Lycanthropy as a Mental Illness in Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi”

By Emily G.
In Renaissance England, werewolves represented societal anxieties about the relationship between a human’s body and mind. Although lycanthropy has many definitions, the most prominent comment upon transformations of man into wolf: a “werewolf.” Yet other definitions move away from the body, referring instead to the “delusion that one was capable of such transformations,” commonly known as lycanthropes (Hirsch). While the two definitions seem separate today, the distinction was less over in early modern England, where the terms were used interchangeably even after the idea of the werewolf fell out of use (Hirsch). By the end of the fifteenth century, the wolf was extinct in England, and the fear of wolves disappeared (Douglas 2); (Hirsch); (Douglas 231). Subsequently, so did the fear of werewolves. Theologians and demonologists admitted that actual animal-human transformation was impossible, claiming that even the devil could not transform a human into an animal (Wiseman 58). Thus, lycanthropy was understood most frequently as a mental illness in which the patient believed he or she had transformed into an animal. Physicians believed this phenomenon resulted from too much melancholy or an unnatural imbalance in one of the four humors of the body  (Douglas 231); (Hirsch).
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi arrived on stage in 1614 to tell the story of Ferdinand, a melancholy lycanthrope (Wiseman 59). Although Ferdinand alludes to wolves frequently throughout the tragedy, as when he calls the Duchess’s children “cubs,”, he is not diagnosed by the Doctor until the final act: “A very pestilent disease, my lord,/ They call lycanthropia” (Webster 4.1.33); (Webster 4.2.5-6). However, if we assume that Ferdinand’s lycanthropy is induced by an excess of melancholy, we can further argue that his affliction actually begins after the Duchess’s murder in act four, when he says, “I bade thee, when I was distracted of my wits,/ Go kill my dearest friend, and thou hast done’t” (4.2.279-280). Although he ordered Bosola to murder his sister, he gets angry after the fact. When he says “I was distracted of my wits,” his language suggests that his madness has already begun. The illness takes a turn for the worst in act five. The Doctor mentions seeing “the duke, ’bout midnight in a lane/ Behind the Saint Mark’s church, with the leg of a man/ Upon his shoulder; and he howl’d fearfully;/ Said he was a wolf; only the difference was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,/ His on the inside” (Webster 5.2. 14-18).
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Lycanthropy represented many anxieties not only about the body, but the mind as well. If lycanthropy is the result of madness, are lycanthropes still responsible for their actions (Hirsch)? To simply consider the existence of the werewolf was to consider the state of the mind and soul, as well as the possibility of the human brain transcending into an animal one (Wiseman 58).  Many of the images, engravings, or sculptures of lycanthropes feature a horrifying hybrid creature that stands upright like a man but is nevertheless covered in fur from head to foot, with sharp claws and teeth. In the image above, the werewolf even has his jaws clamped down on a young woman. These depictions highlight society’s fear of the illness, and the anxiety that attackers could transform victims into such beasts as well. In fact, werewolves were considered more dangerous than regular wolves because they were a hidden threat (Hirsch). While wolves displayed their violence on the outside, covered in fur, lycanthropes were “hairy on the inside,” like Ferdinand suggests. In a sense, even though lycanthropes do not physically transform, they constantly blur the line between man and beast and the status of being human, causing anxieties about the body, mind, and soul during the English Renaissance.
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Emily studies English Literature and Creative Writing as a junior at Ball State University.
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Image: Douglas, Adam. “The class image of the bloodthirsty werewolf.” The Beast Within. London: Chapmans Publishing Ltd., 1992. Print.
Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within. London: Chapmans Publishing Ltd., 1992. Print.
Hirsch, Brett D. “An Italian Werewolf in London: Lycanthropy and the Duchess of Malfi.” Early Modern Literature Studies 11.2 (2005): 2-43. Web. 25 February 2014.
Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. John Russel Brown. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964. Print.
Wiseman, S.J. “Hairy on the Inside: Metamorphosis and Civility in English Werewolf Texts.” Renaissance Beasts: of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures . Ed. Erica Fudge. City of Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004. 50-69. Print.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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