Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Clerk of Oxford's Tale by Chaucer

The Prologue to the Clerk of Oxford's Tale:
Next to the summoner, the host turns to the Oxford scholar who is as coy and silent as a newly wedded wife and asks him to narrate his tale that should be a merry tale, not the one that is moralistic and kindles them to weep for their past sins.  Now the clerk begins the tale of Greselda from Francis Petrarch who had illuminated the whole Italy with his poetry.  The main source of this story is the last chapter in Boccaccio's “Decameron”.
The Clerk of Oxford’s Tale
Saluzzo in Italy is  beautiful and fertile city and a landscape of delight ruled by Walter the Marquis. The King is a lover of freedom and pleasure and wisely avoids marriage that may entangle him into new responsibilities and bangle his joys.  To think of no heir is a great fear to the people and Lords of his country who unfold their woe and beseech the king to wive.  They awaken him on the uncertainty of life and the necessity of legal heir to the throne:
“ And though your green youth flowers bright,
In creeps age always, quite as a stone.
That through your death your line should forsake
Our land, and a strange successor take
Your Heritage, O, woe to us alive!”
The way in which they request impresses him who then consents to wed.  His folk however seek assurance and certainty in his statement and meekly request him to fix a deadline.  The King chooses a day and, commanded by the king, a grand feast is arranged on the specified date.
People could not decipher whom the king is going to wed. Not far from the palace there was a village wherein lived a poor man with his daughter Griselda. No woman was so fair, virtuous and benign as Griselda under the sun.  She was, with no leaf left, in all the pages of King's love book.  With all his retinue, in full array, the king reached her home.  Both Griselda and her father Janicula were in seventh heaven to hear the king's decision.  However, the king, an epitome of male chauvinism lay down a condition that she should swear that she would never speak or do anything against his will:
“I say, you must be ready with good heart
To do my pleasure, and that I freely may…
And never must you grudge it, night or day,
And also when I say “yes,” never say “nay.”
Neither in words, nor in frowning countenance,
“Swear this and I wear to this alliance.”
What kind of horrible and inhuman condition it is! Is woman a human being or a mere robot to be programmed by her husband? Griselda says with full modesty and humility, but without individuality and self-esteem,
“And here I swear that always till I die,
Will I willingly in work or thought obey,
On pains of death…”
With this marriage treaty, the king espoused her and took her to the palace.  Griselda who was brought up in ox's stall now started living in Emperor's hall. Time passed on. She gave birth to a baby girl and people came to see this beautiful baby, hoped that she would at least bear a baby boy to the throne in near future.
King Marquis wants to test his wife, her constancy.  He tells her that it is he who has brought her to 'a state of nobleness from her poor array.'  He reminds her of her vow to do whatever pleases him.  He tells her that his noblemen do not like him to live with a poor woman of a village, and especially they detest her issue of a baby girl.  He has to do certain things for their will, though it will be painful to him.  She humbly says,
“My child and I, with true obedience,
Are all yours, and you may save or kill.
Your own things: work then as you will.”
Marquis leaves her chamber and sends to her room his confidant who is a sergeant.  What kind of cruel test it is to take away a new-born baby from her own mother!  From the very words and look of this sergeant, she understands that her child is going to be slain.  She kisses her child, hands it over to the sergeant.  The King is much pleased to know her patience and steadfast from the sergeant.  He however commands him to safely entrust the child to the care of his (King's) sister, a countess.  He insists that under no circumstances the identity of the child should be revealed to anyone. He then comes to Griselda's chamber to find her  present status but she complaints of nothing, speaks no words of woe and does her service as usual without any trace of her loss.
After four years, Griselda begets a baby boy.  When she weans her child at the age of two, the king is carried away by another whim to test his wife's fidelity.  What happened to the first child befalls to the second as well.  She kisses her child and hands it over to the sergeant who in turn, commanded by the king, without the knowledge of others, takes the child to the care of King's sister.  Even now, Griselda makes no complaint and patiently unfolds her heart,
“For as I left at home all my clothing
When I first came to you,
I left my will and all my liberty…”
The King realises that none can surpass his wife in endurance of adversity. Still he thinks of other means testing– what else remains? When his daughter grows into twelve, he demands and gets a forged Papal Bull, an authentic order and permission from Pope of Rome to legally disown Griselda and marry another girl. He is going to pretend to marry a twelve years girl who is none other than the one being brought up by his sister.  None but the king alone knows, the girl is his own daughter and his plan is just to stage a drama to test his wife. The King now bids his sister to bring back his children, without revealing their royal blood to anyone.
The king declares before Griselda and all his lords in open court of his second marriage.  He orders his wife to go back to her father's house leaving all his things in the palace, and stay there till the end of her life.  She cannot return to her village as naked as a lamb or worm and requests the king to permit her go dressed in her smock. The King permits.  It is so pathetic and lamenting to all people, in weeping and in tears, to see her dressed in undergarments.  They follow her to her village from where they had brought her as a queen. Her old father comes running to cover her with a cloak and starts weeping to see her helpless state. She lives in agony with her father for a  while and on the day of his supposed second marriage, the king again calls her to serve him and to do arrangements for the feast.  She patiently consents and takes up all the assigned works with gratitude.  Now, pointing out the young maiden whom he is going to marry, the king asks her opinion.  She says that she is the fairest of all and  God may bless him to live in all pleasures and prosperity till his end.  Now the king is so astonished to see her steadfast patience, humility, obedience and love for him. Since she had passed all her tests, the king unfolds all secrets now.  She swoons at once to hear this and after recovery kisses her children with tears of joy. His son becomes the successor to the throne and both children hear their marriage bell in the ripe time. At the end of his tale, the Oxford scholar sings a song in praise of Griselda and her virtues. However Chaucer makes a warning that no husband should test his wife in this way since it is very difficult to find Griseldas nowadays.  He also advises women not to follow Griselda:
“ o noble wives, full of lofty prudence,
Allow not humility, your tongue to nail.
Do not be cowed in your innocence.
But take on you the mastery without fail.”
The story is told for the reason, as Chaucer says, to learn humility in adversity in the trials of God.
Is the king a sadist? His repeated test resulting in inexplicable torments of his wife questions the very love he has four her.  Though he makes excuses that his motive is not to torture Griselda but to testify her constancy, no husband would dare to test his wife by sending her back half-nakedly to her father's house or getting a court order to marry a girl who is but his own daughter.  Griselda is an antithesis to Wife of Bath.  The former succumbs to the male chauvinism whereas the latter adheres to sovereignty over husband.  Griselda, on the other hand, manifests steadfast Christian love for Jesus Christ and surpasses even Christ who is put to several tests by Satan in the wilderness.  She, constantly tested by her husband can be compared with Job in the bible who is assayed by Satan repeatedly by several means.  Chaucer's admiration for the Italian poet Petrarch, who translated Boccaccio's work on Griselda in 1374 is also apparent in his description of his poetic skill in the beginning by the Oxford scholar.

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