in early modern England. Instead of denying a woman’s influence by confining her to a realm of passive (self-)re­flection, the mirror here symbolises the Duchess’s autonomy that threatens male supremacy.

Before the mirror scene in 3.2 of The Duchess of Malfi, women are introduced as existing on either side of the specular spectrum, from positive exempla to deterrents.[4] In the opening scene, the Duchess’s secret lover, Antonio, praises her as a mirror of “noble virtue” (1.1.201), asking that “all sweet ladies break their flatt’ring glasses / And dress themselves in her” (204–5). A few scenes later, the villain Bosola quite contrarily condemns female interactions with mirrors. Assuming that she “come[s] from painting”, he mocks an Old Lady’s “scurvy face physic”, noting that “[t]o behold [her] not painted inclines somewhat near a miracle” (2.1.23–5). Bosola continues his misogyn­is­tic ranting by railing that the Old Lady’s closet is likely to be suspected “for a shop of witch­craft” (35–6), since there she keeps the repugnant ingredients “for the face” (38) that in the period connect face-painting women with potion-brewing witches.[5]

Still later, Bosola abuses her with a bawdy joke on a “glasshouse” (2.2.7), where a young woman went to learn “what strange instrument it was should swell up a glass to the fashion of a woman’s belly” (9–11). This association of femininity with vitreous frailty is adopted by the Cardinal, brother to the Duchess. He tells his mis­tress, Julia, that women in their nature are so inconstant that “[a] man might strive to make glass malleable / Ere he should make them fixed” (2.4.14–5). Within the patriarchal ideology that shapes male speech in the play, women look into mirrors and beautify their faces as a symptom of their sex’s in­herent malleability and vanity.

Into this discussion of female malleability, the Duchess enters in 3.2 demanding her make-up “casket” and “glass” (3.2.1). As she “tends to her toilette” (54 s.d.), Antonio gives her leave to “talk to herself” (56). Soon, however, her conversation with herself is in­terrupted by the entrance of Ferdinand, her twin brother, whose presence, in an interesting interplay of self, twin, and reflection, she spies once she turns away from her image. While Antonio, who is not only her hus­band but al­so her servant, is willing to withdraw in order to create space for female speech, Ferdinand, infuriated by her secret marriage, asks her “not [to] speak” (76). He stresses his right to control his sister’s sexuality, preferring to kill her instead of accepting any spot on their reputation. But the Duchess objects to being “cased up, like a holy relic” (142). She is aware of her desirable role as a woman, who still “[has] youth, / And a little beauty” (142–3). The argument offered in this scene is not that she holds power despite being a woman. Rather, the Duchess defines herself as both a “prince” (she explicitly does not define herself as a princess) and a woman, stressing the synergy between the two.

Her power, both over the Duchy and over her own body, threatens Ferdinand’s masculine identity. While their aggressive confrontation in front of the mirror marks the beginning of the Duchess’s downfall that eventually leads to her death as a result of misogynistically motivated political intrigue, the scene also offers room for sharing views on female self-authorship. Instead of stigma­tising the Duchess’s participation in acts that expose feminine malleability, staging her face-fashioning as an act of self-shaping strengthens her po­si­tion as a sovereign woman, who, regardless of wheth­er she “[is] doomed to live or die, […] can do both like a prince” (71–2).

In the end, the Duchess remains on stage as speech, detached from any sense of fe­minised corporeality. Her tomb elicits “the best echo that you ever heard”, which is “[s]o plain in the distinction of our words, / That many have supposed it is a spirit / That answers” (5.3.5–9). To Antonio, the sepulchral echo seems “very like [his] wife’s voice” (27); and indeed the voice’s slightly dissonant responses appear like warnings uttered by a protective uxorial deity. Again engaging in a process of (acoustic) re­flec­t­ion, the Duchess’s echoic admonition eventually contributes to saving their eldest son. As I hope to have shown, acts of (self-)reflection in this play do not point to the protagonist’s shallowness and pride, but rather project her powers as regent, mother, wife, and woman. If women are considered to be both the opposite (in their variability) and an analogy (in their frailty) of glass, Webster presents them as indeed capable of making “glass malleable” as they take control over their own bodies and identities.

[1] The title character of John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi is modelled on the Italian aristocrat Giovanna d’Aragona, who ruled the Duchy of Amalfi on behalf of her underaged son between 1498 and 1510. Her name, however, is never mentioned in the play. This is telling considering the amount of autonomy Webster grants her in his stage adaptation of her life. However, the Duchess’s title still links her to her dominion, repairing the lack of individuality with a notion of spatial power.

[2] All quotations from The Duchess of Malfi refer to the text in Bevington, ed., English Renaissance Drama.

[3] A woman beautifying herself at her dressing table, sometimes approached from behind by death or the devil, in the early modern period serves as a popular emblem of vanitas in numer­ous engravings accompanying moralising texts (see also, e.g., the illustration of “Superbia” in the painting The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1505–10). Literally setting be­holders face to face with their “biological and mortal reality”, Sabine Melchior-Bonnet goes as far as to claim that in fact “[a]ny mirror is a mirror of vanity” (Melchior-Bonnet, The Mirror, 250).

[4] As several critics, Herbert Grabes among them, have noted, the speculum books of the sixteenth and seventeenth century very rarely describe things as they are, but rather “[show] the way things should or should not be” (Grabes, The Mutable Glass, 39). They create ideal or anti-ideal states of behaviour in order to modify their readers’ attitudes. With regards to women and the symbolism of the mirror, there exists both the notion of the Virgin Mary (and those emulating her) as speculum sine macula and the negative counter-image of feminised vanitas or superbia mentioned above. On these extremes see, e.g., Frelick, “Introduction,” 1–10, and Werness, The Symbolism of Mirrors, 7–9.

[5] Face-painting women are often linked with practices of witchcraft for mainly three reasons: firstly, they both handle toxic and vile ingredients like “the fat of serpents, spawn of snakes, Jew’s spittle, and their younger children’s ordure” (2.1.37–8), mentioned by Bosola, in order to effect some sort of transformation; secondly, they both create female networks for sharing magical-medical knowledge; and thirdly, they both transgressively engage in self-authorship and cross the line of what is deemed appropriate feminine behaviour. On the association of painted faces with witches see, e.g., Karim-Cooper, “Shakespeare’s Women,” 476, and Reichardt, “‘Their Faces are Not their Own’,” 197–8.

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Frelick, Nancy M. “Introduction.” In The Mirror in Medieval and Early Modern Culture: Specular Reflections, edited by Nancy M. Frelick, 1–29. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016.

Grabes, Herbert. The Mutable Glass: Mirror-Imagery in Titles and Texts of the Middle Ages and the English Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Karim-Cooper, Farah. “Shakespeare’s Women and the Crisis of Beauty.” In A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Dympna Callaghan, 467–480. 2nd ed. Malden, Oxford and Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.

Melchior-Bonnet, Sabine. The Mirror: A History. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

Reichardt, Dosia. “‘Their Faces are Not their Own’: Powders, Patches and Paint in Seventeenth-Century Poetry.” Dalhouse Review 84, no. 2 (2004), 195–214.

Werness, Hope B. The Symbolism of Mirrors in Art from Ancient Times to the Present. Lewiston, Queenston and Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999.

Tuke, Thomas: A Discourse Against Painting and Tincturing of Women. Wherein the abominable sinnes of Murther and Poysoning, Pride and Ambition, Adultery and Witchcraft are set foorth & discovered. Whereunto is added the Picture of a Picture, or, The Character of a Painted Woman. London: Thomas Creede and Bernard Alsop, 1616.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. In English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, edited by David Bevington, Lars Engle, Katharine Eisaman Maus and Eric Ras­mussen, 1755–1830. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002.

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