Lycanthropy and Lunacy: Cognitive Disability in The Duchess of Malfi
In the tradition of the Jacobean Gothic, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi interweaves images of lycanthropy, madness, and incest to produce a play haunted by figures that could be potentially perceived as both monstrous and disabled. Telling the sensational story of a widowed Duchess who secretly re-marries beneath her station, the play follows the Duchess’s two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, as they seek to discover the truth about what their sister has done and to punish her for her marriage with her servant Antonio. Throughout the play, Ferdinand’s obsessive interest in his sister reveals incestuous impulses and the tale’s shocking finale ultimately reveals this murderous “madman” to be a werewolf. As modern understandings of mental disorder meld with early modern conceptions of supernatural (and sexual) threat, readings of Ferdinand that psychologize his lycanthropy present the Duchess’s incestuous brother as simultaneously disabled and monstrous.