The Duchess of Malfi

Merit in The Duchess of Malfi College

“Her days are practis’d in such noble virtue,

That, sure her nights, nay more, her very sleeps,

Are more in heaven, than other ladies’ shrifts.

Let all sweet ladies break their flatt’ring glasses,

And dress themselves in her” – (1.2.123-127)

These eulogizing words are spoken by Antonio in what is contextually the first mention of the duchess in the play. Even though these lines happen to come from one who is obviously enamoured by the Duchess’s charm, it is clear that she is seen to be an exemplum for other women. Furthermore, this entire speech contrasts the Duchess against her brothers, as an individual who deserves her high position and not merely by virtue of birth. This juxtaposition of the attitudes towards merit and degree remains a constant theme in the play, right from the beginning when Antonio lauds the French court for its meritocratic approach. Therefore, the Duchess at one level symbolically stands as a beacon for noble spirit against orthodox societal notions such as those of hierarchy and gender, embodied in the negative characters of her brothers. As Anand Prakash puts forth in his introduction, the duchess is seen as “an all-inspiring entity on the strength of her bold assertion of individual entity”. Even her...

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