The Concepts of Free Will, Fate and Destiny in The Duchess of Malfi and Hamlet

Robert Cahill shares that ‘the core of any dramatist’s tragic philosophy will be his concept of fate and free will.’ Greek philosopher Gregory defines fate as the ‘necessity that rules the universe,’ in which ‘free will and the faculty of choice is totally determined by fate.’ Whilst the goal is to meet our fate, there is a bigger picture to win our destiny, which according to the Stoic philosophy is the ‘astral sway over human life.’ Having said this, the first play examined will be William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, (1599-1601) in which young Hamlet’s destiny allows him a spiritual encounter with his father’s ghost, causing him to misuse his free will to plot various murders in the play, leading to his fate of death. Secondly, a discussion will take place on John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, (1613-1614) in which the widowed Duchess exerts her free will to remarry Antonio despite her brothers being against this. However, she is caught and murdered by the executioners sent by her brothers who give her a painful destiny and are responsible for the end of her fate. Thus, this essay sets to show that it is clear that the actions of the protagonists in the two texts are often influenced by other characters and free will is in fact not an individual responsibility but a collective one. 

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In Hamlet, free will is dependent on the choices that the characters make, which the destiny offers to them. For example, it can be seen that the first meeting Hamlet has with Horatio sparks the existence of the ghost. Horatio reveals that sentinels Marcellus and Barnardo witnessed a ‘figure like your father,’. Here, Shakespeare utilises the simile word ‘like’ to build suspense in the scene and showing the gullible Hamlet being tricked. Without delay, Hamlet becomes curious to follow the ghostly figure, whilst Horatio foreshadows a prophetic statement and warns that this will ‘draw you into madness?’. Thus, this is the beginning of Hamlet displaying signs of madness as the result of the of the ghost bewitching him. According to Lauren Malm, the ghost is not just there as a tool but rather represents the conflicts of the religion at the time period the play was written, arguably ‘protestant church of England led to the rejection of the Catholic theological concept of purgatory, Hamlet’s interaction with his father’s ghost trapped in purgatory, shows a fundamentally Protestant figure grappling with the traditional Catholic theory.’ The dilemma of this results in Hamlet’s insanity and according to Richard Mallette ‘his pose as a madman is self-consciously voluntary.’ This explains that he chooses to act mad and although he might not have been able to control his destiny of encountering the ghost, but he certainly held the power over the choice making in having to obey the ghost and to act mad. Also, he is fully aware of his surroundings when he decides not to kill Claudius at the time of worship in Act III because he fears that he might go heaven. Therefore, it is clear that his free will was collective as it was influenced by those people surrounding him, yet the way he reacted to things and made decisions to revenge was his own choice.

On the same token, like Hamlet, in Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess is also responsible for her decisions as she decides to go against her brother’s will and remarry Antonio. Rather than the Duchess, it is Antonio who fears the reaction of her brothers, but the Duchess convinces him ‘do not think of them’ which relates back to the idea that the Duchess is responsible for the choices she makes. Had she not gone against her brothers wishes, her destiny would perhaps be different. The consequences her brothers face after meddling with their sister’s destiny is evident in the play as they also do not survive. Cahill further explains that ‘the early effect of the Renaissance in England was to reaffirm the conviction that the universe was one of the law and order, not brute force, and that man was its central figure, free in the exercise of reason and free will.’ Thus, it can be understood why Duchess’s brothers interfered to control her destiny. Although the Duchess is strangled, she does not die straight away. The scenes continue until the Duchess is satisfied that Antonio is alive, this is when she says ‘mercy’, to show a sign of relief. This shows that she was destined to live a few breaths before dying peacefully to meet death at the time assigned in her fate. 

As the essay argues free will is not individual responsibility but a collective one, this can also be seen in case of how Webster and Shakespeare portray female deaths to be influenced by the men in their lives. Whilst Ophelia rejects Hamlet because her father Polonius tells her that he is not a good match. An obedient and weak Ophelia is seen through her speech ‘but as you did command, I did repel his letters and denied his access to me,’. After rejecting Hamlet and the death of her father, Ophelia no longer sees a purpose to life thus drowns, which makes her appear feeble. Likewise, Queen Gertrude is controlled by Hamlet as she says, ‘be thou assured, if words be made of breath and breath of life, I have no life to breathe, what thou hasn’t said to me,’. Having controlled by her son and her husband all her life, the queen comes through as a sympathetic character. However, when she dies, the King says ‘It is the poisoned cup! It is too late’ and Hamlet says ‘I dare not drink yet, Madam. By and by,’ but this time, the Duchess’s free will no longer exists to become the puppet and thus accepts that her fate of death. 

To Webster and Shakespeare show that fate is inevitable, they set an example on how goodness is above all no matter what and the fact fortune is just by luck than something predestined. The repetitive elements of fortune and virtues are something that appear in both plays, young Hamlet and the Duchess die as believers of virtues, whilst fighting against their fortunes. Hamlet refers to ‘break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,’ to indicate the ignorance of such practices, where the Greek goddess Fortuna was worshipped to determine one’s fate. Nevertheless, the concept of fortune in both plays ‘evoke emblematic images which doubtless would have resonated in the minds of many in the seventeenth-century audience for which he wrote the play’ In the case of the Duchess, Leslie Thomson explains that she ‘deliberately chooses her fortune, when ironically she chooses Antonio, the embodiment of virtue which cannot survive in a corrupt world.’ The Duchess portrayed as a victim of fortune, she quotes ‘And fortune seems only to have eyesight to behold my tragedy,’ which suggests a strong belief in the idea and supports the idea that ‘many of the characters seem to imply that the only way to live is to expect fortune to reclaim all she has given.’ More specifically, both protagonists hold different definitions of fortune as for Hamlet, it lies in the society concepts but for the Duchess, it means her husband and marriage. Yet, both strongly believe that virtues, meaning their good deeds will essentially save them from the punishments of death. 

Although the punishments of death are either suffering in hell for sinners or a delight of heaven for the believers, usually repentance helps to overcome those punishments. The Duchess of Malfi character’s show a deeper sign of repentance, rather than Shakespeare’s. For instance, Hamlet’s mother dies by drinking the poisoned drink and Hamlet’s response is ‘wretched queen adieu’, showing no signs of guilt for his own mother. Whereas when Bosola kills the Duchess, he shows a meaningful guilt as he admits ‘this is manly sorrow, these tears, I am very certain never grew in my mother’s milk’. To this, Travis Bogard in Cahill’s work explains that ‘while Shakespeare remains clear with the framework of medieval Christianity and theology-guilt and punishment, Webster offers tragedy based upon an interweaving of guilts, greater and lesser.’ Moreover, Duchess’s twin brother also repents for his deeds as his final words are ‘whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,/ Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust,’. Here he admits that he either fell for his ambitions, perhaps which was to not allow the Duchess to remarry as it would put the family reputation at stake which is more important to him than his sister or the blood he shed of the Duchess’s family holds him culprit and the bitter resentment towards his sister he made to accuse her relation as lust. These crimes he committed become the staple of his bad deeds and it is what he carries to death as he has earned them in life. Perhaps he now realises the value of his sister and that she was a diamond and he cut her, overlooking that she was his sister and made from the same dust as him. To this, Cahill explains that the Duchess and Antonio’s ‘love is not lust, but it is ill timed and ill begotten.’ To justify, although Ferdinand feels bad for his accusation of calling her sister to be in lust, this is not the cause of her death, but it was written in her fate to die as the Duchess would be held accountable for her own deeds, not her brothers.


  1. Mallette, Richard. ‘From Gyves to Graces: ‘Hamlet’ and Free Will.’ The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 93.3 (1994): 336-55. [Accessed June 24, 2020].
  2. Cahill, Edward Robert, ‘Fate and Free Will in the White Devil and the Duchess of Malfi, 1-66,’ (Master’s thesis, Loyola University Chicago, 1957) in[Accessed: 25/06/2020]
  3. Fate, Providence and Moral Responsibility in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought : Studies in Honour of Carlos Steel.ed. by G, Riel Van Gerd, Pieter d’Hoine, (Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2014) EBSCOhost ebook.
  4. Thomson, Leslie, ‘Fortune and Virtue in ‘The Duchess of Malfi,’ Comparative Drama, 33.4 (1999), 474-494 [Accessed: 26/06/2020]
  5. Malm, Lynnae Lauren, ,‘Hamlet, Conscience and Free will, 1-37,’ ( A Bachelor’s degree thesis, University of Arizona, 2017) in [Accessed: 27/06/2020]
07 April 2022

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