Class, Gender and the Anxieties of Meritocracy in Jacobean England

By Joshua B. Black
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

The staged plays of the early Jacobean period are valuable textual products for the literary critic, the cultural researcher and the historian alike. These plays are significant containers of knowledge about the mutually reinforcing social and political tensions of the early years of King James I’s reign. There is a body of literature which presently deals with questions about the complex class and gender politics of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614): Frank Whigham concluded that the ‘play was written, at least in significant part, to dissect the actual workings of the normative ideology set before us at its beginning’ (182); Sara Jayne Steen has written about Webster’s complex staging of interclass marriages and audience responses to it (61 – 76). There is an existing assumption, then, that Webster’s work can be considered a great source of residual knowledge about the shifting social strata of early seventeenth century England. Many of the play’s profound passages are in effect the dramatization of the class and gender anxieties that pervaded early modern English political life. The play not only replicates intangible socio-political tensions in a staged space, but uses language to reflect the central power anxieties at the heart of these tensions back to the theatre-going public.

Flagging the question of dynastic survival, Webster constructs metaphorical conceits and characterisations that strive to represent and expose the political, socio-economic, and gendered sources of societal tension. Importantly, these conceits function as a hypothetical dialogue about the potential supplanting of the social structure by a more meritocratic political paradigm. In this model, the figures of Ferdinand and the Cardinal represent an aristocratic resistance to early modern class mobility and political change. I argue in this article that the figure of Bosola is ultimately staged as a proponent of a more meritocratic political tendency. Political tension is spatialized in the form of the female body – specifically in the persons of the Duchess and Julia – where aristocratic fears about class contagion and meritocratic infiltration are realised. Webster’s language and characterisation forges a stage-world that mirrors and reflects back to societies past and present some of the strongest English anxieties of the early modern period. I build on earlier research in the field by reading the play as a dialogue about a broader anxiety about a meritocratic shift in social relations and political culture.

The Play in Context: Dynasticism and the Tudor – Stuart Succession

Anxieties about dynastic survival were as present in the world of the Jacobeans as in Webster’s Malfi court. These anxieties grew as Elizabeth I aged. A ‘succession tension’ is evident in the words of Francis Bacon, who believed that there would be “confusions, interreigns, and perturbations of the state” following the Queen’s passing (in Mosley 11). This dynastic insecurity continued to permeate Jacobean society, and can be felt in the language of The Duchess of Malfi. The seemingly innocuous words of the Marquis de Pascara are telling: “These factions amongst great men…when their heads are divided…all the country about them goes to wrack for’t” (3.3.37–40). We may read the ‘heads’ as synecdoche for the men who control the political affairs of state. In that sense, their separation brings about civil ‘wrack’ in a politically factional mess. If we extend our interpretation, there is another profound figurative image here, depicting the separation of head and state through treason, and by extension, the literal division of monarch’s head from body. These fears were almost directly realised in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot; Herman notes that “the possibility that nearly the entire ruling class would be killed…thoroughly traumatized the king and London generally” (118). The play is in cultural terms a product of the constant fear of political instability, a fear that clearly frames the dynastic and aristocratic concerns of its plot.

These concerns were underpinned by questions of personal value and merit in Jacobean public life. Such questions cut to the core of the Jacobean social strata, which Stockard describes as “a hierarchically ordered culture undergoing intensely felt alterations” (91). King James was himself subject to differing interpretations about the nature of authority and the transmission of dynastic power. Kanemura tells us that debates about James’ status as an elected or hereditary king continued in the House of Commons as late as 1614 (317–318). Such debates betray a concern with the tension between hereditary and meritorious authority, in a world preoccupied with the issue of “the determination of identity and personal merit at court” [emphasis in original] (196). Further threatening court stability were concerns about gender and marriage, which were highlighted in the crisis triggered by Arbella Stuart in the early 1610s. In stark parallels to Webster’s Duchess, Stuart’s marriage was slammed by the King for its class transgression, and James feared that Stuart could produce a child who “might contest the succession” (Steen 67). Tensions over class, gender, personal merit and dynastic survival were all central to the Jacobean kingship.

These contextual concerns are central to Webster’s framing of the play. His own dedication to Rt. Hon. George Berkeley is revealing, for he dismisses the Baron’s “ancientest nobility” as “but a relic of time past” (105). In a commendatory verse, Thomas Middleton crafts a similarly meritocratic metaphor:

For every worthy man
Is his own marble, and his merit can
Cut him to any figure… (in Webster 106).

Where Webster frames the aristocracy as anachronistic, Middleton actually metaphorises a meritocratic paradigm to be adopted in its place. Conceptualising man as marble, he grandly suggests that the height of man’s greatness ought to be determined by the shapes and deeds he chooses for himself. Even prior to its staging, the paratextual features of Webster’s play frame it as inherently concerned with a real or perceived dichotomy between dynasticism and meritocracy.

The Staging of Dynasty

At the outset of the play, the demarcation between dynasticism and meritocracy is profoundly blurred. Delio and Antonio flag for the audience questions of corruption and virtue in courtly life, using the French court as a theatrical setting upon which to displace anxieties that were English in nature. Antonio reflects thus on the French court:

In seeking to reduce both state and people
To a fixed order, their judicious king
Begins at home: quits first his royal palace
Of flattering sycophants, of dissolute
And infamous persons… (1.1.5 – 9).

This passage demonstrates a desire on the part of the staged French ruler to clear his court of rampant corruption. And yet, our understanding of the semantics of the words ‘fixed order’ is anything but settled. Insofar as he seeks to repair the corrupted, corroded integrity of his court, the king does seek a ‘fixed order’ that might be viewed as meritocratic. The lexis of the passage lends itself to such interpretation, with ‘flattering sycophants’ and ‘infamous persons’ maligned as the epitome of courtly life’s perils. That being said, we can also read this passage as dynastically self-preserving. In seeking to reduce the state and people to a ‘fixed order’, the king solidifies and strengthens an existing dynastic position, expelling the sycophantic threat in doing so. The French king pursues a hardening of the social strata—the enforced rigidity of a hereditary classed society—and in doing so fundamentally shuts off the potential of the court to become the site of meritocracy. Though the dynastic-meritocratic dichotomy was poorly demarcated, the play itself begins with an example of these ideals in tension with one another.

Meritocracy as Upward Mobility

In the staging of the aforementioned tension, Bosola is a pivotal character. Despite, or rather in spite of his period of servitude to Ferdinand, Bosola expresses contempt for the dogmatic self-preservation of the aristocracy. In an early and richly laden passage, he describes the brothers as “plum-trees that grow crooked over standing pools” (1.1.47–48.) In one short, impactful simile, Webster beautifully expresses the social stagnation of the Malfi court, with the corrupt, spiteful figures of Ferdinand and Cardinal looming above, hence ‘crooked’. Andrea Henderson has interpreted this passage in broader terms as “a criticism of the severed link between ruler and ruled” (202). By all other accounts, it would appear to more strongly criticise the relationship between ruler and aristocracy, a corruptive and sycophantic relationship. Even without the assumption of any real virtue or merit on Bosola’s part, this passage suggests a stagnant quality about the court, one which upward social mobility would diffuse and potentially disperse.

More than just railing against the aristocracy, Bosola’s dialogue foregrounds his belief in the merits of the lower classes. In the context of his deceitful actions in Act 3, he rhetorically asks the Duchess if the age really does “prefer / a man merely for worth, without these shadows / of wealth, and painted honours?” (3.2.78–81). In part, this is mere rhetoric, spun by Bosola for the purpose of deceiving the Duchess. Deceit notwithstanding, his dialogue actually betrays an inherent emphasis on merit and virtue. In a touching moment of reflective monologue, he claims “A politician is the devil’s quilted anvil” (3.2.325). A seemingly bizarre metaphor, this passage suggests that Bosola regrets having to spin disingenuous rhetoric for cruel purposes. He personally identifies as the quilted anvil to Ferdinand’s devil, used with evil intent, but desiring instead that his hollow words could be uttered with a view to a more virtuous outcome. Bosola’s dialogue therefore creates the textual and staged space for theorising and expressing desire for a more virtuous mode of socio-political interactivity, a more meritorious English paradigm.

These lower-class sentiments run counter to the highly class-conscious anxiety of Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Their very language figures a hostility toward the idea of meritocracy as upward social mobility. Referring to earlier scholarship, Henderson suggests that the question of Ferdinand’s identity “is no simple matter” (197). I challenge this statement here, on the grounds that both brothers express the absolute centrality of aristocracy to their identity. Their attacks against the notion of ‘merit’ equally stage this identity. The Cardinal’s first words to Bosola in Act 1 are relevant; he bluntly states, “you enforce your merit too much” (1.1.33). Regarding ‘merit’, there is a critical irony here, for the audience will perceive that Bosola’s later actions are far more virtuous and valiant than the Cardinal’s, and yet the latter seeks to belittle such ‘merit’ in favour of hereditary privilege. The term ‘enforce’ is key, for although editors suggest that it should be read as “urge” (Weis 388), the term would have possessed an authoritative quality in the early modern period as it does in our own day. In the context of Act 1, this nuance results in the audience perceiving a class-based disagreement over the nature of socio-political power. The Cardinal is concerned by Bosola’s ‘enforcing’ of his own merit because it fundamentally challenges the validity of his own authority, which rests on hereditary privilege and institutional sponsorship rather than any virtue of character. The Cardinal represents the strongest source of hostility to and anxiety about a meritocratic paradigm in this text, and his highly conscious class-based identity is communicated in doing so. Importantly, Webster himself straddled these class distinctions by pitching the play to audiences at the elite Blackfriars as well as the Globe, suggesting that it “offered something to both ‘high’ and ‘low’ spectators” (Pandey 272). Aristocratic and common Londoners were both exposed to Webster’s dynasty-meritocracy rift as staged in The Duchess of Malfi.

Womanhood: The Space for Class Contestation

The mechanism upon which the meritocratic threat to social structure hinges is figured in this play as ‘womanhood’. Webster constructs femininity as a tool for class mobility, and therefore as a space of extreme anxiety for the aristocracy. The staging of the Duchess’ marriage is crucial in this regard. In a dramatically symbolic gesture, the Duchess places her wedding ring upon Antonio’s finger. As a symbol, the ring connotes marital connectivity and sexual consummation. After kneeling down, she asks Antonio to stand, saying “my hand to help you…” (1.1.409). The ring and the hand are obvious conceits for marriage, both figurative and literal in meaning. Yet, the language surrounding them aspires to do more than unite the couple in marriage. The Duchess hands Antonio the ring with this intention: “to help your eyesight” (1.1.399). Similarly, before ‘raising him’, the Duchess tells Antonio, “This goodly roof of yours is too low built; / I cannot stand upright in’t” (1.1.406–7). Semiotic nuances here are geared toward advancing Antonio’s more base condition to one parallel with his prospective wife. The handing of the ring is not about improving ‘eyesight’, but about expanding Antonio’s vision, his breadth and scope of the world from an aristocratic perspective. Likewise, the ‘raising’ gesture is not just a simple granting of the hand in marriage, but a performative speech and stage act of upward social mobility. In declaring that her greatness ‘cannot stand upright’ in the metaphorical roof of Antonio’s classed existence, the Duchess presents him with what is a most logical solution: to raise him to her own status, that they might stand ‘upright’ together as aristocratic equals. In its metaphors, symbology and lexis, this scene epitomises the function of marriage as an upward mobility mechanism in The Duchess of Malfi, and in Jacobean England by extension.

The rise of meritorious figures through marriage triggered the dynastic anxieties of Ferdinand and Cardinal-types. In the prism of this dynasticism, femininity is perceived as a politically unstable place where class contestation is fought. As Stockard has written, the “search for the mechanisms of class-based violence locates easily the sister as the vulnerable site…” (92). Consider the sentiments of the Cardinal in discussion with the Duchess in Act 1: he claims that a widower’s love “lasts no longer / Than the turning of an hour-glass; the funeral sermon / And it, end both together” (1.1.294–6). This simile, with the hour-glass as its vehicle and the widower’s love as its maligned referent, cuts to the core of the Cardinal’s anxiety about the Duchess as a ‘site’ of potential dynastic vulnerability. Death of the husband therefore equates to the birth of socio-political instability in the persona of the Duchess.

In Ferdinand’s dialogue, the female sexual body is reimaged as the physical collision of class and gender anxiety. Steen has noted that the traditional critical responses to the play perceived female sexuality as a threat to “the social order” (61). Such responses draw on passages such as the following, in which Ferdinand envisions the Duchess copulating with:

Some strong thighed bargeman,
Or one o’th’ wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge,
Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings (2.5.42–45).

This language is as sexually charged as it is ferociously angry, with double entendre helping to superimpose questions of feminine integrity upon dynastic anxieties. The man of the ‘wood-yard’ has poorly concealed phallic qualities about it, while the coal carrier is obviously ‘stoking the Duchess’ fire’ to euphemise politely. The most important quality about these men, however, is their socio-economic status. The bargeman, as part of the growing mercantile class, would certainly have attracted the contempt of the aristocracy. These men are vehicles of the lower class contagion that was feared to be transmissible through sexual liaison.

The danger of female sexuality to the aristocracy is underwritten by the trope of the cuckold. In this light, the Cardinal frames the Duchess as unfaithful and disloyal when he says that widower’s love often dies with the hour-glass. The real cuckolder, however, who poses a marked threat to masculine authority in the play is Julia. When she first sets eyes on Bosola, Julia exclaims “What an excellent shape hath that fellow!” (5.2.19). The centrepiece of feminine frailty rests upon the very assumption that women’s fidelity is jeopardized simply by the exquisite ‘shape’ of man. Julia’s shallowness of character is presented as farcical, but parallels between her and the Duchess should not be overlooked; both are condemned by the Cardinal for their (potential) sexual independence, both are labelled ‘strumpet’, and most importantly, both are seen to be negating their duty of loyalty to another man. Indeed, Julia is staged as a liability to both her husband Castruccio, and to her seducer the Cardinal: Pescara exclaims to Delio that the land which Julia pursues in the last act is ‘due to a strumpet, for it is injustice’ (5.1.46). The term ‘injustice’ enacts a compromising of the deed to Antonio’s land, the causality of that compromise being the immorality of the Cardinal’s sexual relationship with Julia. Of course, the loading of the term ‘strumpet’ also emasculates Julia’s husband by default. Webster’s employment of the cuckold trope reinforces the capacity of the play’s female characters to undermine and threaten the integrity of their dynastic male associates.

Through language, Webster stages a hypothetical containing of the class threat. Balizet has argued that Ferdinand’s medical and physicist linguistic conceits fashion a physical repression of the perceived class ‘infection’ (31-32). I wish to further this argument by reflecting on the significance of the presentation of Antonio’s hand to the Duchess during her imprisonment. After giving the Duchess a severed hand, Ferdinand tells us that she is merely “plagued in art” (4.1.111). His artfulness is designed to communicate a ‘severing’ of the conduit by which his sister has been infected by low status. The act of marriage, symbolised by the placing of the ring on Antonio’s finger in Act 1, is viewed by Ferdinand as “an affront to class purity” (Stockard 96), and he thus uses the dead hand as a semiotic device by which to “untie, disassociate, his sister from a marital union he will not approve” (Tricomi 355). Importantly, the hand is an important symbol of the physical touch that the sexual act necessitates, and therefore by which royal blood is ‘tainted’ in Cardinal’s terms. Its pretend severance therefore stages another of Ferdinand’s cauterizing metaphors, a preventative measure to halt the spread of classed infection.


In the context of the Elizabethan and Jacobean monarchies, questions of dynastic survival and aristocratic supremacy were never far from the forefront of many citizens’ minds. In Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, early modern audiences were presented with a hypothesis regarding the forms of potential threats to such a dynastic order, as well as speculation about the meritocratic framework that could have replaced it. As has been seen, much of the language and staging of this text depends upon an inherent tension between these meritocratic and dynastic ideals, a tension that has yielded metaphorical conceits that rival Shakespeare in beauty. Upon the one flatboard stage, Webster manages to envision not only the potential for upward class mobility, particularly in the forms of Antonio and Bosola, but also the natural reactionary responses from the aristocracy. The thematic focus on sex, marriage, and women’s frailty ensures that women become the ultimate site where the contestation of this dynastic survival is played out. Ultimately, we cannot declare for certain whether or not Webster saw himself using stage to create a more meritocratic world, but what we can say with certainty is that his text bears testament to dynastic tensions of the age, and the classist and gendered anxieties that underwrote it.


Balizet, Ariane M. ‘“Drowned in Blood”: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El Medico De Su Honra’. Comparative Literature Studies, vol. 49, no. 1 (2012), pp. 23-49.

Henderson, Andrea. ‘Death on the Stage, Death of the Stage: The Antitheatricality of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’’. Theatre Journal, vol. 42, no. 2 (1990), pp. 194-207.

Herman, Peter C. ‘“A Deed Without a Name”: Macbeth, the Gunpowder Plot, and Terrorism’. Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 18, no. 2 (2014), pp. 114-131.

Kanemura, Rei. ‘Kingship by Descent or Kingship by Election? The Contested Title of James VI and I’. Journal of British Studies, vol. 52, no. 2 (2013), pp. 317-342.

Mosely, C. W. R. D. English Renaissance Drama: An Introduction to Theatre and Theatres in Shakespeare’s Time. Penrith: Humanities E-Books, 2007.

Pandey, Nandini B. ‘Medea’s Fractured Self on the Jacobean Stage: Webster’s Duchess of Malfi as a Case Study in Renaissance Readership’. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, vol. 22, no. 3 (2015), pp. 267-303.

Steen, Sara Jayne. ‘The Crime of Marriage: Arbella Stuart and The Duchess of Malfi’. The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 22, no. 1 (1991), pp. 61-76.

Stockard, Emily. ‘Violent Brothers, Deadly Antifeminism, and Social Suicide in The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi’. Renaissance Papers, edited by Jim Peace and Ward J. Risvold, Camden House, 2016, pp. 91-102.

Tricomi, Albert H. ‘The Severed Hand in Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi”’. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, vol. 44, no. 2 (2004), pp. 347-358.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi, and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 [1996].

Weis, Rene. ‘Explanatory Notes’. In Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009 [1996].

Whigham, Frank. ‘Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi’. PMLA, vol. 100, no. 2 (1985), pp. 167 – 186.

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