Comment on John Webster – The Duchess of Malfi Play by A.E.K.

John Webster - The Duchess of Malfi PlayWe are introduced to Daniel De Bosola by Delio in Act 1 Sc 1 as ‘a fellow seven years in the galleys for a notorious murder’. The audience immediately sees him as an evil character capable of murder. Even though Antonio perceives him as a potentially valiant character “He’s very valiant’, he also realises that he ‘like moths in a cloth do hurt for want of wearing’. Hence, Bosola is seen as one who has some inkling of goodness in him but it is overshadowed by his ‘close rearing’. Antonio realises that Bosola if not used well would become a bad person. The idea of a nature of goodness overpowered by the nurture by ‘black malcontents’ is the result that is Bosola. He is the ‘court gall’, a bitter character who would ‘rail at things which he wants’ and would do anything to achieve.

The bitterness of Bosola’s character is brought out in his conversation with the Cardinal. He laments on it all being a ‘miserable age’, where ‘the only reward for doing well is the doing of it’. He is seen as a character who has been taken advantage of by the corrupted court and who has learnt to deal with his consequence ‘blackbirds fatten best in hard weather’. We thus realise that the hardness of his character is brought out by the need for survival. He is a neglected character who has learnt to ‘thrive’ in his own way. He is obviously angered by the disease of corruption in the Italian court ‘for places in the court are like beds in the hospital’. It is to survive that Bosola becomes an ‘invisible devil in flesh’. Yet while Bosola agrees to play the role of Ferdinand’s avengement to the Duchess in her ‘marriage’ to Antonio, it is Bosola who deems Ferdinand as a ‘corrupter and an impudent traitor’. One sees that Bosola does have some ethical sense to see that he is about to commit an evil ‘the ill man can invent’. To a certain extent, one realises that Bosola agrees to murder not because he enjoys it, but because he needs to survive.

Yet despite these redeeming characteristics of Bosola, he will always be one associated with the dark. The language that he uses is crude with grotesque and horrific imagery. ‘a rotten dead body we delight, to hide it in rich tissue’. He is an unsavoury character and is morally repugnant to our senses. Yet his crudeness does hold a certain truth at times and one realises that it is Bosola’s own encounter with life that gives him such bitter cynicism. ‘man stands amazed to see his deformity in any other creature but himself’. Indeed, one realises that Bosola’s character is not brought about by a stark change in character, but an uncovering of the facade of coarseness and evil to reveal his true character, one who only works to be paid and who when taken advantage of seeks to find his own justice because there would be no other way to achieve it. He understands that it is the only way to survive in the court would be to become the worst of them all. ‘i look no higher than i can reach’. He cannot aspire to happiness but only to survive.

One realises that true evil is not part of his nature when in accidentally inducing labour for the Duchess, he apologises ‘I am sorry’ and leaves. Indeed, that even Antonio makes use of Bosola’s character to ‘give out that Bosola hath poisoned them’ shows that while Bosola may play the role of the murderer, he is very much a victim of it all. He hides in the darkness to protect himself. It is only at the end that he allows his true nature to overpower his nurture. Indeed, it is true that his character changes little, for in being made the scapegoat of the Duchess death, he can no longer conceal his hatred for corruption and his desire for justice. We see this in his character from the beginning when he smile at being able to ‘make her brother’s galls overflow their livers’. He enjoyed seeing the anger and frustration of Ferdinand and the Cardinal to learn of their adulterous sister more than the role of the murderer. Indeed, he speaks of ‘this base quality of intelligencer’ and one feels that he certainly means it.

Indeed, it is ironic that Bosola is the one who imprisons the Duchess in her own castle for in the exploration of this concern of entrapment and imprisonment of the play, one realises that Bosola is also victim of entrapment. He assumes the darkness to survive in the dark and corrupt court. He ‘thrives’ because he chooses to abandon his morals and love of justice that he may survive in the court. He kills the Duchess and shows her no mercy because it is his profession to carry out the Cardinal’s orders. Yet he tells Ferdinand that ‘you may discern the shape of loveliness more perfect in her tears than her smiles’. He is clearly touched by the stoicism of the Duchess and he is angered when he does not receive payment for killing her. He was angered, not at being unpaid, but because he had been made to go against his character and ethics to kill the Duchess and then is blamed for it. We see his true character and the facade in conflict when he speaks of wanting to ‘save your life’ and lamenting on ‘this world a tedious theatre’.

Hence, it is NOT a change of character from evil to good that we see in Bosola, but a battle of his conscience with his evil deeds. He was never an evil character, only one who was bitter about his situation and who in seeing the integrity and stoicism displayed by the Duchess, realised the own quality within himself.