Act Four, Scene One
Act Four begins back in Malfi, at the Duchess's palace.
Bosola tells Ferdinand that the Duchess is bearing her imprisonment nobly. Ferdinand is dissatisfied and leaves, and the Duchess enters. Bosola tells her that Ferdinand has come to visit her, but does not want to go against the vow he made to never see her again, so entreats her not to have any light in her room tonight so he can address her. She agrees, and Bosola walks away with the lights.
Ferdinand enters in the dark, and tells the Duchess that she has his pardon. He gives her a dead man's severed hand wearing her wedding ring on one of its fingers, hoping that because it is dark, she will believe it to be Antonio's. However, she assumes it is Ferdinand’s and wonders why he is so cold. Ferdinand exits and Bosola brings up the light, and she sees what she holds. Bosola then pulls back a curtain, revealing the corpses of Antonio and their children. He says that Ferdinand wants her to see them so that she will stop grieving for them.
The Duchess believes him, and asks to be bound to Antonio’s lifeless body and left to die there. Bosola tells her to forget her sorrow--now that everything is at its worst, it can only get better--but she ignores him. She continues to mourn and finally asks Bosola to tell her brothers to come and kill her, and not prolong her torture.
She exits and Ferdinand enters, telling Bosola that the bodies are only wax figures and they have accomplished his goal--”to bring her to despair” (4.1.116). Bosola entreats him to stop torturing her and to simply send her to a convent, but Ferdinand wants her to go completely mad. He further insists he will have madmen placed near her chamber so that the sounds of their torture will rankle her. Bosola says in that case, he would prefer to never see her again, but Ferdinand says he must, so Bosola insists he will not do so as Ferdinand’s spy. Ferdinand sends him to Milan, where Antonio waits.
Act Four, Scene Two
Cariola explains to the Duchess that the noises they hear are coming from the madmen that Ferdinand has placed all around her prison. The Duchess tells her that it is actually comforting—silence is worse—and that though she is in despair, she remains sane.
A servant enters to explain that Ferdinand has sent her several madmen to try to cure her sadness by making her laugh at them, a trick that previously worked on the Pope. The servant tells her about each one, and then brings them in. They sing, dance, and act crazy. The madmen include: the Mad Astronomer, who lost his mind when his prediction of the apocalypse proved incorrect; the Mad Doctor, who lost his mind due to jealousy; the Mad Priest; and the Mad Lawyer. Bosola, disguised like an old man, enters last, after which the madmen leave.
Bosola, whom she does not recognize, tells the Duchess that he has come to design her tomb. She protests that she isn’t ill, and that she is still Duchess of Malfi, and he tells her that such glories mean nothing up close. The executioners enter with a coffin, cords, and a bell, and Bosola tells her this is her present from her brothers.
Cariola wants to call for help, but the only ones that might hear her are the nearby madmen. Bosola order the executioners to shut her up, and Cariola says she wants to die with the Duchess. She is taken off stage. Bosola tells the Duchess she will die by strangulation, and is surprised that she is not afraid, but rather ancticipates meeting her family (who she does not know are still alive) in the afterlife.
The executioners strangle her, and Bosola tells them to next kill Cariola and the children. Cariola demands to know what crime she has committed to deserve death, and Bosola tells her she is being punished for keeping the Duchess’s marriage a secret. She protests as they try to kill her, saying she is engaged, she hasn’t been to confession, and she is pregnant, but they kill her anyway.
Ferdinand enters, and Bosola shows him the dead bodies. Ferdinand is unmoved by the corpses of the children, but cries at the sight of the Duchess, and berates Bosola for following his orders and not taking her away to safety or defending her from Ferdinand. Ferdinand admits he was hoping she wouldn’t remarry so that he could inherit her fortune, which is why her marriage so incensed him.
Bosola, seeing Ferdinand is quickly turning against him, asks for his reward. Ferdinand refuses to give him anything beyond pardoning him for the murder. Bosola insists he be paid, but Ferdinand tells him to banish himself from Ferdinand’s sight forever. Ferdinand, showing signs of his coming madness, says he is leaving to hunt badger, and exits.
Bosola is greatly distressed, seeing that he has done all this evil for no reward. He notices the Duchess is still alive, but fears calling for help since Ferdinand might still be within range. She says, “Antonio,” (4.2.42), and Bosola quickly tells her that he is alive and has been pardoned, not dead as she believed, and then she dies. He confesses in a soliloquy that he feels repentant, and wonders how he can make amends or gain revenge.
In Act Four, the final showdown between the Duchess and Ferdinand occurs, acted largely through Bosola. In the most basic sense, Ferdinand is the victor--the Duchess is killed and so truly becomes a monument, a name only, with no domestic or life-bearing side remaining. The purity he demands of her will not again be compromised. The symbolic reality is more complicated, however, for Ferdinand fails to destroy her spirit, “to bring her to despair” (4.1.116), and his attempts to do so only further highlight how far her spirit rises above him. She does not die despairing, but bravely and honorably, and the only one truly brought to despair in this scene is he himself.
Though, at the beginning of the act, the Duchess has been separated from her loving husband and oldest child, stripped of her wealth and power, and imprisoned, she bears it “nobly” (4.1.2). When Ferdinand cruelly tries to fool her into thinking she holds Antonio’s dead hand, the trick fails and she at first thinks it is Ferdinand’s own hand, and even after all his awful treatment of her, she shows worry for him, saying, “I fear you are not well after your travel” (4.1.52). Rather than be moved by this, Ferdinand takes the trick further, showing her the faked corpses of her family. That the Duchess stands for good and Ferdinand for evil is nowhere more clear than this.
At this moment, when the Duchess believes her family to be dead, she is now deprived of the last external thing she had to derive strength from—her hope. Her title, her standing, her freedom were gone, and now she truly has nothing left. But still, she shows profound strength in her death scene, which allows her to defeat the cruel machinations of her brothers, even in her death, for she never gives in to despair, never regrets her choice to marry Antonio and create a family, never is brought down to her brothers’ level in any way.
The madmen surrounding her room only make her calmer, and those brought into her room only stand as an example of what she could have been brought to, and how very far she still is from that. When she learns that it is her time to die, she shows no fear, no anger, no remorse. The true courage this takes is made clear to the audience through the contrast of Cariola. Where Cariola at first showed bravely in insisting she wishes to die alongside her mistress, she acts quite differently in the moment, in which she begs, lies, delays, and fights physically to try to fend it off.
The grotesqueness of the theatricality surrounding the Duchess’s death also highlights her majestic nature. She is at peace while madmen dance and sing around her, while fake corpses surround her, while Bosola changes personas again and again, and while Cariola fights desperately for her life. Further, there is a great theatricality in the use of the madmen, whose several speeches creates a creepy theatrical atmosphere. Her ability to ignore them is another sign of her strength. The horrors surrounding her also serve to show that her dying is not synonymous with her being defeated by her brothers, for she is escaping this hell on earth that they have created, and into which they will fall prey to themselves during the final act.
Act Four also serves as a turning point for Bosola. In keeping with the pattern of contradiction in his character, his showings of remorse are seemingly genuine, but far from pure. Within the course of one scene, he orders the Duchess’s murder, then her children’s and Cariola’s, without any hesitation or remorse. His regrets come only after Ferdinand has made it clear that Bosola will not be rewarded for these gruesome tasks. But even then, his remorse is not pure, for when the Duchess shows signs of life again, and he prays, “Return, fair soul, from darkness” (4.2.334), it is so that she can assuage his guilt, lead him “out of this sensible hell” (4.2.335), save him, not so that she can live for her own sake.
Bosola has, with Ferdinand’s regret at the sight of the Duchess’s corpse, lost his one excuse for all of his evil deeds. He has throughout the play “rather sought/To appear a true servant than an honest man” (4.2.324-5)—he has chosen to be loyal to Ferdinand and the Cardinal rather than act according to his instincts “to do good” (4.2.352). But Ferdinand, who most gained from this unblinking loyalty, berates him for it—“Why didst not thou pity her?” (4.2.265). Even this man who embodies mindless evil, who shows no remorse at the sight of two infant corpses, thinks that Bosola should have felt enough in himself to prevent him from following his orders.
These contradictions reframe all of Bosola’s actions in the play, and makes it clear just how meaningless his expressions of remorse, of hesitation, of regret that he must do such evil action are, for he, in fact, could have said no, and if Ferdinand is to be believed, he would have been rewarded for that better than for going through with it. When Bosola tells Ferdinand he executed “this bloody sentence” (4.2.290) on Ferdinand’s authority, Ferdinand responds,
Mine? Was I her judge?
Did any ceremonial form of law
Doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury
Deliver her conviction up i’th’ court? (4.2.291-294)
, completely dismantling Bosola’s attempts to believe that he was acting within a system, and that it was the system that was malicious, not he himself. It is a tribute to Webster's talent that we can both despise Bosola for his actions and pity him for his feelings of helplessness before social expectation, and all the while believe those contradictions.