The Ocular Impulse and the Politics of Violence in The Duchess of Malfi
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 13 (2005)
In Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, there is dominant desire to see, inspect and control the female body. Ferdinand aims to bring to light what is hidden and “private,” so as to reinforce visibility as a modality of power over the body of the Duchess. It is Bosola who is charged with the task of inspecting and controlling the young widow. Bosola’s scrutiny of the Duchess’s pregnant body seems inseparable from their culture’s understanding of the general female body. This desire is intimately connected with the “ocular impulse” which emerges within coeval anatomical and gynaecological discourses. This ocular economy is a regulatory production of the body, but it also problematizes the position of the subject of the gaze. In the text, there is a trace of distrust toward this kind of inspection and Bosola’s attempts to create power through inspecting the Duchess’s body and giving information to Ferdinand. The distrust to his role can be analysed through the representation of the Duchess’s pregnancy, childbearing, and the representation of the bliss of the conjugal couple in the text. Moreover, those elements are understood to be the subversive potential against the attempts of Bosola and Ferdinand to control the irreducible female body of the Duchess.
The desire to see, inspect and control the female body is intimately connected with the “ocular impulse” which emerges within coeval anatomical and gynaecological discourses. Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia, like most sixteenth- and seventeenth- century anatomical and gynaecological treatises, is marked by anxiety towards the ambivalent interior fold of the female body, veiled and covered by nature to register a woman’s proper place. In the ending scene, Ferdinand is represented as a turned-inward version of himself and he is spurred on to compulsively return to the same place. Ferdinand is the deformed embodiment of haunting, situated at the point where absolute “singularity” and absolute “otherness” uncannily coincide with each other without neutralizing each other. As such a disfigured figure of haunting, he cannot but haunt that by which he is haunted―the grave.