Malfi and Merchant Comparison: Sin




  • Similar ideas on adultery as a mortal sin, sex for pleasure was frowned upon (venial sin), Duchess idea of a "lusty widow", and May being passive "stille as stoon" on her wedding night. Julia and May are both adulteress's. However, May is for comedic effect and as a plot device to share Chaucer's message whereas Julia is to allow Webster to comment on the corruption of Italian courts and within Catholicism.
  • Both texts use imagery of fire to question sinful behaviour,  "Damyan in Venus fyr" with her "fyr brond" and Ferdinand "filled with "unquenchable fire" one is explicitly violent and one is sexual. However Ferdinand's anger may have had sexual undertones as there are questions of incest raised. This was elaborated on in the 1971 production when the twins were played by Judy Dench and her husband Michael Williams.
  • Januarie twists the bible to 'allow' himself sexual pleasure as he will "do no sinne" if he is married. He refuses biblical advice (Theophrastus) as laid out by Justinus. Similarly the Cardinal twists biblical teaching


  • The sin of despair had become commonly accepted by the 17th century, whereas this idea was not established in the 14th century. The Duchess doesn't despair and follows the correct order of death as set our in Ars Morendi. The idea of a "charitable loving God" is "threatened" (Hirsch) in The Duchess of Malfi through the Duchess's Death and Ferdinand's Lycanthropy. In The Merchant's Tale the concept of God isn't threated as Christianity was widely accepted literally.
  • Split between the Catholic and Protestant Church in the 1600s led to influence of Gunpowder Plot/Jesuits on the text

Overall comparison

Overall the primary comparison is the adultery and venial sin from sex for pleasure in both texts. There are changes in understanding of religion from one period to the other which is significant in the comparison of the two. Both texts use the imagery of fire to suggest sinful sexual behaviour and undertones. Januarie and the Cardinal manipulate the bible and are a reflection of the corruption of Italian society as established by Chaucer through his work as a diplomat and by Webster due to his negative perceptions of Catholicism due to his Protestant beliefs.


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