Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Executive Transvestites

“What shall I call thee when thou art a man?” (As You Like It)
How fixed is identity in the plays?

The two plays I have chosen to discuss in relation to this question are As You Like It and Twelfth Night. These two plays have some striking similarities in terms of plot, both exploring identity and its fluidity in terms of gender with cross-dressing heroines, and more generally with other disguises, such as Celia as Aliena in As You Like It and Feste as Sir Topas in Twelfth Night. This is reflected in terms of the play’s titles: Twelfth Night’s alternate title is What You Will, meaning essentially the same as As You Like It. Both As You Like It and What You Will place emphasis on the identity of the individual “you” and the idea of choice, which can be read as a sense of control over the altering of one’s own self.

Gender is fundamental to an individual’s identity, and the cross-dressing heroines of both plays guarantee that this is by no means fixed. As Howard writes, this transvestitism “makes problematic how natural are the gender distinctions that supposedly separate man from woman.”[1] This is complicated further by the fact that, in Elizabethan theatre, female characters were played by boys. Gender distinctions blur still further in As You Like It, Howard explains: in the 1590s, Shakespeare wrote four plays featuring cross-dressing women: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Of these, Rosalind’s case is “arguably the most complicated”[2] because she’s Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind. “A woman disguised as a man thus makes her own identity into a fiction she performs!”[3]

This transformation of identity achieved through transcendence of gender has both advantages and disadvantages for Rosalind and Viola. It appears at first glance that Viola’s transvestitism is painful and Rosalind’s joyful, but the situation is actually far more complicated than that. Both adopt “the privileges as well as the dress of the supposedly superior sex”[4] but they are paralysed as well as freed by their new identities. They are left unable to speak their true feelings, other than in equivocation or asides, and are prevented from pursuing their own romantic interests. For Viola this is doubly hard, as she is forced to court another woman on behalf of the man she loves. Nevertheless, particularly in As You Like It, there is an atmosphere of adventure, of venturing into new territory in terms of selfhood. As Palfrey writes, disguise enables characters to “more fully realise their own possibilities and more faithfully express their ‘true selves.’”[5]

There is danger in this, however: identity can become so fluid that characters can become confused as to who they actually are, or can seem to become the persona they enact. As Viola says, “I am not what I am.” (3.1.129-135) Palfrey writes that disguise can make it difficult to define “where a particular character begins and ends.”[6] The boundaries between self and other, between the true identity and assumed disguise, merge. For this reason, disguise is “a challenge to the very idea of coherent individuality.”[7] Shakespeare’s exploration of disguise in terms of identity is fuelled by the possibility, in Malcolmson’s words, “that external forms can determine internal states;”[8] or, put more simply by Howard, “clothes here make the man – or woman.”[9] It is perhaps no accident then, that when Viola asks the Captain to help her dress as a man, her words “Conceal me what I am” (1.2.49) sound more like “Conceal from me what I am.”

In this case, then identity is both fixed and not fixed: the individual in disguise seems almost to split into two. For Viola, this also is extremely painful. She calls herself “poor monster” (2.2.32) because she has become, effectively, both male and female:

“As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love.
As I am woman, now, alas the day,
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!” (2.2.34-7, my italics)

Shakespeare explores this further in Twelfth Night through the phenomenon of male and female twins. In the final scene, in which the twins confront one another while Viola is still dressed as Cesario, Shakespeare forces the audience to see this duality of self visually. As Orsino remarks:

“One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,
A natural perspective that is and is not” (5.1.208-9)

Shakespeare deliberately drags this out, as the twins grope through their family history in order to place themselves. (5.1.208-256) Shakespeare demonstrates then, that identity is only fluid to a certain degree, and experimentation comes at a cost.

The characters in Twelfth Night and As You Like It who adopt transvestite disguises experiment not only with their own identities but with those of other characters, particularly those with whom they are romantically involved. This is because identity is inseparable from sexuality. Shakespeare highlights this to his audience in As You Like It with Rosalind’s choice of name. Ganymede was a boy desired by Jupiter and taken to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer and so, as Howard writes, the name “had long-standing associations with homo-erotic love.”[10] In the final scene, though, “Rosalind reassumes her female clothes and Ganymede disappears,”[11] and so the play ends with the traditional union of man and woman – except, of course, that on the Elizabethan stage, Rosalind was played by a boy. For Viola and Orsino, this is even more subversive: Viola does not change her clothes and Orsino continues to call her Cesario. Both Olivia in Twelfth Night and Phoebe in As You Like It pursue women in disguise as men, and as Howard writes, it is unclear whether each desires “the man she thinks she sees or the woman beneath.”[12] However, we must remember that “in the early modern period, people were not assumed, as they often are today, to have a fixed sexual identity,”[13] to be heterosexual or homosexual, so these homosexual overtones are not perhaps so significant in terms of identity as they would be in a modern play.

Of course, identity is multi-faceted and does not rely purely on gender or sexuality. It is also worth exploring its fluidity in terms of status. Social mobility is something of which Shakespeare would have been acutely aware: between 1500 and 1700, the population doubled but the upper classes trebled.[14] Perhaps the fullest examination of this lies in the character of Malvolio. His fantasies are of power, extravagance and fulfillment of lust: he imagines himself: “sitting in (his) state” in a “branched velvet gown” whilst “having come from a day-bed where (he has) left Olivia sleeping.” (2.5.39-44) All this starkly demonstrates his Puritanical hypocrisy, for which he is punished and humiliated. This would seem to suggest that, in Shakespeare’s plays, status is fixed, and aspiration is condemned. However, closer examination reveals that this is not the case. Olivia would have married the servant Cesario. Shakespeare himself was socially mobile: as Greenblatt reminds us, he was the son of a glover, who acquired a coat of arms and second largest house in Stratford.[15] As Malcolmson writes, it is not Malvolio’s ambition which is punished, but rather his “desire to establish his superiority and to impose his will on others.”[16]

In conclusion, then, Shakespeare’s love of experimentation with identity as a concept is ubiquitous in these two plays. Both plots are essentially based on cross-gender disguises, and Twelfth Night is also full of mistaken identities used for comic purposes. This fluidity of identity is not complete, however: it leads to a fractioning of the self, confusion and heartache in general. This is not only the case for Viola: Celia’s choice of a name, Aliena, reflects her sense of alienation, functioning in a society without a fixed identity. Experimentation with gender identity leads to experimentation with sexual identity, which can be both exciting and confusing. The self in these plays can be warped and explored, but it cannot ultimately be escaped.

Callaghan, D. ‘And all is semblative a woman’s part:’ Body Politics and Twelfth Night in White, R. S. (ed.) Twelfth Night (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996)
Greenblatt, S. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Greenblatt, S., Cohen, W., Howard, J. E and Maus, K. E. (eds.) The Norton Shakespeare (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Ltd., 1997).
Malcolmson, C. ‘What You Will:’ Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night in White, R. S. (ed.) Twelfth Night (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996)
Palfrey, S. Doing Shakespeare (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2005).

[1] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1595.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 200.
[6] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 199.
[7] Simon Palfrey, Doing Shakespeare, p. 200.
[8] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 170.
[9] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1595.
[10] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1596.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] J.E. Howard in Stephen Greenblatt, The Norton Shakespeare, p. 1597.
[14] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 167.
[15] Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 7.
[16] Malcolmson, C. Social Mobility and Gender in Twelfth Night, p. 178.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Why Were Women Attracted to Early Christianity?

Why Were Women Attracted to Early Christianity?

Christianity spread rapidly from the first century C.E. onwards, and many converts were women. We have numerous accounts of women hearing Christian teaching from missionaries, such as Paul, and being baptised. Examples include Lydia in Acts 16:12-16 and St. Thecla in Acts of Paul and Thecla 7-35.[1] The pagan critic Celsus in the second century C.E. describes Christianity as “a religion of women, children and slaves,”[2] which opens up the question of whether women were “disproportionately represented”[3] in Early Christianity. It is clear that Celsus was seeking to disparage Christianity by asserting that it was the choice of the intellectually inferior, and his bias must be considered when assessing the truth of his statement. In the book of Acts, the women who convert to Christianity are, Kraemer writes, “frequently free, aristocratic, affluent and respectable, if not also demonstrably educated and intelligent women.”[4] St. Luke, who is generally accepted to be the author of Acts, had the opposite intention of Celsus: to create a positive impression of Christianity by portraying it as the choice of the intellectually superior: he was biased also. Perhaps we would expect him, then, to omit female converts, since women were believed to be intellectually inferior to men in most cultures at that time. The fact that both Christians and pagans describe women converting to Christianity means that we can assume that Christianity was reasonably popular with women in the early centuries C.E.

Initially, it seems strange that Greco-Roman women would choose to abandon their pagan religion in favour of Christianity. As Pomeroy writes, in Greco-Roman society, “religion was the major sphere of public life in which women participated.”[5] Religion was also remarkably slow to change,[6] so we can deduce that women’s customs described centuries before the birth of Christ were still active in something similar to their original form. Likewise, the establishment of the Roman Empire did not necessarily stop them, as the Romans incorporated Greek religion into their own. For these reasons, it is of use to consider earlier Greek sources as well as those which date from the time of Christ and afterwards. Greco-Roman religious customs provided ample opportunity for women to be involved. Women carried out the Thesmophoria fertility ritual in honour of Demeter[7], and there were several other festival roles for women, largely based on age, such as making cakes, carrying procession items, dances and choral performances. For example, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata 641-47 reads:

“When I was seven, I was an arrephoros [a carrier of mystical objects]. At ten I made cake for Athena’s offering, and wore the saffron to be a bear for Artemis at Brauron. And once as a fair young girl, I was a kanephoros [basket-carrier]….”[8]

It is worth noting, however, that such roles were often reserved for the nobility and always for women and girls of unblemished reputation. Christianity, however, is largely focused around the forgiveness of sins, or the erasing of past transgressions, as if they never were. Women who were excluded from participating in Greco-Roman pagan religious events may have been inspired by early Christian figures such as Mary Magdalene, the ex-prostitute who found acceptance in Jesus (Luke 7:3-50) and went on to be significant in his ministry.

It may also be seen as surprising that Greco-Roman women, particularly those of high status, chose to convert to Christianity because their pagan religion seems to have offered more to which they could aspire, in terms of becoming priestesses. Evidence clearly shows that Greco-Roman society respected its priestesses enormously. The Leucippides (unmarried girl priestesses at sanctuary of Phoebe and Hilaeira at Amyclae, near Sparta) are described by Pausinas in his Guide to Greece 3.16.1-2 as “like the goddesses themselves.”[9] Likewise, a number of tombstones of priestesses have survived, praising them lavishly.[10] We also know that priestesses were called by their own name as a mark of respect, instead of being referred to by the significant man in their life (ie. “mother of…” or “wife of…” or “daughter of…”) as was customary.[11] The nearest Early Christian equivalent was the role of deaconess. Deaconesses are mentioned in Pliny’s Letters 10.96.8[12] and also in Romans 16:1, but we know little about them because, as Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro state, “many of the church fathers who wrote in those years had little interest in women except as martyrs or objects of theological debate.”[13] We do know, though, that a deaconess’ role was “to serve the orthodox church by assisting the priest in ministering to the sick and needy, counseling women, and even occasionally giving sermons.”[14] While deaconesses “must have held positions of significant authority,”[15] they were “by no means priestesses.”[16] It must be remembered, however, that priestesses were a very small minority.

It could be argued that, while Christian women did not have the celebrated status of a pagan priestess, all Christian women could have that closeness to the divine, as Christians believed that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross enabled everyone to have a personal and intimate relationship with God. The lack of a goddess in Christianity, like the Bona Dea[17] in Roman religion, could make it seem unlikely that women would want to convert, as one would assume that women would find it easier to relate to a goddess than a god or the male Jesus. However, the Christian God is not, in fact, male, but spirit, so effectively neither gender, or both. The Christian concept of God the Father is based on the Jewish one, but there are also passages in the Old Testament describing God as female. In Isaiah 42:14, God is “like a woman in labour” and, in Isaiah 49:15 and Isaiah 66:13, God is compared to a nursing mother. Early Christian converts may well have become acquainted with these texts, and comparing God to a woman is surely the greatest compliment that can be paid to the female sex.

Another reason that it may seem surprising that women were attracted to Early Christianity is the persecution that occurred before Constantine made Christianity fully legal in his Edict of Toleration in 311-12 CE.[18] Lefkowitz and Fant describe Christianity as “for the Romans, another foreign religion… to be regarded with suspicion.”[19] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro write that women who converted “sometimes lost position and even families and lives through their involvement with their church.”[20] They must have been reminded of Luke 9:61-2, in which a man is called to follow Jesus, but asks first to say goodbye to his family. Jesus replies, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.” Perhaps they were comforted and encouraged also by Luke 6:22-23: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets.”

It is possible that women were attracted to the excitement and danger of being a part of an illegal movement. Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy and Shapiro continue: “whether because of overt persecution or simply through the loathing of Christianity that came from stories about cannibalism and incest, only the lowliest or most privileged in Roman society could afford to openly and with impunity admit to being a Christian.”[21] Martyrdom was very much a possibility. There is evidence for a great number of female Christian martyrs, such as St. Perpetua at Carthage in 203 C.E., whose death is described in Acts of the Christian Martyrs 8.2-10, [22] and those whose death is recorded in Acts of the Christian Martyrs 22.[23] If the prospect of martyrdom were itself not unattractive enough, many women, like St. Perpetua, left behind children and saw their families suffer for their beliefs. We know, then, that whatever attracted women to Early Christianity must have been extraordinarily powerful, for them to face the prospect of martyrdom, and for many to endure it without backing down.

I propose that we look in the Christian message itself for Early Christianity’s appeal to women. To do this, I suggest we examine the gospels on which it was founded. As Kraemer writes, “great caution… must be exercised in the attempt to extract any reliable historical data about women from earliest Christian sources, especially literary works such as the canonical gospels.”[24] The Church in its first centuries was still deciding where it stood on the issue of women and Christian literature was still being edited and may not have been as we know it today in the New Testament. This does not, however, make the gospels in their current form valueless.

Stanton describes Jesus’ attitude to women in these gospels as “striking,”[25] and this is particularly the case in the gospel of Luke.[26] Luke’s gospel promotes unheard-of gender equality. It claims that Jesus included women among his disciples (Luke 8:1-3), and Stanton writes that, in fact, “a number of traditions show that Jesus was able to mix freely and naturally with women of all sorts and to accept them into his wider circle of followers.”[27] Luke’s gospel makes women a central part of the resurrection narrative: they the first to discover that Jesus had risen and it was to them that the angels appeared and announced the news (Luke 24:1-8). The story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10: 38-42 also demonstrates Jesus’ encouragement of women’s learning and not devoting themselves entirely to household tasks. Luke also employs a female-male parallelism throughout the gospel: between Zechariah and Mary (1:10-20, 26-38), Simeon and Anna (2:25-38), the centurion and the widow (7:1-7), and man with a hundred sheep and the woman with ten silver coins (15:4-10).[28] A similar pairing between men and women occurs in the book of Acts, also traditionally written by Luke.

Kraemer argues, though, that this pairing, instead of endorsing gender equality, is because of Luke’s “pervasive concern to demonstrate that Christian women are properly associated with and subordinated to men in accordance with Greco-Roman norms.”[29] She argues that Luke’s interest in women “may be deceptive” because D’Angelo has demonstrated that Luke’s stories about women are actually there to suit other agendas.[30] Even if this is the case, the female readers of the time would not have necessarily known that, and would have seen an acceptance of women in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus.

Whether or not women would have found a similar acceptance in the early Church is debatable. As Stanton writes, “the early church did not always follow the example of Jesus toward women.”[31] Records of the early Church are reasonably scarce because of persecution: much of what we have is Christian literature, such as what is now in the New Testament, and these may well have been subject to alteration. What we do have appears divided. On the one hand, Galatians 3:28 reads: “there is no difference… between men and women… you are all one in union with Jesus Christ,” and 1 Corinthians 7:4 reads: “a woman does not have authority over her own body; it belongs to her husband. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body; it is his wife’s,” thus promoting equality within marriage as well as generally.

On the other hand, this seems to be contradicted with “I wish you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband” (1 Cor. 11:3). Some epistles, or some parts of the epistles, seem to endorse the suppression of women. 1 Timothy 2:8-12 reads: “In every church service I want the men to pray… women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men: they must keep quiet,” and 1 Corinthians 14:33b reads: “In all the churches of the faithful, let women be silent in the congregation, for it is not appropriate for them to speak. They should be obedient, as the law states. If they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is a disgrace for a woman to speak out in the congregation.” Some of the theology in the epistles seems to directly contradict Jesus’ attitudes in the gospels toward women. How women were treated in the early Church, then, remains something of a mystery, so we cannot know if this was part of the appeal.

In conclusion, in spite of there being several reasons why early Christianity would seem undesirable to women, most of these can be counteracted, at least in part. The treatment of women in the early Church is uncertain, but the gospels are clearly very positive about women and thus would have attractive for them. This essay has explored why early Christianity was attractive to women in particular, but it must be remembered that Christianity was attractive to women for many of the reasons that it was attractive to men. It offered the promise of Heaven, a joyful and unending afterlife: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4).” In contrast, Roman concepts of the afterlife were varied and sometimes vague. Roman gods were also deeply fallible and their attitudes to humans ambiguous, while Christianity promised a perfect, loving god. The word “gospel” does, after all, mean “good news,” and it’s not surprising, then, that women as well as men were attracted to it.


Fantham, E., Foley, H. P., Kampen, N. B., Pomeroy, S. B. and Shapiro, H. A. (1994) Women in the Classical World: Image and Text, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Golden, M. and Toohey, P. (2003) Sex and Difference in Ancient Greece and Rome, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Green, J. B. (1995) The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kraemer, R. S. (1992) Her Share of the Blessings: Women’s Religions Among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lefkowitz, M. R. and Fant, M. B, eds. (2005) Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A source book in translation, London: Gerald Duckworth and Co, Ltd.
Pomeroy, S. B. (1975) Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity, London: Pimlico.
Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Holy Bible, New International Version.

Richard Hawley, Playing the Bear: Women in Classical Greek Religions, 30th October 2007.

[1] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 311-12.
[2] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 128.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 129.
[5] Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, p. 75.
[6] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[7] Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, p. 77.
[8] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[9] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 301.
[10] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 302-6.
[11] Hawley, Playing the Bear, 30th October 2007.
[12] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 291.
[18] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[19] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 307.
[20] Fantham, Foley, Kampen, Pomeroy, Shapiro, Women in the Classical World, p. 383.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 313-18.
[23] Lefkowitz and Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, p. 318-23.
[24] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 131.
[25] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.
[26] Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, p. 91.
[27] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.
[28] Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, p. 92-3.
[29] Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings, p. 129.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, p. 202.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Said Chaucer to Boccaccio

Show how a comparison with Boccaccio’s Il Teseida can add to your reading of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

When Chaucer rewrote Boccaccio’s Il Teseida for his Knight’s Tale, he made some fundamental alterations. As Burrow writes, Chaucer was “deeply impressed” by the poetry of Boccaccio, but there were also aspects “which he could or would not imitate.”[1] Chaucer’s positive and negative reactions to Boccaccio’s work “reveal a great deal about Chaucer himself, and also about the literary culture of England in his day.”[2] Chaucer’s additions and omissions tell us a great deal about his own interests and opinions, and the audience for which he was writing. They also reflect the interests and purposes of the different narrators in this multi-layered narrative: Chaucer the writer, Chaucer the pilgrim and the knight.

Observing the form and style of Il Teseida sheds new light on Chaucer’s choice of style for the Knight’s Tale. Il Teseida, Burrow writes, is “the first full-scale attempt by a vernacular writer to imitate Classical epic.”[3] Like Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebiad, it comprises twelve books, and Boccaccio was keen to imitate “the epic feats of arms” with “high, epic style: invocations, long epic similes, catalogues of warriors, oratorical speeches” and other defining features of Classical epic.[4] Unlike any Classical epic, however, Il Teseida’s main plot is the conventionally Medieval romance of young love.

It was perhaps for this reason that Chaucer chose not to attempt to re-create the epic style in his Knight’s Tale. As Salter writes, he treats the story “predominantly, as a courtly romance.”[5] This is reflected in his compression of the first two books of Il Teseida, about Theseus’ conquests, into a mere two hundred lines. Burrow claims that Chaucer is typical of Middle English writers in his willingness to freely borrow ideas, stories and images from Classical literature, but refusal to follow its genre-system.[6] This perhaps reflects the tastes of an English audience. Ward writes that Chaucer meant the style of the Tales to be “above all things popular.”[7] The question is: popular with whom? Burrow claims that The Knight’s Tale is a tale of chivalry and a romance, aimed at the English courtly classes, while The Miller’s Tale, which has a similar plot but is funnier and cruder, was aimed at the lower classes.[8] However, it is unlikely that the lower classes, even if they were literate, would have had access to The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote primarily for his educated contemporaries in England and his experimentation with higher and lower styles, displaying his versatility, reflects this.

A comparison with Il Teseida also reveals how drastically Chaucer changed the characters of Palemon and Arcite and their relationship. As Minnis notes, in Il Teseida, Palemon “continually insists on fighting a reluctant Arcita,” who “acts reasonably and with superhuman patience towards the cousin who cannot control his passion for the same woman.”[9] Yet, as Salter observes, Chaucer’s lovers are “distinguishable mainly for their allegiance to differing gods.”[10] This shows us that, for Chaucer, it is not the characters themselves that are important, but what they communicate. The key to what it is that they communicate in The Knight’s Tale lies in the cousins’ relationship. In Il Teseida, they do not quarrel over Emilia, but rather “converse, each consoling the other with his words” (Book III).[11] They greet each other “warmly” (Book V)[12] when they are reunited in the grove. Chaucer, however, changes their attitudes completely. In The Knight’s Tale, as soon as the cousins become rivals, they are hostile to one another. Indeed, Palemon tells Arcite, “I am thy mortal foo” (line 878). This demonstrates Chaucer’s, or perhaps the knight’s, interest in the destructive quality of love, and how it makes people act out of character. As Theseus says, “Who may been a fool but if he love?” (line 1799)

Theseus himself is a character whose alterations from in Il Teseida to The Knight’s Tale demonstrate Chaucer’s interests. Interestingly, Minnis writes that Chaucer makes Theseus “even more noble than he was in Il Teseida.”[13] Minnis goes on to claim that Theseus in The Knight’s Tale is “a paragon of ethical and political virtue” and “the closest Chaucer ever got to portraying a hero.”[14] In my opinion, Chaucer actually makes Boccaccio’s Theseus less virtuous. For example, Boccaccio’s Theseus gives Palamon and Arcite a room in the palace and everything they need, whilst Chaucer’s Theseus puts them both “in prisoun” (line 1023). Minnis argues that “Theseus’ subsequent generosity to the cousins dispels any doubts that the reader may have concerning his treatment of them.”[15] Chaucer undermines this, however, with his description of the war on Thebes. Its position at the opening of the tale means that it overshadows all that comes after it. Theseus has pity on the widows of Thebes, and yet the reader cannot help but consider that he is indirectly the cause of their grief. The knight is keen to stress that Creon was a “tirant” (961) and deserved his fate (964), but Chaucer is more reluctant to endorse him. Chaucer adds the telling detail of Palemon’s and Arcite’s being discovered by pillagers, not by the Greeks looking for their dead, as in Boccaccio’s version. There is perhaps a touch of irony is calling him “worthy” Theseus, and Chaucer may be making a wider comment on war-mongering in general.

Chaucer’s treatment of Emilia, when compared with Boccaccio’s, can also be seen to reveal something about his attitude to women. Boccaccio’s Emilia is a vibrant character; in Minnis’ words, she has “a positive and quite forceful personality.”[16] Salter describes her as an “ideal” and “innocently vain.” [17] Emilia’s vanity, though, is not entirely innocent: “although she was a maiden as yet unready for love’s fulfillment, she was nonetheless aware of what it implied.” (Book III) Emilia embraces this: “she rejoiced in being found attractive and thought herself lovelier and made herself look fairer.” (Book III) This sexual awakening of sorts is entirely omitted in Chaucer, as is most else concerning Emilia’s feelings and thoughts. As Salter writes, “Chaucer’s Emelye exists only to provide the immediate cause of the lovers’ rivalry. We know little of her feelings and her reactions to the melodramatic scenes in which she is involved; even her physical beauty is conveyed distantly to us, in courtly images.”[18] This is not to say that Chaucer is uninterested in women – The Wife of Bath’s and other Canterbury Tales are proof to the contrary – but it once again shows that, in Chaucer’s version of this particular story, character is secondary to plot and to wider commentary.

The final aspect of The Knight’s Tale emphasised by a reading of Il Teseida is the care taken by Chaucer to ensure a happy ending, or at least a reasonably happy one. This, again, is partly a question of genre: the element of tragedy in the story is far more suitable to Boccaccio’s Classical epic than Chaucer’s courtly romance. Chaucer is keen to soften the blow of Arcite’s death, in spite of his added description of Arcite’s illness, and to make Emilia’s remarriage to Palemon more palatable. Chaucer omits Emilia’s marriage to Arcite; he delays Palemon and Emilia’s marriage for a decent mourning period; he removes Palemon’s and Emilia’s qualms; and he has Palamon see Emilia first rather than Arcite, thus removing the latter’s prior claim on her. Additionally, as Minnis writes, “Boccaccio had regarded Arcita as being far superior to Palemon, so that his loss of life and of Emilia was all the more tragic…. By contrast, in The Knight’s Tale Arcite and Palamon are of equal merit; there is no suggestion that one deserves Emelye more than the other.”[19] Chaucer’s version, although it has serious overtones, is altogether more lighthearted, and instead of lamenting Arcite excessively, the reader is encouraged to see that, as Minnis says, “one man’s downfall is another’s opportunity.”[20]

In conclusion, then, Chaucer’s choice of style and his editing of Boccaccio’s characters reveal a great deal about his own motives and interests. However, this essay is by no means a complete list of alterations made by Chaucer to Il Teseida, or a full exploration of what they tell us. For example, Chaucer also took up Boccaccio’s theme of fate and made it his own, and altered the role of the gods in the story to suit his own ends. Chaucer’s imagination would not have let him assume the role of mere translator, and he clearly invested much of himself in his reworking of Arcite’s and Palemon’s story.


Benson, L. D. (ed.) The Riverside Chaucer, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)
Brewer, D. S. Chaucer, (London: Longmans, 1953).
Burrow, J. A. Medieval Writers and their Work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)
Havely, N. Chaucer’s Boccaccio, (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer Ltd., 1980).
Minnis, A. J. Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer Ltd., 1982).
Salter, E. Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and The Clerk’s Tale, (London: Edward Arnold, 1962).
Ward, A. W. Chaucer, (London: Macmillan and Co., 1879).
[1] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 57.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 57-8.
[5] Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, p.10.
[6] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 58.
[7] A. W. Ward, Chaucer, p.122
[8] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, p. 78.
[9] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.111.
[10] Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, p.10.
[11] N. Havely, Chaucer’s Boccaccio, p.114.
[12] N. Havely, Chaucer’s Boccaccio, p.119.
[13] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.109.
[14] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.121.
[15] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.122.
[16] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.131.
[17] Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale, p.11.
[18] Ibid.
[19] A. J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity, p.28.
[20] Ibid.