Chaucer: Legend of Good Women
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE LEGEND OF
A satire on what?
- On bad men?
The Legend of Good Women is more about bad men than good women. The power of the men increases in the prgression of tales, from a rebel youth to a king; simultaneously from the active Cleopatra (and more interest in Antony and the sea-battle anyway) to the passive Hypermnestra. Hypsipyle and Medea are crammed together because of one man, Jason.
- On the idea of “good women”?
It would mean snide irony about the concept, supreme irony liable to be mistaken for more antifeminism. What does it means to be a “good woman” here? Being pathetic. There are obviously limited ways in which women can be considered “good” to the medieval mind or at least in the literary tradition. Suicidal devotion to the idea of sexual purity is one way, and where does that get them?
- On Ricardian tastes in literature?
Perhaps the work is a satire on conventional notions of morality (women and literature), on the taste for one-dimensionality, on the exemplum model of reading and writing which contorts and excises for the sake of a mindless moralistic program. The problem is not solved but experienced. These are pointed out as stories repeatedly, treated overtly as such listing deconstructs; as in other catalogues, the terms blur, and there’s ultimately no point.
Gower’s force-fitting of tales to a scholastic moral grid looks reductionist and arbitrary. Cf. Gesta Romanorum, Ovide moralisé.
Perhaps Chaucer was pressured to moralize, to turn his literature to didactic purposes. But, he wonders, what is the point of cataloguing old stories everyone already knows and forcing them to fit into a predesigned moral grid? Chaucer never seems to enjoy single-minded views but always prefers multiple perspectives. Here he is forced to question the purpose of old stories being repeated, from tellers/translators and for listeners. In The Canterbury Tales this concern will reappear. The Monk’s Tale is the CT counterpart and bores everyone. The Clerk’s Tale has a tacked on morality that doesn’t fit the story properly. Several other pilgrims force-fit morality to their tales awkwardly and further raise the question therefore. Weird screwy morality emerges when morality is forced. The pilgrims ostensibly want a moral tale and the Pardoner tells exactly what is wanted, but one must look at the teller too! What happens when the purpose of morality is self-interested and corrupt? Serious anxiety later on? Literature is discarded if it doesn’t meet the demands of the public. So Chaucer tacks on the Parson, a Retraction, and quick morality at end of TC and elsewhere. Some anxiety in those disclaimers is real, and not just the persona.
Cleopatra, being a woman in politics, was propagandized against from the start, and especially by the enemy Rome. Still, to have her leading off a legend of “good women” is pretty odd. The story begins, “After the deth of Tholome the kyng” (580), not mentioning that Cleopatra poisoned him and positioning her reign as an interlude between the death of one man and the arrival of the next. Subsequently the emphasis is on Antony, Antony’s exploits, “And of his deth it was ful gret damage” (598). Amid this celebration comes the reminder that we’re working with unreliable old stories: “As certeynly, but if that bokes lye” (609), and the first of the frequent lines suggesting impatience with the chore of repeating these old tales: “And, for to make shortly is the beste” (614). This latter device we find spun out into full-fledged self-contradictory occupatio:The weddynge and the feste to devyse,
To me, that have ytake swich empryse
Of so many a story for to make,
It were to longe, lest that I shulde slake
Of thyng that bereth more effect and charge;
For men may overlade a ship or barge.
And forthy to th’effect thanne wol I skyppe,
And al the remenaunt, I wol lete it slippe.
(616-623)The poet slips into heavy alliteration for the description of the sea-battle — an old English characteristic. The material is anachronistic, though, and describes contemporary naval war. The Battle of Actium here takes up about a fifth of the legend, so there are the narrator’s priorities!
When Cleopatra’s ship flees, Antony renders what will become a melodramatic refrain in the legends, “Allas … the day that I was born!” (658). He kills himself immediately (which is untrue to the legendary story), and Cleopatra prepares a pit of serpents more typical of saints’ legends than any versions of the Cleopatra story.
Now, love, to whom my sorweful herte obeyde
So ferforthly that from that blisful houre
That I yow swor to ben al frely youre —
I mene yow, Antonius, my knyght —
. . . (681-684)Rather deflating there. After her speech, she jumps into the pit, naked, as Chaucer points out. And finally, back to the men:And this is storyal soth, it is no fable.
Now, or I fynde a man thus trewe and stable,
And wol for love his deth so frely take,
I preye God let oure hedes nevere ake!
Amen. (702-705)Nice effect of the big build-up and the anticlimactic flippancy!
This is the story more famous for its appearance as the goofy play that the mechanicals provide within the play by Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, which the Beatles performed in 1964 for British tv. Here, Chaucer begins essentially with two men, the fathers of the young lovers. In that country at that time, “Maydenes been ykept, for jelosye, / Ful streyte, lest they diden som folye” (722-723). Silly girls.
In the same line that Thisbe is introduced, we are reminded that this is an old story (725). There’s the overemphatic bit about the wall, exaggerated nicely by Shakespeare. A point about trusting men is completely irrelevant to the tale (799-801). Chaucer makes it a lioness (805) that attacks Thisbe, and Thisbe hides in a cave, “sore … awhaped” (814). When Piramus discovers the bloody wympel and assumes that Thisbe has been eaten, he says, “Allas … the day that I was born!” (833) and renders the ludicrous apostrophe, “Wympel, allas!” (847).
The moral seems to be that women shouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere alone, especially at night (838-839). Piramus stabs himself — another unnecessary male suicide — and Chaucer compares the blood flow to that of broken plumbing (851-852). When Thisbe discovers him, we get a slapstick vision of Piramus kicking his heels like a cartoon figure in fake death-throes (863). Thisbe figures that love will give her the strength to make her own wound large enough. She’s right.
The moral about not letting women go out alone is reiterated (908-909), and final attention again is given to men (918ff).
This is the longest of the legends and seemingly with fewer of the oddities, so perhaps Chaucer is allegorizing the relationship between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.
But there are the occasional signs of impatience. After a summation of Trojan War events, we are told:
But, as I seyde, of hym and of Dido
Shal be my tale, til that I have do.
I coude folwe, word for word, Virgile,
But it wolde lasten al to longe while.
The narrator expresses a touch of source suspicion at the notion of Venus granting Aeneas invisibility (1020-1022), and Aeneas gets the now familiar line, “Allas that I was born!” (1027). An ludicrously extraneous thought occurs to Chaucer at the point when Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the cave:I not, with hem if there wente any mo;
The autour maketh of it no mencioun.
(1227-1228)An apostrophe to “O sely wemen” for trusting men (1254ff) fills a lot of space and requires that Aeneas was faking it quite extensively: being attentive to her at feasts and dances, fasting, composing songs, jousting, writing letters to her, sending her tokens of affection and jewelry, etc.
Aeneas reports that his father’s ghost appeared to him to spur him on his way towards Italy; in Virgil it’s true. Dido sobs, “That I was born, allas!” (1308). Aeneas sneaks away in the night, and of course had he not, there would be no England. Dido goes to her sister Anne, who is such a drag that Chaucer excuses himself from recording what she advised by saying he’s too overcome with pity and sorrow (1344-1345). Dido kills herself with sword and fire. Oh, and also before she did, she wrote a letter: “But who wol al this letter have in mynde, / Rede Ovyde, and in hym he shal it fynde” (1366-1367).
IV. HYPSIPYLE & MEDEA
Here Chaucer lumps two women together because they were treated shamefully by the same man, Jason. Chaucer again refers his audience to his source: “Lat hym go rede Argonautycon, / For he wole telle a tale long ynogh” (1457-1458). Avoiding mention of the Lemnian women’s slaughter of all the men on the island, the narrator instead beefs up the role of Hercules, pal of Jason, who essentially though subtly challenges Hypsipyle to love Jason. After some unconvincing righteous indignation at possible cads in his audience (1552ff), Chaucer reports that Jason did marry Hypsipyle and had two kids with her — so it’s a pretty long time for a joke. He does leave her, and Hypsipyle writes him a letter “Which were to longe” to bother with here.
The Medea section ends with an identical shirking:
Wel can Ovyde hire letter in vers endyte,
Which were as now to long for me to wryte.
(1678-1679)Medea is best known for being an uncontrolled murderess in league with Hecate. Naturally there’s no mention here of her brother being hacked up and his pieces scattered on the waters so that she and Jason can make their escape from her father. There’s no mention of how she avenged herself on Jason, by murdering their own two kids. Nor do we hear about the poisoned cloak and tiara she sent Jason’s later fiancée which ate into her flesh and killed that girl’s father as well, nor the time Medea made daddy stew out of Jason’s uncle. So she’s rather a stretch for the list of “good women” which now seems to amount simply to being jerked around by bad men.
This famous story of rape in ancient Rome includes the bizarre and tasteless lines:And in a swogh she lay, and wex so ded
Men myghte smyten of hire arm or hed….
(1816-1817)When Lucrece stabs herself to death with a knife, she still has the wherewithal to make sure her collapse is ladylike:For in her fallynge yet she had a care,
Lest that hir fet or suche thyng lay bare;
So wel she loved clennesse and eke trouthe.
The narrator first addresses Mynos and says “Nat for thy sake oonly write I this storye” (1888), and we assume he’ll now highlight the “good woman,” but no, he focuses negative attention on Theseus. Initial material about Mynos and Scylla (Nysus’ daughter) is abandoned: “But that tale were to long as now for me” (1921). Instead, we zip into the story of the Minotaur and Theseus. In Chaucer’s version, Theseus is at the bottom of a tower near to a “foreyne” — a toilet (1962). Somehow, the acoustics are such — use your imagination — that Ariadne and her sister Phaedra can hear Theseus moaning at night about his plight. What they’re doing “on the wal” (1971) perhaps is best left unreported. Ariadne thinks it’s a shame and decides they’ll help this man by getting him a weapon and making him balls (2003).
Theseus, the 23-year-old son of a king, says he is “ydampned to the deth” (2030), which can mean “damned” or “dampened.” He claims to have loved Ariadne for seven years, which seems to come out of the blue as an afterthought to his begging for help.
The slaying of the Minotaur is narrated quickly and oddly. It seems like sexual metaphor but it’s difficult to make that work thoroughly. In any case, afterwards, while Ariadne is asleep, Theseus runs off with her sister. Ariadne wakes up and says, “Allas … that evere I was wrought!” (2187).
What shulde I more telle hire compleynyng?
It is so long, it were an hevy thyng.
With emphasis first on the crimes of Tereus, the story is declared “foule” (2239) — probably a pun since the Ovidian metamorphosis is alluded to in the first line. The narrator grow “wery” of telling this one pretty quickly (2258)! After the rape of Philomela the narrator decides, “Now is it tyme I make an ende sone” (2341). And after Procne’s discovery of her sister: “And thus I late hem in here sorwe dwelle. / The remenaunt is no charge for to telle” (2382-2383). The narrator advises against being like Tereus, instead of telling us about the sisters’ vengeance against him (you know, how they murder and cook the kid and serve him for Tereus to eat?).
Demophon is a chip off the ol’ block, Theseus. After a post-Trojan-War tempest, he lands in Thrace and seduces thr queen, Phyllis:And doth with Phillis what so that hym leste,
As wel coude IWhat?! Oh:As wel coude I, if that me leste so,
Tellen al his doynge to and fro.
(2469-2471)The rest of the story capitalizes on sexual punning. Phyllis complains quite a bit about Demophon not “coming”: “ye ne holde forward” (2500). The guy is just “nat suffisaunt” (2524), so when he disappears, Phyllis laments thus:But syn thus synfully ye me begile,
My body mote ye se withinne a while,
Ryght in the haven of Athenes fletynge,
Withoute sepulture any buryinge,
Thogh ye ben harder than is any ston.
(2550-2554)The tale ends in a colossal joke:Be war, ye wemen, of youre subtyl fo,
Syn yit this day men may ensaumple se;
And trusteth, as in love, no man but me.
Without mention of the 49 sisters who did obey daddy and slit their husbands’ throats in the Ovidian original, Chaucer focuses on Hypermnestra who, because Lyno didn’t mind her maintaining her virginity, let her husband live. Here she decides while he’s asleep that she’ll let him escape along the gutter (2705) despite the consequences to herself. She “softly” wakes him by weeping all over him and shaking him in embraces. He jumps out the window (2709). Hypermnestra tries to follow him but is captured and imprisoned by her father.
A few more lines could have finished it, but Chaucer ends with the line, “This tale is seyd for this conclusioun –” (2723). We are to believe that just at this moment in the composition, Chaucer was called away to dinner and never completed the text. Scribes were notorious for “correcting” and amending in situations like this, so obviously Chaucer’s instruction was to leave this alone, as is.