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The Duchess of Malfi

Commentary on Act 2 Scene 1

Both Hamlet and Bosola are described as melancholic (both probably wore black), but notice the difference in their philosophical musings about human nature. Speaking to Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2) Hamlet’s dark mood does not erase his sense of wonder concerning the nature and potential of humanity.

Bosola, on the other hand, finds the human form disgusting and loathsome: “Man stands amaz’d to see his deformity in any other creature but himself.” The inevitability of death causes Bosola to view the living as walking corpses, who delude themselves in thinking that they are anything other than food for worms: “…though continually we bear about us a rotten and dead body, we delight to hide it in rich tissue; all our fear, nay all our terror, is, lest our physician should put us in the ground, to be made sweet.”


Several productions, including our own, omit the opening business between Bosola, Castruchio, and the Old Lady, starting the scene with “I observe our Duchess is sick a-days.” Although one loses an intriguing insight into Bosola’s gloomy perspective, this cut does have the advantage of moving directly to the plot, which is in keeping with Webster’s terse writing style. He hurries the action along himself, skipping over months and years between scenes, even omitting words from sentences, lines written to be spoken quickly. Webster likes using aphorisms, short conclusive statements that sum up situation and character concisely.

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