Study Guide

The Duchess of Malfi Society and Class

By John Webster

Society and Class

Could I be one of their flatt'ring panders, I would hang on

their ears like a horse-leech till I were full, and then drop

off. […] Who would rely upon these miserable

dependences, in expectation to be advanced tomorrow?

[…] There are rewards for hawks and dogs when they

have done us service, but for a soldier that hazards his

limbs in battle, nothing but a kind of geometry is his last

supportation. (1.1.54-60)

Bosola has just indulged in one of his favorite hobbies: talking smack about how bad princes and courtiers are. His follow-up to this review of the brothers? "Gee, I wish I could serve them." One of the central contradictions of Bosola's character is that he both hates the screwed up social system of the court, but also wants to be a part of it. He mocks those "who would rely upon these miserable dependences in expectation to be advanced," but shortly after he makes this speech he becomes Ferdinand's spy.

I am your creature. (1.1.280)

Bosola has just agreed to be Ferdinand's intelligencer. Think about this word, "creature": these days our minds tend to automatically think "animal," but more literally it means "something created." Go check out Quote #2 in Power to see Ferdinand's statement that he thinks his courtiers should be his "touchwood"—he wants to duplicate himself among his courtiers, instead of have a reciprocal relationship with them. Here, Bosola 2.0: Spy Edition is being created by entering into the service of Ferdinand, and belongs to him.

This goodly roof of yours is too low built,

I cannot stand upright in't, nor discourse,

Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,

Or if you please, my hand to help you […] (1.1.408-411)

The Duchess wants to marry Antonio, but she can't do it while he's kneeling in front of her as her employee. To have a real, equal romantic relationship with him the Duchess has to hike Antonio up to her level socially, which she achieves by marrying him.

This scene also prominently features the Duchess literally raising up her steward with her hand, presenting Antonio's social ascension not just as a result of a noble woman marrying a socially inferior man, but, importantly, as a prince showing favor to a servant. For more on raising and kneeling, check out the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section.

[…] I look no

higher than I can reach […] when a man's

mind rides faster than his horse can gallop, they quickly

both tire. (2.1.89-94)

Antonio's telling Bosola that, now that Bosola's provisor of the horse, he should stop acting all humble and melancholy, but Bosola insists that he doesn't want to get all "puffed up with preferment" (2.1.86). The Italian courts are written by Webster as kind of the opposite of the American Dream: social ambition's a big no-no; you're supposed to be happy with your lot in life, and reaching higher than your station is regarded as dangerous and subversive.

Bosola: 'Tis a pretty art, this grafting.

Duchess: 'Tis so: a bett'ring of nature.

Bosola: To make a pippin grow upon a crab

A damson on a blackthorn. (2.1.148-51)

Plant grafting was a popular metaphor for the mixing (or, to some, pollution) of the social classes. The Duchess is onboard with grafting, both in the case of tasty fruit, and in the case of intermarriage—she thinks that, by grafting herself to Antonio in marriage, they have bettered nature (which would keep commoner and aristocrat apart). Bosola, though, says that grafting is perverse, in the same way that some people today argue that genetic engineering is wrong because it melds together things that don't occur naturally. For discussion on another really cool (and very famous) grafting moment in Renaissance lit, go check out Perdita and Polixene's conversation in Quotes 1 and 2 in The Winter's Tale Theme of Art and Culture.

Saucy slave I'll pull thee up by the roots! (2.3.36)

Antonio, angry at Bosola, calls him as "saucy slave." While you should definitely use this the next time you get in an argument with a professor (we dare you) the main reason this is interesting is that, in calling Bosola a "slave," Antonio's using a class-based sneer. Antonio's feelings toward his weird, new-fangled role as husband-cum-employee are tough to figure out, and it's interesting to note that, although he consistently claims that he's not into the social-climbing game, he here uses the same kind of insult that an aristocrat would use against a commoner.

How fearfully

Shows his ambition now […] (2.4.80-81)

Ah, yet another quote surrounding the question of Ambition and Antonio. Delio's trying to figure out what's going on with the Duchess's brothers in Rome, and, fearing for Antonio, remarks that Antonio's "ambition" is coming back to bite him. What do you think of the fact that only two people who know about the secret marriage (Delio and Cariola), who are both firmly on the side of Team Antonio and the Duchess, find it really alarming and worrisome?

Duchess: But he was basely descended.

Bosola: Will you make yourself a mercenary herald,

Rather to examine men's pedigrees than virtues?

You shall want him […] (3.2.254-57)

Sheesh. Here's yet another instance of Bosola Telling It Like It Is. At the news that the Duchess has just fired Antonio, the other Malfi courtiers immediately start talking about what a bad guy he was. Bosola alone sticks up for Antonio, rebuking the Duchess for caring more about rank than merit. There are a lot of people who think that Bosola is just trying to trick the Duchess into revealing something here (which she does), but given that Bosola both relentlessly calls 'em like he sees 'em throughout the play and has a serious chip on his shoulder about the unfairness of the courtly social system, you could definitely read this as genuine.

Here's a strange turn of state: who would have thought

So great a lady would have matched herself

Unto so mean a person? Yet the Cardinal

Bears himself much too cruel. (3.4.23-26)

This is a neat little passage because it provides an outsider's perspective on this whole mess. Some pilgrims are watching the Cardinal banish the Duchess and her family from Ancona, and even though they think it's weird that the Duchess would marry her inferior, they still think that the Cardinal is taking it too far by banishing them. It can be hard to parse how the average 16th-century Joe would have felt about this complicated situation, so this little scene with the pilgrims is pretty useful.

Yet stay, heaven gates are not so highly arched

As princes' palaces: they that enter there

Must go upon their knees. [Kneels] (4.2.222-24)

These words, spoken by the Duchess as she kneels down to be executed, complete the standing-kneeling cycle we talk about over in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" that was initiated when the Duchess raised Antonio up when she proposed to him. Just as Antonio's "goodly roof" in Quote #4 was too low for her, heaven's gates are also described as being "low" in a way. What do you make of her having to kneel to enter heaven? Does she mean that people entering heaven have go on their knees as a show of submission or humility, or is she saying that her own princely domain is so high that she's got to get down on her knees if she's even going to squeeze into the door? Is this moment dignified, or is she just giving up?

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