Answer: Daniel de Bosola, a former servant of the Cardinal, now returned from a sentence of imprisonment in the galleys for murder and was sent by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess as her provisor of horse. He is employed by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess in hopes of keeping her away from marriage. He is involved in the murder of the Duchess, her children, Cariola, Antonio, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, and a servant. Upon witnessing the nobility and fearlessness of the Duchess and Antonio facing their deaths, he then experiences guilt. Though he was the one who arranged her death, he then seeks to avenge it. Bosola can be considered the most complex character in the play since he goes from being a killer without regret, and then changes and is filled with regret. Being the malcontent of the play, he tends to view things cynically, and makes numerous critical comments on the nature of Renaissance society. He is frequently characterized by his melancholy.
It could be argued that The Duchess of Malfi is merely a seventeenth century melodrama which explores not the philosophical questions of life and love, but instead the spectacle of death. Indeed Delio is the only character left standing at the end of the play and at one point Webster goes so far as to kill off one of his characters through kissing a poisoned bible.
However, if there is one character that does have a philosophical input to the play it is the ever perceptive Bosola, who ironically is (in line with the ‘slasher’ genre of the play) is a hired killer.
Bosola is Webster’s mouthpiece for the dramatist’s restless, mocking, intelligence. Throughout the play Bosola reels out pragmatic observation. However petty and comical:
“There was a lady in France that, having the small-pox,
Flay’d the skin off her face to make it more level;
And whereas before she looked like a nutmeg grater,
After she resembled an abortive hedgehog.”
Although Bosola is quick to point out other people’s weaknesses, particularly the vices of the professions, when he talks to Castructio about the legal profession he is quick to mock:
“When you come to be a president
In criminal causes, if you smile upon a prisoner, hang him, but if
You frown upon him, and threaten him, let him be sure to ‘scape
He is also aware of his own shortcomings with an admission of avarice follow by a justification of it. The rest of the world screws each other so will he:
“Physicians that apply horse-leeches to any rank swelling use to cut off their tails, that the blood may run through them the faster: let me have no train when I go to shed blood, less it make me have a greater when I ride to the gallows.”
It is impossible to talk about Bosola without pointing out the fact that he is the quintessential malcontent. The root of his discontent is his betrayal before the play by the cardinal, a betrayal for which Bosola spent time in the galleys as punishment for a murder at the order of the Cardinal that he took full responsibility.
“I have done you better service
Than to be slighted thus.
Miserable age, where only the reward
Of doing well, is the doing of it!”
There is no question about the nature of Bosola’s character at the beginning of the Play. As Antonio puts it:
“Here comes Bosola,
The only court-gall; yet I observe his railing
Is not for simple love of piety:
Indeed he rails at those things which he wants;
Would be as lecherous, covetous, or proud,
Bloody, or envious, as any man,
If he had means to be so.”
However it is a matter of greater debate whether Bosola’s motivation for killing changes and therefore his morality improves with the course of events. Some argue that after the death of the Duchess, for whom Bosola feels remorse, he is then driven to kill his employers through revenge on behalf of the wronged party.
“Faith, end here,
And go no farther in your cruelty;
Send her a penitential garment to put on
Next to her delicate skin, and furnish her
With beads, and prayer-books.”
However I would argue that he is still driven by his own self-interest. His conscience not plagued by the acceptance that he has killed the Duchess for evil men, but that he is not being paid for the deed.
Because of the nature of his character the audience would not expect Bosola to have passionate leanings; however he does enjoy some flirtation with Julia at the expense of the Cardinal.
“I have it, I will work upon this creature.—
Let us grow most amorously familiar:
If the great cardinal now should see me thus,
Would he not count me a villain?”
To conclude; Bosola’s defining characteristic is his intelligence. This is perfectly demonstrated when he speaks of the sycophants at court and compares them to parasites getting the best fruit from an isolated tree.
“He and his brother are like plum trees that grow crocked over standing pools… none but crows, pies and caterpillars feed on them”