As Ferdinand and the Cardinal are introduced, their personal qualities aren’t so apparent at first, as the audience can only judge them from what they can see. Another theme introduced with these characters (which is soon emphasised) is the idea of the social status of women, as the Duchess’ brothers decide that they forbid her to marry again, as if it is their decision to make because she is a woman. They even send Bosola to spy on her, which is another obvious indication of the corrupt nature of the Malfi court. This theme of sexism is further explored through the relationship between Antonio and the Duchess. Antonio clearly has strong feelings for the Duchess, which he describes in detail.
“But for their sister, the right noble Duchess… … Let all sweet ladies break their flatt’ring glasses, And dress themselves in her.” Inequalities of power associated with gender and social status are highlighted in the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio, and the reactions of others towards their relationship. In their meeting, the Duchess is very forward, and this is consistent in her nature. She is presented as a powerful woman with a dominant will, and has no qualms about defying her brothers’ wishes. The social/gender inequality is inversed as the Duchess seems much more in control of the situation than Antonio, and it was unusual in those times for a female to be dominant and confident, especially over a man.
“I cannot stand upright in ‘t, nor discourse, Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself, Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.” In this instance, the Duchess is helping Antonio, and effectively raising his status to her level, so that he feels comfortable with their pending marriage, even though others don’t approve due to his low social status. The fact that Webster explores the idea of gender inequality in such a manner was unusual for his time, and almost ironic considering this was a time when only men were allowed to act on stage.
This introductory act, although quite short, is still essential in terms of the entire structure of the play, and how the themes are presented. As well as all the themes of deceit, spying, social inequality, and gender inequality, being presented to the audience, the way in which some of the characters’ personalities are dictated to the audience also implies that there is more to each character than these first impressions. This is likely the most fundamental element of the play, and thus gives the audience to figure out what really lies behind each character as the play unfolds.