Malfi and Merchant Comparison: Power




  • Both texts present a power struggle between men and women, and in both the women ultimately prevail, with the Duchess tearing down the system of governance after her death (reflective of Elizabethan Nostalgia) and May succeeding in manipulating Januarie to maintain his fantasy
  • Both the love interests, Damian and Antonio, have very little power within the texts. Damian acts as a plot point to emphasise Chaucer's argument rather than as a fully fledged character. Antonio disrupts the Great Chain of Being and is likely to be seen as a social climber and therefore viewed unfavourably by Jacobean audiences, furthermore Webster emasculates Antonia, getting him to use Stella's lines from Sidney's "Arcadia".
  • It is suggested in both texts that the characters' have ultimately got very little control over their own lives, with the Wheel of Fortune being a prominent image in both. Additionally, astrological imagery is used "Tawr, was into Cancre gliden" and "may go read i'th'stars" to imply that the classical Gods/planetary alignment held ultimate control over the characters. (Elizabethan humanism and classical revival vs importing of classical texts linked to religion (much translated by monks and presented in monastic libraries)


  • In the Duchess of Malfi, the Duchess slowly looses her grip on power after her marriage and then regains it as she dies "The Duchess of Malfi still", whereas in The Merchant's Tale, May gains power through the tale and maintains it, "wommen visage it hardily"
  • Male authority is held by the brothers in Duchess of Malfi and by the husband in Merchant's Tale

Overall comparison

The powerful characters are often the women, who are operating within the confines of a patriarchal society. Both the love interests have very little power and are often emasculated , again equating masculinity with power. However, it is suggested through illusions to the wheel of fortune, metatheatrical references and astrological references that the characters have very little power over their own fate and that classical Gods and theology has ultimate power over society. This is reflective of the importance of religion in both the 1300s and 1600s, although the importance of Catholic teachings had become obsolete in post-reformation protestant England and new ideas such as despair as the ultimate deadly sin had evolved. While The Duchess of Malfi's power deteriorates through the text before increasing after her execution (perhaps reflective of Elizabeth I's shifting popularity), May increases her power and maintains it through the end of the text. However, both women remain ultimately under the influence of their male authority figures.


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