Cariola in Context: An Exploration of the Female Servant in The Duchess of Malfi
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This paper brings critical attention the figure of Cariola from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. She has been neglected in scholarship, but her involvement in the play offers commentary on the cultural politics of Webster’s time. The play questions the social hierarchy of early modern England as the Duchess marries below her class, but Cariola extends this conversation of what service should entail as she serves the Duchess out of reciprocated affection. Her affiliation with the Duchess can also be interpreted as an example of female alliance that challenges patriarchal and tyrannical male authorities. Beyond this relationship with her mistress, Cariola contrasts the hypocritical Cardinal and functions as a positive Catholic figure, engaging with the anti-Catholic religious politics of Webster’s time to invite religious tolerance. She is important not only for how she illuminates other characters in the play, but also for how she challenges prevailing early modern notions of service and religion.