Women in Chaucer and Shakespeare What Is Essay
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Women in Chaucer and Shakespeare
What is a female reader supposed to get from reading a poem or watching a play written by male authors? If the topic is classical, the chances are that it is intended as a sort of model for conduct, a form of etiquette instruction in the guise of a worthy lesson from the traditional classical education -- and therefore obliged to reflect contemporary moral standards to which women were expected to adhere. I propose to compare the treatment of women in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida -- specifically in Act III Scene 1, the moment when Pandarus finally manages to effect a meeting between the lovers of the title -- with that much earlier in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, with specific reference lines 1052-1087. I think we can see a shift from the medieval to the modern mindset in such a comparison: specifically to watch how Chaucer's very medieval use of virtuous models of behavior from the classical world is subverted by Shakespeare's bitter portrayal of one of the bitterest episodes from classical epic. The difference will also demonstrate a shift between the pious Roman Catholicism which Chaucer was obliged to respect in his verse to the revisionist Trojan War of Shakespeare's play, which seems to take place in a godless world.
Chaucer illustrates the perfect way in which classical reading subjects were employed as virtual "conduct manuals" for the female reader. The passage from the Book of the Duchess which I intend to examine is certainly entailed in understanding how Chaucer portrays female characters with an eye on female readers. I would like to quote the passage in full, but ask the reader to approach it specifically with the question of its tone in mind:
'With myn? Nay, alle that hir seyen
Seyde and sworen hit was so.
And thogh they ne hadde, I wolde tho
best my lady fre,
Thogh I had had al the beautee
That ever had Alcipyades,
And al the strengthe of Ercules,
And therto had the worthinesse
Of Alisaundre, and al the richesse
That ever was in Babiloyne,
In Cartage, or in Macedoyne,
Or in Rome, or in Ninive;
And therto al-so hardy be
As was Ector, so have I Ioye,
That Achilles slow at Troye
And therfor was he slayn also
In a temple, for bothe two
Were slayn, he and Antilegius,
And so seyth Dares Frigius,
For love of hir Polixena
Or ben as wys as Minerva,
I wolde ever, withoute drede,
Have loved hir, for I moste nede!
"Nede!" nay, I gabbe now,
Noght "nede," and I wol telle how,
For of good wille myn herte hit wolde,
And eek to love hir I was holde
As for the fairest and the beste.
'She was as good, so have I reste,
As ever was Penelope of Grece,
Or as the noble wyf Lucrece,
That was the beste -- he telleth thus,
The Romayn Tytus Livius
She was as good, and no-thing lyke,
Thogh hir stories be autentyke;
Algate she was as trewe as she. (Chaucer. p 337).
I crave the reader's indulgence in quoting this passage at length, but I think it is important for contemporary readers to inquire into the tone of this passage. The proliferation of classical names -- rhyming Alcibiades with Hercules, and "Penelope of Grece" with "Lucrece," the same noble Roman wife raped by the evil King Tarquin depicted in Shakespeare's own early poem "The Rape of Lucrece" -- almost seems like frivolous macaronic verse here. It is only by realizing that each of these is a sort of topos -- an educational illustration -- selected to indicate certain forms of female virtue. In other words, they are like standard educational tropes -- the patience of Penelope, the chastity of Lucretia -- for…
Sources Used in Documents:
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1999. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Book of the Duchess." In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by L. Benson, R. Pratt, and F.N. Robinson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Troilus and Cressida. Edited by William Rolfe. New York: Harper's, 1905. Print.
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