The Tragic Heroes of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi

Categories: Play

Dueling Tragedies: The Tragic Heroes of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

In Chapter Three of Leech’s The Critical Idiom: Tragedy (henceforth shortened as Tragedy), the traditional Aristotelian view of a tragic hero is defined as an exalted person, usually of high rank, who is held because of said rank “in a position of recognizable eminence” (34). Eminence is a key component of being and recognizing an Aristotelian tragic hero because it is eminence which gives the hero his or her defining characteristic of holding superiority over others. Leech quotes Aristotle as defining these tragic heroes in terms of being “better than we are” in terms of not just social standing but essence (34). “What is important is the sense of full, or at least unusual, realization of the powers and tendencies peculiar to man. Orestes kills his mother, Oedipus marries his mother and kills his father, Medea kills her children: yet they are, in a sense, more fully themselves than men and women dare to be,” Leech writes, “It must be remembered, too, that in Greek theatre the actor was a remote figure, masked…He stood for the people…But he was representing a king or hero…he necessarily induced awe, a sense of being above’ as he fell” (34).

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This sense of aboveness is what defines the titular protagonist of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (TDM) as a tragic hero, at least according to Leech’s interpretation of an Aristotelian tragic hero. Here is a woman of high rank, a noble, who occupies by manner of her birth a different space compared to the ordinary person, who is eventually stripped of her innate superiority by the hands of seemingly unforeseeable forces.

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Webster’s Duchess fits Leech’s interpretation of Aristotelian tragic heroes comfortably in that she is not only noble-blooded and an empowered force within her life, she seems to also be doomed by Fate in a way similar to the classical Greek tragic heroes Leech brings attention to in Chapter Three of Tragedy. Like her classical Greek predecessors, the Duchess suffers “the fall” necessary to mar a works protagonist as a tragic hero within Aristotle’s definition. “A fall there always is, and the tragic writer is inevitably concerned with how it operates. Aristotle insisted that it came through ‘hamartia’, an error of judgement which allowed disaster in. This has always been usually interpreted as involving a kind of “poetical justice’…,” Leech writes (38). However, this is where Leech disagrees with Aristotle when in it comes to defining a tragic hero. Leech echoes the sentiment that Aristotle’s approach to defining tragic heroes might be too limiting because in Nonetheless, although Leech does touch upon the idea of the Aristotelian concept of the tragic hero too limiting in that Aristotle fails to recognize that the “tragic burden can be shared” (45). Leech uses Marlowe’s Mortimer from Edward II and Brutus and Cassius from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to demonstrate how the “tragic position” can be shared despite the stress being on the titular character; and, it is with this relationship between characters like Mortimer and Edward and Brutus and Caesar that the full depth of a tragedy is realized (45). The circumstance of the tragic burden being shared among other characters within a work seems to be the case in The Duchess of Malfi where the play seems to be as much about the murderous yet pitiable Bosola as it is the Duchess. Despite Bosola not carrying the traditional attributes of a tragic hero—Bosola does not possess noble rank or has an essence of superiority—Bosola is still tragic in that his circumstances seem to be just as helpless as the Duchess’s. As with Leech’s examples of plays where the tragic burden is shared, The Duchess of Malfi does not venture too far from this notion; in fact, the symbolism of circles present within the work seems to to encourage the shareable nature of the tragic burden.

Although Bosola and the Duchess are pitted against one another as two competing forces, Bosola being described by Antonio as an opportunistic sycophant who “rails at those things which he wants” while the Duchess is contrasted as the beautiful and virtuous “the right noble duchess”, both Bosola and the Duchess seem to share the same ill-fated destiny that seems to be demonstrated through the symbolism circles have in the play (1.1. 25-35, 1.2. 110-115). The symbols circles represent within The Duchess of Malfi are ideas such as matrimony, the dichotomy between trust and distrust, sovereignty, private worlds and secrecy. From Act 1, circles are included to represent a range of ideas and begin to make its mark as an overarching symbol within the play beginning with the covert marriage between Antonio and the Duchess. In Scene 3 of Act 1, the Duchess, proclaiming her wedding ring to be a cure to one of Antonio’s bloodshot eyes, says that her ring is “very sovereign” and that she “did vow to never part with it/ But to my second husband” (1.3.110). The word sovereign means in this context that the ring possesses healing attributes but it still carries an overtone of royal power because of the Duchess’s nobility. The dual meanings of the word sovereign can also illustrate how the Duchess views her position as dowager of Amalfi in regards to her ability to trump social conventions by marrying someone below her station and expecting critics such as her brothers to eventually concede to her point of view with time (“Yet, should they know it, time will easily/ Scatter the tempest (2.1.170-176). This illustration of the Duchess’ naivety in this circumstance, perhaps more in hindsight rather then as story takes place within the text, may be the symptom of a larger issue relating to the Duchess’ characterization: her pride. Proclaiming one’s ring as sovereign both in terms of healing and royal capabilities can be seen as an example of the Duchess using the privileged space she occupies to persuade her lover to accept her proposal. In “Spiritual Echoes of The Duchess of Malfi” (“Spiritual Echoes”), Hunt critiques the Duchess’ behavior in regards to her treatment of religion and her interactions with her brothers and Cariola; and, Hunt suggests that the Duchess’s “proud self-creation of her destiny independent of conventional morality by wooing Antonio and singularly wedding him may make her to be an admirable

1 Pg. 1582 of Volume B of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, bottom of the page: sovereignty means healing but with an overtone implying royal power (9).

prototype of self-reliance” (175). However, because of the ease of how the Duchess dismisses Cariola’s judgement of the Duchess’s attitude towards the Church and how Cariola declares the Duchess “mad” because of her disregard of “Ferdinand’s warnings and the social context she, Antonio and their children must live”, the Duchess’s seemingly high regard for her own perspective might be the central characteristic of her harmartia in its subtle suggestion of a “problematic ambiguity” in her character (175).

In light of Hunt’s suppositions, the symbol of the circle draws more attention towards this possibility of pride being the root of the Duchess’s hamartia; especially, as the symbol of the circle incorporates other concepts beyond matrimony and sovereignty such as sanctuary, secrecy and the dichotomy between trust and distrust. When Antonio asks of what the couple should do about the Duchess’ brothers who will despise their marriage, the Duchess replies “Do not think of them. All discord without this circumference/ Is only to be pitied, and not feared” to which Antonio, perhaps out of genuine belief that her brothers will come to accept their marriage, agrees with her (1.3. 169-174). The word the Duchess uses, circumference, implies a sense of the Duchess carving out a boundary that immediately separates the people she trusts (Cariola and Antonio) and people she distrust (the Cardinal and Ferdinand) and by doing so, the Duchess has established a new order within her household. The word circumference, similar to sovereignty, carries a double meaning that can either represent the very room the Duchess is married in or the embrace of the couple themselves, which, again, brings the question of how the Duchess views herself as well as brings to mind the “problematic ambiguity” to her character Hunt mentions. In establishing this new order where all things she finds suitable are within the circumference and all things that she does not are outside of it, the Duchess is creating a private world, a sanctuary,

2 Pg. 1584 of same anthology, bottom of the page: circumference means both of this room and their embrace (5).

where she can thrive without the hindrances of undesired actions and opinions; and, in creating such a boundary, the Duchess has, regardless of intention, set up a dichotomy between those whom she trusts (Cariola and Antonio) and those whom she distrusts (The Cardinal and Ferdinand). Because her of actions, the Duchess can be viewed as being naive as well as proud because, as she later discovers, she allowed one of the most untrustworthy people around her to enter her private world where he would later betray her. With the establishment of the circumference, her sanctuary and private world, the Duchess has perhaps extended her authority beyond its natural ability.

Nonetheless, the establishment as circles as private worlds are not unique to just the sanctuary the Duchess created with Antonio and Cariola. The play presents a strong dichotomy between trust and distrust in how each of the other characters are grouped in regards to one another so that they, too, share a private world. Ferdinand and the Cardinal possess their own circle that consists of Castruccio, Silvio, Pescara, Malateste and Julia with Bosola mediating between the brothers’ circle and the Duchess’s. Antonio and Delio possess their own separate circle in which Delio, similar to Bosola although not as malcontent, drifts from Ferdinand’s and the Cardinal’s circle back to Antonio in order to help his dear friend. In a small way, Bosola and Antonio share their own circle in that Bosola, desperate to save Antonio’s life in Act V and to later avenge him, share their own circle although it seems to contain a highly spiritual component where Bosola desires a way to redeem himself as demonstrated in the following lines:

Oh poor Antonio, though nothing be so needful

To thy estate as pity, yet I find

Nothing so dangerous…..Well, good Antonio,

I’ll seek thee out, and all my care shall be

To put thee into safety from the reach…

I’ll join thee in a most just revenge;

…O Penitence, let me truly taste thy cup,


Circles as symbols of private worlds further exemplifies Leech’s suggestion that the relationships between characters of opposing, perhaps downright hostile, perspectives showcases the ability these relationships have in unveiling the depth of the tragedy in plays like The Duchess of Malfi because it shows how the tragic burden spreads to each character depending on which world they occupy. When the Duchess is taken to be the focus of the play regardless of how she created boundaries between herself, Antonio, Cariola and her brothers, it seems too simplistic to place the tragic burden solely on her because the story does not end when she dies but when Bosola dies. In this regard, Bosola becomes less of antagonist to the Duchess but a separate tragedy within The Duchess of Malfi.

Bosola is motivated by a desire to win the respect of the Cardinal and Ferdinand and procure, at last, the things in which he feels he is entitled to (1.1 50-55). His desperation to prove himself to the brothers proved to be his ultimate downfall but this is not a result that is realized once the play ends. Bosola, unlike the Duchess, seems to have a strong sense of self-awareness as well as a deep understanding of other characters’ motivations. In Act 1, Scene 2, Bosola demonstrates this awareness of himself and Ferdinand’s motivations when he asks the duke as soon as the duke hands him money, “So:/ What follows? Never rained such showers as these/ Without thunderbolts i’th’ tail of them./ Whose throat must I cut?” (1.150-155). Bosola demonstrates a similar level of self-awareness when he says after Ferdinand dismisses him, “Let good men, for good deeds, covet good fame,/ Since place and riches oft are bribes of shame;/ Sometimes the devil doth preach” implying that he knows what he does is morally wrong but he is helpless against his desires for riches (1.194-195). Nevertheless in one of the stronger examples of his self-awareness of his actions, Bosola, demonstrates remorse in Act 4, Scene 2 when he tells Ferdinand:

Wherefore I should be thus neglected. Sir,

I served your tyranny, and rather strove

To satisfy yourself than all the world,

And though I loathed the evil, yet I loved

You that did counsel it; and rather sought

To appear a true servant than an honest man (1. 305-310).

Again, Bosola is not a tragic hero if we are to base it on a narrow Aristotelian definition that relies heavily on eminence as a quality of someone of high rank. He is not noble like the Duchess and there are no qualities that would make the reader feel as if he is superior to him; yet, despite not fulfilling the definition of a concerning a tragic hero by strict Aristotelian interpretation, Bosola still manages to provoke a sense of eminence about him. As Leech notes in Tragedy, Aristotle rejected the notion of an evil or totally good hero because “one would not move us to pity and the fall of the other would merely shock us” (38). Bosola shifts from being a simple, treacherous obstacle in the Duchess’ path to happiness when he becomes pitiable, becomes humanlike through the unveiling of later virtuous traits such as when he nobly lies to the Duchess to console her during er final moments (TDM 4.2. 325-330). By showing compassion during a time where he should be rejoicing because certainly now he would finally win the favors of the Cardinal and Ferdinand after trying so long to please them, Bosola unveils that even he has the “special virtue” necessary in a tragic hero (Tragedy 38). Bosola’s status as a tragic hero is further illustrated when Bosola shows characteristics of an anagnorisis, after all his self-awareness and speech to Ferdinand after he killed the Duchess shows that he has experienced a sharp revelation. When Bosola , desperate for redemption, decides that instead of following the orders of his masters he would rather save Antonio’s life, Bosola’s place in the story shifts from just being an antagonist like the Cardinal or Ferdinand because, unlike them, Bosola now seems to have just as much at stake as the Duchess (5.2. 315-330). This shift in Bosola’s characterization illustrates Leech’s concluding point on what makes a tragic hero a tragic hero: the tragic hero is “one of us” and is a person who reminds us of strongly of our own humanity and can be accepted as standing for us (Tragedy 46). Bosola reminds of us of our humanity when he decides to comfort the dying Duchess with a lie so she may die in peace. Bosola reminds us of our humanity when he shows Antonio the same compassion but telling him the truth about his wife and children (TDM 5.4. 55-59). It is because of these reasons that Bosola is a tragic hero rather than a mere antagonist like Ferdinand or the Cardinal because it illustrates that Bosola is too human and he suffers because of it.

Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi’s the layered symbolism of circles help contribute to the expansion of the tragic burden within the play to include not just the titular character but her main antagonist as well. In spreading of the tragic burden, the work manages to uplift Bosola from a simple antagonist and into a deuteragonist who has much claim in the story as the Duchess. It is through this interaction of symbols and plot that the depth of the tragic burden is realized.


Works Cited

  1. Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 1573-1647. Print.
  2. Leech, Clifford. “Chapter 3: The Tragic Hero.” Critical Idiom: Tragedy, Taylor & Francis Ltd / Books, Sept. 1969, pp. 33-46.
  3. Hunt, Maurice. “The Spiritual Echoes of the Duchess of Malfi.” Essays in Literature, vol. 14, no.2, pp. 171-187.

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The Tragic Heroes of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. (2021, Oct 09). Retrieved from

The Tragic Heroes of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi

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