The Duchess of Malfi

Write a note on the theme of appearance and reality in The Duchess of Malfi.

Write a note on the theme of appearance and reality in The Duchess of Malfi.

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Disguise—masking reality, hiding one’s true intentions, presenting a false front—is a major theme in The Duchess of Malfi. The most obvious symbol of this is Bosola. The distinction between what he says and how he acts is so vast that even the audience, who is given access to his private thoughts through soliloquies and asides, has trouble understanding his motivations.

He is a spy, and is thus constantly disguising his motives and his true feelings. Further, in the fourth act, he literally disguises himself as an old man. However, he also repeatedly shows disgust for the act of disguising. He is reluctant to take on the role of spy, and notes that “the devil/Candies all sin o’er” (1.1.266-7), thus associating the act of disguising with evil, and he scorns how men “delight/To hide” (2.1.53-4) their “rotten and dead body” (2.1.53) “eaten up of lice and worms” (2.1.51) “in rich tissue” (2.1.54). Thus, he is both the character who most thoroughly employs disguise, and the one most aware of its sinful, unattractive nature.

Disguise is so prevalent in the play that even the Duchess, the paragon of light, must employ it. In her first appearance on stage, she tells her brothers, “I’ll never marry” (1.1.293), and then before the scene is even over, she has proposed to and married Antonio. Clearly, she had disguised her true intentions from them. She then manages to have three children with Antonio without ever revealing their marriage, and even when the discovery of the marriage becomes imminent, she quickly devises an excuse to send Antonio out of harm’s way.

Yet this dishonesty is not meant to reflect poorly on the Duchess. Instead, it shows just how profoundly corrupt her brothers have made the world, in that the Duchess must disguise a good and pure love simply to survive. Her use of disguise reveals her energy and resourcefulness in her fight for what is good on this Earth.