The Puzzle of Bosola: A Reading of The Duchess of Malfi

August 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, the audience’s opinion on the anti-hero Bosola and his moral integrity changes throughout the play due to his sudden catharsis and change in behavior after he realizes the consequences of his working for the Cardinal and Ferdinand. Bosola’s main goal at the start of the play, is to gain social status and climb the hierarchy; this striving mentality can be seen when he initially attempts to ‘return the money’ he is offered by Ferdinand, but then agrees to work for him for a higher role in the court. Although we are told initially that Bosola is reformed after spending time in ‘the gallows’, this clearly isn’t true, as he accepts corruption for what is essentially a promotion. Bosola’s almost instant accepting of Ferdinand’s corrupt offer of work leads audiences to believe initially that he is himself a morally corrupt character.

Critic Rupert Brooke described Webster’s world as filled with ‘people, driven like animals’ by their ‘instincts’; this interpretations of the characters in The Duchess of Malfi would posit that Bosola’s working for the brothers is driven purely by greed. Bosola’s want to gain social power is mirrored in Milton’s character of Satan in Paradise Lost, as he aims to gain control over earth and take God’s role. It could be said that Bosola’s morals are only corrupted when offered a reward, much like Eve when she eats the fruit in Paradise Lost. The fact that elements of Bosola’s personality can be compared to both Satan and Eve, reflects how dynamic of a character he is, with many different sides to his person which are open to interpretation. The description of Bosola as a ‘puzzle’ in this statement itself mirrors the description of Satan as a ‘maze’ when he is in the form of a snake. Both of these descriptions depict a complex character who is hard to understand, and is open to interpretation for the audience, therefore the innocence or guilt of both characters could be argued as justified.

By the end of the play it could be argued that we now sympathise with Bosola, due to him sacrificing himself in order to get justice for the Duchess. The 2014 Globe theatre production of the play depicted Bosola as someone for the audience to sympathise with by omitting the scenes in which Bosola ridicules an old woman, therefore we are not exposed as an audience to crueler sides of his personality. In a similar way, Milton writes Satan as a complex character who the reader is positioned to root for in Paradise Lost, whereas God is shown as a ‘mighty oppressor’. This controversial idea is supported by William Blake’s claim that ‘Milton is of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. At the time of writing, Milton’s sympathetic depiction of Satan was received negatively, as most readers were strict Protestants who considered his writing to be blasphemous. Further comparisons could be made between Bosola and Satan in that they both had pasts of uncorrupt morals and opportunity; we know this as Satan was initially an angel and Bosola was educated as a ‘scholar’ ‘in Padua’, which was a highly acclaimed university contemporary to the writing of the play, before he was put in prison for working with the Cardinal. As from this we know Bosola is an intelligent man, we could argue that he was fully aware of how wrong his actions were, and therefore must be a morally corrupt man to commit them.

By the end of the narrative it is clear that Bosola seeks redemption, and to an extent could be argued that Ferdinand and the Cardinal purely manipulated him the entire time. This can be seen when he claims he is ‘angry’ with himself now that he ‘wakes’, suggesting that he was in a form of sleep whilst acting against the Duchess, and was unaware of his actions, which were out of his control. Critic Muriel Bradbrook says calls Bosola ‘the chief instrument in the Duchess’ betrayal and subjection’; by calling him an ‘instrument’ she infers that he was being played or controlled by someone else, rather than acting of his own accord. This interpretation supports the idea of Bosola being out of control of his actions and therefore the audience cannot hold them against him, this would be a more sympathetic interpretation of Bosola. The theory of Bosola being entirely controlled by the brothers is further supported by the power they had above him in society, and what this would have meant in the context of the play’s setting; during this period, religious figures like the Cardinal or other’s related to the court like Ferdinand had a very strong influence over the actions of those below them in social hierarchy. One revealing instance occurs when Antonio says that ‘twas thought the cardinal suborned’ a murder at the start of the play, suggesting that there is a general awareness of the brother’s corruption in the court, but those lower than them in society can do nothing about it.

We can thus infer that Bosola would have had no choice but to accept the brother’s orders, as due to his low ranks in society, they would have had the power to destroy any status and wealth Bosola had, or even kill him. The brother’s immense power over Bosola however, proves the value of social hierarchy in this setting and validates Bosola’s motivation and determination to climb the social ladder, even if it means sacrificing the Duchess.

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