To what extent can Bosola be considered a tragic hero? “Let worthy minds ne’er stagger in distrust/ to suffer death or shame for what is just. / Mine is another voyage. ” Thus the dying Bosola concludes his last speech and, in doing so, ends the life of a character whose very nature is at odds with the others’ – and with himself.
For Bosola is a paradox: as a malcontent, he delivers line after line of poisonous verse; insults old women; sneers at the Cardinal and Ferdinand, whom he sees (justifiably so) as having manipulated him; and maintains an almost universal apathy towards the rest of the characters – in the words of Brian Gibbons, a “stance of disgust inclining towards the misanthropic” – and yet, for all his shortcomings, Bosola begins to exhibit a change of heart that we would not otherwise have expected from such an odious character.
He begins to redeem himself, both by revealing a more sympathetic side to his persona and by ultimately sacrificing himself in order to kill Ferdinand. This inherent duality within Bosola – a duality which proves to be both his downfall and his salvation – is closely linked with the classical notion of the tragic hero: that he should neither be wholly good, nor wholly evil, and that “there remains a mean between these two extremes” which the tragic hero is meant to occupy.
While the Duchess is marked from the outset as the protagonist – and, arguably, a tragic heroine in her own right – it is left to Bosola, when all the others have been killed, to avenge her. Moreover, Bosola’s final act – his killing of the chief antagonist, Ferdinand – serves partly to reconcile him with the audience; by ending his life with a ‘good’ deed, Bosola redeems himself in our eyes and we finish the play with a renewed respect – and pity – for him.
By no means, however, does he necessarily satisfy all the classical criteria for the role of tragic hero – he is of a relatively low social standing; the classical tragic hero was typically a man of high social ranking whose fatal flaw, or ‘hamartia’, resulted in an inevitable fall from grace and power. Bosola’s role as a malcontent – a notion which implies a restless, disillusioned spirit – is essential to the part he has to play as an antagonist to the Duchess and Antonio. As soon as he enters in Act I, scene , this bitterness is instantly revealed in his address to the Cardinal – “I do haunt you still”, “I have done you better than to be slighted thus”. We are shown a man who, while perfectly willing to carry out orders, is unwilling to be snubbed. This reveals an independence of character in Bosola, which, unlike the character of Iago in Othello (whose sadism and cruelty place him firmly as the lead antagonist of the play) lends itself to a strength of spirit that will ultimately lead him to rebel against his employers and avenge the Duchess.
This disparity in what he allows Ferdinand to instruct him to do and what he eventually does could be taken to be a tragic flaw – one which leads to his downfall. This essential dichotomy in Bosola’s character – that his cynical nature would have the Duchess fail, but his unexpressed empathy would have her survive – leads us, unavoidably, to pity him; his contempt leads to the Duchess’ death, but his compassion leads to the death of her enemies.
The notion of the tragic hero as a victor – and a victim – is also intrinsically linked with the concept of the tragic hero. Were we to argue that Bosola’s role as a tragic hero is a convincing one, necessity predicates that he would need to have suffered either immense physical or mental strain and have overcome it – to the extent that humanity’s innate strength of will and character is reaffirmed – or that by sacrificing himself, Bosola somehow achieves salvation for others in the play: as Raymond Williams puts it, “others are made whole while he is broken”.
While it is a moot point as to whether he undergoes any suffering, we may safely say that his death is not entirely a sacrifice, and thus his role as victim is almost entirely negligible: his motives for killing Ferdinand are not limited to the avenging of the Duchess. As we have seen before, Bosola despises the two brothers – “he and his brother are like plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools” – and so does not kill them entirely out of some affection for the Duchess; like the opportunist he is, he leaps at the chance to wound Ferdinand (“now my revenge is perfect: sink, thou main cause of my undoing! ). Thus, Bosola’s apparently selfless act has a variety of incentives, ranging from the desire to take revenge on the Duchess’ murderers (for, although it is he who actually kills her, it is Ferdinand who instructs him to do so) to the final chance to dispatch of his masters. Although this scene is typically Jacobean in its goriness – three characters die in quick succession – the dramatic impact of Bosola’s death upon the audience is immense.
Whether he dies a tragic hero’s death is questionable, but the scene shocks us enough: Webster’s orchestration of the climactic fight allows a form of catharsis to take place, so that the audience is left with a sense of relief; the antagonists have been punished and justice has been served. It is Bosola’s questionable moral standards, however, that ultimately prohibit him from being designated a tragic hero.
Drawing from other plays, it is possible to argue that there are characters whose integrity is called into question – King Lear in his selfishness and Hamlet in his rejection of Ophelia – and yet these qualities are always balanced (if not outweighed) by their respective characters’ greatness of character. Bosola’s contempt for an ethical approach, his perverse obedience to the two brothers and utter aloofness in the face of human suffering all mark him out as a character whose flaws outweigh his virtues.
At his death, therefore, we are left not only with a pity for a character whose downfall is tragically inevitable, but also with a sense of satisfaction – that the antagonists received appropriate retribution, and that Bosola’s last act was not one of altruism, but of personal vendetta. The notion of the tragic hero, both in the classical and the contemporary school is one which is constantly being questioned and redefined: our concept of the tragic hero today is vastly different to that of the Greek and, to an extent, that of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights.
The characters of Oedipus, Hamlet and Willy Loman (in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman) are all undoubtedly tragic heroes in their own right, but the criteria which make them tragic heroes are invariably different. To that end, therefore, our consideration of Bosola will never be a comprehensive one. One thing, however, is obvious: he is not a tragic hero in the traditional sense of the word. Although there are some tragic elements to his portrayal, there are others which run so contrary to any concept of the tragic hero that it is impossible for us to claim him worthy of the title.
We may safely say, however, that while he may not wholly be a tragic hero, he is neither wholly an antagonist – he is only a misguided everyman who proves to us that even ordinary people can overcome their subjugators and triumph in the end. ———————–  Brian Gibbons, An Introduction to John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1964)  Aristotle, Poetics XIII (350 B. C. E. )  Zena Goldberg, Between worlds: a study of the plays of John Webster (1987)  Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy (2006)
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