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.

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