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The Severed Hand in Webster's Duchess of Malfi

This essay adduces a new source for John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi—Henry Boguet's extremely popular Discourse exécrable des sorciers. Boguet's chapter "Of the Metamorphosis of Men into Beasts" provides a strong link to the dead-man's hand episode in The Duchess and to Webster's representation of lycanthropic possession throughout the play. This finding places Webster's tragedy firmly within an intensely felt topical discourse on witchcraft and also reveals the logic behind Ferdinand's mad attempt to sever the marital bond between the Duchess and her husband by presenting her with a severed hand bearing a marriage ring.