Queen of Apricots

The Duchess of Malfi, Hero of Desire
  • Linda Woodbridge


The dogged sexiness of the Duchess of Malfi—not to mention her ravenous cravings in pregnancy—has troubled and intrigued audiences and readers for going on four centuries now. Some argue that sexuality per se is not among the play’s central issues: Frank Whigham reads Ferdinand’s sexual hysteria as a smokescreen masking his real anxieties as “a threatened aristocrat, frightened by the contamination of his ascriptive social rank and obsessively preoccupied with its defense; … Ferdinand’s incestuous inclination toward his sister is a social posture, of hysterical compensation—a desperate expression of the desire to evade degrading association with inferiors” (169).1 Others find bodily sexuality of less interest than the play’s tapping into the new discourse of companionate marriage and valorization of private life—even the invention of the nuclear family (see Jankowski 226–30; Pechter 102); for Whigham, the Duchess is a hero of modernity in opposing class strictures and championing private life (“a cultural voyager, she arrogates to herself a new role, that of female hero, going knowingly to colonize a new realm of privacy” [172]). A few readers do focus on bodily sexuality: several find the Duchess’s sexuality wholesome and joyful. Theodora Jankowski celebrates her as “a woman who thoroughly enjoys her sexuality” (235); Christina Luckyj finds her wooing of Antonio “profound and convincing precisely because it is not ‘chaste,’ … The Duchess is a woman of sexual energy, … [of] intense sexuality” (77); Edward Pechter is moved by the “tenderness” of the bedchamber scene, “the continued sexual delight the Duchess and Antonio take in each other, apparently unabated over the years…. The scene is suffused with a sense of fulfilled desire” (100).


Sexual Desire Human Dignity Sexual Attitude Moral Stand Nonsexual Woman 
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Copyright information

© Naomi Conn Liebler 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Linda Woodbridge

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