Breakfast illustration of bacon, eggs, and coffee with the silhouetted images of the Duchess' evil brothers, one on each side

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

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Webster’s Manipulation of the Five-Act Structure

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When John Webster sat down to write The Duchess of Malfi, he had several goals in mind. He was a professional playwright, trying to earn a living and support a large family by writing plays that people would pay to see. To achieve that goal, he needed a fascinating story with enough intrigue and violence to appeal to his audience. He wanted, as all artists do, to earn a reputation for quality. Although he was writing plays to be performed on the London stage during his lifetime (he never could have dreamed that five hundred years later scholars would be studying the texts of his plays in libraries and classrooms—without even seeing them performed), he shared the awareness of his age that art is a continuum, that the literature of one period influences, and is influenced by, the literature of other times. As a serious writer, he followed literary convention, finding the idea for his story from early sixteenth-century Italy via a late sixteenth-century English collection of stories, and finding the structure for his play in first century Rome.

Although the idea of ‘‘imitation,’’ or borrowing ideas and even phrases from earlier models, might strike the modern reader as hack work, simple cobbling together of other people's ideas, the task Webster faced was quite difficult. He had before him two or three versions of the story of one Giovanna, who in 1490 at the age of twelve married a man who would later become Duke of Amalfi and leave her a widow at twenty. At least one of these retellings was in English prose; one may have been in Italian. To create the play as he envisioned it, Webster had to follow the general arc of the true story, which some of his audience would have read in William Painter's collection The Palace of Pleasure, turn narrative into drama, create dialogue and render it in blank verse, and shape the whole thing into the five-act structure that he had inherited from the Roman philosopher Seneca. Webster saw The Duchess of Malfi as a tragedy, and in Renaissance England, a tragedy called for Seneca's five acts.

The idea of following a pattern in creating art may be counterintuitive, but it is actually quite common. Anyone who has been to a lot of movies knows about the plot that runs ‘‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.’’ Even audiences who could not articulate the pattern are subconsciously aware of it—they know what to expect, and part of the pleasure in watching the film is in seeing the old story unfold in a new way. Many romance novels are written with strict formulas that dictate how many chapters the book will run, which chapter will include the heroine's first meeting with her dream man, and so on. Epics from the Iliad and the Odyssey to The Call of the Wild and Star Wars follow the same arc. We like pattern, we expect it, and we rely on it to help us make sense of complexity.

The idea that a drama might be divided into five parts actually came from Aristotle a Greek philosopher in the third century B.C. Four hundred years later, the Roman playwright Seneca refined Aristotle's ideas and wrote nine tragedies in five acts, each act having a particular function in the drama. Elizabethan playwrights knew Seneca's plays and used them as a model for their own work, and Webster is among those whose own tragedies follow Seneca's pattern of Exposition, Complication, Climax, Resolution, and Catastrophe. Or do they?

In Seneca's plan, the first act presents the Exposition, or the background information an audience needs to understand the play. This act will introduce the characters, establish the setting, and hint at the conflicts to come. This is clearly what happens in act 1 of The Duchess of Malfi. We meet Antonio, Delio, Bosola, the Cardinal, Ferdinand, and the Duchess. Because a drama typically does not have a narrator who steps in to interpret characters for the audience, Webster creates reasons for the characters to talk about each other. Delio asks Antonio ‘‘to make me the partaker of the natures / Of some of your great courtiers,’’ and Antonio obliges by standing off to the side and commenting on the personalities of Bosola and the three siblings. Likewise, the Cardinal and Ferdinand talk about Antonio, so it is established early on that Antonio's ‘‘nature is too honest.’’ Lines such as ‘‘I knew this fellow seven years in the galleys / For a notorious murder’’ and ‘‘Here comes the great Calabrian duke’’ serve the purpose of conveying information to help the audience make sense of what will come.

Setting is established beginning in the first line, when Delio says, ‘‘You are welcome to your country, dear Antonio— / You have been long in France.’’ Throughout the act, there are references to Naples, Milan, the sea coast, and other locations in Italy. The central conflict is set in motion when the Cardinal and Ferdinand order the Duchess to remain unmarried, and she defies them by marrying Antonio. When the first act ends, the audience has gotten everything expected from the Exposition.

Act 2, according to Seneca, should present the Complication, sometimes called the Rising Action. In this section, the forces that will be opposed gather together and intersect—that is, they become complicated. In the second act of The Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess gives birth to the first child of her marriage to Antonio, Bosola's suspicions are raised and then confirmed, Bosola shares the knowledge of the birth with Ferdinand and the Cardinal, and Ferdinand begins his descent into madness. With the Duchess and Antonio on one side, and Bosola, the Cardinal and Ferdinand gathered on the other, the action pauses, as on the night before a great battle.

In fact, the action pauses for several years, while the Duchess gives birth to two more children and Bosola tries to determine who their father is. Seneca placed the Climax, the turning point and the moment of the highest emotional response, in act 3. In The Duchess of Malfi, act 3 presents the sweetly touching scene with Antonio and the Duchess in the bed chamber, immediately followed by Ferdinand's sudden appearance. Coming at the center of the play, the scene between the Duchess and Antonio is the last moment of happiness they will share; from this point on, there is a steady progression of sorrow and torment until both are dead. The rapid juxtaposition of the Duchess's happiness with her husband and conflict with her brother takes the audience on a rapidly shifting roller coaster of emotion, rather like the ‘‘whirlwind’’ that takes Ferdinand away. This is followed by a tender parting as Antonio flees, the Duchess's innocent sharing of her secret with Bosola, another tearful parting, and the Duchess's arrest.

Act 4 presents the Resolution of the conflict, sometimes called the Falling Action. As the hero ascended in stature through act 2, the hero descends through act 4. Act 5 is the Catastrophe, or the conclusion. Typically, the hero of a tragedy dies in act 5, often accompanied by more deaths. Here The Duchess of Malfi seems to break from the five-act structure of Seneca. The Duchess does not decline in any significant way through act 4. In the face of unspeakable torment, she remains dignified and noble, ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi still.’’ She does not die bravely, a result of her tragic flaw, in act 5, because she has already died in act 4. (In addition, it would seem to be a perversion of the notion of tragic flaw to find one in the Duchess, whose only error seems to have been in marrying for love.) What might this mean? How can the hero die in act 4? If she does, what is act 5 for?

What if the play is not really about the Duchess after all? Some critics have identified Bosola as the only character in The Duchess of Malfi who undergoes any psychological growth or change. Could he be the real hero of the play? What would the five-act structure look like if one foregrounded Bosola instead of the Duchess?

Act 1 presents the Exposition. The audience is introduced to the characters and setting, but they pay perhaps more attention to Bosola's situation. He has just returned from seven years in prison for a murder he committed for the Cardinal. The Cardinal shows Bosola no gratitude but secretly arranges for him to be hired by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess. Act 1 ends with Bosola in position, poised for action.

Act 2 is the Complication, or the Rising Action. After at least nine months of fruitless spying, Bosola suspects and confirms a pregnancy through a combination of his own wiles (the apricot trick) and good fortune (Antonio's dropping the paper). Bosola's star is certainly rising. His letter to Ferdinand shows that he has done his job well, and Bosola might well expect a reward for his success. However, the letter to Ferdinand ironically ‘‘hath put him out of his wits,’’ driving Ferdinand's attention far away from his faithful servant.

In act 3, the audience finds a turning point and a strong emotional response. Bosola begins to turn away from Ferdinand and finds himself speaking admiringly of Antonio. When the Duchess sends Antonio away for supposedly stealing from her, Bosola scolds her for not seeing Antonio's true value: ‘‘Both his virtue and form deserv'd a far better fortune.’’ Learning that the Duchess and Antonio are married, he wonders ‘‘can this ambitious age / Have so much goodness in't?’’ It is his highest moment. One admires the eloquence with which he celebrates virtue, but his path from this point is a steady descent. The next time the audience sees him, he is himself again, arresting the Duchess and speaking ill of Antonio's humble birth.

Act 4 finds Bosola in Resolution or Falling Action. Trying to drive the Duchess to despair, he turns to despair himself and cannot even face her without a disguise. He continues to do Ferdinand's bidding, bringing the madmen and supervising the murders of the Duchess, the children, and Cariola, but his heart is not in it. At the end of the act, he realizes that Ferdinand has no intention of paying him for his evil work. He has chosen poorly, misread the world, lived a life in which he ‘‘rather sought / To appear a true servant, than an honest man.’’ Now, he sees the flaw (the tragic flaw) in his thinking, and says ‘‘I am angry with myself, now that I wake.’’ In act 5, the spiraling descent continues, until Bosola has killed Antonio, a servant, the Cardinal, and Ferdinand, and until he dies himself. Of all the characters, he is the only one whose thinking has changed in fundamental ways through the play, the only one who has changed his situation through his own actions, the only one who has learned. He is the one who obtains revenge in the end, just before dying: ‘‘Revenge, for The Duchess of Malfi, murdered,’’ for Antonio, for Julia, ‘‘and lastly, for myself, / That was an actor in the main of all.’’ Bosola is a good candidate for hero of The Duchess of Malfi.

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on The Duchess of Malfi, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Bily teaches writing and literature at Adrian College.

The Duchess of Malfi: Overview

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The Duchess of Malfi's emotional power and theatrical potency, first defined by Charles Lamb and A. C. Swinburne, derives from its persuasive dramatic realism and its tirelessly intelligent and complex poetry.

The plot follows an account in William Painter's Palace of Pleasure (1567) based on true events in early 16th-century Italy. Two powerful brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, are determined that their widowed sister, the Duchess, shall not remarry. They set Bosola, a malcontent courtier, to spy on her. She secretly marries her steward, Antonio Bologna, and bears him several children. Bosola betrays her and, on instructions, imprisons her, torments her with false news of Antonio's death and with a grisly display of mad folk, and finally has her killed, together with two of her children and her maid Cariola. Ferdinand, repentant after the fact, runs mad. In a grim final sequence of confusion and revenge, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, Bosola, and Antonio die, and it is left to the Duchess's young son to restore an orderly society.

At every turn in this dark action, the characters identify their fears, their rage, or their despair in language startling in its specific physical immediacy and its general moral pessimism: ‘‘We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please them.’’ The events and the language—equally painful—mark Webster's characteristic awareness of human impotence before evil and malignant fate.

Critics have observed many ambiguities and inconsistencies. There is no convincing reason for the brothers' prohibition of the Duchess's remarriage, nor do they justify her murder as an appropriate consequence of her actions. That a marriage and the birth of three children should remain secret is highly unlikely. A child of the Duchess's first marriage is mentioned, then ignored. An elaborately presented horoscope does not come true. Antonio and the Duchess flee in different directions for no clear reason.

Some theatrical problems have been noted. The crucial moment of the Duchess's banishment is relegated to part of a dumb show. Act V, subsequent to the Duchess's death, may seem anti-climactic: a hectic series of accidents and random killings.

But such inconsistencies may be validated; Webster's realism depends on his recognition that his characters' intense emotions create around them, as if by passionate magnetism, a field of irrational behaviour and fatal consequence. Ferdinand's sexually explicit ravings against his sister—‘‘Are you stark mad?’’ asks the Cardinal—his extravagant grief and his collapse into lycanthropia cannot be rationally explained, but Webster's language gives his actions a potent, frightening plausibility.

The malcontent Bosola is ambiguous; a reputedly skilled intelligencer who cannot solve the simple mystery of the Duchess's marriage and who finally stabs Antonio by mistake, he is conscience-stricken and ashamed, even while he undertakes the brutal murders. Yet his ceaseless and insightful self-analysis is convincing and even extenuating.

The events of Act V may be seen not as anti-climactic, but as the unavoidable results of Machiavellian policies which, after the Duchess's murder, must be played out in a sequence of lesser acts—ignoble, grotesque, but still inevitable. Webster finds an apt symbol of inflexible fate when an ‘‘ECHO from the Duchess' grave’’ prompts Antonio and his friend Delio by ironic repetition.

Webster is dramatising an historical event which English audiences would believe only possible in the intolerant and disorderly society of 16th-century Italy, with its dissolute churchmen, corrupt courtiers, and crazed nobility. The opening contrasts the court of Italy with that of France where the ‘‘judicious king’’ has sought to ‘‘reduce both state and people / To a fix'd order.’’ Two pilgrims, the only outsiders in the play, express their opinions with equally judicious balance:

Here's a strange turn of state! Who would have thought
So great a lady would have match'd herself
Unto so mean a person? yet the cardinal
Bears himself much too cruel.

Their comments remind the audience that a world does exist outside the malevolent environment of the action. The obvious lapse of time in the Duchess's marriage between the scenes similarly draws attention to a period of presumed tranquillity and domestic love. The moment at which chaos and horror descend on the Duchess and Antonio is precisely marked. Antonio and Cariola tiptoe from the Duchess's bedroom, leaving her alone. As she continues talking, Ferdinand enters solus, showing her a poinard when, thinking Antonio is silent behind her, she queries, ‘‘Have you lost your tongue?’’ The Duchess's instant recognition that the inevitable discovery has come to pass is brilliantly expressed:

Tis welcome:
For know, whether I am doom'd to live or die.
I can do both like a prince.

These contrasts between an attainable harmony in a time or a place outside the confines of the tragic setting and the necessary chaos within that setting, are mirrored by the contrasts in the Duchess's character. She begins the play by assuring her brothers that she will never remarry, but without a pause in the action proceeds to the dangerous wooing of Antonio: ‘‘If all my royal kindred / Lay in my way unto this marriage, / I'd make them my low footsteps.’’ Recognising her ‘‘dangerous venture,’’ she undertakes, ‘‘through frights, and threat'nings,’’ the commitment which Cariola sees as a ‘‘fearful madness.’’ Though full of ‘‘noble virtue’’ and a model of sweet and pious behaviour, her ‘‘tetchiness and most vulturous eating of the apricots’’ when pregnant are hardly evidences of nobility. After the birth of three children, she still lies to Ferdinand: ‘‘when I choose / A husband, I will marry for your honour.’’ Moments later, in conversation with Antonio and Cariola, she is ‘‘merry,’’ holding that ‘‘Love mix't with fear is sweetest.’’ She can organise Antonio's escape with good sense and dispatch, but is trapped by her thoughtless and misplaced trust in Bosola. She meets her torments and death with grandeur—‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still.’’ Some critics have suggested that these inconsistencies are flaws in characterisation. By turns deceitful and impassioned, playful and fearful, practical and naive, haughty and petulant, her character may indeed not be consistent, but her frailties and strengths are recognisably human responses to the terrible world into which she is thrust.

Source: Richard Morton, ‘‘The Duchess of Malfi: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed., Vol. 3, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1557-58.

Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi

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II. Social Mobility

With Antonio we turn to the issue of upward mobility seen from below. Antonio and Bosola are presented as members of the new class of instrumental men, functional descendants of fifteenth-century retainers who fought the Wars of the Roses for their masters. Under Henry VIII and Elizabeth some of these men came to major power, and many more served in lesser capacities, often as bureaucratic specialists but also as all-purpose henchmen. Wallace MacCaffrey notes that ‘‘the practice of the Elizabethan administration mingled confusedly the notion of a professional, paid public service with that of personal service to the monarch.’’ These roles interact in Antonio and Bosola—steward and spy, bureaucrat and hit man. Each feels the new obscure insecurity later to be identified and explained by reference to the cash nexus, the shift from role to job. Each feels it differently.

Antonio enters the play as a choric voice, praising French courtly virtues and presenting the dramatis personae in the reified generic terms of the seventeenth-century ‘‘character.’’ He is thus grounded in our sympathy (and distanced from the action) by his ideological and narrative spokesmanship, an apparently authorial substantiation that Webster immediately undermines by plunging him into political elevation. He loses his distancing footing at once, in part through the very virtues that entitled him to the choric role.

After the choric exposition, we hear of Antonio's first action, his victory in the joust, a traditional arena for aristocratic character contests. But for this achievement Ferdinand has only perfunctory applause: ‘‘Our sister duchess' great master of her household? Give him the jewel:—When shall we leave this sportive action, and fall to action indeed?’’ Such archaic and sanitized—that is to say, fictional—warfare bores the great duke. Mobile men like Antonio strive continually to grasp such identity as Ferdinand seems effortlessly to possess (though we know better), but they fail to extract satisfying ratification from its established possessors. This problem is more pressing—and more developed—in Bosola than in Antonio, so I will postpone full discussion of it until the next section. But it is important to see that Antonio's efforts are ill-fated from the start.

We must also see Antonio as one who, like Bosola, is a man in the way of opportunity, a man with a fortune to make. In an early conversation the two servants are superimposed by Ferdinand and the cardinal, who consider them for a job of spying. As a relatively solid steward, Antonio occupies a more assured position than Bosola, whose tormenting search for secured identity constitutes his role in the play; perhaps for this reason Bosola is judged more apt for spying. But they share the a priori situation of men whose identity is achieved, not ascribed, in a society where such identity has not yet been accepted as fully substantial.

As we have seen, the duchess's coercive offer animates Antonio's social insecurity. Her steward holds an achieved status of considerable power and security: the skilled estate manager was a Jacobean eminence. For Antonio has arrived at a local pinnacle, and he is satisfied to rest there in honorable service. In part because of this basic satisfaction, he fears the duchess's adventurous proposal. Despite his erotic fantasies concerning his mistress, he must be coerced into further mobility. Antonio is a ‘‘new man,’’ his position based on new practices of personal self-determination. But his horizon of mobility is clearly circumscribed; beyond its limits he is ill at ease, unprepared for a society open to the top.

Once he enters that turbulent realm his public behavior becomes apparently more confident and aggressive, more typical of a man on the move. His sparring with Bosola, whose espionage he suspects from the start, takes the form of class insults. He sneers at him as an upstart, publicly adopting the attitude of the class he has secretly entered as the duchess's consort: ‘‘Saucy slave! I'll pull thee up by the roots’’; ‘‘Are you scarce warm, and do you show your sting?’’ In so doing, he emphasizes his own capacity to hire and fire, to make men and break them, ultimately to establish or deny their status; his sneers are combative and self-creative at once.

Such utterances are actually rooted in insecurity. ‘‘This mole does undermine me … This fellow will undo me.’’ But Antonio's insecurity is less remarkable than its restriction to himself; he does not consider his wife and child in his fear. Barely able to cope with the storms of courtly intrigue to which the duchess has brought him, he is ‘‘lost in amazement’’ when she goes into labor; having presented the cover story, he mutters, "How do I play the fool with mine own danger!’’ When he hears the threats of Ferdinand's letters, he follows his wife's instructions, however grievingly, and leaves his family to face Ferdinand's murderous rage without him. He fears for his own safety more than for theirs.

Antonio's insecurity also appears expressly in terms of gender roles. He agreed to his wife's coercive marriage proposal with the deference of the subordinate he feels himself to be. Yet he is miserable at one level of this enforced marriage, insofar as it subordinates him to a woman in that private context where both personal and gender will are at issue. When she reassures him that her brothers will not ultimately cause them harm, that ‘‘time will easily / Scatter the tempest,’’ he cannot allow the maternal address to his unmanliness. He asserts that ‘‘These words should be mine, / And all the parts you have spoke, if some part of it / Would not have savour'd flattery.’’ But clearly he would never have spoken such words to her. It was not for him to dismiss her brothers as insignificant until she had done so; only then can he painfully claim, for his own sense of self, that he would have said the words.

A similar compensatory gesture occurs in the boudoir scene. Antonio listens silently in hiding while Ferdinand threatens his wife. Having sworn not to seek Antonio, the duke leaves; only then does Antonio claim to wish that ‘‘this terrible thing would come again, / That, standing on my guard, I might relate / My warrantable love.’’ But he had been free just minutes earlier to defy Ferdinand. Then Bosola knocks; Antonio cries in dread, ‘‘How now! who knocks? more earthquakes?’’ During the banter before Ferdinand's arrival Antonio had jested with relative ease about his privately subordinate position. But his elevation, because covert, has not given release from insecurity. He still feels the need to assert his own substance but does so only when he can avoid being held accountable for the assertion.

To rebuke Antonio's petty self-defenses would be to miss the point. They should be recognized as unchosen responses to stresses not of his making. Antonio had filled a place where he felt secure and significant. When the duchess converts his erotic daydreams to reality, they become social nightmares. He is not prepared for life in the seismographic realm of noble intrigue. The duchess is not insolvent, for instance, as Webster might have arranged, with ample contemporary precedent, if he had desired to probe Antonio as a powerful new man of finance. Antonio is a man of regularities, not an improviser like Bosola. For this reason he is uncomfortable in his private relations with his wife, feeling bound both to the traditional hierarchy of rank, which enjoins his submission, and to the traditional gender hierarchy, which enjoins him to dominate. His culture has not prepared him to be a subordinate husband or to be a princely consort continually at risk. He is finally to be seen, and sympathized with, as a man helplessly ruled by problems arising from a superior's ambitious love. He lives uncomfortably in the courtly world that has enclosed him. Indeed, we might say, the text infects him with ambition: by the time the news of his child reaches Rome he seems ambitious even to his best friend, who fears ‘‘Antonio is betray'd. How fearfully / Shows his ambition now!’’ And at his death Antonio speaks of a ‘‘quest of greatness’’ now his own, retrospectively apparent by its present collapse. This false dream he would spare his son, bidding him fly the courts of princes (a wish in fact ironically ungranted: the son's restoration at the play's end bodes ill for him, whatever it may say for Amalfi). Antonio's final action, the desperately naive journey to the cardinal for reconciliation, freezes him for us, as one whose unsought elevation never brought much sense of how to navigate the webs of alliance and enmity.

Like the other characters, Bosola is concerned to govern the grounding of his identity. As an employee he presents one of the most intricate examples of the Renaissance problematic of self-shaping. This representation is initially adumbrated through a dense blend of the predicates of counselor, malcontent, have-not, henchman, and aesthete, roles all marked by alienation.

Bosola enters on the heels of Antonio's normative set piece on the French court, a model of public service in which the solipsistic vanities of the decorative gentleman are given a final cause in political service to the prince. In Bosola's intensified and privatized enactment of Castiglione' s courtly counselor, Webster dissects the internal contradictions of the life to which the nation's ambitious young men were drawn.

In swift succession Bosola annexes a variety of stances toward ‘‘courtly reward and punishment.’’ Antonio first labels him ‘‘the only court-gall,’’ suggesting the standoffish or outcast malcontent, almost a specialist Jeremiah. Yet this estimate is at once complicated further:

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.

The distanced moralist and the envious parasite coincide in uneasy dissonance.

Webster also evokes the unrewarded servant: in having Bosola immediately demand belated reward from the cardinal for a suborned murder, Webster links him to the social problem of the veteran soldier, a stranger in his own land, dismissed from desert as well as from service. Then as now this figure was unprovided for, and Bosola has not even the minimal fact of service to his country to cushion his return to social life. He has been a more private soldier and has taken the fall. He will not rise in the pub or feast his friends on Saint Crispin's Day. He can only sneer bitterly at his employers for their relative depravity. Still, he is more than a Pedringano, much more than a Pistol, for Antonio has ‘‘heard / He's very valiant: this foul melancholy / Will poison all his goodness.’’ So ‘‘'Tis great pity / He should be thus neglected.’’ The most complex of Bosola's ills, however, arise not from neglect but from employment.

For Bosola is preferred, to spy on the duchess. He is made a henchman, an agent, an instrument, and so suggests the complicated new problems that arise from the status of employee. At this point in English history, at the beginning of capitalist dominance, service was undergoing the momentous shift from role to job, and the ways in which it could ground a sense of self were changing. Hitherto the prince had been seen as the sacramental source of identity. Puttenham specifies this relation in a poem about Elizabeth: ‘‘Out of her breast as from an eye, / Issue the rayes incessantly / Of her justice, bountie and might’’: these rays make ‘‘eche subject clearely see, / What he is bounden for to be / To God his Prince and common wealth, / His neighbour, kindred and to himselfe.’’ In this view service was simply a mode of assent to the static fact of ascriptive rank. As Stone shows, however, James's sale of honors helped to displace the power to confer identity from God's representative to the money that bought him. As the human origin of rank was gradually revealed, it became clear that the power to confer it was freely available to those who could pull the strings of influence or purse. When ascriptive status emerged as a commodity, the king's sacred role as fount of identity began to decay, and with this shift came a change in the nature of identity itself. It became visible as something achieved, a human product contingent on wealth, connection, and labor. Later, when Marx described it theoretically, the notion could seem a conceptual liberation. As individuals express their life (i.e., as they ‘‘produce their means of subsistence’’), so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. Here human beings create themselves in the process of work. But in the Renaissance, when this insight began to be visible, it seemed a loss rather than a liberation. The obligation to found identity on one's actions seemed to sever the transindividual bonds that bound the polity together; it left one on one's own, save for the new power of cash, which could buy knighthoods, even titles. Marx of course clearly specifies this historical passage as a demolition: the exchange relation of capitalism, he says, ‘‘has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’’’ For Bosola, an early transitional figure, such clear formulation was not available. I think this nexus seemed to him like a lifeline, weaker perhaps than Elizabeth's nearly divine ‘‘rayes’’ but still somehow linked to the ontologically solid ground of the ruling aristocracy. In examining Bosola's ‘‘neglect,’’ Webster offers us the first tragic figure whose isolation is formulated in terms of employment by another.

Bosola initially reflects this coincidence of loss and possibility in bitterly deploring his ‘‘miserable age, where only the reward / Of doing well is the doing of it.’’ Webster inverts the proverb to show that virtue is no longer its own reward but has become a commodity, only a means to an end. What formerly conferred a sense of absolute worth based on a collective cultural judgment has now lost its savor and is worthless unless vendible. Bosola is so far modern that he laments not the absence of the old mode but its residual presence. Still, he gets what he seems to want almost at once, within about two hundred lines, when Ferdinand says ‘‘There's gold.’’ The rest of the play examines (as Bosola dourly inquires) ‘‘what follows.’’ For the post of intelligencer aggravates his discontent, though it frees him from the material want and shame that dominate his galley life. But such a reward is mere hire and salary; he wants more, is miserable without it. Bosola cannot be said to be merely greedy for gain, a motive that no more explains his actions than it does Ferdinand's. But we need to understand what more he wants.

Of course the answer is the same total self-realization achieved by Cariola and Kent. But the personal service by which Bosola seeks this ultimate goal in fact reduces and dehumanizes him.

Where Kent's desires were completely coincident with his master's (‘‘What wouldst thou?—Service’’), Ferdinand's are withheld from Bosola (‘‘Do not you ask the reason: but be satisfied’’) and so cannot be adopted as purposes. Bosola is specifically alienated from the utility of the ‘‘intelligence’’ that is his labor's product, and so he creates a reified commodity and a reified self along with it. Marx formulates this action precisely.

[Alienated] labor is external to the worker … it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it … the external character of labor for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else's, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another … [The worker's activity] … is the loss of his self.

Instead of founding his identity, Bosola expends it in his work. Hungry for spiritual ratification, Bosola offers up to Ferdinand all he has. He expects this relationship, his relation to his prince, to found him; he expects the cash relation to carry the same kind of life-giving social blood as the earlier circuit of rule and fealty. But instead he merely spends himself and gets paid. Then, of course, he resorts to working harder, presuming he has not yet sufficiently earned his ontological paycheck; and the more he puts himself into his production, the more he loses himself. This sense of his desire helps construe what would otherwise seem a simply ‘‘depraved’’ ongoing decision to continue doing Ferdinand's dirty work, much in spite, he claims, of his own good nature. Compulsively seeking to be paid, recognized, acknowledged, identified, Bosola expends efforts that intensify his sense of need but prove unequal to the task of filling it. The cash payment is the full exchange value to be got from this employer.

Bosola tries to obliterate this lack of ratification with a device prominent in the English machiavel's career: the aestheticizing of intrigue. Noble machiavels may seek this stance in search of Ferdinand's sui generis alienation, but Bosola's purpose is different, even somewhat the reverse. A clue to his practice can be found in Georges Sorel's suggestion that artistic creation anticipates the way perfected work will feel in the society of the future. This kind of activity confers just the unity that alienated labor undercuts. Hence, it may be argued, aestheticizing can restore a felt unity or wholeness to actions by decontextualizing them, separating them from the context that displays one's fragmentation. In focusing on the aesthetic shape of, say, a suborned act of violence or betrayal, to the exclusion of awareness of the context that marks it as suborned violation, alienated laborers can grasp a false sense of integrity by, as it were, alienating themselves from their alienation. Seen in this light, Bosola's aestheticizing functions as an evasion, a narcotic that lends a sense of totality while dulling awareness of its falsity. The part seems the whole, for he can devote his whole self (and so reconstitute it for the duration) to the means of the task by ignoring the opacity of its end.

The apricot incident offers a specimen of this technique. Here Bosola observes the duchess's physical condition in considerable specialist detail and applies a test for pregnancy—the typically alimentary Renaissance device of administering apricots (a laxative and thus labor stimulant). The trick is, he says to himself, ‘‘A pretty one’’: Bosola watches not only the duchess but himself at work, taking pleasure in his professional prying, even setting up private dramatic ironies and sotto voce gloating for his own entertainment. Lukács offers a theoretical frame. ‘‘The specialized ‘virtuoso,’ the vendor of his objectified and reified faculties does not just become the [passive] [sic] observer of society; he also lapses into a contemplative attitude vis-a-vis the workings of his own objectified and reified faculties.’’ Bosola is thoroughly engaged (and thus unifyingly estranged) not only in practicing the technicalities of his craft but in appreciating his own stylistic flair.

We can see a similar bifurcation of consciousness in the interrogation scene, where Bosola discovers that Antonio is the duchess's husband. To unfold it properly we must first examine Bosola's youth, which was characterized by a more ostentatiously aesthetic sense of his actions. For according to Delio, Bosola was

a fantastical scholar, like such who study to know how many knots was in Hercules' club, of what colour Achilles' beard was, or whether Hector were not troubled with the toothache: he hath studied himself half blear-eyed, to know the true symmetry of Caesar's nose by a shoeing-horn; and this he did to gain the name of a speculative man.

Bosola has had the sort of university training that warped his predecessor Flamineo, gave him a sense of ambition, and fitted him for little but mobility. The Lylyan dandy's mode seems not to have worked for Bosola; instead he finally found work with the cardinal and thus found his way to the galleys. But Delio's gossip shows that the exquisitely intellectual management of reputation is to Bosola a familiar tool, cognate with spying and thuggery; he has only retreated from its more precious manifestations.

Under Bosola's questioning, the duchess screens her liaison by accusing Antonio of peculation (yet another false financial motive). When Bosola defends him against this accusation and other criticisms from Antonio's former fellows, she replies that Antonio was basely descended. Bosola then explicitly raises the contrast between ascription and achievement that is so central to the play: ‘‘Will you make yourself a mercenary herald, / Rather to examine men's pedigrees than virtues?’’ This pointed challenge inspires her to reveal that Antonio is her husband, because it so clearly specifies the terms of her rebellion in choosing him. Bosola's reply says as much about himself as about her.

No question but many an unbenefic'd scholar
Shall pray for you for this deed, and rejoice
That some preferment in the world can yet
Arise from merit. The virgins of your land
That have no dowries, shall hope your example
Will raise them to rich husbands: should you want
Soldiers, 'twould make the very Turks and Moors
Turn Christians, and serve you for this act.
Last, the neglected poets of your time,
In honour of this trophy of a man,
Rais'd by that curious engine, your white hand,
Shall thank you, in your grave for't; and make that
More reverend than all the cabinets
Of living princes. For Antonio,
His fame shall likewise flow from many a pen,
When heralds shall want coats to sell to men.

Her unequal marriage will legitimate many other sorts of deserving mobility: the unemployed graduate will find preferment, the impoverished virgin security with a rich husband. Alien Turks and Moors will flock like Othellos and Ithamores to her side in gratitude for this tolerance of heterodox origin. And this multifoliate action will be eternized by neglected poets happy to get the work. The duchess has ratified elevation by merit, and Bosola's applause betrays his own authentic experience of the dream—and of the attendant anomie, a blend of the loss of old securities and the lack of new ones.

Many readers accept Bosola's speech as sincere; others presume it to be a ploy designed to unlock the duchess's tongue. I think it is both: his own sincere response managed in pursuit of his employer's goal. This apparent contradiction is only a particular case of Lukács's reified employee's general deformation: ‘‘His qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can ‘own’ or ‘dispose of’ like the various objects of the external world.’’ Bosola exchanges his authentic emotional stance for the information his master wants. But this self-commoditizing exchange manipulation is asymmetrical, for Bosola does not easily revert to the dispassionate stance of the intelligencer. Perhaps the plan for the false pilgrimage is a sarcasm enabling the difficult shift from intimacy to the spy report by positing a ground for an intermediate stage of sneering distance: he can call her a politician, a soft quilted anvil, and so forth and return to his habitual malcontent mode. But even this self-manipulation (if that is what it is) is not fully anesthetic, for when Bosola returns to his commoditized state (the obvious force of the mediate pause of ‘‘What rests, but I reveal / All to my lord?’’) it is with self-loathing: ‘‘O, this base quality / Of intelligencer!’’ A further deflection is needed, a universal projection of the commodity model: ‘‘why, every quality i'th' world / Prefers but gain or commendation: / Now, for this act I am certain to be rais'd, / And men that paint weeds to the life are prais'd.’’ If the duchess's act was sordid, and his own no lower than any other, Bosola may sedate the sympathy he had for her, at least long enough to file his report.

I will pass more briefly by the well-known torture and murder scene, pausing only to note how it combines the predilections of Ferdinand and his agent. The motive force is of course the brother's, a fact often missed, owing perhaps to his apparent absence. Michael Warren (of the Nuffield Theatre) has suggested that Ferdinand's role in this scene might be made clear by ‘‘having Ferdinand on or above the stage, physically directing the action’’; I would prefer to have the duke visible but inactive, frozen in his contemplative mode of alien voyeur. For his part, Bosola steeps himself in procedure, but in the process he is touched by the insistent coherence of his fellow galley slave. She does not reach for external legitimation as he has done but rests in the fact that she is, like Middleton's Beatrice-Joanna, ‘‘the deed's creature,’’ needing no DeFlores to tell her so. And as Bosola lives the parts he plays, his dismissal of earthly values besieges his increasingly stunted goals, even as he pursues ever more grimly the aesthetic anesthesia of obsession with form. He is finally silent throughout the strangling, returning to life (that is, jerking away from reflection to instrumentality) with the uncharacteristically brutal ‘‘Some other strangle the children.’’ He seems barely under control in the face of the tragedy he has caused, less and less confident of what has now come to seem repayment from Ferdinand.

Instead, of course, Ferdinand rewrites the contract (repudiating debt as Jacobean nobles often did) by pardoning Bosola's murders, ironically restoring to his agent the fully humanizing capacity of the moral sense. (The ‘‘gift’’ inverts Lear's denial of Kent's loyal advice about Cordelia.)

Why didst thou not pity her? what an excellent
Honest man mightst thou have been
If thou hadst borne her to some sanctuary!
Or, bold in a good cause, oppos'd thyself
With thy advanced sword above thy head,
Between her innocence and my revenge!

Action beyond the employer's instruction is available only to the independent human, not to the tool that cannot think for itself. When Ferdinand challenges Bosola's humanity, he speaks his own heart too, called out of alienation too late, like Bosola's. But this castigation, meant to deflect his pain, only postpones it. In ‘‘pardoning’’ his henchman, he schizophrenically enacts revenge and forgiveness at once.

Though the reproach nourishes Bosola's developing rebellion against his reification, he cannot at first abandon his own project. He feverishly opposes legal, moral, rational, and courtly sanctions to Ferdinand's dismissal, demonstrating his service to be in all particulars deserving. This dismissal perverts justice, he says; you shall quake for it; let me know wherefore; ‘‘though I loath'd the evil, yet I lov'd / You that did counsel it; and rather sought / To appear a true servant, than an honest man.’’ The parallel with the duchess's defense in the boudoir is striking; here as there the arguments are incomprehensible to Ferdinand, who again burrows into the dark. And like the duchess, Bosola must face the ultimate failure of his project, for self-fashioning through employment:

I stand like one
That long hath ta'en a sweet and golden dream:
I am angry with myself, now that I wake
off my painted honour:
While with vain hopes our faculties we tire,
We seem to sweat in ice and freeze in fire.

His dream of ultimate grounding at the hands of another stands revealed as a delusive Petrarchan hope for an absolute beyond earthly grasp.

Faced with this failure, Bosola seeks his onto-logical grounding anew in a succession of chosen actions that he sees as neither derived from another (as his service was) nor evasively contemplative: ‘‘somewhat I will speedily enact / Worth my dejection.’’ Personal vengeance will at least make him his own deed's creature. (This action obscurely coalesces the dual motives of compassion for the duchess and anger over his own neglect: Ferdinand causes both sufferings.) When we next see Bosola he is accepting employment from the cardinal with ironic alacrity: ‘‘Give it me in a breath, and let me fly to't: / They that think long, small expedition win, / For musing much o'th'end, cannot begin.’’ Security, like virtue, rests in the doing, in the subsuming process of unalienated action itself—in the search for a vengeance that he desperately wants to be decisive, constitutive. As Bosola opens himself more and more to the sacramental powers of moral confidence to be got from the act, he turns hopefully to a traditional self-sacrificial idiom: ‘‘O penitence, let me truly taste thy cup, / That throws men down, only to raise them up.’’ Though he still feels neglect and seeks advancement, he has shifted his ground to the seemingly more reliable realm of the transcendent moral order.

It can only be Webster's comment on this posture that Bosola's next action (reminiscent of Cordelia's death after Albany's ‘‘The gods defend her!’’) is the unwitting murder of Antonio. His short-lived transcendental stance is utterly disrupted by this monstrous error: ‘‘We are merely the stars' tennis-balls, struck and banded / Which way please them.’’ The dream of self-substantiation through self-abnegation he now rejects as pointless, swearing ‘‘I will not imitate things glorious, / No more than base: I'll be mine own example.’’ He denies service to God and to Ferdinand alike as falsely coherent. In being his own example he returns to a stance like the duchess's unitary ‘‘I am Duchess of Malfi still.’’ If he cannot realize himself in any cosmic or social terms, he may yet seek identity par sibi, and so he grimly carries out a revenge now sheerly his own.

In the play's final action Bosola begins firmly enough, killing the cardinal's innocent servant to secure the room. But mad Ferdinand comes in as to the wars, finally falling to action in deed, and wounds everyone to the death. Bosola lasts longest, playing his own Horatio for the astounded witnesses:

Revenge, for the Duchess of Malfi, murdered
By th' Arragonian brethren; for Antonio,
Slain by this hand; for lustful Julia,
Poison'd by this man; and lastly, for myself,
That was an actor in the main of all
Much 'gainst mine own good nature, yet i'th'end

He casts himself finally and summarily as an agent, a vicarious actor on behalf of all the victims, not least for himself, murderer and murdered at once, haunted throughout by an always pending better self, now definitively neglected. The supposed restorative of revenge has littered the stage, but the body count, though lavish, is sterile. Bosola ends by fixing our eyes on this lack, this gulf, in his final line, about ‘‘another voyage.’’ For as Lear's undone button invokes nakedness and the heath, Bosola's departure is seaward, to the galleys, to the pathless wilderness from which he entered the play, a castaway looking for solid ground to call his own.

III. Conclusion

This is the burden felt by all: the shaping of the social self in the abrasive zone between emergent and residual social formations. Webster's play is what Kenneth Burke calls a magical chart, a cognitive decree that names a problematic situation and voices an attitude toward it. Webster's chart insists that the characters' urges and defining gestures are transformations of one another; that they are fundamentally constituted by, ‘‘struck and banded which way please,’’ a net of dimly understood and contradictory social forces; and that these forces shape and limit the kind of actions we habitually regard as individually authentic and chosen (and that carry the responsibilities we associate with tragedy and villainy). Webster provides a social world that constitutes what are clearly not the transcendental subjects of traditional moral inquiry.

Fredric Jameson suggests a more political repossession:

The cultural monuments and masterworks that have survived tend necessarily to perpetuate only a single voice … the voice of a hegemonic class … They cannot be properly assigned their relational place in a dialogic system without the restoration or artificial reconstruction of the voice to which they were initially opposed, a voice for the most part stifled and reduced to silence, marginalized, its own utterances scattered to the wind, or reappropriated in their turn by the hegemonic culture.

I believe that this play was written, at least in significant part, to dissect the actual workings of the normative ideology set before us at its beginning. Far from providing criteria for the judgment of the heterodox characters (as criticism, seduced by power as order, has often presumed), this ideological frame and those who pose and endorse it are themselves to be judged by the ‘‘heterodox.’’ Critics' moral judgments directed against the outcast duchess (as lustful, irresponsible, unwomanly, womanish) emanate from this ideological center; they are at one with high-minded humanist sneering at sycophants whom the center in fact invents, summons up for service and ideological approbation. I believe that Webster strives to recover such stifled voices, to bare oppositional gestures usurpingly rewritten, both then and often even now, as womanish eccentricity or base-mindedness. My analysis has sought also to reclaim Ferdinand for understanding (if not sympathy) by reading his motives as the absolutized and finally self-destructive core of the nobility's project for dominance. Ferdinand's savage gestures strip to the skin the soothing discourse of reciprocity. To its incantations the play is addressed as a disruptive symbolic act, the reverse of Burkean Prayer—as an Imprecation.

Source: Frank Whigham, ‘‘Sexual and Social Mobility in The Duchess of Malfi,’’ in PMLA, Vol. 100, No. 2, March 1985, pp. 167-86.

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Critical Overview


The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster