A Gallery of Women
Exit in inmensum fecunda licentia vatum, obligat historica nec sua verba fide. et mea debuerat falso lauda videri femina; credulitas nunc mihi vestra nocet.
Ovid, Amores 3.12.41–44
Boundless emerges the poet's fertile license, historical fidelity does not constrain his words. Even my lady ought to have been seen as falsely praised; now your credulity damages me. (My trans.)
In the Chaucerian text, then, denial and affirmation of gender difference come as closely bound as true and false tidings from the House of Rumor when they "compounded / Togeder fle for oo tydynge" (HF 2108–9). It is sometimes tempting to see Chaucer as an outright misogynist, especially when we recall his implication in the raplus of Cecily Chaumpaigne (which the legal historian P. R. Watts says can only have been a sexual offense) and notice the prominent role assigned to rape in his work: Lucrece and Philomela in the Legend, Malyn and her mother in the Reeve's Tale , the anonymous peasant girl in Alison's tale, the wedding night of May and January as narrated by the Merchant, and the planned rape of Virginia (averted by murder) in the Physician's Tale . Murders of women occur in three of the Tales: the Physician's, the Manciple's, and the Second Nun's. After a list like this, one would prefer to rest the case; on the psychoanalytic level I would do so, and have done so in discussing the Manciple's Tale (cf. Writing Woman ).
Two things are minimized in this position, though. One is the immense creative power the poet has invested in many of his female characters, with such persuasive effect that Carolyn Dinshaw claims that "Chaucer writes like a woman." The other is the substantial integration of women into English economic and social
life: visitors from Spain and Italy called England "a paradise for women" compared to their own countries. As a Londoner, a courtier, a traveler, a government bureaucrat, Chaucer was well aware of women's real social roles and capabilities, and that awareness is part of his sensibility. It matters aesthetically and historically, therefore, to grasp the ambivalent and multiply nuanced Chaucerian attitude toward women, its distance from a simplistic or essentialist misogyny that would portray women—"Woman"—as inherently passive or inherently wicked.
Proceeding once more through the series, I shall look at its explorations of sex and gender: how sexuality, mediated by language, subjectivity, money, or literary tradition, becomes gender; how it may relate to political power; where art enters the picture.
King, governing, reigning queen, senator, conquering realms and honor, custom, having the world at their obedience: such is the cluster of images and concepts with which, in its first eight lines, the first legend opens. After this overture setting a political theme, the hero is introduced. Antony does everything wrong—or, as the Chaucerian Narrator obtusely puts it, "Fortune hym oughte a shame" (589). As a member of the ruling elite, he becomes "Rebel unto the toun of Rome" (591); as a husband, he abandons his wife "or that she was war" (593); as a tactician, he mortally offends Caesar, whose sister his wife is (592); as a moral being, he becomes, or wishes to become, a bigamist (594). In statesmanship and in marriage, Antony subverts the proper order, and we are soon shown the subjective operation of this subversion, as Antony allows passion to overwhelm reason.
There is only one thing the man does right, and that is being a lover. Antony is so absolutely committed to his beloved that "al the world he sette at no value" (602). His only desire is to love and serve her; he is quite willing to die in her defense (605—6). He is, in short, a very perfect gentle courtly lover, and, best of all, the dependency bond is reciprocated (607). This is so despite the fact that the pair are a wedded couple: Antony wishes to "han another wyf," Cleopatra "wax his wif," and the Narrator declines to describe "the weddynge
and the feste" (616). Although the Riverside Chaucer remarks that they are married "only in the accounts of Vincent of Beauvais and Boccaccio," in fact there is a much nearer source for this detail: Higden's Polychronicon , where the monk writes, "Antonius repudiata sorore Caesaris quam duxerat, Cleopatram reginam Ægypti superduxit, cui et Arabiam dedit" (3.44). The same verb, duco , is used of both partnerships. Trevisa, displacing Cleopatra's name into the wrong clause, nonetheless preserves the relationship in translating, "Antonius putte from hym his wif Cleopatra, Cesar his suster, and wedded the queue of Egipt, and yaf hir Arabia." Whether the poet considered this unsanctioned marriage (and others in the Legend ) to be morally and legally binding is debatable; the question is discussed below in connection with Dido. Clearly the characters and the narrator consider it so. Nonetheless Chaucer lightly underscores the erotic intensity of this marriage by inserting several tried and true phrases from the courtly lyric and romance tradition:"desert ¼ chyvalrye ¼ gentilesse ¼ discrecioun and hardynesse¼ . And she was fayr as is the rose in May" (608–13). (This last phrase describing a North African queen must have evoked some little sense of irony in the keenly color-conscious medieval reader.)
One can be an excellent lover, we see, and a terrible everything else. It is not, I believe, that Antony "is not the ideal courtly lover" (Frank, 41) but rather that he is precisely that—and a rebel, adulterer, traitor, and bigamist beside. The problem is that erotic intensity certifies nothing else at all. It can coexist with a wide range of
moral deficiencies or even crimes, because the standard of erotic desire excludes too much. It can be fully met by immoral people. Nor is it a question of "the world well lost for love" (ibid., 40) but on the contrary, of the world ill lost for love. Nor is this simply a version of the "exotic temptress" topos (or ideologeme). While making use of the idea, Chaucer does not leave it at this, for if Cleopatra tempts Antony to abandon his country and his family, she is tempted equally by him. She too is a ruler, she too abdicates her social responsibility in sheer subjective self-indulgence, she too is far from lacking courage. This is a story, then, without a victim. The parties are true and devoted lovers, equal in passion and in irresponsibility. To represent shared and equal folly allows Chaucer to accomplish the same sort of simultaneous maneuver he performed in the balade: to collapse gender and political distinctions on the ethical level, while illustrating the disastrous consequences of such leveling in the world of social action.
Even in its erotic dimension, then, the legend of Cleopatra is in a sense about politics: that is, about the ultimate vacuity, sterility, and antisocial consequences of sheer eroticism. Chaucer was not alone in asserting this theme, not even in poetry. Chrétien's Erec et Enide is devoted to it, and not coincidentally Chrétien's romance employs the arch-Orientalist story of Dido and Aeneas as a metaphor for itself (5289–5300). Yet the legendary reference plays a minor part in Chretien's narrative, occurring only toward the end of the work; indeed, part of the affective power of Erec et Enide is precisely that it de-exoticizes the issue in three ways. First, the setting is Britain, the characters French and British. Second, heroism is shared equally by the male and female protagonists, who are a married couple. Third, the poem locates the problem of duty versus pleasure squarely within normal masculine consciousness rather than projecting it onto the seductive ways of a temptress. It is riot, I think, a vision Chaucer would necessarily contradict, but neither is it one he was able in his own work fully to express. I mean by this that his sensibility tends rather toward the negative than the positive in love: toward the failure of eroticism rather than the success of stable love. If there is a work that might qualify as Chaucer's Erec et Enide , it would be his Franklin's Tale , but the difference in scope suggests that this is the exception that proves the rule.
The potential pathos of the Thisbe story is allayed in several ways: by obscene wordplay, as shown in Chapter 3, and by the heavily laden Oriental references with which the tale opens (Chapter 4). Another antisentimental tactic is a farcical narrative style, which surfaces in two places, both connected with the death of Piramus:
And with that word he smot hym to the herte.
The blod out of the wounde as brode sterte
As water, whan the condit broken is.
And at the laste hire love thanne hath she founde,
Betynge with his heles on the grounde ¼
The first, the image of blood spurting out of a wound like water from broken plumbing, occurs in Ovid (Met. 4.121–24). Indeed, it is (by Ovidian standards) considerably overdone there. Clearly, it parodies Homeric extended simile, yet with the narrative justification that Piramus's blood must spurt high enough from the ground where he lies to dye the (hitherto white) fruit of the mulberry tree and thus accomplish metamorphosis. In Ovid and the Ovide moralisé, the wound is to the lower abdomen, while Boccaccio and Chaucer make it a cut to the breast or heart, and both omit the metamorphosis.
The second locus, however, the farcical detail of the hero beating with his heels on the ground, occurs neither in Ovid, the Ovide moralisé , nor Boccacdo. It comes from an author mentioned in the House of Fame as "Englyssh Gaufride" (1470) and cited as a source for certain details in the Franklin's Tale: Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century Historia regum Britanniae. Narrating the death of the tribune Frollo at Arthur's hands, Geoffrey writes, "Quo vulnere cecidit Frollo, tellurem calcaneis pulsans, et spiritum in auras emisit" ("With this wound Frollo fell, beating the ground with his heels, and sent his spirit out to the winds" [9.11]). Is the detail absurd in the original too? It might well be argued that the Frollo section is a deliberate study in anti-heroism, intended to glorify Arthur at the expense of his enemies. Although its narrative incon-
sistencies and rhetorical extravagances are not quite so blatant as those in Chaucer's Thopas , the effect is a humor that, even if unconscious, sometimes resembles that of the Chaucerian burlesque.
Although I do not want to suggest that Chaucer used this material simply for patriotic reasons, his distinctive ethico-literary vision is not unaffected by its English setting. Perhaps he felt a kindred spirit at work in his countryman's Historia , for his own engagement with the Latin literary classics parallels that of Geoffrey of Monmouth with British history. In a sense, the two Geoffries confronted a similar task: to integrate British experience with classical legend, to make contemporary English sense of the heterogeneous past. Geoffrey of Monmouth sought to graft British history onto the cycle of Troy and Rome, as represented in the Aeneid ; Chaucer to retell classical tales for a courtly and urban English audience. Like the later Geoffrey, the earlier one produced a text that at once transmits and problematizes tradition; that is why, from the start, its reception was mixed. The nature of his project is ambiguous, for his history includes fantasy (e.g., the Merlin chapters), rhetorical exaggeration, contradiction, and authorial interjection. And, like the later Geoffrey, the earlier one is intensely self-aware, meditating in his Dedication on the problems of historical tradition and its modes of transmission.
For Chaucer, the Historia would be one of those books "That tellen of these olde appreved stories" (F 21), a book whose testimony we can neither prove nor disprove. This would be true of Chaucer's own recension of the classics too—and, as he was all too well aware, of the classics themselves. Yet to give "feyth and ful credence" to such a document as the Historia would strain anyone's credulity. I do not doubt that Chaucer, like many readers before him, encountered Geoffrey's Historia with a healthy skepticism. The line he stole from it to insert into his version of Piramus and Thisbe tells us something about how he read Geoffrey and Ovid—quite accurately, I think, and in a spirit he brought to his own translatio.
If Chaucer's version of Thisbe, with its absurdities and obscenities, is subversive of sentiment, its ending is equally subversive of Alceste's instructions. Here, as in the first legend, there is no victimization, for, as Edgar Finley Shannon remarked, Piramus "is not faithless, he merely failed to arrive on time" (193). The lovers are equal in passion, equal in self-sacrifice, with this improvement:
whereas Antony killed himself not for Cleopatra but for shame at losing the sea battle, Piramus does kill himself for Thisbe's sake. "Lat see now what man that lover be, / Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she" (F 568–69), says Alceste with reference to Cleopatra's suicide. The Narrator has taken her literally, shown her just such a man. Likewise, the Narrator's apparent skepticism at the end of "Cleopatra"—"or I fynde a man thus trewe and stable, / And wol for love his deth so frely take" (703–4)—is gratifyingly negated by Piramus. Of course, the Narrator tactfully adds, with an eye to his sponsors Eros and Alceste, there are not many such (917–18); yet the last seven lines of the tale are about men. The Narrator intrudes in the first person to remind us that his writing is gender-marked:
And therfore have I spoken of hym thus.
For it is deynte to us men to fynde
A man that can in love been trewe and kynde.
He finishes by backhandedly reasserting masculinity as norm, which woman strives to equal, for
Here may ye se, what lovere so he be,
A woman dar and can as wel as he.
The material escapes the frame that has been set up for it by its sponsors; so does the narrative voice. The disruptive forces of tradition and of utterance break through again and again in the legends, swamping the simplistic demands of Eros and Alceste.
The Scots poet Gavin Douglas would chide his master Chaucer for failing to keep the promise Chaucer made in the first lines of this life: "I shal, as I can, / Folwe thy lanterne, as thow gost byforn" (926). In the Prologue to the first book of his translation of the Aeneid , Douglas specifies this place in Chaucer's "legeand of notable ladyis." It is not through inadequacy of translation, Douglas writes, that Chaucer "greitlie Virgile offendit," for Latin is a difficult language and must often be translated for general meaning rather than word for word. The offense is rather to have "greitlie the prince of poets grevit" by saying that "Eneas to Dido was forsworne." This,
Douglas rightly observes, is alien to the Virgilian portrayal; but this lapse can be excused in Chaucer, "For he was ever, God wait, wemenis trend." In this generous manner does Douglas exculpate his great predecessor, who not only fails to follow Virgil scrupulously, but, in substituting Ovidian material (Heroides 7), replaces the epic-heroic viewpoint with a contradictory lyric-erotic scenario from the seduced-and-abandoned female's point of view.
But it is worse than Douglas acknowledges, for Virgil himself was what some medieval rigorists might consider a liar. It was Virgil who invented the Dido who comes down to us thereafter, the Dido whom Aeneas met and loved and abandoned, the amorous Dido characterized in medieval Heroides commentaries as stultus amans , because she loved a stranger, was overhospitable, and fought against (the hero's) fate. Before Virgil there was no connection between the two figures; indeed, they were thought to have lived three centuries apart, so there could have been no meeting. Before Virgil, Dido was an emblem of faith in love. Married to Sychaeus and widowed, she killed herself in order to avoid the advances of a second suitor, Iarbus. Macrobius criticized Virgil for portraying an amorous Dido (Saturnalia 5. 17. 4–6); Ausonius has an epigram in which Dido blames not Aeneas but Virgil for destroying her virtue. Among the Church fathers, Tertullian was especially proud of the chaste Dido; he refers to her often and "spared no effort in promoting the fame of the heroine of his native Carthage," as Mary L. Lord observes in her thorough review of the chaste-Dido tradition (to which most of my comments here are indebted). The tradition was sustained by various grammarians, Virgil commentators, and medieval authors including Servius, Macrobius, Prisclan, Petrarch, and early Dante commentators; indeed, the question seems to have attained the status of a fairly significant debate in fourteenth-century Italian letters. A modern text readily available to Chaucer was Boccaccio's De mulieribus Claris , which Chaucer used for his Monk's account of Zenobia. Boccaccio's extended version of the Dido material argues that although Dido's death took place during Aeneas's visit, its oc-
currence had already been determined as a gesture of fidelity to her dead husband Sichaeus. Boccaccio retains the meeting with Aeneas, but, following the lead of the historian Justin's Historiae Philippicae , makes every effort to rehabilitate the queen's good name and to remove "the infamy undeservedly cast on the honor of her widowhood." Higden aligns himself firmly with the anti-Virgilians, pointing out that on chronological grounds, "it may nought stonde that Virgilius and Phrygius Dares in his stone of the bataille of Troye seith, that Eneas sih that womman Dido, for Eneas was dede thre hundred yere and more or Cartage was i-founded" (1.21, and cf. also 2.26). As Lord observes (225), Chaucer must have been aware of this tradition, for Dorigen's complaint in the Franklin's Tale (V. 1367–1456) draws heavily on the list of exempla in Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum , and this set includes the chaste Dido (although she is not used in the Chaucerian passage).
Chaucer's program differs, I suggest, from that of the defenders of Dido, for had he wanted to portray an unequivocally "good" and chaste Dido, in accordance with Eros's command, he need only have drawn on the tradition that shows her true to her dead husband, Sychaeus. In terms of plot, Chaucer is firmly on the Virgilian bandwagon by virtue of narrating Dido's affair with Aeneas—even Ovid did that much. Tonally, though, he will, like Ovid, deflate the epic-heroic dimension of the story, along with its lyric-sentimental version: that is, he will side with neither lover. Chaucer does not show Dido as unequivocally virtuous, merely as decent, human, and flawed—like Aeneas. His treatment of both characters subtly but strongly implies that they must each take responsibility for their fates. The resultant ambiguity of character and tone receives linguistic expression in an egregious pun strategically placed near the beginning of the tale: "And fyr, so wod it myghte nat been steered" ( wood: made of wood / crazy) in recounting the fall of Troy. This is a favorite Chaucerian pun, perhaps the favorite Chaucerian pun. It occurs twice in the Knight's Tale (1299–1302, 2950) and in the legends of Thisbe (736) and Phyllis (2419–20) as well as here. Even the description of Troilus's dismay after the decision to trade
Criseyde reaches after this pun, comparing the "wood" (crazed) Troilus to a bare tree and then giving a homonymic play on "bark" (tree bark/boat [TC 4.225–31]).
The moral equivalency of the sexes is suggested in the opening movement, which, as in the first legend, is about history and the hero's place in it. The story is not of Dido only but "of hym and of Dido" (956): both of them of heroic stature, both of honorable history (hers summarized by Venus but not by the Narrator: 994–97), and with faults. In the Aeneid , the Oriental Dido accuses the Trojan hero of savagery and barbarism because of his Asian origins: he was begotten on jagged cliffs and suckled by Hyrcanian tigers (4.366–67). Lee Patterson observes of this locus that "her accusation reveals both the deep kinship between her lover and herself and, more profoundly, her own fate as the stigmatized other in the thematic economy of imperial historiography. She must be banished from Virgil's narrative because she too closely expresses those aspects of the hero's own personality that are discontinuous with the ideology of his mission" (168). In the late-medieval English treatment, the similarity is much plainer than in the Roman national epic: Chaucer represents the pair as two of a kind—and, as noted of the two preceding legends, not only this pair. If Virgil invented (or appropriated) Dido as a figure for what the hero must divest, Chaucer retains her in the Virgilian mode to show the impossibility of such auto-amputation.
I have already noted Aeneas's suicidal despair when confronted with his own story. The picture begins to show a few more cracks when the hero and heroine are brought together. Rhetorically, the anaphoric "and" (eight out of eleven lines, 1061–71) suggests—as it did with Criseyde (Troilus and Criseyde 2.449–69, 2. 1300ff.)—the search for "an heep of weyes" of justification. Dido likes Aeneas not only for his story (as Desdemona liked Othello) but for his looks as well; moreover, "for he was a straunger, somwhat she / Likede hym | the bet, as, God do bote, / To som folk ofte newe thyng is sote" (1075–77). She is, we see, vulnerable to appearance and to newfangledness. Later, to her sister Anne, she will describe her motives this way:"For that me thynketh he is so wel ywrought, / And ek so likly for to ben a man" (1173–74): motives scarcely more elevated than those of a present-day adolescent.
At first, the queen's provisioning of Aeneas's fleet is no more
than the generous hospitality one would expect of a monarch (1090–99). Even here, though, the telltale anaphoric "And" (five times in eight lines: 1090–97) duplicates the piling up of goods and the piling up of reasons or motives. In the next section, eight lines running begin with "ne" (1115–22), listing all the gifts Dido bestows upon Aeneas: not only hospitality but horses, jewels, falcons, hounds, sacks of gold, cups of gold, and a great deal of money. The money is a particularly distasteful and discordant note, for it signals that Dido is engaging in a game of sexual and material power, in an attempt to buy the man she desires. Aeneas is her kept man:"And al is payed, what that he hath spent" (1125). She is giving too much materially, as she will shortly give too much of herself both physically and emotionally. Chaucer has Aeneas acknowledge the economic dimension in the Narrator's comment, just before his long apostrophe to victimized women, that
Now laugheth Eneas and is in joye
And more richesse than evere he was in Troye. (1252–53)
But this sexual economics will backfire, for paradoxically Dido sets herself up as victim by this too-generous giving, allowing herself to be used, representing herself as "easy." The passivity that lies at the heart of her aggressive giving comes dear in Dido's interview with her sister. Twice she hands over her life to Aeneas (1176, 1181), and she begs her sister to make a decision for her:"if that ye rede it me, / I wolde fayn to hym ywedded be" (1178–79). The moral abdication apparent here becomes generalized at the end, when Dido abdicates her social responsibility as governor of Carthage in order to indulge her personal disappointment. Like Cleopatra, she is a queen whose private life has overwhelmed her public obligation.
And so, victim to her own subjectivity, Dido believes she is wedded to Aeneas, although the Narrator's pointed deliberate mystification about the lack of a witness makes it dear that socially their union has no validity at all. "I not, with hem if there wente any mo [into the cave to consummate their desire]; / The autour maketh of it no mencioun" (1227–28). But the author does make mention; indeed, both authors do. Virgil has rather a lot of stage business around the cave scene, which parodies the traditional Roman ceremony so decisively reinforced by Augustan marriage and morality
legislation. Instead of the marriage torch, there is lightning; instead of the ceremonial chants, there is the howling of nymphs; instead of attendants, there are Tellus and Juno. In short, instead of civil society, there are the forces of nature—scarcely, for Virgil, or for Chaucer, an adequate substitute. As for human witness, Virgil is quite clear that only "Dido and the Trojan leader came to the cave" (4.165–66). When we turn to Ovid, Dido's letter in Heroides (7.93–94 specifies nos —we: herself and Aeneas—in connection with the cave scene. Chaucerian disingenuity thus creates a reader response: it is not something the reader would normally wonder about, until reminded by the Narrator to do so. Once we do think about it, and realize that there was no witness, we understand that this is no marriage in the generally accepted sense of the term, but only in the imagination of the fictional speaker, whose subjectivity is so prominently at stake throughout the narrative. This perspective is confirmed when Virgil summarizes the episode this way: "conjugium vocat; hoc praetexit nomine culpam" ("she called it marriage, and with this word concealed her guilt" [4.172]). Henry Ansgar Kelly insists on the validity of clandestine marriage, particularly in his analysis of the story of Dido in the Legend; he nonetheless admits that "clandestine marriage was declared illegitimate by papal law" (210). It is important to note, furthermore, that Kelly's view of the relationship between Dido and Aeneas is part of an overall interpretation of the Legend as a poem in which "Chaucer strove to portray his lovers as sympathetically as possible, and therefore made them as moral as possible" (59). A different interpretation of the poem would require a different view of the "marriage," and I agree here with V. A. Kolve, who, in another context, observes that "pagan marriage does not normally carry sacramental value for a medieval poet" (173). Yet however ambiguous medieval attitudes toward clandestine marriage may have been, it seems to me that Chaucer stakes out a rigorist and conservative position here, and not—as observed elsewhere in this study—for the first or only time. A short generation after Chaucer's death, such rigor would be strongly enforced: in the Norwich heresy trial of 1428, one Margery Baxter, wife of William Baxter, wright, was accused, among other things, of having said that a vow of mutual love between man and woman sufficed to the sacrament of marriage, without any other words or ecclesiastical solemnization (Tanner, 46).
As for Aeneas, his behavior is nothing short of sleazy. Chaucer does not directly depict the apparition of Mercury that provokes the hero's departure in the epic. Instead, we are given this episode only in the hero's verbal account of it (1295–1300), which may or may not be true. Coming as it does between the Narrator's assurances of Aeneas's dishonesty, the passage virtually presents itself as a lie. Its rhetoric, moreover, is not such as to inspire confidence. We hear not only of one but of two nocturnal visions—surely a little overdone; and the hero's assertion of misery is interrupted by the distancing phrase "me thynketh" (1300). Even if the appearance of Mercury were to be interpreted not as a lie but as a real dream, it would remain equally an expression of the hero's subjectivity.
This puts Aeneas's assertion of his dream in the same category as Dido's assertion of pregnancy (1323): possibly true, possibly a hope, or a mistake, or a lie and desperate last resort. The detail of the pregnancy is imitated from Ovid, where it is equally ambiguous. Forsitan , Ovid begins his sentence about the pregnancy (Her. 7.133): perhaps. But this hint, this possibility, creates a moral double bind. If it is untrue, Dido is a liar; if true, a double murderer—of herself and the unborn child. Like Ovid, Chaucer questions not only a heroine's and a hero's motives but, more important, the tradition through which such personae survive, the fama and its inherent contradictions, the conventions according to which we read: in short, their subjectivity and ours.
Hypsipyle And Medea
It has been noticed before that this tale is really about Jason: the women are paired because they share him. He has, in fact, a little prologue all his own: formal recognition of a tendency, already pronounced in the openings of the first three legends, to concentrate on the anti-hero. This mini-prologue makes no bones about its subject: Jason is clearly the exemplary figure here, albeit in negativity. For Jason is a hunter, a "devourere ¼ of gentil wemen" (1369–70). In fact, he is a fowler, whose appearance, words, and pretended emotions are his "recleymyng and ¼ [his] lures" (1371). It is the imagery of falconry; Chaucer uses it elsewhere both without sexual implication (Manciple's Tale IX. 72), and with (Friar's Tale III. 1340). To reclaim is to call back the hawk, usually after it has taken its prey;
the lure is a contraption made of leather and feathers that can be shaken to imitate a bird and attract the falcon or hawk. This picks up the memorable image of birds and fowler from the Prologue, recalling the network of values and attitudes represented there.
But the birds in question here are not those of the Prologue: no chirping songbirds, but rather themselves hunters of lesser prey. And, while the falconer is a superior and controlling figure, the relation of hawk to falconer is not that of prey or victim, but of trained partner in a hunting team. Given what Chaucer chooses to omit from his accounts of these two ladies, the predatory imagery is fully justified, for both women have participated in particularly grisly and violent events (see Chapter 4 above on Hypsipyle). Toward the end of Chaucer's version of this legend, the reader is left dangling uncomfortably with the Narrator's remark that Jason "with hire [Medea] lafte his yonge children two" (1657). Although the slaughter of her children is clearly the one thing Medea is best known for, the material is resolutely excluded as narrative event, to be as conspicuous in absence as it could be in presence, surely a deliberate cliff-hanger. Once again, as with Antony and Cleopatra or with Dido, we see that one can be a passionate and faithful lover, yet entirely inadequate on the ethical or social level. "Trewe of love, for oght that may byfalle" (F 561) does not suffice for much. The deconstruction of desire is well under way, and of gender stereotypes. Violence and brutality are not exclusively masculine behavior, nor is being victimized an exclusively feminine fate.
Animal imagery continues a few lines further on in the miniprologue, with the rather inept comparison of Jason to a fox stealing the farmer's tender capons at night. The image is inept in several ways, not least because a capon is a castrated cock. However, let us grant that the tenderness, not the gender, of the stolen flesh is the salient point here. Beyond this, however, the little allegory does not work because Jason does not steal another man's wife. Since he is married, he may be an adulterer, but he fornicates with a single woman. It is a curiously uncontrolled scenario, with its enigmatic "good-man that therfore hath payed" (1391), whose point is perhaps less to speculate on real-life candidates than to call attention to its own procedures.
At the beginning of the Jason and Medea legend, there occurs another odd gender-shift, another curious apparent ineptitude.
Jason, passing from woman to woman, is likened to "mater" that "apetiteth forme alwey / and from forme into forme it passen may" (1582–83). The reversal here is that while the gender-linkage of matter and form is a classical and medieval commonplace, matter is conventionally identified with woman, form with man. Chaucer seems to suggest once again that gender does not matter in sexual ethics, because the demands of morality are the same for either sex. It is, I suppose, to Medea's credit that she takes responsibility for her choice: "Whi lykede me thy yelwe her to se / More than the boundes of myn honeste?" (1672–73). Perhaps this is why she does not kill herself: having articulated her fault, she is able to express anger at Jason rather than turn it against herself: she does, in her letter, more or less wish him dead (1676–77), and the conspicuously missing murder of the children is a gesture of revenge against him, undoing the marriage that he has already undone by betrayal. In her aggressive behavior, Medea leaves behind the socially defined "feminine" role of passive suffering, so that the myth itself, even apart from Chaucer's representation of it, already incorporates a gender-shift.
A third animal image, with a third gender-role reversal, comes at the beginning of the Medea portion of the story: Jason is "of love devourer and dragoun" (1581). But the dragon is distinctively Medea's beast: she was able to tame dragons (she boasts of this in her Ovidian letter), and in the Ovide moralisé (7.1358–9), as in Bersuire's earlier version of Ovidius moralizatus , she is borne away triumphant in a dragon-drawn chariot. Yet though she could tame dragons and bulls, she writes, she was unable to tame Jason (Her . 12. 163–64, 195–97). By using the dragon for similarity with Jason rather than contrast, Chaucer accomplishes another ambivalence. Is Jason, like the dragon, tamable (through sensuality), or is Medea's boast of power revealed as hollow? In either case, the dragon is a traditional Chris-
tian emblem of the devil, and if the she-devil is now transformed into a he-devil, we are reminded once again that neither sex has a monopoly on malfeasance.
The Narrator opens this legend by acknowledging a different purpose from that of the original. His first line ("Now mot I seyn the exilynge of kynges") translates the first line of the section of Fasti in which Ovid relates the story of Lucrece ("Nunc mihi dicenda est regis fuga" [2, sec. 24]), but his own aim, the Chaucerian Narrator asserts, is not to narrate the events of Roman history, as Ovid and Livy did, but rather "to preyse and drawe to memorye / The verray wif, the verray trewe Lucresse" (1685–86). Both Latin texts use the story to motivate a rebellion against the tyrannical Tarquins, the result of which was the abolition of kingship in Rome. The two classical versions, written during the reign of Augustus, "when Rome is going through one of its fits of public morality" (Bryson, 163), are patriotic accounts of the evolution of Roman republicanism, in which Lucretia "is the figure of violated Rome" (lan Donaldson, 9). As we might expect, Ovid shifts the weight of the episode, considerably amplifying its dramatic and pathetic aspects beyond Livy's relatively terse account and thus paving the way for its future depoliticization. Jean de Meun's version (RR 8578–8620) is inserted into an attack by the Jealous Husband on marital infidelity; and although he maintains the political consequence of the story, the Husband's summary treats Lucretia, along with Penelope, as exceptions who prove the rule about women:
Si n'est il mes nule Lucrece,
ne Penelope nule en Grece,
ne preude fame nule an terre,
se l'en les savoit bien requerre ¼
But there is no more Lucrece
nor Penelope in Greece
nor prudent woman on earth
if one knows how to woo them.
Even Boccaccio, the ardent republican, stresses the personal and pathetic elements of the story (De mulieribus Claris 46).
The tale comes to Chaucer, then, already contaminated by concerns other than political: even more so than the structurally similar story of Virginia and Virginius, which also originates in Livy as an anecdote motivating rebellion and which Chaucer, in the Physician's Tale, also revises into a commentary on sexual morality. (Aside from his Ovid commentary, Pierre Bersuire produced a translation of Livy, which could have served Chaucer for both stories.) Yet despite its medieval lapse into sexual moralism, the tale would revive, at least briefly, as a political anecdote when, in The Serpent of Division (written about 1422), John Lydgate used it to introduce his cautionary prose treatise about factionalism in Rome and, by analogy, at home. Because of the "outragious offence doone unto Lucresse wife of the worthy Senatour Collatyne ¼ the name of king is ceased in the citie of Rome for evur more." Most of Lydgate's text focuses on Julius Caesar, and English barons are exhorted: "maketh a merowre" of Roman instability.
The Chaucerian narrator pushes the personal-pathetic tendency as far as he can with his emphasis on the triply true Lucrece ("verray ¼ verray trewe"). Does he protest too much with this hyperbole? And what exactly does "true" (vrai ) mean here: the faithful Lucrece, or the real Lucrece? The structure of the Chaucerian rendition allows us to attend to the latter meaning, the one more interesting to writers or readers concerned with textual authority and textual interpretation.
The Lucrece material was not compromised only by the sexualpathetic emphasis of its medieval literary incarnations, but also and more seriously by the authoritative literary-theological controversy in which it figured, similar to the one surrounding Dido. On the one hand, Jerome praises Lucretia as a paragon of chastity (Adversus Jovinianum 1.46); many medieval commentators follow him in doing so, as Götz Schmitz points out (Fall, 17–20). On the other hand, Augustine offers a detailed and damning critique, and Aquinas excludes from martyrdom women who chose suicide over dishonor (Summa theologica 2a-e, Q. 123–40). It is to the Augustinian critique that the Narrator refers in mentioning "the grete Austyn" who "hath gret compassioun / Of this Lucresse" (1690–91).
What are we to make of this obtuse assertion by the Narrator? For to see Augustine's interpretation of the episode as sympathetic is to stretch our credulity to the breaking point. Here is Augustine's account, rhetorically framed as a lawyer's brief for the prosecution
and occurring in the context of his defense of Christian martyrs charged with immorality because they have been raped:
While the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; ¼ in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remain intact. And therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own.
To you I appeal, ye laws and judges of Rome¼ . If one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untried, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murderer with punishment proportionately severe? This crime was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia. Pronounce sentence. But if you cannot ¼ why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman? ¼ Perhaps ¼ she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence? She herself alone knows her reasons; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide¼ .
She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her ¼ ; this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong done her¼ . She burned with shame¼ . Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive. They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share¼ . It suffices them to have the opportunity of doing good, and they decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law. (1.18–19)
There is no way this diatribe, with its imputation of motives and its forceful denunciation of a crime, can be convincingly construed as sympathetic or compassionate. Either Chaucer did not know the material he alludes to, or he deliberately characterized it falsely. Frank (97 n. 7) plausibly suggests the former: that Chaucer found a reference to Augustine's treatment of Lucrece in the Gesta Romanorum . Clearly this is one of those questions that cannot be
unequivocally resolved, but I would like to entertain the possibility of deliberate falsification. This would not be out of keeping with other distortions already noted: the omission, for instance, of "what every schoolboy knows" about Medea, the assertion of fidelity to Virgil in narrating Dido, or even the nomination of Cleopatra and Medea as "good" women. We are dealing here with an unreliable Narrator, one who constantly brings his, and others', subjectivity into play. To hypothesize knowledge of at least portions of The City of God is also consistent with Chaucer's deep familiarity with many of the doctrinal discussions there. But even without firsthand knowledge of Augustine's argument about Lucretia, he could have found a two-sentence précis of it, with attribution, in Higden:
Wise men here telleth that Lucrecia slough nought hire self for no vertu, but for schame and for anger, for nother man ne womman schulde be punsched with oute gilt, nother with gilt with oute juge. But for the Romayns coveyteth most preysynge of men and worldeliche worschepe, this Lucrecia ¼ wolde nought lese hire good loos nother be despised [and] sche wolde no lenger lyve. Of this happe speketh ¼ Seint Austyn de Civitate, libro primo, capitulo 19 etc. (3.6)
I am going to assume, therefore, that Chaucer did understand the Augustinian position on Lucrece; in any case he correctly duplicates its import in his Narrator's advice to the Black Knight (Book of the Duchess 714–37; see Chapter 2 above).
The interrelated issues of subjectivity, self-presentation, and interpretation surface early on in the tale when Lucrece is first glimpsed by the hidden husband Collatine and his friend Tarquinius. Lamenting the war, Lucrece
mekely she let hyre eyen falle;
And thilke semblaunt sat hire wel withalle.
And eek hire teres, ful of honeste,
Embelished hire wifly chastite;
Hyre contenaunce is to hir herte dygne,
For they acorde bothe in dede and sygne.
A few lines later the reassurance of Lucrece's sincerity is reiterated: "(And by no craft hire beaute nas nat feyned)" (1749). This double assurance is already somewhat suspicious, given Chaucer's habit of raising awkward doubts under pretext of laying them to rest. Al-
though the ambiguous "semblaunt," together with the later lines about Lucrece's covering her feet (1858—59), might warrant some suspicion of excessive concern for self-presentation, my aim here is not to accuse the victim of hypocrisy. Rather, it is to suggest her participation, witting or not, in a system of signs in which she is interpreted. For the male observer, her tears are a "sygne" of virtually rhetorical status: they "embellish" her chastity. She becomes, precisely through the visible virtue of her behavior, a topos for the voyeur, who "Conceyved hath hire beaute and hyre cheere" (1746). Tarquinius spends the next day "Th'ymage of hire recordynge alwey newe" (1760) until the woman is reduced to "this conseit," which "hys herte hath newe ytake" (1764). Despite her absence, he experiences both the presence and "the plesaunce of hire forme" (1769) or image until he determines on rape. This passage is closely imitated from Fasti (2.761–83), but it evidently struck a genuinely Chaucerian chord. We know, from January's wallowing in subjective self-indulgence (MerchT 1577–1616), how unsympathetically Chaucer viewed the masculine subject's creation of a feminine object according to its own desires; the difference is that January's rape of May is legally and socially sanctioned. Yet the evidence of Lucrece's complicity in the reduction of herself to a sign is surely the very action that ensures her fame: her suicide. It is a story of semiotics, because she kills herself as the irrefutable sign of her real feelings, which might not otherwise be believed by the public at large (1843–44). Unwilling to risk a wrong interpretation of herself, Lucrece forces the issue. (She reckoned, of course, without the Christian exegete Augustine.)
Of Tarquin, Lucrece might well say, as a later raped heroine says, "I am but a cypher , to give him significance, and myself pain." As Terry Castle observes of Clarissa Harlowe and the rapist Lovelace, it is "she the text, he the exegete¼ . She remains the subject of his interpretation, without pleasure or power as such: a hermeneutic casualty" (15–16). This formulation, applicable to an extent, nonetheless omits two further dimensions of Chaucer's concern. One is the victim's unnecessary self-punishment, another is the authors who have written about her. As sign, "Lucrece" is subject to many interpreters, as the juxtaposition of Livy and Augustine at the start of the tale suffices to show. "She" is bent to authorial will, like any material. Tarquin may wish to see Lucrece as his "leman" (1772),
but others have chosen to see her instead as "a seynte" (1871). Skeat proposed that this canonization was suggested by the calendrical structure of Fasti , so that Lucrece "seemed to have her own day, like a saint" (176). Shannon (227) adds the influence of Brutus's statement that Lucretia's spirit will always be a divinity ("numen") to him. Whatever its origin, the idea introduces an alternate view of Lucrece as extreme and reductive in one direction as Tarquin's is in the other. For Chaucer, I suggest, neither is adequate.
The ending of the tale seems to support my interpretation. It is a peculiar ending, containing the only reference to Jesus in the poem:
For wel I wot that Crist himselve telleth
That in Israel, as wyd as is the lond,
That so gret feyth in al that he ne fond
As in a woman; and this is no lye.
Does the Narrator protest too much? For it is either a lie or another mistake: the statement about faith in Israel occurs in Matthew 8:10—but not about a woman; while in Matthew 15:28 Jesus does praise a woman for her faith—but not in the phrase cited here. We have, therefore, two highly authoritative Christian sources framing this classical tale: Augustine and gospel. Moreover, each reference gives an incorrect version of its source. The structural neatness here seems to deny sheer coincidence, and so do the last three lines of the tale:
And as of men, loke ye which tirannye
They doon alday; assay hem whoso lyste,
The trewest ys ful brotel for to triste.
As we saw at the conclusion to Thisbe, gender is a significant component of the Narrator's subjectivity, expressed in his treatment of material. We are, therefore, already warned: the Narrator is a writing man who warns us in his writing, both explicitly and by exemplum, about the chances we take in trusting too completely the utterances of men. Here, the utterance is a bland assurance that women are good, men bad: kindness and stability always to be found in women (1876–78), treachery in men. Surely this is what Eros and Alceste require, but in how many ways has this requirement not already been undercut? As the cases already narrated
illustrate, erotic intensity does not certify general morality, and neither does men's malfeasance certify women's virtue.
We are again in the presence of a double bind, one that works on behalf of the interpretation offered above. If we believe the Narrator's final words about untrustworthy utterances by men, then we must hesitate to trust his representation. If we do not believe his concluding essentialist claim, then we have already withdrawn credulity from his utterances and must hesitate again to trust his representation. It is something like the "Cretan liar" conundrum—a well-known sophism in Chaucer's day as in Ovid's and our own—alerting us, through its self-referentiality and its infinite regress, to the pitfalls of the relationship we enter when we take up a book.
The legend of Ariadne opens with another first-person narratorial intrusion, an apostrophe to Minos; rather perversely it asserts the Narrator's intention not to write about Minos mainly, but about Theseus. This villain of love is the same figure whom Chaucer had already included in a lost work about "the love of Palamon and Arcite" (F 420;G 408), probably the prototype of the Knight's Tale , whose hero Theseus is. He is thus as problematic a hero as Aeneas. As if to signal the shifty multiplicity of the Theseus tradition, Chaucer inserts a triple pun in the last line of his invocation. "Be red for shame! now I thy life begynne" (1893): "red" as colored with the blush of shame; "read" visually in the manner of a shameful example like the literary production about to be written; "red" as advised, in the matter of "synne" noted in the previous line, to avoid shame.
Despite the opening disclaimer, we are treated to a somewhat extended summary of Minos's past. This is perhaps justifiable because the Theseus story is set at the court of Minos in Crete (although line 1966 erroneously says "Athenes"). Thematically, though, the Minos prologue provides a warm-up story anticipating the main events: a story of filial treachery and a lover's cruelty. The deceitful
girl is the daughter of Nysus, king of Alcathoe, with whom Minos is at war. She betrays the city to her father's enemy, whom she loves. He, however, "wikkedly ¼ quitte hire kyndenesse / And let hire drenche in sorwe and distresse, / Nere that the goddes hadde of hire pite" (1918–20). Quite apart from the irony of describing an act of filial betrayal and treason as "kindness" (with its informing meaning of "behavior according to nature"), we see that the deception of Minos by his daughters Ariadne and Phaedra on behalf of Minos's prisoner Theseus is poetic justice indeed. Doubly so, since one of them, Ariadne, will be abandoned by her lover as Minos abandoned his benefactress. I think there is less here of a proprietarian "repayment" of Minos through his daughter (daughter-as-property) than of the perception of reiterated structures in history, and particularly family history: today we call them "scripts."
Ovid's rendering of the abandoned Ariadne is little short of farcical. The comedy derives largely from the series of violent but pointless physical motions in which the heroine engages: her frantic groping of the bed to be sure Theseus is not in it; her hair-tearing; her running back and forth along the shore screaming her lover's name; her screeching after the departed ship ("flecte ratum! numerum non habet illa suum!": "Turn the ship around! she doesn't have everyone aboard!" ); her angry reproach to the empty bed. Ariadne even hoists her veil on a stick as a signal, just in case Theseus has accidentally forgotten her (Her. 10:42). Chaucer's version, while somewhat moderated from Ovid's, nonetheless retains the salient comical points. Ariadne "gropeth in the bed" (2186), reminds the deserter that "Thy barge hath nat al his meyne inne!" (2201), sticks her kerchief on a pole for Theseus "that he shulde it wel yse, / And hym remembre that she was behynde" (2202–4), and blames the bed. Besides the sheer futility of these actions, the vocabulary hints at comedy, for her behavior seems distinctly plebeian, more appropriate to a village girl than to a princess.
Well may the reader wonder: what about Ariadne's sister, Phaedra, now sailing off to Athens with Theseus, the husband who was to have been her brother-in-law? Ariadne will be rescued from her desert island by Bacchus in his tiger-drawn chariot and end her days as a great lady. But we know all too well—anyone who has read the Heroides knows—what lies in store for Phaedra in Athens: incestuous passion for Theseus's son Hippolytus (to whom, ironically,
Ariadne had proposed Phaedra be wed: 2099–2100) and a tragic death for both of them. Like so much else that is omitted from the Legend, this aftermath is eloquent, if silent, testimony to the fatal potential of sheer stubborn passion.
The tales of Lucrece and Philomela can be linked as a pair of rape stories, and an equally important pairing is that of the adjoining Ariadne and Philomela. Both of these myths have been resurrected in contemporary criticism as metaphors of writing, particularly by feminists wishing to locate the female voice, and its suppression, in Western culture. "Ariadne" is important because its central image of thread winding through a labyrinth can be seen as a representation of narrative; "Philomela" because its tapestry that tells all maximizes the relationship with weaving inherent in the word "text" and therefore represents representation itself. So the stories are linked by the common thread of thread—the thread that, carded, spun, and woven, was traditionally the stuff on which women worked, no less prominently in Chaucer's day than in any earlier one, for the textile industry that was England's boast in the high Middle Ages was largely staffed by women, both as employees and as masters in the industry. Indeed, it is another woman weaver, the Wife of Bath, who in the Canterbury Tales would be Chaucer's mouthpiece for posing outright the question of woman as producer of discourse. If Dame Alison's representations, her versions of authoritative texts and of her own biography, bear the mark of what Chaucer imagines as her subjectivity, then what can be said about Chaucer's Ariadne as unwinder of thread, as donor of a guide through the labyrinth, as generator of the narrative of herself and Theseus?
To begin, it is important to see the labyrinth or maze as no distant exoticism, but a fairly common medieval architectural artifact. In
France and Italy, mazes were built into the cathedral floors at Chartres, Poitiers, Rheims, Amiens, Arras, Sens, and other ecclesiastical buildings such as churches or chapter houses in Rome, Ravenna, Piacenza, Lucca, Pavia, Cremona, and elsewhere. In Britain, the west tower of Ely Cathedral has a pavement maze, as do several smaller churches, and some roof bosses represent a maze. Church mazes are rarer in England than on the continent, but even so England has numerous outdoor examples in earthenwork, stone, or turf in Winchester, Essex, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, and Dorset. Some of these structures are round, others square; some unicursal (without false turns), other multicursal (having dead ends or several routes to the exit). The church maze was often called the "chemin de Jérusalem," and to trace its convoluted course on one's knees was considered a substitute for pilgrimage. Or it might be considered a schematic representation of life itself (as, indeed, the pilgrimage was), with the central tile called "Le Ciel." Such Christian uses seem to have coexisted peacefully with explicit references sometimes made, in inscriptions alongside the labyrinth, as at Lucca, to the originary story of Theseus and Ariadne. But we have already seen this kind of Christian/classical coexistence in the tradition of medieval Ovid commentary: there the labyrinth is given doctrinal interpretation as world, flesh, and/or devil (e.g., Ovide moralisé 8.987–1082, 1395ff.). What we can derive from this real architectural and scholarly presence of the labyrinth, then, is that the episode did lend itself to contemporary moral application, that the labyrinth came to Chaucer already glossed as an image of life. Chaucer's earlier reference, in the House of Fame , to the House of Rumor as "Domus Dedaly, / That Laboryntus cleped ys" (1920–21) already links the labyrinth or maze to the image of (urban) life as a site of confused communication. I propose to extend these already-existing tendencies a short step further by adding the notion of narrative as another version of life, or conversely of one's version of life as itself a narrative.
The proleptic narrative that Ariadne unwinds to her sister is very
far from the one that actually comes to pass. Her firm expectation is nothing but good:
This lady smyleth at his stedefastnesse,
And at his hertely wordes and his chere,
And to hyre sister seyde in this manere,
Al softely: "Now, syster myn," quod she,
"Now be we duchesses, bothe I and ye,
And sekered to the regals of Athenes,
And bothe hereafter likly to be quenes;¼ "
The Ovide moralisé makes the lady even more certain of the outcome of her scheme, allowing her to express herself at length in simple future tense: "Par mariage / Me prendra," "Cest avrai je," "il m'enmenra," "je serai dame clamee," (OM 8.1200–1228). Ariadne has worked hard for this ending—indeed, she has betrayed her father for it, but since her father's use of the Minotaur is clearly unjust, this is not a substantial objection. She has also conspired in the death of her half-brother, the Minotaur: a deed recalled in her epistle (Her. 10.77) but effaced in Chaucer's text. And she has, like Medea, made a quick, businesslike bargain: her life-saving help in return for marriage. Who could say no? There is, therefore, an element of not-so-subtle coercion to the "love" of Ariadne and Theseus, an element clearly recognized by the Ovid commentators and, I suggest, by Chaucer.
Ariadne is thus ambitious and manipulative, but these are neither sins nor crimes. She has, however, made the mistake of overvaluing her creative powers, seeing as merely a character in her own story someone who turns out to be its co-author. In the effort to shape one's life, one is rarely completely autonomous. To the very last, Ariadne refuses to credit the autonomy of Theseus, who has, after all, his own story. She assumes against all evidence that he has merely forgotten her, that he merely needs to be reminded of what he was supposed to do. Theseus, her own creation (in that she saved his life), escapes the neat script she has prepared; he acts, perversely, against his author, who had not written him as a villain. This is her true exemplarity in the Legend . As a message about texts, the tale of Ariadne reinforces the oft-made Chaucerian point about their independence of authorial intent (even assuming such intent is knowable). As a message about life, it reinforces the orthodox
Christian point about preparedness for the adversities of Fortune. As a message about women, it suggests that the harshest critic of their productions will be the same as is faced by men: contingency.
As I noted in Chapter 3, the tale of Philomela differs from the others in its lack of obscenity, wordplay, or other evidently ironic devices. It does omit from this already horrendous story of incestuous adultery, rape, and mutilation the further horrors of infanticide and cannibalism that are part of the complete version (in Ovid's Metamorphoses 6 and the Ovide moralisé ), as well as the metamorphosis of the main characters into birds. Robert Frank remarks that the piece "suffers from overcutting": again, as I remarked of Donald Howard and Robert Burlin in Chapter 1, the critic seems to have contracted a tendency to wordplay from his material! Frank attributes the aesthetic failure of this legend to Chaucer's attempt to transform the material into "a tale of the pathetic." But it is really Chrétien de Troyes who rendered the tale pathetic by opening it up as fully as he did to detail, dialogue, internal monologue, family dynamics, and motivation. (Chrétien's lai of Philomela is incorporated into the Ovide moralisé , 6.2217ff.) Chrétien gives a remarkable portrait of the two sisters, Philomela and Procne, as independent, well-educated women, discreet, ingenious, capable of anger and force. His villainous Tereus is also very fully portrayed. Both the prelude to the rape and the mutilation scene are rendered in virtually novelistic amplification; both the rescue scene and the reunion of the two sisters are deeply moving. Chaucer does none of this, rendering the literary corpus as mutilated and as mute, in the affective sense noted by Frank, as its heroine. I believe that Chaucer had other fish to fry than pathos, and I see the legend as possessing an intellectual power and a creative energy of its own.
The tale is not unique in opening with an invocation—the lives of Ariadne, Hypsipyle, and Dido do the same—but this invocation is a prayer to a deity recognizably Platonic and Christian in its eternity and creativity.
Thow yevere of the formes, that hast wrought
This fayre world and bar it in thy thought
Eternaly er thow thy werk began,
Why madest thow, unto the slaunder of man,
Or, al be that it was nat thy doing,
As for that fyn, to make swich a thyng,
Whi sufferest thow that Tereus was bore ¼ ?
The content of the prayer is a request for theodicy, for a justification of the ways of God to man, so that the passage resembles Dorigen's prayer in the Franklin's Tale (865–93). Whereas Dorigen challenges God's creation of "grisly feendly rokkes blake" (868) and their ability to destroy mankind, the Narrator of the Legend questions God's willingness to tolerate the existence of such a monster as Tereus, so vile that the utterance of his very name corrupts "this world up to the firste hevene" (2234). Why does evil exist?
It is not in either case a merely rhetorical question, but one with answers amply provided over the centuries by Catholic theology. In Chaucer's more leisurely exploration of this problem in the Franklin's Tale , Dorigen learns the answer experientially through her attempt to revise the postlapsarian institution of marriage. She learns that nature is such, and human nature is such, that some coercive authority—including husbandly marital authority—is required. That is the human condition, and by reminding us of it here, Chaucer deftly reintroduces the orthodox Augustinian perspective, which, as I have argued in Chapters 1 and 2, provides the backdrop to the Legend as a whole.
The opening prayer also restates the theme of narratorial subjectivity. The Narrator asserts that Tereus
is in love so fals and so forswore,
That fro this world up to the firste hevene
Corrumpeth, whan that folk his name nevene[.]
Yet this is clearly incorrect. We know full well that nothing changes in the world because of the existence of false lovers or even monstrously criminal individuals; still less is anything changed by the naming of such individuals. The Narrator's assertion contains a vastly inflated notion, not only of the power of evil, but also of the
power of utterance, for nature is simply not so responsive to our behavior or our words. Why, then, would the Narrator think it is? Clearly because his own reaction to this horrifying material is so strong:
And, as to me, so grisely was his dede
That, whan that I his foule storye rede,
Myne eyen wexe foule and sore also.
Yit last the venom of so longe ago,
That it enfecteth hym that wolde beholde
The storye of Tereus, of which I tolde. (2238–43)
It is perhaps tempting to give an autobiographical-confessional cast to this passionate denunciation, connecting it (and also the untypical seriousness of tone in the tale as a whole) with the notorious episode of Cecily Chaumpaigne's raptus , from legal responsibility for which the lady released the poet in 1380.
But the passage probably elaborates the first line of Heroides 17, where Helen says that her eyes are already violated by reading Paris's letter, so that she might as well reply ("Nunc oculos tua cum violarit epistula nostros," etc.; I note for the sheer pleasure of doing so that the concentric structure of this clause mimes its content, "oculos ¼ nostros" containing "tua ¼ epistula" containing violation). Helen's choice of verb, of course, anticipates the greater raptus to come, the one that will result in the Trojan War. It also suggests a moral passivity to which Chaucer, or any Christian rigorist, could only retort with Jesus's remonstrance to the Pharisees that "not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of it" (Matt. 15:11)—or with Augustine's remarks on rape (cf. above, in "Lucrece"). Indeed, such a rejoinder might have been made to Philomela herself, whose Ovidian post-raptus invective against Tereus includes the suicidal wish that he had killed her before he wronged her, for then her shade would have been devoid of crime (Met. 6.539–41).
The existence of a likely (though hitherto unnoticed) literary source for the conceit about tainted eyes should give us some pause in the question of Chaucerian sincerity, much as Rosalie Colie's observation that Sidney's famous "Foole ¼ look in thy heart and write" comes from Ronsard, emphasizes "the conventional nature
of poetic honesty." Whether its source be experience, authority, or both, the Chaucerian passage cited above is surely the ultimate in reader-response criticism: a story so disgusting that its poison, despite its age, putrefies the Narrator's eyes and infects every reader. But we know that this too is incorrect, for our eyes are not befouled by reading the Chaucerian (or any other) version of the story, and as to whether our will is infected by it, that is a moral choice. We would do ill to allow fiction such power. Once again, then, the Narrator's subjectivity is brought into play, to the point where he is compelled to make both theological and aesthetic errors. If we take the point here, we must apply it to the work at hand. The Narrator is (only) a poet; his work is necessarily the expression of a (particular and tainted) subjectivity; literature possesses neither the power the Narrator ascribes to it here, nor the power Eros ascribes to it in the Prologue; interpretation is a function of will.
Philomela is a woman without utterance, literally without a tongue. I find it curious that Chaucer should efface this tongue from his story, except for the bare mention of its removal (2334). It is curious, first, because in the Manciple's Tale (314–42), Chaucer would give (or had already given, depending on chronology) such close attention to that organ; second, because one would think the tongue important to a story about dismembering and remembering; third, because in the sources the tongue becomes virtually another character in the narrative, almost a separate entity from its possessor, even after being severed. In Ovid's account, Tereus's wrath and fear are provoked by Philomela's threats to tell the world about the rape. He whips out his sword (vagina liberat: frees it from its sheath [Met. 6.551]); then
he seized her tongue with pincers, as it protested against the outrage, calling ever on the name of her father and struggling to speak, and cut it off with his merciless blade. The mangled root quivers, while
the severed tongue lies palpitating on the dark earth, faintly murmuring; and, as the severed tail of a mangled snake is wont to writhe, it twitches convulsively, and with its last dying movement it seeks its mistress's feet. (Loeb trans.)
Later, when Procne receives the tapestry, she says nothing—"mirum potuisse," remarks Ovid: a wonder that she could—and words sufficiently indignant are absent to her seeking (or inquiring) tongue (584). When the sisters are reunited, Procne threatens to cut out Tereus's tongue and eyes and castrate him (616–17). Chrétien's version omits the grotesquerie of the severed-but-animate tongue, as well as Procne's threats, but adds a number of further developments of the tongue image such as
ne poist, ce croi, sofire
A totes ses granz biautez dire
Li sans ne la langue Platon
Ne la Omer ne la Caton.
( OM 6.2345–48)
I believe that to tell all her great beauty
the judgment and the tongue/language of Plato
or of Homer or of Cato
could not suffice.
He also includes wordplay on the theme of silence and speech using Tereus / se taire (e.g., 2992–93).
In French, the missing langue denotes language as well as tongue. Philomela does not, however, lack ability to communicate, indeed with powerfully effective consequences. This is not because, as Roman Jakobson (12–13) observes, tonguelessness does not necessarily prevent speech (in any case, the classical and medieval authors thought it did), but because Philomela finds other means of expression. As Lisa Kiser observes, Philomela herself "enacts the role of the giver of forms" (112) already adumbrated in the opening lines of the legend. In this sense she is emblematic of women generally who, although excluded from the means of cultural production—in the Middle Ages this meant from university education or teaching; from taking orders and preaching; and from employment in law, government, and diplomacy—nonetheless managed to express themselves through other channels: whether with the ready answer conferred by Proserpina in the Merchant's Tale, by
writing (like Marie de France or Christine de Pizan, both of them known to Chaucer), or in other professional arts, such as illumination or textiles, in which women worked. Indeed, for Chrétien, Philomela is already an artist, and not merely metaphorically: among her many talents, she is able to
ovrer une porpre vermoille
Qu'an tot le mont n'ot sa paroille.
Un diaspre ou un baudequin
Nes la Mesniee Hellequin
Seüst ele an un drap portreire.
Des autors sot et de gramaire
Et sot bien feire vers et letre ¼ (2405–11)
work [embroider] a scarlet cloth
So that no one ever saw its like.
On a silk brocade or wool cloth
She could portray
Even hell's assembly.
She knew the auctores and grammar
And could write and compose verses ¼
The importance of artistic and expressive media in this tale has led some recent critics to see it as exemplary of textual production, as noted above under "Ariadne." The question of media is prominent here, as it was in the House of Fame (see Chapter 1) and with similar confusion. Chaucer's Philomela knows how to weave tapestry as women usually do ("As it of wemen hath be woned yore" ). She is able to read and also to compose poetry: "She coude eek rede, and wel ynow endyte" (2356)—a rather grudging concession, unlike Chrétien's glowing endorsement. Presumably her compositions are meant for oral delivery or dictation to a scribe, for unlike Chrétien's highly literate heroine, Chaucer's cannot write, even though she can weave letters as well as images into her tapestry, so that the story is both shown and told: "She waf it wel, and wrot the storye above" (2364). It is difficult for us to comprehend how someone might be able to read but not write, or to form letters in weaving but not with a pen. Historians of education inform us, however, that these distinctions were far more common in the Middle Ages than they are now: the Paston women, for example, could read but
perhaps not write, and the same has been suggested about Juliana of Norwich. M. T. Clanchy confirms that writing with a pen was a very specialized skill, often limited to copying of characters and not necessarily coupled with the ability to read (88, 218, 227). Although this situation does not apply to Philomela, who was not copying an already written text, it does provide social analogues. What remains a puzzle, though, is why Chaucer goes through all this: why not simply let the woman be thoroughly literate?
One reason is dramatic: were she able to write a letter, doubtless she would do so early on, sparing herself the year of waiting and the toil required to produce the tapestry that is so essential an object in the tradition. Another reason is source-related, for while Ovid is fairly clear that the story is written in letters (notas : signs/characters [Met. 6.577]), Chrétien has both portreite (33 38) and escrit (33 47) so that, as Lowes long ago observed, Chaucer's work agrees with the French in combining written and visual representation. In doing so it would be consistent not merely with a source but with a tradition, for the blurring and blending of media boundaries seems fairly common in medieval art. Jean Frappier, for instance (cited in Freeman, 880 n. 20), notes that escrire (to write) may also mean to draw, paint, or design, so that the phrase brudé et escrit predicated of a piece of fabric "constitutes a synonymous redundancy, considered moreover in the twelfth century as stylistically elegant," as when the lady in Marie de France's Laustic sends a dead bird to her lover wrapped "En une piece de samit / A or brusdé e tut escrit" ("in a piece of gold-embroidered samite scrolled [lit. 'written'] all over" [135–36]). Some churches of the period displayed paintings of fauxtapis in which an elaborately patterned and draped hanging is painted on the wall behind the altar; above it are painted niched statues of saints; above that the real ribbing proceeds to the crown of the vault. In the Wife of Bath's Tale, the old hag "rowned ¼ a pistel" (literally, "whispered an epistle") in the young knight's ear (III.1021). There seems, in short, to be a certain equivalency among the various arts and crafts, so that any of them might be equivalent to literacy or substitute for it. None is epistemologically superior;
they can be used as metaphors for one another (e.g., the Anglo-Saxon and later "web of words," the "entrelacement" in Celtic visual arts and in Old French romance).
Lastly, the Chaucerian Philomela's semi-literacy and lack of other accomplishments serves to intensify what Patricia Joplin calls "the power she discovered in exile" (47). Her weaving is not one of many forms of communication available to her, but a real transcendence of silence. Her effort is all the more heroic, and here I think we do have a concession to pathos, one recognizable from Chaucer's method elsewhere. Constance, too, had an elaborate education in Chaucer's French-language source for the Man of Law's Tale (the Anglo-Norman Chronicle of Nicholas Trevet), and Chaucer deprives her of it to render her the more helpless, the more dependent on no other resource than faith. Whereas the French authors seem to believe that a wronged heroine should start with as much as possible, to render her misfortune the more extreme, Chaucer on the contrary seems to aim at an image of depletion as extreme as possible, which means starting with fewer resources. For his particular purpose, "less is more"—or "the worse the better."
The ending of the story is lame, mutilated by its amputation of the tragic consequences. These are dismissed with:
The remenaunt is no charge for to telle,
For this is al and som: thus was she served,
That nevere harm agilte ne deserved
Unto this crewel man, that she of wiste.
But the evasion need not be heard as ironic trivialization in the vein of the Medea story. Its resemblance is rather to the Man of Law's Prologue with its rejection of such abominations as are recounted in the story of Canace (incest, infanticide, suicide; cf. Heroides 11): a distancing of seriously distasteful material. And in fact the terse summary is correct, for the heaping of horror upon horror can become sensationalistic after a point, and the point has been adequately made by the material already narrated. The real lameness occurs with the "moralization" that attempts to jam this narrative into the conceptual framework established by Eros and Alceste, that of the erotic battle of sexes:
Ye may be war of men, if that yow liste.
For al be it that he wol nat, for shame,
Don as Tereus, to lese his name,
Ne serve yow as a morderour or a knave,
Ful lytel while shal ye trewe hym have—
That wol I seyn, al were he now my brother—
But it so be that he may have non other.
The cynicism and inadequacy of this framework stand exposed in contrast with the real evil just portrayed.
In medieval commentaries upon the Heroides, Phyllis "serves as the canonical example of 'amor stultus'" (Hexter, 174), or foolish love. One of them explains that Phyllis's foolishness lay in her impatience, for Demophon had not betrayed her with another woman, and had she but waited, he would have returned. An alternate account is that she was foolish to love a man who was certain to leave her (en route either to or from the Trojan War). Another offers the rather cynically dismissive explanation that "quia viro indigebat ipsum adamavit. Unde, quia concumbere ei concessit, reprehenditur" ("because she lacked a man she fell for him. So, because she was willing to sleep with him, she is to be blamed" [Hexter, 223, 235]). Although there is no clear proof that Chaucer used or knew these commentaries, his Phyllis seems to echo this last idea in her self-reproachful "But I wot why ye come nat¼ . For I was of my love to yow to fre" (2520–21). To be sure, the concept is not so specialized as to require a particular source, but Chaucer's formulation is closer to the commentary than to Ovid's vague "non sapienter amavi" ("I didn't love wisely" [Her .2. 27]).
At the end of her tale, Phyllis expresses the wish (a curse, really) that her lover may go down in history as a proverbial flattering traitor:
And whan thyne olde auncestres peynted be,
In which men may here worthynesse se,
Thanne preye I God thow peynted be also
That folk may rede forby as they go,
"Lo! this is he that with his flaterye
Bytraised hath and don hire vilenye
That was his trewe love in thought and dede!"
But, as with Ariadne, history turns the tables on Phyllis and her intention for the future: it is she who remains the more widely known, and less for a true than for a foolish love.
I have begun with an ending; now for the beginning. The tale opens with a line—"By preve as wel as by autorite"—that invokes both the Wife of Bath's Prologue, and the opening of the Prologue to the Legend with its meditation on empiricism. Here, however, the lesson of experience and authority is "That wiked fruit cometh of a wiked tre" (2395), an image recalling not contemporary interest in philosophical matters but the Christian myth of humanity's creation and fall: the Original Sin that was a consequence of Adam's and Eve's partaking of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3). This is not to suggest that the scriptural tree was wicked, or its fruit; simply that the juxtaposition of tree, fruit, wickedness, and generational transmission of the disposition to evil can only, for a Christian audience, call to mind the story of Original Sin. Insofar as it does so, it also reminds its audience that such is the inheritance of every man, and of every woman as well.
Chaucer would have found inspiration for this theme in his Ovidian source (Her. 2.75–78); yet the enthusiasm with which he expanded it is distinctly his own, for the Christian motif continues to surface through the tale. In the next lines occurs a prayer for God's grace:
"God, for his grace, fro swich oon kepe us!"
Thus may these women preyen that it [the story] here.
The point about sinful nature is restated a few lines further on when Demophon is said to be like his father in looks and height and infidelity: "it com hym of nature" (2447). And, if we have lost sight of the subtle Christian reference of the opening movement, it too is restated here:
As doth the fox Renard, the foxes sone,
Of kynde he coude his olde faders wone¼ . (2448–49)
The fox is a common medieval emblem of Satan, whose influence is in the realm "of kynde" (nature). In this context, the adjective "olde" evokes the old law / new law dichotomy: the contrast between pre-Christian or non-Christian doctrines (old law) and Christianity (new law) that structures the relation of nature and diabolical influence. There follows another prayer for God's grace, this time on behalf of the Narrator himself ("Which to performe God me grace sende" ), then the natural sin motif again with another reference to the devil, this one explicit:
Me lyste nat vouche-sauf on hym to swynke,
Ne spende on hym a penne ful of inke,
For fals in love was he, ryght as his syre.
The devil sette here soules bothe afyre!
The notion of sin is kept before our eyes (and ears) in the syllabic wordplay in line 2550 ("But syn thus synfully ¼ "). In six lines in this section (2545–50), the word "begile" occurs twice and "subtilte" once, words very commonly used in a doctrinal context in connection with the temptations of world, flesh, and devil. Finally, Phyllis is said to commit suicide out of despair—"She for dispeyr fordide hyreself, allas" (2557)—the worst of all sins in a Christian context, because it denies the hope of salvation. Although she is certainly not the only heroine—or hero—in the Legend to commit suidde, she is the only one whose motive is specified as despair.
What is one to make of this orthodox doctrinal subtext supporting an Ovidian tale? In no way do I wish to propose that Chaucer intends an allegory as such, notwithstanding that the allegorical habit was deeply familiar to him from his reading of the Ovide moralise and many other exegetical texts. What I would propose is something closer to what Erich Auerbach has called a figural approach: one that, while maintaining the historicity of an event, sees it as representing or figuring (whether before or after) another event, also historical, but with spiritual significance as well. One convenience of this approach is that it eliminates anachronism, for the repetitive, patterned figural history knows no linear-sequential
or causal absolute. This is one reason why figures from the distant past can be genuinely exemplary. Phyllis is no Christian, but she enacts patterns that only a Christian can fully comprehend. The figuralism of the classical ladies in Chaucer's Legend tends, however, to resemble that of Virgil in Dante's Commedia rather than that of Beatrice. By this I mean that, like Virgil, they—their lives—may assist the reader to approach spiritual truths, but that none of them is what Auerbach calls "an incarnation of divine truth ¼ incarnate revelation" ("Figura," 74–75). Here Chaucer draws the line.
A doctrinal perspective surfaces once again in the advice to women with which the tale approaches its conclusion:
Be war, ye wemen, of youre subtyl fo,
Syn yit this day men may ensaumple se ¼ .
Because, to this day, the examples may be seen, therefore beware of your subtle foe. The referent of "subtle foe" is not specified, and there are several choices. We might jump ahead to "men" as a gender-specific term, tempting because of its neat opposition to "wemen," even though it is not syntactically part of the previous clause. Or, taking "men" as "people" we might follow the ear rather than the eye, accept the hint offered by "Syn" and hear "sin" as the referent—an easier choice in an unpunctuated manuscript or in one read aloud. Or we might think of the traditional characterization of Satan as humanity's subtle (tricky) foe (see MED s.v. "fo") and take the doctrinal message. The choice, as usual, is ours.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that "man" in the last line does denote sex: "And trusteth, as in love, no man but me." The specification of love as the field of concern makes the denotation inevitable. The Narrator has already specified his sex in previous legends, and he has distorted the literary corpus. By this point in the Legend we can scarcely take this line as anything but authorial irony (however sincere we might believe the Narrator to be), for there seems little reason to trust either the Narrator or his sponsor Eros, who has also revised "woman" according to his masculine desire. If Eros does violence to women in assimilating them to an unrealistic concept of their nature, so does the Narrator do violence to his sources, and so may he do to the reader who, in granting the Narrator's plea for trust, assumes a passive, "feminized" position. To carry the analogy further, though, is to see that—as Peter Allen
observes (420)—just as the women in the tales do not have to be victims, or at least do not have to despair and die because they are abandoned, or because their love is unreciprocated, so the reader does not have to believe everything he or she is told. The reader can and must assume responsibility for what "happens" to him or her while reading. We can be active in the production of meaning, certainly in the moral conclusions we draw from literary sources and in the behavior we choose to base upon exemplary literary characters. Interpretation is a necessity, for there is always more than meets the eye.
At the beginning of this tale, Chaucer engages in a bit of euhemerism, rationally explaining the fifty sons of Danao and the fifty daughters of Egiste as bastards, products of illicit love. (Chaucer reverses the fathers' names, not without precedent.) Danao spawns offspring "As swiche false lovers ofte conne" (2565), while Egiste "was of love as fals as evere hym liste" (2571), so that of his many daughters only one is "gat upon his ryghte wyf" (2573): the youngest, Hypermnestra. This legitimate child is beloved of the gods, "That of the shef she sholde be the corn" (2579). In the Prologue, the Narrator had asserted that his aim in making poetry is to praise neither flower against leaf nor corn against sheaf (F 188–90), so that there is perhaps a reminder here of the earlier locus, a reminder that is reinforced by another line describing how "The flour, the lef" is torn up to make wedding garlands for the young couple (2613). Further on, the natural/botanical imagery continues when Hypermnestra is compared with "the lef of aspe grene" as to quaking, with "an ash" as to pallor (2648–49), and again to "the braunche that Zepherus shaketh" (2681) for trembling. She is, we see, a natural woman—and more evidently good than some of the other heroines. As Mary Shaner points out (109—11), the Heroides scholia do not describe Hypermnestra as "stultus." On the contrary, she is commended for marrying dutifully, for mercy, and for wedded chastity. Moreover, she does not regret her generosity (as do Medea and Ariadne), and neither is she betrayed.
Yet I suggest that even this portrait participates in the general strategy of the series, albeit in somewhat subtler ways. To begin with, the Narrator does take the trouble to point out that the mar-
riage of Linus and Hypermnestra is incestuous (they are first cousins, hence within the officially forbidden degrees of consanguinity):
To Danao and Egistes also
Althogh so be that they were brethren two—
For thilke tyme was spared no lynage—
It lykede hem to make a maryage
Bytwixen Ypermystre and hym Lyno¼ . (2600–2604)
The marriage is thus already compromised, and, in view of medieval and particularly Chaucerian attitudes toward the violation of natural law (see above, "Cleopatra" and "Dido"), so is the bland excuse the Narrator gives here.
If the preceding tale of Phyllis reveals an orthodox Christian subtext, the ideological orientation of Hypermnestra is, on the contrary, destiny and stellar fatalism. "The Wirdes, that we clepen Destine" (2580) determine the heroine's virtues: Venus, Jupiter, and the waning power of Mars decree that she will be beautiful, prudent, and unable to handle a knife (2584—95). In much the same way, the Wife of Bath would account for her particular temperament by referring to her natal stellar influences (609–20). If the effect is different, the methodology is identical—and, to a Christian rigorist, deplorable. These "Oriental" attitudes, which came to the medieval West through Arab translations of Greek and Latin philosophers, would be further exploited by Chaucer in the Man of Law's Tale, where they form a counterpoint to the proper Christian understanding of Providence and the exercise of free will. Here, there is no explicit counterpoint, so that interpretation of this theme is left to the reader—a valorization of interpretive activity quite consistent with what has come before in the Legend. Hypermnestra's father, Egiste, continues the theme when he asserts the influence of "the fatal systren" on his "dom" (2630). If we have taken the point of all that precedes in the Legend, we shall, I believe, be able to see the stellar account of Hypermnestra's virtue, or of Egiste's vice, as having very limited explanatory power indeed.
The young woman does give her own reasons for not following her father's inhumane command, and they are terribly superficial. At no point does she penetrate to the heart of the matter and say, or think, that murder is wrong. Instead, we have protracted tergiversation: she is afraid to incur her father's threat of death; she is a
virgin (the marriage has apparently not been consummated on the wedding night); her hands are not made for a knife (2684–95) or for murder. (One notes parenthetically that this last appears to be an Ovidian formula, for in Heroides , beside Hypermnestra's "quid mihi cum ferro?" [14.65], Canace also says that the knife is not fit for her womanly hand [11.19–20]). Nonetheless, despite its lack of moral dignity, the monologue does rise to the occasion and the heroine manages to do the right thing:
"yit is it bet for me
For to be ded in wifly honeste
Than ben a traytour lyvynge in my shame." (2700–2702)
If Hypermnestra's monologue lacks dignity, so does the treatment as a whole. Chaucer's rhetoric, in the second part of the story, includes a number of words that seem to trivialize the narrative in their colloquialism, to be more appropriate in context of village than of court. The heroine's father coyly says that they will have a "biker" (quarrel ) if she refuses his demand; this is also a masterpiece of understatement, since he has threatened to have her killed if she disobeys. He offers her a "costret," or flask ("In the Craven dialect, a costril is the little wooden barrel carried by reapers" [Skeat, 196]). The princess swears by the "devel" (2694); belittles her decision with the rather cynical line "Be as be may, for ernest or for game" (2703); determines to send Linus away "Out at this goter" (2705), and "roggeth" her husband awake (2708).
It has been proposed that the present ending is all that was ever intended; it has also been suggested that the ending has been lost. The very debate shows that the ending must minimally be acknowledged as what Barbara Hermstein Smith has called "weak poetic closure," if indeed it is closure at all. Following Smith's terminology (34, 210, 221), we might at best consider it "closural failure" or "disappointment," and if it fits any of her types, it might be "cheap closure" or, more charitably, open-ended or an anti-closural ending. Yet if closure "creates in the reader the expectation of nothing," that is, nothing more, nothing to follow, then this seems a good reason not to see the end of the Legend as closure, for it seems to end in a colon. On the other hand, that may have been the intention. On the other hand again, Beverly Boyd has suggested that the conditions
of production and consumption of the Chaucerian book may account for the fact that "Chaucer's store of unfinished works is very large for a poet of his reputation" (115). She adduces two possibilities: first, that oral presentation of a work before a live audience would remove pressure to bring the work to a final state; second, that presentation of a portion of a larger work to an individual friend or patron would have the same effect.
As with the House of Fame, the lack of an explicit or at least an obvious conclusion to the Legend does not hamper, in the main, the work of interpretation. Incompleteness, not necessarily at the end, is a condition Chaucerians are accustomed to, for the Canterbury Tales, which has a very powerful ending, nonetheless remains a work in progress. Beside the "missing" tales, the Cook's Tale is unfinished, and the Squire and Narrator (and perhaps Monk) are interrupted in theirs. Troilus also has a strong and wonderfully orchestrated ending, although critics endlessly debate its tone and suitability. Even the beautifully finished Parliament of Fowls defers the conclusion of its narrative to outside the poem, and falls deliberately one line short of its perfect seven hundred. The two prose treatises—the Astrolabe and the Equatorie —are evidently incomplete, or not, at least, completed according to plan. Beginnings seem to be less problematic with Chaucer than endings, whether deliberately or not. But if art imitates life despite its best intentions toward fictionality, then I suppose that is what we might fairly expect. Indeed, through the idea of the book of judgment, in which one's good and bad deeds are recorded against the day of doom, the Middle Ages had a very firm sense of life-as-text, and as uncompleted text. A variant, based on Apocalypse 20: 12, is developed by the London preacher Thomas Wimbledon, in a sermon composed in 1387. Here, a book of individual conscience and a book of Jesus's teachings will be opened:
In the first bok schal be write al that we have do; in the tother book schal be write that we schulde have do. And than shulle dede men be demed of thilke thyngis that beth writen in the bookis¼ . For the dom schal be yove aftir oure werkis. (122–23)
By comparison with the exemplar, most copies will be imperfect: what we should have done will remain always unwritten.