UBC Theses and Dissertations

UBC Theses Logo

UBC Theses and Dissertations

The "pretty art" of detecting pregnancy in The Duchess of Malfi Duncan, Claire McEwen


Why is the pregnant body constructed as a secret to cover up and to uncover in the early modern period, and why, in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, do apricots uncover this secret? This thesis addresses the odd moment from Webster’s play when the Duchess’s brothers uncover her secret pregnancy by feeding her grafted apricots, causing her premature labour. By examining early modern obstetrical texts, this thesis argues that early modern patriarchal culture appropriated the secrets of the female body in order to control women. In keeping her pregnancy a secret, the Duchess unwittingly produces her brothers’ desire to penetrate that secret. In order to do so, her brothers – particularly Ferdinand – feed her apricots, metaphorically transforming her body into a fruit tree. Early modern botanical texts show that the Duchess’s botanical body legitimates her brothers’ desire to control her. While apricots were not used as a pregnancy test according to early modern obstetrical texts, they could cause premature labour. This thesis sheds new light on the question of incest in Webster’s play, arguing the centrality of a phallic pun that appears in early versions of the play – “apricot” was “apricock.” This pun highlights the penetrative characteristics of the fruit, adding to the evidence of Ferdinand’s incestuous desire: his grafted apricocks penetrate the Duchess’s body and produce (figuratively, at least) her apricock child. Early in the play, Ferdinand is described as a plum tree, and this thesis finds – in the early modern gardening manuals – that apricot trees were most often grafted to plum trees in order to produce fruit. The fruit of the Duchess’s womb, revealed by her brother’s grafted apricocks, is figuratively the fruit of the apricot tree – the Duchess – and the plum tree – her brother Ferdinand.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International