chapter  1
32 Pages

Tragedies: The Duchess of Malfi and The Cruel Brother

The most monstrous representation of twinship in early modern drama emerges in tragedies, such as John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613) and William Davenant’s The Cruel Brother (1627), which capitalize on the unnatural associations with twinship to augment the horror of the play and propel its tragic conclusion. Interestingly, both The Duchess of Malfi and The Cruel Brother feature male/female twins as main characters. As demonstrated in the introduction, likeness was viewed as a defining characteristic of twinship in early modern England and, moreover, it was this inherent similarity that proved most interesting and troubling to early moderns. Discussions of conjoined twins exemplify this preoccupation, as the extreme closeness of such siblings provoked people’s curiosity; however, this fascination additionally led to the classification of these twins as monsters. As male/female twins, the characters in these tragedies conversely represent the most dissimilar form of the twin relationship. There is no mention in either play of a physical similarity between the siblings. Thus, it is perhaps surprising that the most horrific depiction of twinship emerges amongst these characters. Yet, while removing likeness from the narrative, the inclusion of male/female twins allows for the exploration of another unnatural possibility linked with ideas about twins in this period. The early modern understanding of superfetation associated twin conception with excessive sexuality and potentially deviant behavior, and concerns about twin likeness reveal a similar anxiety about the closeness of the twin relationship. These ideas converge in The Duchess of Malfi and The Cruel Brother, as both tragedies experiment with the potential for an incestuous twin relationship, where the twins themselves inherit the excessive and immoral inclinations associated with their conception, and their closeness begins to verge on the unnatural.