Bosola's Voyage

a dialogue between

Rose Pettengell & James Soderholm

RP: Why is The Tragedy of the Duchess of Malfi not entitled The Tragedy of Bosola or simply Bosola? He is one of the most insightful characters on stage and up there with Hamlet. Why did Webster deny this fascinating character full recognition?

What most intrigues me about Bosola is his elevation from bad to good, as oppose to the classical, tragic hero who goes from high to low. This change in faith can be marked at the moment of the Duchess’s death where he references Antonio’s ‘common fountain’ by saying that “[t]hese penitent fountains while she was living… were frozen up.” Webster personifies ‘fountain’ which helps to support the idea that the ‘fountains’ Antonio refers to are the people of the court. Bosola is saying that the “fountain[s], whence should flow/Pure silver drops” were already poisoned and the ‘fountains’ of people have repented for their sins to the likes of the Cardinal, who in their turn have poisoned the ‘pure silver drops’. It is a vicious cycle and, in the previous act, the Duchess references the wheel of fortune by saying that “[t]here’s no deep valley, but near some great hill.” Webster plays on this idea of the wheel of fortune as representing one’s undeniable fate, adding to the tragic element of his play. She also says to Bosola that “[m]en oft are valued high, when th’are most wretched,” which applies to Bosola’s character at the time. At the end of Act III the Duchess is just as insightful as Bosola. So, does this insight make her the most tragic character in the play? Or is Bosola the most tragic character in the play? Or is he even tragic at all?

While some critics would argue that Bosola is just a character used to fill the needs of Webster’s plot, I would argue for a very strong and interesting link between the Duchess and Bosola. The majority of the play is based on breaking the strict laws of state and religion; so whether Webster was trying to play on the fears of the common people to create his tragedy or not, Bosola is a character who represents the conflict of inner man who is also trying to find something worth fighting for in humanity. Much like Hamlet, Bosola is disgusted by man as he observes that “[m]an stands amazed to see his deformity/In any other creature than himself.” Is it because the Duchess is a woman that she is able to give him the strength to become good in himself? And if so, would the play still be called a tragedy if it were entitled Bosola, for he does not fall, but instead rises; essentially this makes Bosola a character in the wrong type of play.

As I analyse the play in greater depth, I begin to see it as less of a tragedy.

JS: Depth, height, rise, fall. I think Webster must have seen all of Shakespeare’s plays—especially the tragedies—a dozen times and wondered how he could make even more vertiginous the idea of rising and falling, a trajectory coupled to both class consciousness and psychology. And the fountains and the wheel of fortune you mention are just two ways by which Webster presents the idea of the low becoming high, the high low, in the rise and fall of various characters, with Bosola as a kind of pivot-point. The strict—and boring—answer to your question is Aristotelian: Bosola cannot be a tragic figure simply because is he too low (on the hierarchical totem pole). Anticipating Arthur Miller by 350 years, Webster gives us a Lo[w]man who is the unlikely hero of the play, largely because he is increasingly self-aware of the hierarchies and corruption that keep him down.

You are right to focus on the relations between the Duchess and Bosola as mirror- and shadow-images of each other’s rise and fall, or fall and rise. Webster cleverly embeds that incline or decline in the pleasant/poisonous banter between the two characters.

In the apricot scene in Act II, scene I, for example, we have the following exchange:

BOSOLA. I have a present for your grace.
DUCHESS. For me, sir?
BOSOLA. Apricots, madam.
DUCHESS. O, sir, where are they? 
I have heard of none to-year.
BOSOLA. [Aside.] Good; her colour rises.
DUCHESS. Indeed, I thank you: they are wondrous fair ones. 
What an unskilful fellow is our gardener! 
We shall have none this month.
BOSOLA. Will not your grace pare them?
DUCHESS. No: they taste of musk, methinks; indeed they do.
BOSOLA. I know not: yet I wish your grace had par'd 'em.
BOSOLA. I forgot to tell you, the knave gardener, 
Only to raise his profit by them the sooner, 
Did ripen them in horse-dung.

A knave, Bosola is himself trying to garden himself, to raise himself—by tricking the Duchess—from the horse-dung of his abject servitude: his being a ‘black malcontent,’ or ‘creature’ in the hire of the upper-class figures who employ him. His apricots make the Duchess’ colour rise in order to ironically foreshadow her fall, as the unforbidden fruit betrays her pregnancy (fruit of the womb). How many other examples are there of this musky intimacy between the low Bosola and the aristocratic Duchess? As you suggest, Bosola seems to be the proper tragic figure, despite his lowliness, precisely because he grows aware (heightened consciousness) of the actual baseness of the aristocracy and of the Duchess’ attempt to rise above it in her independence and in her capacity to suffer nobly. Bosola’s futile attempt to be good, to raise himself at least in his own estimation, is not technically a tragedy at all but it is, to my mind, by far the most interesting aspect of the play. Why indeed is the play not called Bosola? He is so obviously the most pungently-complex and darkly-intelligent character in the play.

RP: The scene with the apricots is a very interesting one which I initially thought to be out of place and only incidental; however, I see it now as yet another example of interesting exchange between the two characters. You are right to call it 'banter' because if we examine closely the Duchess's lines in other areas of the play, she is in fact a very witty character. This not only emphasises her independence, but it also shows her intelligent mind, which is only matched by Bosola's melancholic, self-awareness and his great mind, shown in his monologues. These exchanges confirm my idea that the relationship between these two characters is unique and unlike any other. You mentioned that Webster would have watched all of Shakespeare's tragedies and I have no doubt of its truth, but Webster explores a different relationship in his play and it is not one of lustful love but one of consciousness.

It is evident that Bosola looks to the Duchess "[t]o take [him] up to mercy" and "lead [him]/ Out of this sensible hell!" as there is a subtle link to her line at the end of Act III, “[t]here’s no deep valley, but near some great hill,” refers to the wheel of fortune as he says, "throw men down, only to raise them up." Once again, we cannot escape the rise and fall that these two characters mirror. In the context of this line Bosola is talking about penitence and his sins; this is Christian language which relates to confession in the Catholic Church and I think the Duchess is his penance. In this line he is talking about her rising him up and therefore giving him his absolution. An interesting point to note is that Bosola's full name is Daniel de Bosola. Daniel is a Hebrew name which means 'God is my judge'. Many would argue that Bosola is in fact an atheist from his last lines "Mine is another voyage" and if Webster indeed had created him thusly, his name would be ironic. Bosola does not care for the judgement of God or of others, simply the judgement of himself. He looks towards man for guidance and in seeing none gives up hope in humanity. The death of the Duchess by his command steers his torn soul towards doing what is right and in his moment of realization " [he is] angry with [himself] now that [he] wake."

Coming back to the question of the play's title: the played might be named after the Duchess because she is the only character in the play to give Bosola the strength to attempt to rise in himself. But if the play could not be called The Tragedy of Bosola because he is already low and cannot fall any lower, then why is it called The Tragedy of the Duchess if she remains high and does not fall either? The only explanation I can think of is that the Duchess did 'fall' at the beginning of the play because, to a 17th century audience, the fact that she betrayed her brothers and married below her class is enough for her to 'fall' from her high status; yet, I am not convinced that that is the case. One, I do not think the public of England cared all that much about who a Catholic Duchess married and two, there is no gradual decrease in her character or a hamartia. Some would argue that Webster was not able to fully develop his play and so the Duchess’s tragic flaw is her lust to marry again and maybe it is because we are a contemporary audience that we are unable to see her lust as a flaw. Either way, I do not believe Webster named the play based on the Aristotelian view so there must be another reason why he called it after the Duchess and not after Bosola.

JS: We are exploring forms of intimacy that occur between the main character and someone who is far more interesting and psychologically and morally complex than her but nevertheless not the title character. He is also, disastrously but not tragically, low-born.

Why does Webster insist of these forms of intimacy? Why are they so one-sided? Bosola seems to have so much at stake in his connection to the Duchess, but she seems to have almost no thought of his peculiar relation to her and his profound need to look up to her. Oddly enough, he is her executioner but, as you suggest, he is full or remorse when he realises what he has done. The death scene is one of the strangest things I’ve read.

BOSOLA. She’s warm, she breathes:
Upon thy pale lips I will melt my heart
To store them with fresh colour. [Kisses her]

It is as if Bosola is trying to kiss the last possibility of true nobility and goodness from her lips: a kiss of life from the Duchess before she is altogether still. The Duchess lives to breathe the word, ‘Antonio’ and then Bosola tells her the whitest lie imaginable to spare her further suffering, and allows her to say ‘Mercy’ as she dies, perhaps to recognise his one good deed to her, a deed he drew from her ‘pale lips’. The malcontent, the creature, the hired murderer, has been merciful. Bosola then weeps, his conscience finally quickened by the death of the best human being he knew.

As Bosola himself dies, he offers one last image that completes the high-low pattern we have been following.

Oh I am gone.
We are like dead walls, or vaulted graves,
That ruined, yields no echo.

The play has other strange and deadening echoes. But worst of all is the deadness that returns no echo. While alive, the Duchess was not a dead wall or vaulted grave, but the very possibility for Bosola to find an echoing, improving presence. Now Bosola is on that sad height, dying, and goes into his bad night with those immensely odd words you have already quoted: “Mine is another voyage.” Your reading of that line seems right to me—and deeply insightful. I am left wondering why Webster spent so much time, energy and exquisite poetry on a thug. But Bosola must be the most self-aware thug in all of literature. That oxymoron seems endlessly interesting to Webster (and to Bosola) but does the Duchess ever show any sign of seeing that it is not Antonio, but Bosola, who is actually the “trophy of a man / Raised by that curious engine, [her] white hand”?

RP: First, I would like to pick up on your interesting choice of word when describing Bosola's status as ‘disastrously but not tragically low-born.’ One of the main themes explored in this play is the nobility not only in status but in one's character, and Webster is constantly taking us around the wheel of fortune; once again going from high to low. The fact that Bosola is, as you put it, disastrously low-born and not tragically, leaves scope for speculation that if it were not for his low-born status he might not be such a thug? Why indeed waste such poetry and genius on a thug?

Another recurring idea, or rather word, throughout the play is the notion of still as you have pointed out in relation to the death scene. The Duchess states before she dies that “I am the Duchess of Malfi still” and Bosola also uses it at the end of Act 5, scene 2, “Still methinks the Duchess/ Haunts me!” It is a haunting word that Webster puts in the mouths of both Bosola and the Duchess more than once in the play. Their use of the word 'still' is once again an interesting link between the two characters and I am beginning to wonder if Webster was actually intimating a subtle connection between the (moral and political) status of the two characters.

I do not think the Duchess ever realized to what extent Bosola looked up to her and that in itself is a tragedy.

JS: We are listening to echoes in a chamber (at the play’s very heart?) that contain both Bosola and the Duchess. Why is Webster creating those echoes? How is he forcing the audience to re-think the nature of tragedy and the paradoxical conflict between merit (worth and self-worth) and aristocratic entitlement (the arrogant presumption of merit)?

The line you quote: “Still, methinks the Duchess / Haunts me” is no doubt also meant to echo Bosola’s first line in the play, referring to his regrettable connection to the Cardinal: “I do haunt you still.” That servile and ingratiating haunting serves to lower Bosola just as the Duchess’s haunting him is meant to raise him up. His terribly guilt about participating in her murder gives rise (in every sense) to a spasm of Christian remorse that occurs just after ‘Still, methinks…’ when Bosola says, “O penitence, let me truly taste thy cup, / That throws men down, only to raise them up.” Bosola keeps trying to find a way to salvation, to find a way up in a world where everyone keeps him down. The Duchess is his only guiding light and yet, at times, he shows her the way out of doom and depression. In Act 4, scene 1, when the Duchess knows her fate and is cursing the stars and imagining the world degenerated to “its first chaos,” Bosola says to her, “Look you, the stars shine still.” It is lovely and suggestive how the word ‘still’ won’t stay still in the play, and how the word itself is an onomatopoetic paradox: the short ‘i’ short-circuits movement and sound but the lingering ‘l’ prolongs the acoustics, like the languorous ring of a beautiful bell.

How many ways does Webster play the high-low game and dramatise intimate paradoxes? In Act III, scene 2, when the Duchess hears knocking and expects the worst to come, she says, “I stand / As if a mine beneath my feet were ready / To be blown up.” From beneath one’s feet, from beneath one’s station, the engine of tragedy threatens to blow one up. The language of the play is suffused with these images and energies as a way of blurring the line separating the heroine and the once-galley prisoner. That Bosola could go from prisoner to Provisor of Horse (to the Duchess) suggests both his merit and his valiant character, but neither is enough to give him the lift his really needs. Is the only lift possible the one he finally gives himself, the lift to the afterlife, which is nevertheless not a lift into heaven because his ‘is another voyage’? But what is that voyage? Does Webster leave those last lines bottomlessly ambiguous?

RP: I think Bosola's last lines have perplexed critics and dramatists for hundreds of years and haunt us, still. His final line is nothing as simple and final as Hamlet's or Macbeth's, in fact it is anything but final and has been kept alive all this time because it holds no closure as "[His] is another voyage" and only Webster knows to where. Before this line, Bosola says to "Let worthy minds ne'er stagger in distrust / To suffer death or shame for what is just" and this too is an extremely puzzling line as throughout the play he has expressed his mortification and dislike in humanity, so who would be of a "worthy mind" to him? Perhaps he is talking about the Duchess's "worthy mind" and nobility in character, for her character and especially her approach to death shocks him: "This cord should terrify you."

The Duchess's final word is also ambiguous and many have wondered what she actually means by simply "Mercy." The full stop makes it final but is her mercy relief? Or is it a play on the French word 'merci' which means ‘thank you.’ Or is she referring to a heavenly reward that Bosola should receive upon helping her when she was helpless (as the Church Latin describes)? What is interesting to note is that the Duchess shows no sign of knowing it is Bosola who has betrayed her, as he is in disguise; whereas, in this final exchange between them, he appears as himself so in her eyes he never betrayed her. There is something quite tragically beautiful about her ignorance but it also raises the question as to why he disguised himself? Did he do it to spare her the pain of disappointment or to spare himself the grief of knowing he would be inflicting more pain? I think this minor detail shows kindness of a contrasting nature and yet another credit to his character, proving he is not just a simple 'thug.’

The scene when she finally dies is also extremely complex. Bosola tries to restore her to life with a kiss. The symbolic kiss of life is ironic as it is he who has betrayed her; however, it is also interesting because he almost begs her to "[r]eturn fair soul from darkness, and lead mine / Out of this sensible hell!" I believe it is here that he truly regrets his actions and in fact his life on Earth. He refers to life on Earth as 'hell' which suggests that he does not believe he is going to hell for murdering more than one innocent person and because he refers to the afterlife as 'darkness' and not heaven or hell. I would say that both of these examples confirm his atheism. An interesting point to note is that heaven seems to be in her eyes and nowhere else, which would suggest, as I have previously stated, that she is his only faith. His character goes from a melancholic, educated galley slave and 'servant of God' (to the Cardinal and Ferdinand), to a post-Renaissance humanist with atheist views (if that is even possible). But has he in fact, in one speech gone from an atheist to a Christian? Has all her goodness and nobility converted him? He says: "Her eye opes,/And heaven in it seems to ope, that was late shut,/Take me up to mercy." He asks her to "[t]ake [him] up to mercy," not only is there the echo of raising one above his station (again) but this has now extended to celestial and religious connotations. The etymology of 'mercy' in Church Latin is applied to the heavenly reward of those who show kindness to the helpless. Now, has he 'literally' seen heaven in her eyes in the sense that he wants to be taken up to mercy (the heavenly reward) and therefore he wants to follow where she goes, "lead mine out of this sensible hell" to heaven? I would say that this reading works if it were not for his last words, "Mine is another voyage." After he kills Antonio he says, "No more base; I'll be mine own example.” Once again the recurring motif of 'base' referring to character and status appear here but I also think Bosola has somehow found comfort and belief in himself. He does not believe he is going to heaven or hell as he holds atheist views, but he is in fact going where no other human being has gone before and that is his own idea of an afterlife to experience a worth that his life on Earth never gave him. It is the psychology of the class structure that has restricted his ambition to be a noble human being and it is the Duchess who has finally freed him.

JS: Bon voyage?—only Daniel de Bosola can judge.