Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
Bosola: an ex-convict and keeper of the Duchess’s horse who also serves as a spy for Ferdinand
Cardinal: Ferdinand and the Duchess’s brother, as well as Julia’s lover
Antonio: the steward of the Duchess’s household who is also secretly married to her
Delio: a friend of Antonio
The action opens in the court of Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria, with Antonio, the steward of the Duchess of Malfi, and his friend, Delio, in conversation. Antonio gives his favorable impression of the French court, from which he has recently returned. However, he also warns that poison near the head of government makes “[d]eath, and diseases through the whole land spread,” making honest council to the ruler crucial for “blessed government.” Antonio describes Bosola as “the only court-gall” in Ferdinand’s court. Bosola, whose current occupation in the court is not described, arrives shortly before the Cardinal, and Bosola rails against both the Cardinal and his brother Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. The Cardinal asks Bosola to “become honest,” but Bosola continues his diatribe by saying the brothers never reward those who serve them—namely, himself. He leaves, and Delio notes that Bosola is an ex-convict who spent seven years in jail for a murder possibly instigated by the Cardinal, but “was releas’d by the French general, Gaston de Foix.” Antonio closes the scene by commenting on Bosola’s great valor and bemoaning that his “foul melancholy will poison all his goodness.”
As part of the preface to the play John Webster published a letter dedicated to Baron Berkeley, an English aristocrat who had supported Webster and his colleagues, claiming the play will grant immortality to Berkeley. Webster further claimed that “the ancientest nobility, being but a relic of time past, and the truest honour indeed being for a man to confer honour on himself” serves to introduce a theme his play will pursue. The three ensuing testimonials to the merits of Webster’s play proclaim it will give Webster lasting fame, which indeed it has.
The Duchess of Malfi is based on the true story of a woman, the Duchess of Amalfi, who had married the Duke of Amalfi. Amalfi is located on Italy’s southwestern coast a few miles south of Naples. The Duchess’s husband died, and after his death, the Duchess ruled the dukedom as regent during Italy’s tumultuous early 1500s. At that time, the country was split into many small kingdoms and principalities, such as the republics of Florence and Venice, and the Papal lands surrounding Rome. Each of the rulers of these kingdoms had a court which served bureaucrats charged with collecting taxes, maintaining the kingdom’s army, and other official duties. However, each court also contained groups of local aristocrats known as courtiers, who typically resided near the ruler’s palace and spent much of their time scheming against each other, trying to win the ruler’s favor and gain power and influence. Frequently these schemes developed into attempts to depose the ruler by seizing power forcibly and installing one of the ruler’s relatives as head of state. Set against these courtiers were the common people, who had very little status and very little say in the rule of their kingdom.
The play itself opens with Antonio’s comments on the need for an honest, virtuous court, a theme of courtly morality that the play will continue to address. Bosola does not give a favorable impression at first, and it is difficult to take his condemnation of the Cardinal and Ferdinand at face value. The comment from Delio that Bosola was imprisoned for murder furthers this suspicion towards Bosola, but it is a surprise to read that the Cardinal was suspected of inducing that murder by bribing Bosola. Antonio’s closing testimony that Bosola is in fact “very valiant” and good conflicts with the initial negative impression that Bosola gave. So the opening scene, with its conflicting testimony, hints at the deceptive world of the court and the difficulty of discerning anyone’s true character. In the midst of this immoral court, Bosola’s “foul melancholy” may indeed decay his soul, as Antonio warns.
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