Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron and Machiavelli, The Mandrake elucidate on the female representations as a form of medieval notions of female sexuality. Some of the commonly known authors of this time include Italian forerunners such as Giovanni Boccaccio, Antonio Manetti, and Machievelli, among others. Women in the society that most of the works of the aforementioned authors are set, are generally held in lower social standing compared to their male counterparts, yet the idea of love unites them and almost leaves all of them vulnerable (Suzuki 235). As with many societies across the globe until recently, women have had a relatively insignificant position in the society and most of them have not been given the privilege to openly express their affection towards people of the opposite sex. The characters operate in a world in which there is a relatively complex meaning of love because the authors utilize their authorial position to allow the characters to undergo all the cruel, sinful, pervasive and merciless acts in order to express their love emotions. Love, as a natural and powerful force of human sexuality is not easy to avoid, and has the ability to transform various characters in the plays that shall be discussed. It is clear from the masterpieces to be analyzed that while women have been dominated by men in many areas, when it comes to sexual matters, women are the leading figures.
Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
Regarded as one of the best masterpieces in Western literature and “human comedy”, The Decameron is a mirror to that allows the society to reflect upon its basic values and the position it gives to women as members of the community by virtue of their existence. Boccaccio’s literature contains positive attitudes towards women as will be discussed in this essay. He employs various literary techniques to show his appreciation of women as important members of the society. For instance, in The Decameron’s preface, Boccaccio declares that he had the intention of writing his book for charming ladies who are suffering from love-sick. Moreover, The Decameron’s preface begins by Boccaccio describing himself as lovesick unto death (Boccaccio 19). This is a kind of description that may be perceived as somewhat unnecessary because of the fact that the author has a classic case of courtly love. Against this backdrop, he declares, “I have been enflamed beyond measure by the most exalted noble love, which, if I were to describe, may appear greater than what is necessary for a person in my low condition. While I was praise and held in high esteem for that love by people to whose attention I had come, it appeared nevertheless, to be an extremely painful experience that could not endure.” (Boccaccio 24).
Contrary to the ideal courtly lover, Boccccio does not pursue the onerous works of love in servitude because it appears that he is organized in a wide area of contest of men against men violence. The author ironically gets over it. He says, “My love abated in the course of time of its own accord” (Boccaccio 26). He further argues that getting over a realistic resolution of lovesickness is more challenging to him than death. In the same tone, he makes an ironical claim to offer women the remedy to display their sexual attractions. According to him, the women in love are those of courtly imaginations because they are charming women who according to him “keep their love hidden underneath their delicate breasts.” (Boccaccio 28). He, however, admits that such women are subjugated by men and mainly confined within their homes. Underscoring The Decameron’s literary irony, Boccaccio admits that love and despair debilitate men more than they do women. In line with this, Boccaccio taunts men’s inability to realize their weaknesses by directing The Decameron’s preface to women. It is then not a surprise that Boccaccio ends The Decameron with a direct address to women asserting, “As for you, beautiful women, may His peace and grace be with you always, and you should not forget about me if any of you might have read these stories. In The Decameron’s Third Day, First Story, Boccaccio employs seduction of silence as a literary technique to remind readers that sexuality is natural and therefore, there is no need of repressing it, and that women too have the right to partake of it. The author provides an illustration of the value of love in human life through the analogy of the father and son. Boccaccio uses the illustration of the father who takes his son to live in the hills so that his desire for women would not be awakened, is an indication that women for a long time, were not recognized for their worth in the society, and that their being was downplayed by misogynistic tendencies that did not give them the room to play part in relationships (Ferme 28). Rather, they were perceived as evil people who could lead the male counterparts astray. Boccaccio employs humor in the scene where the son sees a beautiful woman and asks his father the name of the unfamiliar creature. Shockingly, the father asserts that they are called “goslings” (Boccaccio 167) for fear that his son would become acquainted to women who are evil according to the father. However, this does not deter the son from falling in love with a woman. Boccaccio says that the son lost all interest in the things that were familiar to him such as caring for the animals, signifying that sexual instincts are inborn.
In the society upon which The Decameron is set, many women are looked down upon, and are kept in traditional roles, but admired at the same time because they seemed unconventional. They are perceived as meek and controllable, naïve, objects of sex, and manipulative.
As with many civilized societies until recently, women were not supposed to play significant roles that contributed positively towards the well-being of the society, other than merely acting as mothers and taking care of the family. In The Decameron, Boccaccio shows that although they may not have a high social responsibility in the society other than being wives, they have an upper hand in many aspects, especially in dictating the female-male relationships (Ferme 36). Even though the more than one hundred stories mainly deal with a wide array of thematic concerns, the central theme is women portrayal in relation to sexuality. When Boccaccio gives a comparison of male and female, it seems that he mainly favors women as opposed to men as the better sex in relation to evil and good. In a close examination of the stories where Boccaccio details the human relationships and sexual affairs, it comes out that women are definitely stronger, more cunning, and more lustful. On the other hand, in situations where the male character seems to triumph over the female, men only achieve victory through underhanded schemes. In general terms, it is fair to say that the author of The Decameron portray women as capable of outshining men in many respects, especially in terms of relationships and social life.
Boccaccio depicts women in The Decameron as hardier than their male counterparts. Although this trait may not be quite prevalent in the stories, Boccaccio demonstrates that women endure more adversity as opposed to men. However, to some level, the increased tolerance to adversity largely stems from a probable lack of options because they may not have the capacity to eliminate their problems. A number of female characters who show increased tolerance in the story include Griselda. Gualtieri, the husband, calls her names, and threatens to divorce her. In the midst of all these tribulations, Griselda maintains a calm demeanor and acquiesces to all the demand of the husband, and even those who once doubted her poor background and traits, laud her for her patience amidst the turbulence (791). The endurance becomes a blessing in disguise when she is eventually accepted by the very husband who was mistreating her. It is therefore evident that Boccaccio’s extensive detailing of Gualtieri’s inhuman traits serves in underlining the belief that women have the ability to tolerate more hardships than men.
The strength of women is seen in matters sexual relationships in which they are portrayed as more sexually cunning (Ferme 36). Although both sexes are presented to be creatures driven by sexual desires, the author emphasizes strong imbalance between men and women’s desire for lust. The Decameron therefore centers on love and sexual lust. For instance, on the Third Day, Filostrato narrates the story of Masetto, a young man who lands a job in a convent as a gardener. Upon realizing that part of his work involves sexually satisfying the nuns in the convent, he pretends to be deaf in order to be hired by the abbes, thinking that his sexual lust is far much greater than that of the whole convent full of nuns. Conversely, it appears that Masetto bites more than he can chew. He finds himself being the only sexual outlet for the whole of the nuns within the convent. The overt sexual activity overwhelms Masetto who confesses; “I can’t stand this any longer…let me go, the name of God” (Boccaccio 199). Suffice it to say, Masetto’s confession that he cannot manage to sexually satisfy the nuns attests to the fact that his lust cannot encounter that of the whole convent.
On the other hand, Dioneo’s narration of the story of Alibech and Rustico enhances further the profusion of female sexual lust which is a negative portrayal by the author. Again, on the third day, Rustico while filled with his sexual desire deceives Alibech into assuming that if they have sexual intercourse, Alibech may be “putting the devil back into hell “(279). As time goes by, Dioneo accounts for the repercussions of Rustico’s deception. Alibech as a result, becomes insatiably sexually aroused every time to the extent that Rustico’s sexual desire cannot compensate for that of Alibech. Moreover, Boccaccio narrates how a man once foolishly believed that he had more lust than a woman, but was highly stunned by the woman’s unending desire for sex. Boccaccio believes then that women exceed men in certain respects, and in this case, sexual lust.
Apart from depicting women as hyper-sexual, Boccaccio believes that his female characters are more superior in terms of cunning. Throughout, the author portrays female characters as capable of a significant extent of cunning female characters. However, it should be noted that whether Boccaccio is exerting some sort of opinion on the trustworthiness is not ubiquitous at any point. Nevertheless, he tries to vehemently say that women possess high level of expertise in deceitful plans. In relation to the text, the disparity in trickery is seen on the Seventh Day when Elissa narrates the story of brother Rinaldo along with the god-child’s mother. The narrator vividly details the craftiness of the male and female characters in order to serve as a way of comparing and evaluating the general cunning of each gender. Brother Rinaldo is perceived to have had an elaborate plan to seduce the neighbor’s wife, Madonna Agness (497). The narrator further provides the account of the ploy by indicating how Madonna comes up with a plan in order to avoid being caught cheating, and she eventually succeeds. Madonna devices a scheme in order to explain to the husband why she and the friar were inside their matrimonial home with the door locked (Boccaccio500). Madona’s superior technique of cunning is enhanced further by the fact that the Rinaldo scrambles and cannot come up with a plan to avoid getting into trouble with his friend. In line with this, Boccaccio seems to believe that female characters are largely more cunning that male characters.
Another instance where Boccaccio portrays women’s superior cunning takes place again on the Seventh Day. The story, as recounted by Neifile, details the way Monna Sismonda is superior in cunning. At first, Neifile narrates the method that Monna Sismonda employs in order to secretly have sex with Ruberto, her newly found lover (Boccaccio 528). She quickly calls her husband so as to take her place in bed. This makes it possible for her to avoid being beaten by the husband, and eventually persuade her brothers into believing that the information that the husband is giving out is false (Boccaccio 528). In this section of the story, the female character succeeds as a result of her superior craftiness to delude the husband and her brothers into believing that she is innocent. In this case, Boccaccio arguably depicts female characters as more cunning than men. Monna Sismond is able to device methods to escape being caught while cheating, and again trying to avoid any problem that may erupt thereafter.
Although there seems to be a number of situations that depict men to be highly superior to men, one can also argue that the opposite may be true because there are some stories within The Decameron where men appear to be superior. Nevertheless, while this may seem to be true, it remains imperative to consider that men only seem to be better than men because of their own depravity and not through a significant intelligence display or cunning level (Suzuki 242). To expatiate, for instance, Dioneo narrates the story of Pietro di Vinciolo and the wife. The husband comes into contact with his wife’s lover in their chicken coop, where he devices the best kind of punishment for the lovers (438). Pietro contemplates making the wife’s lover to have sex with both of them as the best course of action. However, it is humorous at this point to note that Petro himself does not have any sexual feeling with his wife. At this juncture, it is right to say that Pietro merely achieves what he desires through proper timing, and not via superior cunning or intellectual techniques. That is to say, his fortune in getting the wife while having sex with the lover enables him only to punish the two lovers as he pleases and not through his wit.
Machiavelli, The Mandrake
In The Mandrake Machiavelli expounds on how women are viewed through the mirror of the society. The Mandrake is basically one of the finest theatrical masterpieces that succinctly follow the theme of the play. The Mandrake narrates the story of Callimaco, a character who once lived in Paris, but now is a resident of Florence. Callimaco learns of a woman who he falls in love with. Lucrezia is described by Callimaco as an extraordinary beautiful woman (Machiavelli 48). He desires to have a lasting relationship with her, but he has to device a ruse so as to win her heart because she is married to a Florentine judge. Besides, she has a reputation for her moral beauty, a quality which shows the recognition of women as vital members of the society (Cestaro 572). Callimaco therefore conspires with Ligurio in order to trick Lucrezia’s husband, Master Nicia. Machiavelli employs dramatic irony when Callimaco poses as a doctor in order to inform Nicia who is longing to have a child that he is capable of administering a potion that is made of mandrake root which is capable of making her pregnant. Again, the value of love and sexuality as part of human nature is widely shown in this play. It is not only humorous but also ironical that Lucrezia is advised that the first person who will have sexual intercourse with her will die, yet she is married and knows the consequences of taking the potion if Callimaco’s words are anything to go by. However, in later scenes, she seems to be wittier than the husband because she is already informed of the plan before the event.
Callimaco’s plan is that Lucrezia would spend with a stranger who is to die, and later pave way for the husband to have a child with her. In order to prove that women are perceived as sexual objects in Machiavelli’s era, Callimaco tries to convince Nicia to bribe a local friar so that he (the friar) will in turn have Lucrezia take the potion and spend with a stranger because in the end, they would be able to give birth to a child (Pitkin 47). The frustrations of having a child compel Lucrezia and Nicia to comply with Callimaco’s plan.
At dusk, Callimaco who is apparently in disguise is taken in to meet with Lucrezia. Callimaco and Lucrezia spend the night together, and when dawn approaches, Callimaco reveals himself to his lover, an indication that women are not respect, but are only perceived as objects of sexual satisfaction. While women during the Italian Renaissance were beginning to be recognized, they were still looked down upon by men (Cestaro 570). However, the beauty of a woman serves as her main strength in making a man fulfill her wishes, and this, in some way presents men as the weaker sex. For instance, Lucrezia is highly respected by characters such as Callimacco, not because she is the judge’s wife, but because of her attributes. She is presented not only as a beautiful lady, but one of virtue and grace. In the Italian Renaissance therefore, it seems that the idea of virtue was valued. For example, Callimaco asserts that against all odds, he will try to put in more effort in order to fulfill his ambition. He says, “Nothing may prove to be so bad for an individual than having no hope. Even though the hope may ever be in vain and foolish in nature, a man’s desire and will to realize his ambitions may make such hope not to be in vain at all” (Machiavelli 126). In view of this, the very difficulty that Callimaco faces while trying to ensure he fulfils his ambition is the fact that Lucrezia rarely leaves the house because as a woman, her role is to take care of the family. She is not allowed to interact with people.
Callimaco takes advantage of Nicia’s weakness in his desire to have children. Naturally, men in the Italian Renaissance also blamed women for their inability to bear children and any suggestion of impotence by the women was hastily denied and met with aggressiveness. That explains why Nicia blames his wife for their lack of a child despite the number of years they have been into marriage (Machiavelli 103). In the moral world of comedy, some vices are perceived to be virtues. In The Mandrake, Callimaco is comically allowed to cheat, lie, and become corrupt and gets away with it. The irony in the play is further enhanced by Callimaco’s encounter with Nicia. Given his education background, Callimaco manages to impress Nicia by speaking some Latin phrases. Nicia is all the more foolishly convinced as he recognizes Callimaco’s credentials as an established doctor (Machiavelli 67). Machiavelli tends to believe in the power of reputation as an imperative component of one’s social standing. This scenario is a dramatic irony because while Nicia is not aware of Callimaco’s intention of posing as a doctor, the audiences are already aware of his plan.
The manner in which Lucrazio and the husband are deceived by the idea of bearing children is proof of the extent that people can go in losing their moral values for what may be beyond their control (Pitkin 69). It is also ironical that Nicia, a lawyer by profession and a judge for that matter, cannot discover the schemes that his wife, together with Callimaco is plotting against him. One wonders whether he is indeed able to make clear judgments whether one is guilty or not in a judicial system. To make matters worse, his wife, who appears as a virtuous character at the beginning of the play ends up taking advantage of his foolishness by engaging into an affair with Callimaco. The irony is created by Machiavelli when the audience becomes aware of Lucrezia and Callimaco had planned to spend together, yet the husband does not know that he has merely been duped. Lucrezio is however a victim of this same fraud because she is made aware from the onset that the love potion is a sure means through which she would be able to have children (Cestaro 573). She thus agrees to Callimaco’s request against her moral objections.
While Sostrata, Lucrezo’s mother may have been innocent in the whole incidence of fraud, it is right to say that she may not be concerned by whether or not the arrangement was fraudulent. She insists that the daughter should do what deems fit to realize her means. This kind of reasoning is not just Machiavellian per se, but it was indeed a way of setting women free from the traditional chains that had held them in social shackles for centuries (Pitkin 74). All the characters within the plot are driven by some sort of desire, and it is this realization that Callimaco decides to take advantage of one of the most respected men in the town. The humor that is generated by this play is one that can be easily figured out. While Callimaco argues that there are several causes of Nicia’s inability to have an heir, the readers are able to penetrate through his mind to identify his real intention of approaching Nicia. To portray the low level of wittiness in men as opposed to women, Nicia, in his psychological state, confesses that Callimaco is the most worthy man he has met, but still believes that a person of his social status, tougher like a nail cannot be impotent.