Poetry Study: The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

FRom the pRL / originally written in english / C20TH / Europe / england

“Just as the body is shaped for movement, the mind is shaped for poetry.”

Jeanette Winterson writing about Carol Ann Duffy in the Guardian
The Lost Lectures: Carol Ann Duffy reads from The World’s Wife (and other collections) to an audience in 2014, and explains her inspirations and motivations.


Each of the thirty poems in this book takes as its theme a character from history, mythology, literature or popular culture and gives it a feminist treatment, usually by telling the untold story of the woman lost in the shade cast by a better-known male character.

Entitled The World’s Wife, and first published in 1999, the collection presents stories, myths, and fairy tales popular in western culture. But this time we hear them from the point of view of women; the unsung, silenced or marginalised women close to famous men. Traditionally these women may have had no names; some of the poems’ titles follow a pattern (‘Mrs Midas’, ‘Mrs Darwin’, ‘Pygmalion’s Wife’ and so on) which bitterly suggests that women have been so neglected by history and culture the only way they can be identified is by association with their husbands’ name.

Learner Profile: Risk-taker

Students approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have
the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.

One of the most powerful and disturbing poems in this collection is The Devil’s Wife, where Duffy adopts the voice of a convicted child murderer to explore notions such as the nature of evil, the limitations of the justice system and the phenomenon of ‘trial by media.’ One of her intentions was to re-humanize a person who was called ‘the most evil woman in Britain.’ This approach is not without certain dangers for a person of Carol Ann Duffy’s standing and reputation. While you study The Devil’s Wife, consider the risk she was taking when writing and publishing a poem like this.

Lang and Lit Concept: Identity

Much of literature through the ages and (despite some recent redressing of balance) even today is patriarchal, presenting the world from a male perspective. The phrase ‘dead white man’ has been applied to the canonical lists of literary texts prescribed by schools and universities. These poems were intended by Carol Ann Duffy to rectify this imbalance. The poems – and through them, the voices of heretofore-silenced women – are witty, smart, adventurous, playful, sharp and complex, revealing the plurality of identities that were, until now, lost in the shadow of the stories of great men.

Little Red Cap

Little Red Riding Hood; oil on canvas; Jessie Wilcox Smith; 1911

“Little Red Cap”, unusually for the first poem in a collection, does not entirely follow the pattern of giving the lead role to a female character who was sidelined in the original story: because Little Red-Riding Hood is the central character in the story by the Brothers Grimm. The story is, however, brought bang up to date by allowing Little Red Cap to be the mouthpiece for the poet herself – a woman – rather than a two dimensional figure from a fairy tale. The name of the character is a modernisation of the name used in the original story, but the name also connotes ‘Red Caps’ (the name given to the British Army’s Military Police). The allusion in the title immediately grabs your attention – the young lady in this story is, unlike her literary namesake, not someone with whom one should tangle.

Wifely Wisdom

The wolf in the poem refers to the poet Adrian Henri whom Duffy had met at a poetry reading when she was sixteen years old. Although he was 23 years her senior, they had an affair which lasted for ten years.

Do Your Research

As well as alluding to the British Military Police, red caps were a significant symbol of the French Revolution. Find out more about the history and meaning of this symbol, then discuss the connotations Duffy brings not only to this poem, but to the entire collection, through the title character: Little Red Cap.

Discussion Points

  1. In what ways is knowledge of the original ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ fairy tale helpful to your understanding of this poem?
  2. In what ways are aspects of relationships between older men and younger women explored in this poem? To what extent does the poem clarify or complicate your ideas about this issue?
  3. How far do you agree with the view that Little Red Cap is essentially about learning to accept what life throws at you?


Learner Portfolio: Rite of Passage

Although Little Red Cap is a speaker of the poet’s own invention, her story is autobiographical; Little Red Cap’s journey is an imitation of Carol Ann Duffy’s own rite of passage. For example, the wolf is a reflection of Adrian Henri, Duffy’s mentor with whom she had a ten-year affair. Write a learner portfolio entry that shows your understanding of this ‘rite of passage,’ and how the speaker’s voice develops through the poem. You might like to follow these stages:

  • Teenage girl who is still a virgin
  • Sexually curious
  • Artistically ambitious
  • Infatuated – with wolf or words?
  • Mature and in control

Queen Herod

Massacre of the Innocents; Peter Paul Rubens; 1611 – 1612

In the new testament, Herod was king at the time of the birth of Christ. Learning of the three wise men’s following a star that would lead them to a newborn king, Herod tries to question them to discover what they will find at the end of their journey. However, they distrust Herod and once they discover the meaning of Christ’s birth, go on to help Mary, Joseph and the baby flee. In a fury, Herod orders the execution of all newborn children in Bethlehem, intending to put an end to any threat to his own power.

In Duffy’s poem, the story is narrated from the point of view of Herod’s Queen, and the three visitors searching for the newborn baby are reimagined as three women. Through twisting the original story around, Duffy shows us the bonds of friendship and camaraderie that women must share in order to survive in a world ruled by men.

Wifely wisdom

The Three Kings, or Magi, brought Jesus three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrhh. These gifts’ primary significance is their high value which establishes their suitability for a king. Duffy has her Queens bring three very different gifts: grace, strength and happiness.

Do Your Research

Discussion Points

  1. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Explain your thoughts: Despite the religious backdrop of the poem, Queen Herod has very little to do with religion.
  2. How confident do you think the voice of Queen Herod sounds throughout this poem?


Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from The World’s Wife; as this is a collection of poems the literary form is ‘poetry’. We didn’t focus on either of these poems when we studied Duffy’s collection, so you can approach them as unseen texts. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.


Thetis giving Achilles his arms and armour; Giulio Romano; 1499 – 1546

In classical mythology, Thetis is a Nereid (one of fifty daughters of Nereus), a sea-goddess who lives in the ocean and possesses the powers of prophecy and the ability to change shape at will.

Because of a prophecy that she would bear a son greater than her father, she was ordered by Zeus to marry a mortal man, so averting this future. Peleus, the chosen groom, was instructed to ambush her on the beach, and trap her, preventing her from metamorphosing. Once this had been achieved, they were married in a ceremony attended by all the gods of heaven. Thetis bore a son, the celebrated hero Akhilleus (Achilles).

In Duffy’s version of the story, Thetis defies the wishes of the gods and tries to escape, metamorphosing into a variety of fantastical shapes and guises. But at each turn she is thwarted and eventually succumbs to her fate. Duffy’s version allows us to contemplate how hard it can be for a woman to express her true identity in a male-dominated world.

Do Your Research

Find out who Thetis is; once you know, ask why did Duffy choose her story to retell in her The World’s Wife?

Discussion Points

  1. What does the poem suggest about the experiences of a woman living in a world dominated by men?
  2. How would you describe ‘masculinity’ as presented in this poem?
  3. Thetis is a being who is able to ‘shape-shift’ or change her appearance. To what extent does the poem explore the idea that, in actual fact, she alters not just her appearance but her very identity?
Wifely Wisdom

Thetis’s name is connected with the ancient Greek words ‘thesis’ – “creation” – and têthê – “nurse”.

Learner Portfolio: Living in a Man’s World

“Duffy’s version of Thetis helps us to contemplate how difficult it can be for a woman to express her true identity in a male-dominated world.”

What are some of the ways she encourages us to think about this idea in Thetis and other poems? Write a one-two page portfolio entry where you discuss this theme.


Salome; oil on canvas, Titian, 1555

In the New Testament, Salome is the step-daughter of King Herod, and is known for her role in the death of John the Baptist. In a famous incident, Salome performs the ‘dance of the seven veils’ for Herod – in return he grants her one wish, anything she might desire. Because of John the Baptist’s opposition to her mother’s divorce and remarriage, Salome was convinced to ask for John’s head on a platter. Her wish was summarily granted!

Duffy transposes this story to a modern setting, where Salome is a party girl who enjoys drinking and nights on the town. John is the unfortunate victim of a night out with the girls – that went too far.

Discussion Points

  1. What are ladettes? How, and why, does Duffy tackle this subject in her poem?
  2. Tone can reveal the attitude of the speaker towards her subject matter. How would you describe the poem’s tone? Give reasons for your impressions. Does the tone change or is it consistent?


  • Salome: Worksheet and Activities
Wifely Wisdom

Two references in the New Testament of the Bible, in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, give us the story of Salome. Briefly, she danced for King Herod who was so delighted that he said he would give Salome whatever she asked for. Salome, prompted by her mother Herodias, asked for the head of John the Baptist, who had said that Herodias’ marriage to Herod was unlawful. Herod had no choice: John’s head was brought to Salome ‘in a dish’, and she presented it to her mother.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to The World’s Wife, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied.

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. Referring to works you have studied, consider the ways in which writers employ humour and to what effect.
  2. Contrast is often necessary to hold the attention of readers. How and with what effects do writers you have studied use contrast?
  3. Explore how women are represented as stronger than men in literary works you have studied.
  4. Judging by literary works you have studied, what would you say are the main causes of unhappiness?

Mrs Midas

King Midas; print; Walter Crane; 1851

King Midas is granted one wish by the God Dionysus. Greedily, he wishes that everything he touches from now on will turn to gold. At first, Midas is delighted by his new abilities – but he soon realises that his powers come with some pretty serious drawbacks. He is unable to live anything like a normal life, as all his food, drink and loved ones turn into gold as soon as he comes into contact with them. In desperation he returns to Dionysus and pleads with him to lift the ‘curse’. Dionysus tells Midas to bathe in the river and everything will return to normal.

Writing as Mrs Midas, Duffy describes the life of a woman thrown into turmoil when Midas comes on the scene.

Do Your Research

Discussion Points

  1. Who do you think came off worse in this poem – Midas or his wife? Explain your choice.
  2. In some versions of the myth, the curse is lifted. Why do you think Duffy chose to finish her poem without this happening?


Learner Portfolio: Thematic Investigation

Choose one of the following themes. Write a Learner Portfolio entry about how this theme is manifest in Mrs Midas and one other poem in the collection:

  • The silencing or marginalisation of women;
  • Loneliness;
  • Consequences of greed.

Queen Kong

Poster for the seminal 1933 movie King Kong, starring Fay Wray.

This poem is based on the 1933 film, King Kong. In this film, a film-maker travels to a remote and previously unexplored island in search of its mysteries. A female actress played by 1930s starlet Fay Wray is part of his entourage – the film-maker’s secret plan is to sacrifice her to a huge beast, the giant gorilla King Kong, who rules over the island. Remarkably, Kong does not kill her; instead he takes her to his clifftop nest where the two form a bond. However, the girl is rescued and the gorilla captured. The film-maker returns to New York where he unveils King Kong in a grotesque circus exhibition. One of the most iconic scenes in cinema history is when the gorilla escapes and, along with the girl, climbs the Empire State Building, fighting off biplane attacks. In the end, Kong falls to his death.

In Duffy’s re-imagining the basic set-up is the same, but the roles are switched. Kong is now the female who falls in love with the film-maker. Although her poem is humorous – even ridiculous – Duffy makes serious points about the way women are objectified by men in pursuit of their own pleasures and satisfactions.

Do Your Research

You might like to watch the original (and best) movie of King Kong when you read this poem.

Discussion Points

  1. To what extent is it necessary to have knowledge of King Kong in order to appreciate the poem Queen Kong?
  2. Is the poem written in chronological or non-chronological order? What is the effect of the structure of the poem?
  3. Queen Kong is a modern ‘beauty and the beast’ story. What points do you think Duffy is making through the humorous retelling of this story?


Learner Portfolio: Dramatic Monologue

Think of a female character from a novel, play, story, television show or movie that is male-driven. Write a monologue from the point of view of the female character. Use your monologue to give the reader insights into the thoughts, feelings and concerns of the woman in the story.

The Devil’s Wife

This portrait photograph of Myra Hindley, taken during her trial in 1966, achieved notoriety when she was dubbed ‘the most evil woman in Britain.’

Arguably the most challenging poem in the collection, The Devil’s Wife is a confessional poem written in the form of a dramatic monologue using the voice of Myra Hindley – a convicted serial killer and child murderer. Together with her lover, Ian Brady, between 1963 and 1965 the two sexually abused and killed five children and teenagers. Duffy’s poem is concerned with the long and difficult aftermath of Hindley’s arrest, trial and conviction. The poem explores the nature of evil, and dares to ask a difficult question: do any of us have the right to completely condemn a person for committing evil acts when we don’t know the extent of that person’s own situation?

Wifely Wisdom

At her trial, Judge Fenton Atkinson said more of the blame lay with Mr. Brady than with Ms. Hindley: “Though I believe that Brady is wicked beyond belief, without hope of redemption, I cannot feel the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence,” he said.

Do Your Research

  • Research the story of The Moors Murderers and the lingering aftermath of the crimes committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Think about why, and how, murder cases such as this might stay in the public consciousness for so long.
  • Duffy’s poem raises the issue of misogyny in the public eye. Would Myra Hindley have been as despised if she were not a woman? How does the treatment of Hindley (by the media, the general public and the family of the victims) in the aftermath of her conviction compare to that of Ian Brady? Although this might be a difficult subject, you can watch a case study of Myra Hindley here.

Discussion Points

  1. What is the significance of Duffy choosing to write using the voice of Myra Hindley. Why does she make this decision? What are the risks for the poet in choosing to write from Hindley’s point of view?
  2. Once you have read the poem, consider your personal response. Is it a sympathetic portrayal? How were you left feeling by Duffy’s portrayal of Myra Hindley? Did she succeed in making you feel sorry for her at any point?
  3. Duffy has written the poem in five stanzas, and given each stanza a provocative heading. What do you think is the significance of each one?

Learner Portfolio: Humanising Evil

What are the effects of using Myra Hindley’s voice as the narrator of this poem? Write a portfolio entry answering this question. You might like to include some of the following ideas and concepts in your piece:

  • Re-humanizing Myra Hindley;
  • Critiquing the notion of ‘trial by media’;
  • Questioning the public reaction to such events;
  • Exploring Hindley’s own realisations about the awful things she did;
  • Exploring the effects of incarceration;
  • Making this issue ambiguous again.

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 Marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Now you have read The World’s Wife, you might like to turn your attention to the Higher Level essay that all higher level students must write. If you would like to write about this collection, an interesting line of inquiry would be an examination of the voices of the women. Many of the women in the collection are bystanders, forced to watch husbands and lovers make idiots of themselves. In some poems, the women are forced to act in ways that seem unpleasant in order to get out of the mess that men have made, and still other women make compromises or end up disappointed… or worse. Throughout, we hear the voices of women while they express scorn and disgust for their husbands.

In writing an essay like this, you should consistently reference two or three particular poems in the collection that you think best support your ideas. As suggestions, interesting questions might therefore be:

  • How far do the voices of women in The World’s Wife express contempt for the behaviour of men?
  • To what extent is The World’s Wife preoccupied with the idea that men are to blame for the insecurities of women?
  • With what methods, and creating what effects, does Carol Ann Duffy depict men in The World’s Wife?
  • Examine the use of rhythm, rhyme and/or repetition in The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy.
  • What effects are created by different kinds of juxtaposition in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife?
  • How does Carol Ann Duffy craft and shape the voices of women in her collection The World’s Wife?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course) students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

The World’s Wife would make an excellent text to discuss in this oral assessment. The poems are witty, moving, funny and assured. The themes they explore may seem straightforward, but the variety of poetic effects Duffy employs elevates her ideas beyond mere polemic, and will give you lots to analyse throughout the talk. Now you have finished reading and studying the poems, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the novel, come up with ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

Each poem in Duffy’s collection takes a story and gives it a feminist twist by giving women a meaningful part in the worlds that they inhabit, be they fictional or historical. Her poems ask the reader to question many of their assumptions about the traditional roles different people might take in society and create alternative representations in what has often been a straight white male preserve.

Duffy’s collection takes female characters from history, mythology, literature or popular culture who’s voice was ignored or marginalised because of her gender, because of her association with a ‘great’ man, or because historically these kinds of texts have been written by – and for – men. Duffy’s collection is an act of reclaiming an imaginative space for those silenced voices.


4 replies »

  1. Wow. You have done a ton of work here that leads students to deeply consider the implications of the work and allows them to make the connections necessary for the IB assessments. I plan to begin teaching this text this year to my IBers. I’d love to steal some of your stuff and build on it. Is that okay?


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