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

Start Free Trial

Student Question

Which lines are spoken in verse by the Duchess and Bosola?

Quick answer:

The duchess and Bosola both speak in rhyming verse at moments of emotional intensity, the duchess in act 3, scene five when she realizes Bosola has betrayed her and Bosola in act 4, scene two as he is about to have her executed.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Most of the play is written in blank verse and doesn't rhyme; but at times of heightened intensity, both the duchess and Bosola speak in rhyming verse.

The duchess speaks in rhyming verse at the end of act 3, scene 5 as she realizes Bosola has betrayed her trust, put her husband and children in danger of being killed by her murderous brothers, and put her into bondage. She says,

Our value never can be truly known,

Till in the fisher's basket we be shown:

I' th' market then my price may be the higher,

Even when I am nearest to the cook and fire.

So to great men the moral may be stretched;

Men oft are valu'd high, when they're most wretched.—

But come, whither you please. I am arm'd 'gainst misery;

Bent to all sways of the oppressor's will:

There 's no deep valley but near some great hill.

In these verses, the duchess likens herself to a fish that has been caught, saying that she has more value caught (as a fish does to its captor) than before Bosola betrayed her. She also says that people's value is often highest to those like Bosola and her brothers when they are must miserable, because they are at the mercy of others.

One of Bosola's moments of anguish comes when he has to do the dirty work of having the duchess assassinated in act 4, scene two. At this point, he breaks into verse, saying of Ferdinand,

He doth not want your counsel, but your head;

That is, he cannot sleep till you be dead.

Bosola then says,

Hark, now everything is still,

The screech-owl and the whistler shrill

Call upon our dame aloud,

And bid her quickly don her shroud!

Much you had of land and rent;

Your length in clay 's now competent:

A long war disturb'd your mind;

Here your perfect peace is sign'd.

Of what is 't fools make such vain keeping?

Sin their conception, their birth weeping,

Their life a general mist of error,

Their death a hideous storm of terror.

Strew your hair with powders sweet,

Don clean linen, bathe your feet,

And (the foul fiend more to check)

A crucifix let bless your neck.

'Tis now full tide 'tween night and day;

End your groan, and come away.

In these verses, Bosola tells the duchess to prepare herself for the "peace" of death. He knows he is orchestrating a terrible deed.

The rhyming verses amplify and underscore the emotional intensity of these two book-ended moments, one in which the duchess realizes she is now on the path to death and the second in which her death is about to be realized. The duchess is most distraught when she first understands what her fate will be: Bosola is most upset at the moment her fate descends.

Ironically, both the duchess and Bosola think he will gain a reward for catching such a big "fish" as the duchess and turning her over to those who want her dead. They will both turn out to be wrong.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial