chapter  1
‘That body of hers’: the secret, the specular, the spectacular in The Duchess of Malfi and anatomical discourses
Pages 31

In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, as he gazes on the strangled body of his sister, Ferdinand addresses his accomplice Bosola as follows: ‘Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle’ (IV.ii.264). The ‘general eclipse’ of the Duchess’s body, threatened earlier in the play (II.v.79) and understood by Ferdinand as the necessary outcome of her being ‘too much i’ th’ light’ (IV.i.42), seems not to occur without the uncanny emergence of the intolerable gaze of the abject corpse.1 Nonetheless, the apotropaic gesture of covering the Duchess’s face is followed by Ferdinand’s request to uncover it once more: ‘Let me see her face again’ (IV.ii.272). This request is also intimately, if obliquely, connected with Ferdinand’s envisioning of another – more gruesome – scene of uncovering: ‘The wolf shall find her grave, and scrape it up: / Not to devour the corpse, but to discover / The horrid murder’ (IV.ii.309-11). In these lines the Calabrian Duke presents himself as other than himself, as a less-than-human hybrid entity moving uneasily in the liminal zone where the Duchess’s corpse has already been situated. He will continue to exercise his keen sight, but the fantasmatic reiteration of his visual mastery over the ‘object’ disquietingly comes to coincide with the undoing of the ‘human’.