Title: THE PART WITH NE'ER A BONE IN'T: WEBSTER'S WOMEN AND THE POLITICS OF SPEECH ,  By: Hopkins, Lisa, Journal of Gender Studies, 09589236, Jul95, Vol. 4, Issue 2
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ABSTRACT This paper works from a close reading of selected scenes between men and women in Webster's two tragedies to argue that he depicts speech and subject positions when speaking as profoundly influenced by gender. Women's language is disbelieved, prone to interruption, and valued less even by members of their own sex. To attempt to circumvent these disadvantages, women adopt male modes of speech, even to the extent of aping the actual words used by their male partners; but this also fails to succeed, leading to further disbelief, misinterpretation, and ultimately to death. By contrast, Vittoria Corombona, the one woman in the plays who resolutely clings to female speaking modes even in a conspicuously male-dominated area, is represented as at least partially triumphant, suggesting a valorisation of women's language unusual to find in Jacobean drama.

John Webster's two tragedies The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14) both make prominent in their title their deviation from Shakespearean and Aristotelian norms by their privileging of a female protagonist. The eponymous heroine of The Duchess of Malfi is a young aristocratic widow who, against the wishes of her possessive brothers, contracts a secret second marriage with her steward. The phrase 'the white devil' refers to the historical Vittoria Accoramboni, modified by Webster to Vittoria Corombona, who through a combination of adultery and murder became the second wife of the Duke of Bracciano before being herself eliminated. Both these women seem likely to function as strong female characters, not easily classifiable into the categories of either victim or villainess into which so many of the women of Renaissance tragedy fit so easily; however, it has been frequently argued that the original circumstances of the plays' production, with the use of boy actors rather than actresses, militate very effectively against any genuine exploration of female subjectivity and lead instead to the wearyingly familiar construction of women as the eroticized objects of the male gaze (for the debate about audience response to boy actors, see for instance Jardine, 1983 and McKluske, 1984). I hope to suggest, through a detailed exploration of the crucial passages from both plays where women's words compete directly with men's for credibility, that Webster's interest in fact extends beyond that. Seeing language as the primary arena of power (as is suggested by his persistent relegation of mere deeds to dumb-show), he depicts speech and subject positions when speaking as profoundly influenced by gender. However, he also offers a model whereby women may transcend these limitations by reclaiming language to lever themselves out of their interpellated position as victims.

At an early stage of The Duchess of Malfi, Duke Ferdinand is seen in conversation with his twin sister, the widowed Duchess of Malfi. Ferdinand, whose attitude towards his sister will be revealed during the course of the play to be both notably sadistic and possibly also incestuous, is exhorting her not to remarry, and he is seconded in this attempt, although with less maniacal determination, by the third sibling, the Cardinal. They begin their adjuration of the Duchess as follows:


You are a widow:

You know already what man is; and therefore

Let not youth, high promotion, eloquence--


No, nor anything without the addition, honour,

Sway your high blood.


Marry! they are most luxurious

Will wed twice.


O fie!


Their livers are more spotted

Than Laban's sheep.

(Russell Brown, 1964, I.i.293-299). With their constant finishing of each other's lines, the Cardinal and Ferdinand exude something of the patter and glibness of a double act. The visual image already created on stage of the solitary Duchess outnumbered by her two brothers is reinforced by their unanimity and the homogeneity with which their individual voices are subsumed into one seamless discourse. When she does speak her voice will be doubly dissonant both in terms of its high-pitched tone and also, and more seriously, in its dissent from their argument. She replies, 'Diamonds are of most value/They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers' hands' (I.i.299--300). To this Ferdinand indignantly responds, 'Whores, by that rule, are precious' (I.i.301), and when the Duchess attempts to correct his interpretation of her speech by interjecting, 'Will you hear me?/I'll never marry:--' (I.i.301--302), the Cardinal indignantly interrupts with, 'So most widows say' (I.i.302), before he and Ferdinand launch into another duologic diatribe lasting 27 lines. The Duchess manages only one speech during this period, the brief and interrupted, 'This is terrible good counsel:--' (I.i.312), and when her brothers finally fall silent she very aptly comments, 'I think this speech between you both was studied,/It came so roundly off' (I.i.328--329). To this Ferdinand responds with the speech from which I take my title:

You are my sister--

This was my father's poniard: do you see?

I'd be loth to see't look rusty, 'cause 'twas his:--

I would have you to give o'er these chargeable revels;

A visor and a mask are whispering-rooms

That were ne'er built for goodness: fare ye well:--

And women like that part which, like the lamprey,

Hath ne'er a bone in't.

(I.i.330--377). At this it is the Duchess' turn to be shocked; exclaiming, 'Fie sir!' (I.i.337), she finds herself promptly put down by her brother as he loftily responds:

Nay, I mean the tongue: variety of courtship;--

What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale

Make a woman believe? Farewell, lusty widow.

(I.i.337--40). I have chosen this passage to discuss at some length because it seems to me to exemplify so neatly what I see as being Webster's varying approaches to the representation of male and female speech, and the interactions between the two, and also because representations of speech are much less frequently analysed in The Duchess of Malfi than they are in the earlier The White Devil, with its more overtly provocative character of Vittoria. There are some obvious, clearly identifiable patterns present--the female speaker is repeatedly interrupted by the men, and is never in fact allowed to finish what she wants to say; and the male speakers dominate the conversation, with Ferdinand speaking 33 lines, the Cardinal nine, and the Duchess five. These are features of mixed conversation which have often received attention from feminist commentators and critics, and were indeed specifically commended by Renaissance commentators (Jardine, 1983, p. 48). There are also, however, more subtle, less obviously discriminatory tactics clearly at work in this passage which are, I think, exposed by Webster as being ultimately much more far-reaching in their effects.

The Duchess' first contribution to this exchange is, in its context, a very bold one. Her remark 'Diamonds are of most value/They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers' hands' (I.i.299--300), which McLuskie terms both 'witty and dramatically startling' (McKuske, 1984, p. 143), is obviously capable of a risque application--as Ferdinand picks up when he immediately responds to it with 'Whores, by that rule, are precious' (I.i.301)--but it simultaneously covers itself from the possibility of criticism by its careful insertion of the caveat 'They say'. Deliberately disclaiming the voicing of a personal opinion of her own, the Duchess falls back instead on a strategy very popular amongst Webster's characters, of substituting communal forms of speech such as apophthegms, proverbs and truisms for any more immediate or personal form of expression. Moreover, since the origins of received wisdom in the highly patriarchal society of the early seventeenth century will of course be male, what the Duchess is also doing is in effect assuming a male voice, presumably in some sort of attempt to render her speech more acceptable to her overbearing brothers.

When this fails, and she is instead reproved for the bawdy connotations of her remark, she disclaims again: 'Will you hear me?' (I.i.301) she pleads, clearly implying that it is what she is about to say that is important, and that, by the same token, her previous comment has little or no meaning. She then plainly asserts, 'I'll never marry' (I.i.302), but no sooner are the words out of her mouth than they are roundly denounced by her brother the Cardinal, who dismisses them with:

So most widows say:

But commonly that motion lasts no longer

Than the turning of an hour-glass--the funeral sermon

And it, both end together.

(I.i.302--305). Here, the notion of communal speech is drawn on again, but to very different effect: what widows say is taken to be, by definition, utterly untrustworthy. The received wisdom of women is obviously by no means of the same value as the received wisdom of men--indeed inherent in the Cardinal's speech there appears to be an unfavourable comparison of the widows' vows with the more respectable funeral sermon. It is precisely this tension between sanctioned, public, 'masculine' speech and unreliable, private, 'feminine' speech that the Duchess draws attention to when she says to her brothers, 'I think this speech between you both was studied,/It came so roundly off (I.i.329-330). In stark contrast to her own rapid switching from strategy to strategy, her brothers' speeches have presented a seamless robe: their monoglot discourse has pounded her unremittingly. They speak a language which has no air of the personal to it, and the Duchess' equation of 'studied' and 'came roundly off points up the extent to which the impersonal tends to be valued more highly and considered more authoritative. Once the Duchess has effectively conceded this point, Ferdinand's tone becomes even more magisterial as he tells her, 'You are my sister--/This was my father's poniard' (I.i.330-331); exercising the archetypally masculine privilege of naming, he forcefully interpellates her as a phallic, and therefore fetishized, commodity, an image again picked up in his culminating comment, 'And women like that part which, like the lamprey,/ Hath ne'er a bone in't' (I.i.336--337). When he goes on to gloss (literally) this most flexible of parts as the tongue, he not only extends rather than defuses his original bawdry, with a lurking suggestion of cunnilingus, but he also forces a powerful metaphorical equation between the tongue and the penis which leaves us in no doubt that discourse is to be conceived of as an essentially masculine domain. It is also possible to see even his use of word-play as an unstated part of the sex wars, as Leonard Tennenhouse has argued of punning in The Taming of the Shrew:

As Petruchio begins to woo Kate, Shakespeare casts their exchange into a punning contest. Since the pun always sets two incompatible meanings of a word in a contestatory relationship, this use of puns thus recasts the battle between courtier and the object of his desire as a battle between two ways of defining that relationship. The outcome depends upon which has the stronger claim to referentiality. (Tennenhouse, 1986, p. 48).

It is presumably because Ferdinand is in no doubt that it is his own claim to referentiality which is the stronger that he feels able to leave his sister with another remark which, paradoxically, recognizes, misrecognizes and interpellates: 'Farewell, lusty widow' (I.i.340). He thus categorizes her as 'lusty', despite all her denials, but simultaneously assumes the paramountly of his own will by addressing her as 'widow', the condition in which he hopes she will remain.

The Duchess has not come off well in this exchange. Her interlocutors have not believed a word she said; moreover, she has also been manipulated into telling a direct lie, since she does in fact plan to remarry in secret. Once left alone, however, and freed from the pressure of masculine company, she immediately proceeds to demonstrate a considerably improved degree of linguistic competence:

Shall this move me? If all my royal kindred

Lay in my way unto this marriage,

I'd make them my low footsteps: and even now,

Even in this hate, as men in some great battles,

By apprehending danger, have achiev'd

Almost impossible actions--I have heard soldiers say so--

So I, through frights, and threat'nings, will assay

This dangerous venture: let old wives report

I wink'd and chose a husband. Cariola,


To thy known secrecy I have given up

More than my life, my fame:

(I.i.341-351). The Duchess' easy assurance here, and her confidence in the loyalty of her serving-woman, might perhaps be seen as denoting a less pressured, more conventionally 'feminine' discourse. In fact, however, the Duchess retains an overtly masculine tone in a number of prominent and striking ways. She compares herself to 'men in some great battles'; she backs up her speech with reference to a masculine authority source, 'soldiers say'; and she is openly contemptuous of female speech with her scathing remark, 'let old wives report/I wink'd and chose a husband'. Even her assumption that her 'fame' means more than her 'life' can be read as an unconscious internalization of the patriarchal power structure which dominates her life.

The speech strategies present in this scene are in fact emblematic of Webster's representations of female discourses and the constant constraints on them. These are most strikingly figured in two extraordinary scenes, one in this play and one in his earlier tragedy, The White Devil. In The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess' adoption of masculine modes of speech, which is implicit in this scene, is explicitly presented when, after her death, a voice emanating from her grave attempts to warn her husband Antonio of his forthcoming murder. Piteously, it can do no more than echo his own words, with slight modifications intended to impart new sense to them, so that Antonio's ' 'Tis very like my wife's voice' is rendered back as the confirmatory 'Ay, wife's voice' (V.iii.26), and his 'To fly your fate' becomes the more urgent, 'O, fly your fate!' (V.iii. 35). A similar moment in The White Devil adopts the same technique: Isabella, rejected by her husband but still in love with him, determines to protect him from the wrath of her brother by pretending that their separation is her own decision, and couches her public announcement of their parting in exactly the same terms that her husband had used to her in private a moment ago.

This 'repeat-after-me' device is, I think, both a powerful and a highly economical method of commenting on men's and women's differential relation to language. On one level, it can obviously be taken as suggesting that all language is owned first by men, and merely lent by them to women, in whose mouths it becomes, because secondhand, inevitably less effective. On another, it seems to me reminiscent of the marriage service, when the woman repeats the words said to her by the male celebrant in what was, in the seventeenth century at any rate, a voluntary acceptance of an avowed inferiority; and this notion of a willed subservience is, I think, also present in the fact that on each of these two occasions the woman is not being forced to repeat the phrases of her husband, but is positively anxious to do so. The Duchess is desperate to warn Antonio, Isabella is desperate to protect her husband. One could, of course, read this as a pretty picture of women's innate self-forgetfulness and self-abnegation, but any such suggestion seems to me fairly savagely undercut by the pathetic inefficacy of both women's actions--both their husbands die anyway. I would argue that their mediations are not so much endorsed as exposed, and certainly one equally tenable reading of both these scenes would be that women who mistakenly employ male discourse do nothing more than hamstring themselves.

A very different fate awaits the one Websterian woman who insistently refuses to be coerced into masculine patterns of speech. Vittoria Corombona, the White Devil herself, dominates her famous trial scene precisely by opposing dominant discourses. Confronted by a lawyer who begins to arraign her in Latin, she unceremoniously interrupts, 'What's he?' (Russell Brown, 1960, III.ii.12). Her objection is dismissed as frivolous--the Duke of Florence complains, 'Why you understand Latin' (III.ii. 14)--but Vittoria, undeterred, persists, 'I do sir, but amongst this auditory/Which come to hear my cause, the half or more/May be ignorant in't' (III.ii. 15--17). When the lawyer does switch to English, but an English liberally larded with Latinate words such as 'diversivolent' (III.ii.28), she interrupts again, with the blunt, 'What's all this?' (III.ii.32), and then proceeds, 'Why this is Welsh to Latin' (III.ii.39). The lawyer, flustered, protests, 'My lords, the woman/ Knows not her tropes nor figures, nor is perfect/In the academic derivation/Of grammatical elocution' (III.ii.39-42). It is obvious, however, throughout the play, that Vittoria is in fact perfectly familiar with the rhetorical skills deemed so important a part of a basic Renaissance education, and is simply refusing to use them. The outcome is that she is sentenced to a house of convertites; serious enough, but then at one stage during the trial she has challenged them to behead her if they find her guilty (III.ii. 136), and since the audience knows full well that she has in fact committed all the crimes of which she is accused, we may well consider that she gets off lightly. Vittoria dies in the end, as indeed do all Webster's female characters from the two tragedies, but in this scene, at least, she has held her own against men in a way that no other woman from these plays has been able to do, and she has done it by deliberately refusing to talk their language.

Critics have not always read Vittoria in these terms. Catherine Belsey rightly comments that, 'One of the critical puzzles presented by Webster's The White Devil . . . is how to reconcile the different positions from which Vittoria speaks' (Belsey, 1985, p. 160), and Jonathan Dollimore makes much of Vittoria's celebrated claim to 'personate masculine virtue' (III.ii. 136) to argue that the language of dominant masculinity is in fact precisely what she speaks, although he sees her as unable ever to inhabit it completely (Dollimore, 1989, p. 235). It is certainly true that, like Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi, Vittoria deploys puns in her famous temptation of Brachiano, offering him a dream of a yew tree which the slightest touch of egocentricity will enable him to interpret as being about 'you' (I.i.240). Ania Loomba has noted, though, that 'Vittoria protests against her arraignment by grasping, inverting, and thereby challenging the division between the sexual and the political: in an incisively appropriate gesture, she calls her trial a rape' (Hendricks & Parker, 1994, p. 29). Unlike the Duchess and Isabella, moroever, she never echoes men--indeed she opts rather for silence or for terms so tentative that the men about her must translate her subtle speech into their own more brutal language (Callaghan, 1989, p. 75)--and her famous claim to personating masculine virtue is in fact made in a speech which persistently emphasizes her femininity:

Humbly thus,

Thus low, to the most worthy and respected

Lieger ambassadors, my modesty

And womanhood I tender; but withal

So entangled in a cursed accusation

That my defence of force like Perseus,

Must personate masculine virtue--to the point!

Find me but guilty, sever head from body:

We'll part good friends: I scorn to hold my life

At yours or any man's entreaty, sir.

(III.ii. 130--139). In the context of the men by whom she finds herself surrounded, 'masculine virtue' sounds very like sarcasm; and both the beginning and the end of the speech demarcate sex boundaries--'my womanhood', 'yours or any man's'--in which Vittoria seems to feel that it is she who falls on the right side of the line. It is on a statement of her femininity, also, that she wishes to die; although Flamineo lauds her for displaying 'masculine virtue' (V.vi.245), her jibe to her executioner positions her very differently, as fundamentally associated with a female world of nurturing rather than a masculine word of killing:

'Twas a manly blow--

The next thou giv'st, murder some sucking infant,

And then thou wilt be famous.

(V.vi.232-234). In stark contrast to the words which immediately follow her speech--Flamineo's macabre question 'O what blade is't?/A Toledo, or an English fox?' (V.vi.234-235)--Vittoria's words, with their mordant challenge to the masculine value of 'fame' which so preoccupy the Duchess and Isabella, register that even as she dies, she resists the ideologies of gender which have been so energetically deployed against her. While Vittoria here may leave us with a world in which men and women are still at war, it is at least not a war which women are always already condemned to lose.


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