There are several theories about the symbolic importance and historical precedent for the wax effigies in The Duchess of Malfi. But first and foremost, they are designed to terrorise the Duchess, to convince her as realistically as possible that her family is dead. This moment is meant to be one of horror and the use of light and stage prop is crucial to this illusion in a small, indoor theatre where audience are in very close proximity to the action, the actors and to each other.
Practically, the effigies could be performed by real bodies; wooden mannequins or wax replicas of the actors playing those characters to which the effigies refer. It is likely that the King’s Men may well have deployed wax figures and a wax hand to stage the horrors of Act IV. [There are other plays in the repertory that may have also required a ‘dummy’- which could also have been fashioned from wax- The Lady’s Tragedy, 1611; The Duke of Milan 1626, for example].
Catholic Imagery in Webster’s Play
It comes as no surprise that Malfi has an abundance of Catholic references and images, not just because of its Italian setting, but largely too because there were conversations during James’s reign about a possible Catholic marriage and religious tensions were still high. These discussions caused some anxiety, culturally, and sparked a flurry of anti-Catholic writing in this period. The attention to objects, smells, images, and ceremony in the play has intertextual links (whether accidental or not) with some of this writing.
It is notable, that the medieval Catholic and (classical) tradition of votive offerings to shrines often involved offerings of wax hands and feet, and occasionally entire wax effigies. This practice ceased after the Reformation, but wax effigies of monarchs in the Tudor and Stuart reigns was still very popular – a tradition that dated back to the 1300s. And of course, on the continent, there were wax sculptures and effigies made of pontiffs, cardinals, and noble families. A group of them together- a ‘votive group’- could occasionally be seen. One in particular may have relevance here – though distant relevance. In the Chiesa di Sant’Anna ai Lombardi in Naples, sculptor Guido Mazzoni’s votive group – Lamentation of Christ (1492), shows the characters Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, Madonna, Mary Salome, St John the Apostle, Mary of Cleophas and Nicodemus. The figure Joseph of Arimmathea was likely modelled on Alfonso of Aragon and Nicodemus on Ferrante I or Federigo of Aragon (the Duchess’s two brothers). I am not suggesting that Webster had seen this votive group, but merely remarking on the practice and the fascinating resonances between this and Webster’s play.
Renaissance art theory was underpinned by a central idea: ‘the highest achievement of art was the perfect imitation of—and improvement upon—nature’. Wax sculpture was given much credit in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for its ability to create verisimilitude. It had a performative quality that enabled not just the portrayal of images of the living, but the reproduction of it – it ‘doubles it’.
The texture of wax was viewed in this period as remarkable because of its likeness to human skin. Wax sculptures in the dark, candlelit cathedrals, altars and shrines of the Renaissance created a spectacle that is very similar to the theatrical effects we might conceive for Webster’s play.
Vasari described at length how one of these effigies might have been made – he is referring specifically in this passage to Orsino Benintendi’s work:
Making the skeleton within of wood… interwoven with splint reeds, which were then covered with waxed cloths folded and arranged so beautifully that nothing better or true to nature could be seen. Then he made the heads, hands and feet with wax of greater thickness, but hollow within, portrayed from life, and painted in oils with all the ornaments of hair and everything else that was necessary, so lifelike and well wrought that they seem no more images of wax, but actual living men.
What is emphasized, of course, is the effect of the craftsmanship – it is ‘lifelike’ and well ‘wrought’.
The wooden body of the Prince Henry’s wax effigy (kept at Westminster Abbey) can be viewed on this page.
The Wax Chandlers of London, established in the 14th century, were responsible for supplying the tapers, candles, torches and figures needed for the elaborate medieval religious ceremonies; but they also provided wax tablets and seals. In 1538, according to the Wax Chandler’s historical chronology, ‘Henry VIII ordered Thomas Cromwell to issue an injunction ordering that sermons were to be preached quarterly against the devotional use of candles and “no candles, tapers or images of wax be set before any image or picture, but only the light that commonly goeth across the church by the rood loft”’. The implications of this are that in churches it was customary to use lighting to emphasise the religious imagery and to highlight various aspects of sculpture and/or reliquary. The relationship between the figures and the lighting in Webster’s play cannot be underestimated.
Margaret E. Owens has attributed our own scepticism towards waxworks to a shift that occurs in 18th and 19th century attitudes towards wax as a medium to replicate the human form. ‘By the late nineteenth century’, she argues, ‘the mention of wax figures so powerfully conjures up the spectre of Madame Tussaud for literary critics that her presence looms over and eclipses Webster’s “curious master in that quality, / Vincentio Lauriola”’. Owens also traces the tradition of funerary effigies back to the 14th century, but King James I, was ‘the last reigning monarch to be represented by a funeral effigy’.
The wax figures in The Duchess of Malfi will always be a subject that theatre historians and scholars will ponder over. But given the value attributed to the quality of wax in this period, and Webster’s own fascination with effigies and the play’s Catholic resonances, it is not unlikely that, in the original performances of the play by the King’s Men, the figures presumed to be the bodies of the Duchess’s family were indeed fashioned out of wax.
by Dr Farah Karim-Cooper and Globe Research Team
 Roberta Panzanelli, ‘Compelling Presence: Wax Effigies in Renaissance Florence’, Ephemeral Bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008), p. 30.
 Ibid., p. 31.
 Cited in Panzanelli, p. 13.
 http://www.waxchandlers.org.uk/origins/chronology-of-the-companys-history.php (accessed 14.10.13)
 Margaret E. Owens, ‘John Webster, Tussaud Laureate: The Waxworks in The Duchess of Malfi’, ELH, 79.4 (Winter 2012), pp. 851-877, p. 852.
 Ibid., p. 855.