The Duchess of Malfi is a tragedy written by John
Webster. The theme of verbal disguise is a dominating theme of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. It Is used by 3
characters: The Duchess, Ferdinand and Bosola. Ferdinand uses verbal disguise to
maintain his status in the social system, whereas Bosola and the Duchess, use
it to create a place for themselves in the social system of the Jacobean
society of the 16th century. The use of of verbal disguise is
extremely apparent throughout the play. However verbal disguise is often
mistaken for lying. To those readers, who view lying as being the essential
theme of the tragedy, might not be able to distinguish between lying and verbal
disguise as being any different from each other. However, analyzing the different
passages will open the reader up to the significance of verbal disguise. This
makes it possible to ask the question: What is the
significance of the use of verbal disguise in The Duchess of Malfi? The use of verbal
disguise is significant, as the three characters: The Duchess, Ferdinand and Bosola use verbal disguise to either
maintain their place, create a place or be on equal terms as others in the
social system. It is however important to distinguish between verbal
disguise and lying. The Oxford Dictionary defines disguise as: “The concealing of one’s true intentions or
feelings” (OXFORD, English Oxford
The idea of verbal disguise is built on the idea of disguise. Therefore,
verbal disguise is concealing ones true intentions or feelings by using
language. The Oxford Dictionary defines lying as: “Not telling the truth”. (OXFORD, English Oxford
Verbal disguise might be regarded as a synonym of lying. However, verbal disguise is regarded as a more serious
form of action, whereas lying is a word not taken too serious. Lying is not regarded
as harmful as verbal disguise. And in this tragedy Ferdinand and Bosola use
verbal disguise as to potentially make the Duchess suffer. What gives the word
verbal disguise an even more serious form to it, is that it eventually leads to
“macabre”. Macabre means the “dance of death”. The latin word for macabre is
“Macabees”. John Webster uses verbal disguise to expose the audience to dark
nature of human kind. (McCormack). The more verbal disguise used by the 3 characters, the more it
exposes the reader to the darkness of human kind. In order to understand the
importance of verbal disguise: The
essay will focus on 3 subtopics: How verbal disguise is used by the Duchess,
Bosola and Ferdinand, the significance/necessity behind the use of verbal
disguise, and lastly how verbal disguise is significant in terms of the
tragedy’s macabre ending.
The Duchess: Use of Verbal Disguise
John Webster makes use of verbal disguise, such as the beginning of the
play. The protagonist, also known as the Duchess, tells her brothers The
Cardinal and Ferdinand, that she will not remarry. She is a widow, and the
brothers do not wish for her to remarry. She is one of the major symbols of
disguise. “Duchess: Will you hear me?
I’ll never marry”. (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 1.3. lines 18-19). The Duchess makes use of disguise in order to conceal her
real intentions. She reassures her brothers by letting them know that she will
not remarry. As a widow, the Duchess is independent, in the sense that she as a
widow may make her own decisions. When a woman married, she was no longer under
the authority of her father, her husband would immediately be the authority of
her. But as a widow, she is independent, as no one rules over her. With
this also comes the money the woman might have possibly inherited from her dead
spouse. The Duchess was the wife of a duke. In Europe the duke possessed the
highest rank in the kingdom, after the king. Which gives the duchess an
extremely high position in the kingdom. This meant that the Duchess did not
need for the family members to accept her decision to remarry, as it was legal
for a woman to remarry. The reason for her verbal disguise is to make sure her brothers do not put her in
danger, and that she is able to survive in the Jacobean society. “Ferdinand: Such weddings may more properly
be said to be executed than celebrated. Cardinal: The marriage night is the
entrance into some prison”. (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 1.3. line 42-44).
The brothers do not directly forbid her from remarrying, however they do subtly
threaten her, by letting her know that her marriage will not be celebrated,
rather executed. Which is obviously associated with death. The Duchess
obviously does the contrary of what she says. With disguise comes the use of
deception, which the Duchess makes use of. She proposes to Antonio, the
“Duchess: What do you think of
marriage? There needs small conjuration, when your finger may do it: thus. Is
it fit? (She puts the ring upon his finger). He kneels. Antonio: What said you?
Duchess: Sir, this goodly roof of yours is too low built: I cannot stand
upright isn’t nor discourse, without I raise it higher. Raise yourself, or, if
you please, my hand to help you.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 1.3.154-160).
Even though her
brothers make it clear to her, that she is not to remarry, she decides to
propose to him. This form of disguise, is what the Duchess uses as a form of
survival. If she does not disguise her true intentions, she might be put in
danger. She is unable to show her true intentions due to the fact that she will
not be accepted by her brothers, and might be punished for this deed. She uses
disguise for the good reasons, as to protect herself. The irony in this, is the
words the Duchess makes use of. She tells her brothers that she will not marry,
when in reality she means the complete opposite. She does want to remarry. This
is also known as verbal irony.
Bosola: Use of Verbal Disguise
He was an excellent Courtier and most faithful. Duchess: This good one that you
speak of is my husband.” (Webster, The Duchess
of Malfi 3.2.284).
The Duchess decides to
get rid of Antonio, her husband, in order to save his life from her brothers. Bosola
starts speaking highly of Antonio, as he pretends that he is genuinely upset by
the fact that Antonio had gotten thrown out. The Duchess exposes herself, by
telling Bosola that her spouse is Antonio. She does this as Bosola has finally
gained her trust, through the concern he shows for her spouse. Bosola is one of
the characters of the play, who is well known for being a symbol for disguise.
This is in particular because he demonstrates a high level of intelligence,
just like Odysseus, The Greek hero does. Only difference is that Bosola is using
his intelligence for selfish reasons. He
speaks highly of Antonio, thinking the Duchess might confess something of value
to him. He is indeed a master of his words. He does not need to change
physically to deceive the Duchess through disguise, he only needs to choose his
words wisely. He knows that by taking the Duchess side, he can make sure she
trusts him fully. This shows that Bosola is willing to go all the way, in order
to fulfill his responsibility given to him by the brothers. He puts the Duchess’
life in danger, by telling her to leave for pilgrimage, thereafter he plans on
telling Ferdinand and the Cardinal where she resides. Even here he does not
blow his cover, he manages to put in work his intelligence to deceive the
Duchess. “Bosola: Let me think: I would
wish for your grace to feign a pilgrimage, to our lady Loretto scarce seven
leagues from fair Ancona.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 3.2.348-350). Interestingly,
enough Bosola does not intend to hurt the Duchess, he feels forced to hurt her,
in order to fulfill his job given to him by his masters. As much as Bosola
might seem like he possesses evil, he is in reality only finishing his job
given to him by Ferdinand and the Cardinal. He is a loyal worker to his masters.
Loyalty is what Bosola strives for. Therefore, he does not realize that whilst
trying to complete his job, he is ruining the Duchess’ life. “Bosola: I have done you better service, than
to be slighted thus miserable age, where the only reward of doing well is the
doing of it. Cardinal: You enforce your merit too much.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 1.1.32-33). At the start of
the play, Bosola feels like his work is not appreciated by Ferdinand and the
Cardinal. He lets them know, but they do not give him much attention. They let
him know that he gives himself too much credit. This could have motivated
Bosola into working even harder, by taking up the job of spying on the Duchess.
Ferdinand and The Cardinal do not seem to appreciate his effort, and he might
have wanted to prove them wrong by taking charge of this job as a spy. Which
gives his act of disguise even more significance and importance. Bosola wants
to show his worth.
Ferdinand: Use of Disguise
Ferdinand has just discovered the truth
about the Duchess’ marriage and her children. Instead of punishing her
physically, he decides to torment her mentally.
You were too much i’ th’ light: but no more; I come to seal my peace with you.
Here’s a hand. Gives a dead mans hand. To which you have wov’d much love; the
ring upon’t you gave. Duchess: I affectionately kiss it. A dead man’s hand
here? Here is discovered, behind a traverse, the
artificial figures of ANTONIO and his children, appearing as if they
were dead.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
This is another act of disguise from
Ferdinand’s side. He gains her trust immediately by telling her he wants to seal
his peace with her. Obviously, the reason for the Duchess using disguise, and
deceiving her brothers, is because of their disapproval of her remarrying. She
knew that they would not accept her if she remarried. If they were to find out,
it could result in her death. Therefore, the fact that she is so eager to
settle down with her brothers peacefully, does not come as much of a surprise.
And Ferdinand is aware of the fact that she yearns for their acceptance. That
is why Ferdinand deceives her into thinking he has accepted her marriage and children.
The dead hand that she kisses, can be interpreted as almost a mockery towards
the Duchess. He lets her think he has accepted her fully, but the hand is of a
dead person. He lets her think it is Antonio’s. This is an evil act committed
by Ferdinand. He uses disguise for the bad reasons. He not only tricks her
once, but twice. He is making a mockery of her marriage with Antonio. The passage also takes into account the evil
nature of human kind. This scene
touches upon a major theme in the play: macabre. Macabre deals with death. This
scene is both gruesome and horrifying, because not only does it deal with death.
John Webster presents to the audience the darkest sides of human nature, and
the extent to which humans can go to fulfill their needs. Ferdinand is a good
example of this. To torment someone this horribly can only be a person who
truly is evil. Ferdinand uses verbal disguise to manipulate his sister into
thinking he wants to forgive her. This is interesting, because this might
suggest that words are as strong as actions. Even stronger in the sense that
family is able to control and manipulate you, because they are closest to you,
and therefore there will not be any doubt that you will believe them blindly. However,
despite of the fact that Ferdinand uses the act of disguise for the wrong
reasons, he is extremely intelligent. He needs to be acknowledged for his act.
He uses disguise to hurt the Duchess mentally. He gains her trust, and lets her
kiss her supposedly dead spouse’s hand. He makes sure that he plays it clever.
As she has managed to deceive them for years in
regards to her marriage, Ferdinand wants her to experience the worst kind of
pain she could imagine. Which is the death of her spouse. What makes
Ferdinand’s act even more shocking, is the fact that he has placed artificial
bodies in front of the Duchess, to make her think her children and spouse are
dead. This initially leads to the Duchess’ death. Ferdinand tricks her
viciously into thinking she has lost her entire family. Ferdinand does not need
to murder his sister himself. She kills herself, which will bring Ferdinand
more pleasure, than if he had killed her himself. He has finally accomplished
his goal. He once again deceives her, by tricking her into thinking her family
is death. Which he knows will initially lead to her madness, as she cannot live
without her children and husband. Interestingly enough, Ferdinand does not need
to disguise himself physically by changing clothes and disguising himself as
another person. He deceives her through his actions and words. The extent to
which Ferdinand goes to take revenge on his sister, is bringing her immense
pain. The only pain that could bring her to commit suicide.
The Duchess: Significance of Verbal
The significance behind The Duchess’
use disguise has been discussed. However, it is important to recognize the
necessity behind the use of disguise.
The Duchess uses disguise as a way to claim independence for herself.
She is fully aware of the fact that her brothers will not accept her
remarrying. However, she decides not to conform to the values her brother has
been instilled with. In the Jacobean society a woman who had lost her spouse,
was not considered anyone’s property no more. She had been given away to her
spouse. In case the spouse died, she would be considered an independent woman.
The Jacobean society of Italy, was not entirely opposed to the idea of women’s
rights. The problem for The Duchess is not the Jacobean society, but her
brothers’ lack of acceptance for her marriage.
“Duchess: What do you think of marriage? There needs small conjuration, when your finger may do it: thus. Is it fit? (She puts the ring upon his finger).
He kneels. Antonio: What said you? Duchess:
Sir, this goodly roof of yours is too low built: I cannot stand upright isn’t nor discourse, without I raise it higher.
Raise yourself, or, if you please, my hand to help you.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi 1.3.154-160) .
This passage shows the necessity
behind the Duchess’ need to marry. Antonio is not the one who proposes to the
Duchess. She proposes, which shows how eager she is to get married. This is
significant because as a Duchess living in the Jacobean society, she cannot go
around having premarital intercourse. And as any ordinary woman, she has needs,
that she needs to fulfill. The verbal disguise she chooses to make use of is
for survival. She wants to have a husband and children, and live a meaningful
life. Rather than staying unmarried for the rest of her life. The passage also
raises the idea of a reckless Duchess. She shows the reader a modern way of
proposing. She decides to not conform to traditions, and proposes to Antonio.
Which also shows the necessity for her to be an independent woman.
Ferdinand: Significance of Verbal Disguise
Ferdinand’s use of disguise has been
discussed, however it is important to discuss the necessity behind his use of
disguise. “Ferdinand: You know already what man
is; and therefore Let not youth, high promotion, eloquence. Nor anything
without the addition, honor, Sway your high blood.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
passage seems to suggest that Ferdinand is a traditionalist, in the sense that
he cares deeply about honor and reputation. The reason for his use of disguise,
to get rid of the Duchess, Antonio, and her children, might have been his
traditionalist view points. Honor seems to matter more than family in his eyes.
He tells her not to do anything that might stain their reputation. Ferdinand is
the Duke of Calabria, and is for that reason worried about the Duchess
tarnishing the kingdoms reputation. Along with this the Duchess also decides to
marry Antonio, the steward. A man inferior to the Duchess. Ferdinand cannot
allow this to happen. This does not come as a surprise, even though the Duchess
is independent and allowed to marry, according to the Jacobean society. This is
what differs Ferdinand’s use of disguise from the Duchess’ use of disguise. The
Duchess does it for survival and to escape the cruelty put upon her by her
brothers. Whereas, Ferdinand does it to merely save his reputation. Ferdinand’s
use of disguise is selfish.
Bosola: Significance of Verbal Disguise
Bosola’s use of disguise has been discussed,
however it is important to discuss the necessity/significance behind his use of
I would have you curse yourself now, that your bounty, which makes men truly noble, e’er
should make Me a villain. Oh that to avoid ingratitude for the good deed you
have done me, I must do ?All
the ill man can invent!”
(Webster, The Duchess
of Malfi 1.1273-277).
is the only character in the book who has the lowest position in the hierarchy.
This is clearly seen at the start of the play. He complains about the lack of
recognition he receives for his help. However, this is when the situation
becomes tricky. As a character who does not really have a place in the social
system, Bosola has nothing to lose. Bosola is also one of the characters who
tries to stay true to himself and his values. At first he declines Ferdinand’s
offer that includes spying on the Duchess. However, Ferdinand decides to bribe
him, with a position that he cannot reject. He is given the position “provisor
of the horse”. Which is a respected position in the Kingdom. This goes back to
temptations. Ferdinand is able to tempt Bosola into saying yes, by bribing him.
Which shows that anyone, even the smartest person, can be tempted.
“Bosola: I would have you curse yourself
now, that your bounty, which
makes men truly noble, e’er should make Me a villain. Oh that to avoid
ingratitude for the good deed you have done me, I must do ?All
the ill man can invent!”
(Webster, The Duchess
of Malfi 1.1273-277).
is well aware of the fact that spying on the Duchess is wrong. The reason for
Bosola’s use of disguise, is that he has finally been recognized for his worth,
by being given such a prestigious position. And wants to fulfill his job, to
please Ferdinand and Cardinal. This shows that Bosola is a loyal employee. The
sudden change Bosola undergoes at the end of the play is rather amazing. “Bosola: For I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my
will. Come, be of comfort; I will save your life.” (Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
He decides he wants to save the
Duchess. Bosola is a dynamic character, and undergoes a change mentally. He has
throughout the entire play, known that his verbal disguise was wrong, however,
he only changes at the end of play. This separate him from Ferdinand. Ferdinand does not realize his actions are
evil, Bosola on the other hand does, and undergoes an inner change. Bosola is
therefore not evil, but his actions are. There is a moment of anagnorisis in
the play. Bosola realizes what he really stood for. He realizes that he is not
corrupted like Ferdinand and Cardinal, and decides he wants to save the
Duchess. Bosola might not be the protagonist, but he is the only character in
the book that is revealed to the truth. Which is why it is important to
recognize that his use of verbal disguise does not make him evil, but his
actions make him evil. This is what differs him from Ferdinand.
Verbal Disguise: Significance to Ending
The end of the play marks the death of the Duchess,
Ferdinand, Bosola, Antonio and the Cardinal. Delio the steward, turns to the
audience, and hands over the kingdom to the Duchess’ sons. “Delio: Let us make noble use?Of
this great ruin; and join all our force?To establish this young hopeful
gentleman, In’s mother’s right.” (Webster, The Duchess
Verbal disguise used by The Duchess, Bosola and Ferdinand
is significant to the ending. The Duchess was using disguise for the sake of
survival in the Jacobean society, where she is surrounded by corrupted people
like her brothers: The Cardinal and Ferdinand who do not wish for her to to do
as she wishes in terms of remarrying. As this means she will be bringing their
reputation into disrepute. It might seem like Ferdinand and the Cardinal have
won over the Duchess, because she dies. However, her children are the ones
taking over the kingdom. Which can be interpreted as her children leading on
her legacy of being both an independent woman and survivor. Most of the play
touches upon the idea of macabre. And the tragedy of the story is the death of
the Duchess. However, it is important to recognize that if the Duchess had not
used verbal disguise, she would have never given birth to two boys. She had to
hide her marriage: Although she dies, her legacy, her blood still lives on.
However, the death of Ferdinand marks the end of evil and corruption. John
Webster manages to give the audience elpis, which is a Greek word for hope. The
audience expects a positive future. The death of Ferdinand purifies language,
as there is no need for the use of verbal disguise to conceal ones true
Heading back to the thesis statement: The use of disguise is significant, as
the three characters: The Duchess, Ferdinand and Bosola use verbal disguise to
either maintain their place, create a place or be on equal terms as others in
the social system.
essay recognizes the importance behind the use of disguise by the three
characters: The Duchess, Bosola and Ferdinand. The Duchess uses it considering
her gender in the Jacobean society. Ferdinand, uses verbal disguise considering
his reputation and honor, whereas Bosola uses it to create an important place
for himself in the Jacobean society. Through The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster gives the reader access to the
darkest nature of humankind. Atleast through characters like Bosola and
Ferdinand, who both make use of macabre to either achieve or maintain their
place in the social system of the Jacobean society. Ferdinand kills the
Duchess’ family, whereas Bosola deceives her with fake dead bodies of her
family. Throughout the tragedy the more the use of disguise, the more it
reveals about human nature, and how evil humans can be in order to obtain their
needs. Most of the tragedy puts empha onsis the use of verbal disguise. And
verbal disguise is essential for the characters to obtain their needs. However,
the more verbal disguise there is used the more corruption and evil is created,
which leads to a tragic ending with the death of Ferdinand and the Duchess.
It is also important to recognize that the Duchess is left
with no choice as she decides to make use of verbal disguise. The Jacobean
society she lived in, in the 16th century, was a male dominated society.
However, in todays society, e.g. the Pakistani society where I am from, women
still live in a male dominated society. Therefore, the kind of society the
Duchess was trapped in, is still a part of some countries culture. It is
regarded as being correct that a man is dominant and the woman is
obedient. Therefore, the Duchess of
Malfi, made me reflect over the fact that Pakistan is one of the countries
still in need of equality between both sexes. And the fact that equality has
not yet been introduced to this country, is in itself a tragedy.