Malfi and Merchant Comparison: Deception




  • Both the Duchess and May deceive the male authority figures in their lives in a sexual fashion. Duchess embodies the traits lusty widow with a "spotted liver" that Ferdinand warns her of becoming "women like that part which, like the lamprey Hath ne'er a bone in't" but simultaneously is considered the Madonna by Antonio and other supporting characters (4 humours - blood). May embodies the same polarisation between Madonna and whore while Chaucer engages with the debate between Auctoritee and experience.
  • Both Antonio and Damian have little control in their inclusion in the deception and are emasculated through it. Some of Antonio's lines are taken from Sidney's "Astrophil and Stella" and are spoken by Stella, while descriptions of the Duchess allude to Astrophil and King Lear.
  • Ferdinand deceives his sister using figures "fashioned out of wax" and deceives the audience equally who would be used to wax work figures on stage and potentially make the same assumption as the Duchess, similarly May uses wax in her deception of Januarie to copy the key allowing Damian access to the garden. Instead of her being manipulated like "warm wex with handes plye" she becomes the manipulator in ultimate control.
  • Januarie deceives himself and lives within his own fantasy, creating his pleasure garden (medieval theories on gardens, enclosed, Eden) like the Duchess who deceives herself and Antonio into thinking "time will scatter the tempest" both are "stark blind"


  • Damian acts as a plot device whose sole purpose is to provide sexual satisfaction, Antonio however takes part in the deception and engages with Bosola in the apricot/birth scene which is comedic
  • The Cardinal dies but is not actively punished for his deception: the murder of Julia, breaking of Catholic ideals or corruption. However, Ferdinand who is diagnosed with lycanthropia, is punished as he becomes reminiscent of an animal (soulless). Four humours theory (Bosola = black bile, Ferdinand = yellow bile, Cardinal = phlegm, Duchess = blood) together they orchestrate the downfall of the play.
  • In The Duchess of Malfi characters who break social boundaries are punished however in The Merchant's Tale May and Damian aren't punished for their deception and it is instead Januarie (who upheld traditional ideas) who remains metaphorically blind - this is especially significant within the context of the marriage tales in which the focus is Auctoritee and experience (Songs of Solomon, Theophrastus' Golden Book of Marriage). "She aspires to a relationship with a man of her own choice, one that transcends the economic and social nexus in which she has been sold and violated" -Ayers

Overall comparison

Overall the characters deceive themselves, those above them in the patriarchal hierarchy and both love interests are emasculated within the deception, although Antonio does involve himself in protecting the Duchess while she is giving birth but becomes increasingly lacking in masculine qualities later on. Characters in The Duchess of Malfi are punished for their deceptions when it breaks established social boundaries, whereas in The Merchant's Tale May and Damian are successful in their deception


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