Bosola is the tool through which the Cardinal and Ferdinand perpetrate most of their evil in The Duchess of Malfi. He is hired by Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess, for whom he serves as manager of her horses. He is an enigmatic figure, willing to murder for hire without hesitation, while initially reluctant to the commit to the seemingly less extreme vice of spying.
As his deeds lead to worse and worse consequences–the banishment of the Duchess and her family, the murder of the Duchess and her children, Antonio’s accidental death–he shows more and more remorse for his actions. It is only when Ferdinand and the Cardinal refuse to reward him for all he has done, though, that he stops blindly following their orders, and avenges the Duchess and Antonio by murdering the Cardinal and Ferdinand.
At the opening of the play, the Duchess of Malfi, sister to the Cardinal and twin sister to Ferdinand, has just been widowed in her youth. Though she promises her domineering brothers that she won’t remarry, she almost immediately proposes to Antonio, a decision that ultimately leads to the destruction of her entire family, save their oldest son. The Duchess is strong-willed, brave, passionate, proud, and a loving wife and mother. In the opening of the play, Antonio speaks of her incredible virtue, and though she marries him against custom and her brothers’ wishes, her goodness and vitality stand in stark contrast to her brothers’ evil.
The Duke of Calabria and the Duchess’s twin brother, Ferdinand boasts an impressive collection of vices: he has a terrible temper, is greedy, is lustful, and has an unhealthy obsession with his sister. He is powerful and corrupt, but as his anger over the Duchess’s actions grows, he becomes more and more deranged. Once Bosola has, under his orders, killed the Duchess and two of her children, he immediately feels deep regret and then loses his mind completely. In the play, Ferdinand is often associated with fire imagery, and represents violent, choleric evil.
The Duchess and Ferdinand’s older brother, the Cardinal of Aragon represents cold and calculated evil in contrast to his hot-tempered brother. He is a Machiavellian character, using the power of his position to torture and counter the Duchess. Ultimately, though, he loses his ability to control events, a situation Bosola exploits to kill him.
Antonio Bologna is the steward of the Duchess’s household. She falls in love with him and they secretly wed, managing to keep this hidden from her brothers and Bosola. Antonio is an honest man, a good horseman, a good judge of character, and a loving husband and father, but he is also passive and largely ineffectual in a crisis, ultimately unable to protect his family from harm. He is also rather unremarkable when compared to the impressive Duchess.
Delio is Antonio’s friend and the only one besides Cariola who is initially trusted with the secret of the Duchess’s marriage to Antonio. He remains a faithful friend to the family through the end of the play. He also has a history with Julia, which he’d like to continue.
Cariola is the Duchess’s maid and confidant. She is the witness to the Duchess’s marriage to Antonio, and thus the first to know about it. She keeps the secret faithfully, and in the end is killed by Bosola for doing so.
Julia is the Cardinal’s mistress and Castruccio’s wife. She is also wooed by Delio and later falls in love with Bosola. Bosola uses her as an unwitting tool to force a confession for the Duchess’s death from the Cardinal, after which the Cardinal poisons her.
The Duchess and Antonio’s three children never speak in the play, but are on stage in multiple scenes. The two youngest are viciously murdered by Bosola’s men, while the oldest, in spite of his dire horoscope, is the only member of the family to survive, and symbolizes a hopeful future at the play’s end.
Malateste is known for presenting himself as a soldier but avoiding any battles, and thus is scorned as a coward. Ferdinand recommends him to the Duchess as a suitable husband, but she scorns the idea.
The Marquis of Pescara is a soldier, and the only courtier save Antonio and Delio who acts with any real honor. When Bosola attacks the Cardinal, he is the only lord to answer the cries for help, even at risk of being mocked for it.
Castruccio is a courtier under Ferdinand, and Julia’s older husband. He represents the cuckolded fool.
Silvio is a courtier under Ferdinand.
Roderigo is a courtier under Ferdinand.
Grisolan is a courtier under Ferdinand.
The Old Lady, a midwife, is ridiculed by Bosola at length for wearing makeup to try to cover what he perceives as her hideousness.
The Doctor diagnoses and tries to treat Ferdinand’s lycanthropia. His primary method of treatment is to make Ferdinand frightened of him.
As the Cardinal enacts the ceremony that results in the Duchess’s exile from Ancona, the two pilgrims watch the ceremony and provide commentary.
Sent to the Duchess during her imprisonment, the Mad Astrologer lost his mind when they day he had predicted for the apocalypse came and went without incident.
Sent to the Duchess during her imprisonment, the Mad Doctor lost his mind due to jealousy.
The Mad Priest is sent to the Duchess during her imprisonment to try to drive her crazy.
The Mad Lawyer is sent to the Duchess during her imprisonment to try to drive her crazy.