Malfi and Merchant Comparison: Passion




  • Passionate love, Januarie's sex scene is described in uncomfortable detail in a way that is designed to be comedic to the audience. Similarly in some productions the Cardinal and Julia mime sexual relations on the stage. Additionally, the Duchess and Antonio are later interpreted by audiences to be in love and passionate towards each other.
  • Julia and May's focus on sexual satisfaction is similar, with both using other men to escape the elderly men "Castruchio" and Januarie. "She aspires to a relationship with a man of her own choice, one that transcends the economic and religious nexus in which she has been sold and violated" - Ayers
  • Both the Merchant and the Cardinal are described as having a passion for power, the Merchant "sheeldes selle" which was illegal and the Cardinal breaks with the expectations of his religious status through taking a mistress, murder and corruption. "like plum trees that grow crooked over standing pools".
  • Ferdinand and Januarie are passionate about their personal status within society, with both men surrounding themselves with "flatt'ring sycophants" in the form of Placebo (influenced by Chaucer's translation of Roman de la Rose and the conventions of literary debate) and Ferdinand's courtiers, who must "laugh when I laugh". Both Webster and Chaucer suggest Italian corruption, however Chaucer's view is impacted by his experience as a diplomat in the Lombardy region and Webster is influenced by popular stereotypes of Catholic Italy in post-reformation London. Additionally, unlike Chaucer, Webster is commenting on the present political situation in England, James I's court was popularly considered an "echo chamber"


  • Passion in the Merchant's Tale is predominantly sexual in nature, whereas in Duchess of Malfi Ferdinand in particular exhibits violent passion. This is especially significant in his lycanthropia, his hamartia is his potentially incestuous love for his sister (highlighted in the 1971 production with Judy Dench and her husband Michael Williams as the twins) this is reflective of revenge tragedy conventions of murder/dismemberment ("Tis pit she's a Whore" and "The Revenger's Tragedy")
  • While Antonio and the Duchess's relationship is loving, May and Januarie's marriage is not, with Januarie living in a fantasy of his own focus on "bodily delit" and idea marriage is "paradis terrestre"

Overall comparison

Overall passion is depicted in three ways, sexual, violent and in the preservation of social status. Violent passion is unique to the Duchess of Malfi and is a result of the conventions of Revenge Tragedy and the potentially violent nature of the original story of Giovanna, Duchess of Amalfi that Webster is adhering to. However, both texts establish the importance of sexual passion as a plot device through the Duchess and Antonio (and Ferdinand), Julia and the Cardinal and May with both Januarie and Damian. While May and Januarie's passions within marriage are fuelled by sex, the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio is understood to be loving by a modern audience. However, contemporary audience's may consider Antonio to be a manipulative social climber. Neill describes him as a "false model of virtue, like the unequivocal Bosola".


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