“He and his brother are like plum-trees that grow crooked over standing pools; they are rich, and o’erladen with fruit, but none but crows, pies, and caterpillars feed on them. Could I be one of their flattering panders, I would hang on their ears like a horse-leech till I were full, and then drop off.”
These lines, spoken by Bosola early in the first act, are the audience’s introduction to the characters of the Cardinal and Ferdinand. They also offer significant insight into Bosola's motivations. Though the metaphor Bosola uses for the brothers is about trees and fruit, it is clear that these are not life-sustaining, sustenance-giving natural objects. Instead, not only are the trees themselves “crooked,” or corrupt, but they are surrounded by “standing pools”--stagnant, putrid water. Because of this, what good they could offer--the fruit that they are “o’erladen with,” essentially money and power--is available only to those comfortable in such foul surroundings.
Though there is condemnation inherent in such a description, Bosola takes it in a surprising direction, ruing that he is not among this privileged group. This regret recalls Antonio’s first description of Bosola, when the former says the latter would be as sinful as any man if he the means to be so. Here it is unclear what holds Bosola back from committing to their worldview, but he is clearly conflicted - if he “could,” he “would hang on their ears like a horse-leech.” He declares himself willing to join their sinful and morally twisted world, if only he can get benefits from it.
However, committing to their world would be solely for the sake of selfish gain - he would only do it until he “were full, and then drop off.” These last words offer a preview of Bosola’s behavior to come, for it shows that his loyalty is not based on devotion or loyalty for its own sake. He simply wants to acquire as much as he can, as much as will satisfy him, before separating himself from the brothers. This ambivilence, in the end, causes nothing but pain and ruin, since though he does “drop off,” he does so too late to save himself or anyone.
“O fie upon this single life. Forgo it.
We read how Daphne, for her peevish flight,
Became a fruitless bay-tree; Syrinx turned
To the pale empty reed; Anaxarete
Was frozen into marble: whereas those
Which married, or proved kind unto their friends,
Were, by a gracious influence, transshaped
Into the olive, pomegranate, mulberry:
Became flowers, precious stones, or eminent stars.”
Antonio speaks these lines to Cariola in the third act, when the two of them and the Duchess are happily teasing each other in a scene of domestic bliss soon before everything begins to fall apart. The allusions he makes are to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Daphne begged the gods to help her flee Apollo, and they transformed her into a laurel tree. Syrinx was a virginal nymph who, in praying to escape from Pan, was transformed into reeds. Anaxarete mocked Iphis, a shepherd who loved her, until he killed himself, and when she went so far as to mock his funeral, Aphrodite transformed her into a statue. In all three cases, the women scorned love, and so were transformed into objects that are “fruitless.”
These examples stand in stark contrast to the Duchess, who embodies the second set of examples, “those which married, or proved kind unto their friends.” She is no marble woman but the epitome of the natural, fertile woman. “The olive, pomegranate, mulberry” trees give sustenance to the world around them, just as the Duchess brings life into the world, and cares for that life as much as she is able in the perverted context her brothers subject her to. This quote of Antonio’s shows the positive light the play shines on domestic life and reproductive womanhood, which is exactly what the brothers want to prevent the Duchess from having.
“I would have you curse yourself now, that your bounty,
Which makes men truly noble, e’er should make
Me a villain. O, that to avoid ingratitude
For the good deed you have done me, I must do
All the ill man can invent. Thus the devil
Candies all sins o’er; and what heaven terms vile,
That names he complimental.”
This passage is emblematic of Bosola’s internal struggle. On some level, he wants to be good, and rues being made into “a villain"; yet, he feels bound to Ferdinand because of the “bounty” that Ferdinand has given him, and he wants “to avoid ingratitude.” However, he sees his choices only in extreme terms that do not allow for any middle ground. He not only will employ vice, but will actually “do all the ill man can invent,” simply because Ferdinand gave him a job. Bosola’s inability to temper his loyalty to the evil brothers until it is far too late--when even Ferdinand wishes he had--is a large part of what brings hell to Earth in this play.
It is also interesting that Bosola considers Ferdinand's gift of a job as a “good deed” for which he should “avoid ingratitude,” since the move was clearly meant both to get Bosola close to the Duchess so he can spy, and to manipulate him into accepting Ferdinand’s bidding. Bosola finds himself acting from here on out in the devil’s world, where to do “what heaven terms vile” is best. His inability to see that there are other options, to stop following Ferdinand and the Cardinal so loyally, even after he recognizes the true nature of the “sins” that Ferdinand has candied over, leads almost every character in the play to despair.
“Duchess: I am Duchess of Malfi still.
Bosola: That makes thy sleeps so broken:
Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright,
But looked to near, have neither heat, nor light.”
The Duchess’s declaration that she is “Duchess of Malfi still” is one of the most famous lines in the play. At this point in The Duchess of Malfi, she believes that her family is dead, her dukedom has been stripped from her, and she has lost her fortune and her freedom. Her insistence that she is still the Duchess shows that even in the face of all of that, she still maintains her pride.
Bosola, disguised as a tomb-maker, tries to take that from her too, telling her that her nobility can provide her no comfort, providing “neither heat, nor light.” It seems cruel to take this last comfort from her, but in doing so, he actually allows her true “glories” to shine through, not those based on her title or nobility, but those that come from the depths of her spirit--her courage and her deep familial love, evidenced by her domestic pleas to Cariola to take care of her children.
This emphasis on the insignificance of rank in the face of death and tragedy is important because it shows the true depths of the difference between the Duchess and her evil brothers. They have nothing but their rank and their associated power, and so when they are faced with death, they die without courage and “leave no more fame behind ‘em than” (5.5.113) a footprint in snow exposed to the sun. The Duchess, on the other hand, by dying so nobly, leaves the mark of the her spirit behind, which ultimately allows for hope at the end in the form of her surviving son, the true “light.”
“Shall this move me? If all my royal kindred
Lay in my way unto this marriage,
I’d make them my low footsteps; and even now,
Even in this hate, as men in some great battles,
By apprehending danger, have achieved
Almost impossible actions (I have heard soldiers say so)
So I, through frights, and threatenings, will assay
This dangerous venture.”
This passage marks the transition from the Cardinal and Ferdinand’s warnings to the Duchess against marriage, to her willful decision to propose to Antonio anyway. It is the first real sense we get of her true character. The first introduction to the Duchess is through Antonio’s description earlier in the act, wherein he focuses on her virtue. Thus, when she protests to her brothers that she will honor their mandate, the audience is to believe her in the face of her described honesty.
Here, though, we see that she is much more willful than we expected. Though she opens by asking whether she should be moved by their warnings, she doesn’t pause before making it clear that she won’t be. Not only will she not let their warnings stop her, she will in fact use them to help spur her on, a point she makes through the powerful metaphor of her brothers as her ladder which she will climb to her benefit. This intention makes it very clear that the Duchess is a figure to be reckoned with, bold and independently minded.
Throughout the play, the Duchess’s own good nature seems to blind her to the true depths of brothers' evil. Not long after this speech, she tells Antonio in regards to them: “All discord, without this circumference,/Is only to be pitied, and not feared” (1.1.459-60). This analysis proves to be very wrong indeed. But in this speech, she admits that this is a “dangerous venture,” and goes so far as to compare it to war, showing the audience that it is not only her ignorance of the true danger of her marriage that leads her into it. Her love for Antonio is such that she proceeds even knowing what could be at stake.
“We are only like dead walls, or vaulted graves,
That, ruined, yields no echo. Fare you well.
It may be pain, but no harm to me to die
In so good a quarrel. O, this gloomy world!
In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness,
Doth, womanish and fearful, mankind live!”
Bosola speaks these lines as he is dying. There are multiple death speeches in the fifth act, but Bosola’s is the final. Though the Duchess is clearly the play’s heroine, Bosola in many ways proves its focus. He has more lines than anyone else, Webster listed him first in the cast list--very unusual at the time for a character of no social standing--and he is the most complex character.
Bosola’s death speech does little to untangle this complexity. Though almost all of the evil he has done has been motivated purely by selfishness, he here reveals no evidence of selfishness. Though he is facing the physical “pain” of death, he does not regret avenging the Duchess and Antonio, for it is “no harm” “to die/In so good a quarrel.” Though he himself was directly responsible for much of their misfortune, he has taken their side as one worthy of "good" so happily that he faces his own death without care.
This strength is not, however, because he has hopes for a better afterlife, or any optimism. He exhibits no hope about what is to come, nor any hope about the world he is leaving behind. Throughout the play, Ferdinand and the Cardinal have, through Bosola, acted to bring hell to Earth for the Duchess, but the consequences spill over onto themselves. The world is now “a shadow, or deep pit of darkness.”
It is ironic that in describing cowardice, Bosola uses the term “womanish,” since the Duchess exhibits significantly more courage than any male character in the play. This reminds the audience of the contrast between their death scenes, and how, though the Duchess’s world did become that “pit of darkness” thanks to her brothers, she has earned a more optimistic vision of life after death, and as the audience soon sees in Delio’s final speech, she does leave an “echo” in the form of her son.
“I would have you lead your fortune by the hand,/Unto your marriage bed
(You speak in me this, for we now are one):
We’ll only lie, and talk together, and plot
T’appease my humorous kindred; and if you please,
Like the old tale, in ‘Alexander and Lodovic’,
Lay a naked sword between us, keep us chaste.”
In this passage, it is clear how different the Duchess is from the sly, plotting, unchaste widows that her brothers recently described. Though she shows boldness in proposing to Antonio and then inviting him to bed, she shows no sign of being unchaste. She has already married Antonio, of course, but even so, she wants to lie in bed with him even if they were to “lay a naked sword between” them to keep them chaste.
The naked sword, however, coming so close to her mention of her “humorous kindred,” also has an ominous note, and foreshadows the violence that will later separate them from each other. This imagery has special resonance since the Duchess just referred to their marriage as “this sacred Gordian,” which alludes to the Gordian knot that could not be untied--instead, Alexander cut it with his sword. In this case, neither the knot nor the Duchess and Antonio will be able to stay whole in the face of violence, no matter how intricately they are bound.
“Bosola: Do you not weep?
Other sins only speak; murder shrieks outs.
The element of water moistens the earth,
But blood flies upwards, and bedews the heavens.
Ferdinand: Cover her face: mine eyes dazzle: she died young.”
Before this moment, Bosola has intimated a certain amount of regret for his actions towards the Duchess, but this is the first time Ferdinand shows any regret in the play. He speaks in abrupt, short phrases as emotion overtakes him and his “eyes dazzle” as they fill with tears. He acts as if it is because “she died young,” but as he is the one who ordered the murder, it is clear that he is feeling his first pangs of remorse.
There is a second meaning that can be read into Ferdinand’s eyes dazzling. Throughout the play, the Duchess is associated with light and Ferdinand with darkness--as when he insists on meeting her only with all the lights out--so here, when she lies in such angelic repose, Ferdinand is dazzled by the radiance of her goodness, which he had refused to see before. As he is so used to darkness, it hurts his eyes.
Bosola’s lines here are also interesting because of how they contradict what he has said earlier. When Ferdinand first hands him money, Bosola doesn’t hesitate to ask, “Whose throat must I cut” (1.1.240), yet when Ferdinand tells him he does not want him to kill but to spy, Bosola expresses sudden and vehement opposition, saying, “should I take these, they’d take me to hell” (1.1.256). Yet now, when looking upon the corpses of the Duchess and her children, he changes his tune--”other sins only speak; murder shrieks out.” He has not yet shown true regret for what he has done, but perhaps he has begun to see just how dark his deeds were.
“Let me know
Wherefore I should be thus neglected. Sir,
I served your tyranny, and rather strove
To satisfy yourself, than all the world;
And though I loathed the evil, yet I loved
You that did counsel it, and rather sought
To appear a true servant than an honest man.”
These lines are central to Bosola’s character, and define his great mistake in the play. Rather than act morally and independently, striving to be “an honest man,” he strives to be “a true servant,” acting according to the moral laws of Ferdinand’s very twisted world instead of the true morality of “all the world.”
Yet even here, when Bosola has finally relinquished the brothers and their evil, there are contradictions in his statement. For though he claims he “strove to satisfy” Ferdinand above “all the world,” he also says he sought “to appear a true servant”--not to actually be a true servant, but merely to appear as one, so that even his declared commitment to loyalty over goodness was more about appearing loyal, and thus reaping the rewards for that loyalty, than it was about committing himself to the ideals of fidelity.
This contradiction makes it harder to trust that he “loathed the evil,” and certainly that he has “loved” Ferdinand, especially because it is not his regret for his crimes that have precipitated this speech, but rather his anger over being “thus neglected”--not getting his promised reward. He refers to Ferdinand’s “tyranny,” but he was never truly forced to do any of his crimes; rather, he allowed himself to be coerced with nothing more than a promise of future rewards, even though the Cardinal had already denied him a reward for acts committed before the play began. Thus, it seems that, more than actually berating Ferdinand for the crimes he ordered, or bewailing those crimes and their consequences, he is taking one last stand in hope of a reward.
“Let us make noble use
Of this great ruin; and join all our force
To establish this young, hopeful gentleman
In’s mother’s right. These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ‘em than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow;
As soon as the sun shines, it ever melts,
Both form and matter.”
The death count in the play has reached its peak when Delio speaks these lines, and they provide the final--and practically only--note of hope in the play. Though throughout the play, good and evil characters alike are murdered with relative ease while the evil characters maintain most of the control, Delio’s distinction between what remains of each shows that the play’s message is not nearly as bleak as that which Bosola expresses in his death speech.
The Duchess and her family leave “this great ruin,” which is still not without purpose--they can still “make noble use” of it. In contrast, the Cardinal and Ferdinand are “wretched...things,” and though he calls them eminent it is clear that their eminence was in position rather than character, since their shallowness will not outlast their deaths. Instead, their essence disappears as easily as a footprint in snowfall when the sun shines. That it is the sun - a symbol of hope, light, and renewal - that erases their legacy further emphasizes the hopeful bent to this message.
Not only are the symbolic remains of the good characters more lasting than those of the evil characters, but they have literally left something behind in “this young, hopeful gentleman,” their son, who was created from their love. Because of the Duchess’s goodness, these surviving characters will “join all” their “force” to ensure that her oldest son has a brighter life. Though the Duchess had few allies to help her against her brothers, her son will now have these men to protect the goodness he inherited from her.
The Duchess of Malfi Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Duchess of Malfi is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The title reflects who the play is about. The Duchess of Malfi tells the story of the Duchess—who is never named—and her attempts to live in peace with her loving husband and children, attempts that ultimately fail due to the machinations and...