Giovanni Boccaccio Concerning Famous Women English Literature Essay

Boccaccio’s intentions when writing his adaption of the story of Troy are unclear. There is a lucid difference between his version and Virgil’s The Aeneid. It is difficult to comprehend whether he alters this story in order to suggest ways in which Dido may be redeemed, or if he is providing a moral commentary which heavily reflects the context in which he was writing, and perhaps his own version of morality regarding females? Or perhaps, this is a piece of writing, which alongside a historical account, is aimed to be entertaining.

Dido is often presented as an idealistic female; her values and virtues are depicted as aspirational and unwavering. Giovanni Boccaccio significantly augments this representation, in order to illustrate his own personal beliefs, regarding the actions of females in society. Dido is not presented as a female whom represents others, but instead a holistic embodiment of an idealistic female.

The extract I will examine is taken from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Concerning Famous Women, Chapter XL; The Tyrian Dido or Elissa, The Queen of Carthage. The tradition presented by Boccaccio is habitually unlike other workings of Troy, such as Virgil’s The Aeneid or the writing of Geoffrey Chaucer. The perceived story of Troy has been altered, and thus one is faced with a multi-faceted view of, what is supposed to be, the same recounting of events. It could be argued that Boccaccio’s writing inhibits a resilient sense of patriarchy, despite on the surface seeming like an appraisal of Dido’s actions. Boccaccio describes Dido as ‘famous throughout Africa for her great beauty as had never been seen before, and for her unheard-of virtue and chastity’ [1] Unquestionably, Boccaccio is recounting Dido’s infamous bravery and chastity. Yet, at the same time, in accordance to Chaucer, her ‘womanhood’ [2] , is not overlooked. In congruence with the writing of Boccaccio, Chaucer depicts Dido as helpless and thus as presented in Boccaccio’s text she cannot ever match a man’s strength or courage. It seems that whilst Boccaccio is promoting Dido’s admirable values, he is simultaneously describing her as devious; he states that ‘[this was] a woman’s slyness’ (Boccaccio, p.88) It is difficult to say whether this is merely a compliment of Dido’s ability to act intelligently, or perhaps it is stigmatising her womanly qualities. Either way, the term sly is attachable to the female, as opposed to the male, who would potentially be associated with the term cunning; this infers a sense of skill, rather than the perhaps deceitful undertones of the primary term.

Boccaccio’s account of the events of Troy appears to omit various elements of the story. Where Aeneas is a vastly significant part of Dido’s fate within the latter 3 texts, Boccaccio does not present Aeneas as at all significant in determining Dido’s future. Guarino argues that ‘Instead [of incorporating Aeneas] he uses only her name, title, location, and suicide as bases for his moral lesson’ Despite the importance of Aeneas’ presence within other texts surrounding the story of Troy, Boccaccio omits his presence as undoubtedly this would add complexity to his claims of Dido’s purity and chastity. If his argument is to stand, then he must, I expect, remove anything which may stigmatise her character. As Guarino states, Dido is only referred to through her link to Carthage, her achievements within the city, her name ‘Dido’ or ‘Elissa’, and the significance regarding this, and her suicide, as the main basis of his argument. Her previous husband, and thus her widowhood, is explored, but there is no mention of any further advance in marriage. Boccaccio merely states that ‘At the time when the Trojan Aeneas, who had never been seen I that country, arrived, Dido had [already] decided to die rather than forego her chastity’ (Boccaccio, p.89) Aeneas is mentioned, but the comment is so nonchalant and inattentive that one would not expect that every other account confirms the notion of a relationship. Besides the relevance this holds upon Dido within the whole narrative, this further disregards Aeneas’ significance within any element of the story of Troy.

Evidently, Boccaccio chooses to portray Dido as an example of virtue in widowhood, in order to promote a sense of morality to the reader. Through this, as mentioned, he omits the long (and highly significant, I would suggest) episode with Aeneas. Instead, Boccaccio suggests that Dido had ‘decided to die rather than forego her chastity’. There is a crucial difference in the representation of Dido in this text; she is almost projected as a deity (this is particularly significant due to the lack of Pagan Gods within Boccaccio’s relating of the story), whereas in Chaucer’s text, as a prime example, Dido is merely the root of femininity, and thus one can explore female condition through her depiction. She is not an inspirational character, but instead an embodiment of the idealistic female. Boccaccio is evidently concerned with ensuring that Dido is presented as angelic and virtuous, therefore his comparison to other females is vital; ‘Since our women show great finesse in excusing themselves, I believe that someone will say: "I had to do this: I was abandoned; my parents and my brothers were dead; suitors pressed me with flattery; I could not resist, for I am made of flesh and not of iron."’(Boccaccio, p.89) Boccaccio follows this with ‘How ridiculous!" "On whose aid could Dido count, who was in exile and whose only brother was an enemy? Did Dido not have many suitors? Was Dido made of stone or wood? ... Certainly not!’ (p.90) Not only does Boccaccio present Dido as the epitome of chastity, he as a parallel, ridicules and stigmatises all other widow’s who do re-marry. This perhaps creates an ambiguous dimension to the re-telling of Troy; where Boccaccio argues that Dido has committed no sin but suicide (and this being to guard her chastity anyway), other writers argue that she has committed the exact thing Boccaccio warns other women of.

Interestingly, Boccaccio omits within the extract the role of the Gods. Where Chaucer and Virgil lay heavily the importance of the Pagan Gods with reference to the Classical notion of ‘fate’, Boccaccio instead draws upon Christianity, in order to build his own moral Christian values. Moral values seem to however be completely omitted from Chaucer’s adaptation of Dido; her actions are highly sexualised, and there is a direct reference to Virgil’s hint at a consummation of marriage. There is an ongoing suggestion of sex within Chaucers text; he plainly claims that ‘I not, with hem if there wente any mo;/ The autour maketh of it no mencioun’ (Chaucer, lines 1227-1228) In congruence, he claims that at this point ‘here began the deep affeccioun’ (line 1229) In contrast to the completely insignificant link between Dido and Aeneas in Boccaccio’s account, Chaucer describes their relationship through terms such as ‘affection’, which evokes a sense of involvement. Where Chaucer’s text may portray Dido as weak, in her inability to ignore her feelings for Aeneas, Boccaccio presents her as strong-willed and defiant; deciding to die rather than forego her good name.

The majority of texts surrounding the story of Troy relate that it was in fact Dido whom lost interest in her city, and thus failed to continue to provide them with a strong leader. Boccaccio, however, relates the story in a way that evokes a sense of betrayal by her city. After falling in love with Aeneas, she ‘gave no thought to the appearance of her good name’ [3] , and therefore the dimension that one retains of Dido’s character is in fact selfish and self-concerned. Her quest to be loved and to love again is evident, and she evidently puts this above anything else. This is evidently highly contrasting to Boccaccio’s account, which recounts that she was tricked in to marriage by her closest advisors. Boccaccio states that ; ‘... the queen realized that with her statement she had approved the request for marriage, and she grieved to herself, not daring to oppose her people’s treachery’ (p.89) Here, she is deceived by her city. This perhaps leads one to question the nature of Boccaccio’s text. I would suggest that not only is Boccaccio writing in order to promote Dido’s heroic and admirable nature, but furthermore that he chooses to remove anything within Virgil or Homer’s accounts which he finds objectionable. Betty Donaldson states that ‘he purifies Dido for the purpose of using her as an example for Christian widows, setting up a rather peculiar paradox’ [4] Boccaccio draws up a contrast between other women who have acted unchaste and unholy (ironically, how Dido is suggested to have behaved in The Aeneid) and demands that these other females follow her actions, when in theory, they already have (if one is to take into account the majority of representations of Dido). I would argue in fact that Boccaccio is not merely promoting Dido’s good values, but instead his message is rooted in the context of his writing, and thus he is elaborating on and augmenting her moral values, in order to himself promote his own contextually based moral message.

Boccaccio’s account of the Story of Troy is heavily influenced by its contextual surroundings, and thus it appears that the omission of potentially vital elements of the story, such as Aeneas and the Gods, reflects the moral belief of society at this time. Therefore, I put forward the conclusion that Boccaccio’s account of the events surrounding Troy, with regards to Dido, does not necessarily add anything, but instead extracts elements of the story which support his own moral message, and thus uses these to create a moralistic commentary which is heavily based upon the society in which he wrote. This adaptation is evidently heavily influenced by society, but I would argue that this piece of writing equally explores the continual importance of Classic literature within contemporary societies.