John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

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John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

Bosola the malcontent

In placing the action of his play within a corrupt courtly setting, Webster is also adhering to one of the main conventions of the dramatic genre to which The Duchess of Malfi is usually thought to belong: revenge tragedy, an enormously popular genre in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. From Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c.1587), one of the earliest and most influential of this group of plays, through Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), the most famous of all revenge tragedies, to a later example of the genre like Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), revenge tragedies consistently present their audience with the spectacle of decadent courts and irresponsible, often criminal, rulers. The deficiencies of the status quo create a logical space for a particular character type: the malcontent, a character who is consumed with disgust at the corruption and stupidity of courtly society and who vents his spleen by railing against it. Hamlet plays this role in Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, and in The Duchess of Malfi it is filled by Bosola. When Antonio refers to Bosola as the ‘only court-gall’ (1.1.23), he is using a metaphor, which, like a simile, makes a comparison between two things – in this case between Bosola and a ‘gall’, or a sore produced by rubbing – but without the presence of ‘like’ or ‘as’. Metaphors, then, establish a much closer relationship between the two items being associated than similes do. Antonio is alluding to Bosola’s fondness for railing at the court, harassing and tormenting it with his verbal abuse. (‘Gall’ also means ‘bile’, the bitter substance secreted by the liver; a secondary sense which intensifies the force of Antonio’s metaphor.)

Activity 2

A few lines later, when the Cardinal has left the stage, Bosola complains to Antonio and Delio about the Cardinal and his brother Ferdinand. Look at his speech at lines 50–64. What point is he making about the Duchess’s brothers, and how do his similes and metaphors help to drive his meaning home?


Bosola attacks the Cardinal and Ferdinand for presiding over a courtly environment where loyal service reaps no reward, where only ‘flatt’ring panders’ prosper (1.1.54). His language is extraordinarily colourful and energetic, due in large part to the similes and metaphors he uses. He begins by likening the brothers to ‘plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools’ (1.1.50–1) and then goes on to explain the simile: however ‘rich’ and ‘o’erladen with fruit’ they are, the fact that they stand over stagnant water means that only ‘crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them’ (1.1.52–3). The ‘standing pool’ presents an obvious contrast to Antonio’s clear and flowing courtly fountain, while the ‘crows, pies and caterpillars’ are metaphors for the kind of courtly parasites that flourish under the Cardinal and Ferdinand. By identifying them with scavengers and insects, Bosola manages to convey both their contemptibility and their voracious appetite for the rewards that come with princely favour. This type of imagery continues in his next simile: ‘Could I be one of their flatt’ring panders, I would hang on their ears like a horse-leech till I were full, and then drop off’ (1.1.53–5). Bosola’s similes and metaphors vividly capture the brothers’ enormous power and wealth, along with the greedy ambition of courtly suppliants. His speech is in prose not verse, but that in no way diminishes its linguistic richness. Any actor playing the part of Bosola would need to let the character’s linguistic energy and bitterness guide his delivery of the lines.

Like Antonio, Bosola is low-born, and therefore entirely dependent for material success on the patronage of his social betters. His role thus contributes significantly to an important aspect of the play: its examination of class relations in a highly stratified society. Bosola’s wit and satirical edge are throughout the play levelled at a patronage system that rewards toadying rather than merit. Yet the play makes clear the invidious position he is in. Indeed, Antonio has already given us his opinion of Bosola:

                           yet I observe his railing
Is not for simple love of piety,
Indeed he rails at those things which he wants,
Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man,
If he had means to be so.


Bosola is torn between an acute awareness of the social and moral deficiencies of the patronage system and a longing for social advancement that binds him to it. His vision of himself as a horse-leech, greedily sucking the brothers’ blood until he drops off, captures something of this doubleness: he may despise the yes-men who thrive in the courtly milieu, but at the same time he wants to share in the material prosperity they enjoy. Bosola has in common with Iago from William Shakespeare’s Othello his status as a disgruntled servant, though Webster invests his version of this character type with a level of moral awareness absent from Shakespeare’s viciously resentful ensign.


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