Samuel Breed's Reviews > The Decameron

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
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Mar 31, 08

Read in November, 2005

** spoiler alert ** Selections from: "A Macabre Spectacle: Cruelty, Gore and Punishment in Boccaccio’s The Decameron"


In Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, cruelty and the macabre abound the world of the protagonists. The ten people escaping the bubonic plague ridden streets of Florence for the idyllic and safe country-side, seem to carry some of the baggage of the plague with them. Although the majority of the narrators are women, cruelty and violence take center stage in many of the stories, with little or no explanation. The use of cruelty and punishment comes in many forms: whether to gain the upper hand in a marriage, to foil a daughter or sister’s romantic entanglement, or simply for revenge, the characters in the stories of The Decameron often act like barbarous animals. Furthermore, there seems to be no commentary or judgment of such violence and cruelty by the narrators of the stories. What also plays a part in the content of the stories is the group dynamic existing in the assembly. Specifically, the stories turn from lighter faire from the first three days to much darker, more macabre pieces on the following days—and the group never seems to shake off those themes entirely. The exploration of cruelty and punishment in The Decameron is crucial to unlocking the societal nuances and social commentary contained therein.

The first example of such arises in the ninth story of the second day, narrated by Elissa. Although this story is not the most violent or macabre by any means, it brings up an important point about cruelty and punishment in The Decameron. In Elissa’s brief prologue to her even briefer story, she announces that “a single word […] has sufficed to cure a person of something against which various structures and any number of punishments have proved ineffectual” (61-62). This addresses the power of words and verbal abuse or affirmation in these stories. Many times, cruelty takes the form of verbal abuse, which proves to be nearly as damaging to the characters as physical abuse. In this story, an innocent women is “assaulted by a pack of ruffians,” and in her sorrow, takes her matters up with the King. This monarch, however, has become a doormat for all those with troubles in his domain, and there are long lines of people waiting to “relieve their feelings by shaming or insulting the King” (62). The King is weak and passive, which is attributed to the abuse that he takes. But being on the first day, before the group has shifted to darker material, this story ends happily: rather than complaining to the king about her misfortune, the women asks him how he tolerates all of the abuse he receives. The king responds to this by instantly changing his disposition and avenging the woman’s rape, from then on becoming “the implacable scourge of all those who did anything to impugn the honor of his crown” (62).

[..]

Examples of barbarous cruelty abound The Decameron, but the most interesting tend to come from the fourth day, the day so queered by Filostrato’s leadership. At the close of the third day, Filostrato announces that he has had enough of tales ending happily, and for his day, all the stories will be of love that ends badly. Even though this elicits some sarcastic responses, the stories turn to dark, macabre imagery. Perhaps the two most graphic stories of the fourth day are first, told by Fiammetta, and the ninth, told by Filostrato. And both involve the consumption of human hearts. In Fiammetta’s story, the unmarried daughter of a latently incestuous father takes a lover in secret, as she does not want to leave her father. The father, Tancredi, witnesses the two copulating, and decides, rather than to approve of his daughter’s love, to murder her lover. The interesting aspect of Fiammetta’s story is the character of the Daughter, Ghismonda. She is introduced as being “youthful and vivacious […] with more intelligence than a woman needs” (291). This intelligence becomes important when she confronts her father about the murder of her lover. She is steadfast and nearly defiant, all while still placating her father. At the close of the story, Tancredi serves Ghismonda the heart of her lover, doused in poison, in a golden chalice. This anti-sacrament is what ultimately allows Ghismonda to be united with her lover eternally. This punishment seems very extreme and Tancredi is very much a villain. He not only murders his daughter’s lover, but he loses his daughter with his lavishly insane gesture of offering her his heart in a cup. This level of cruelty is psychotic, and certainly does not fulfill the groups original intention of escapism through storytelling.

Filostrato’s story on the fourth day—his day—is, obviously, well in line with his theme of love ending “badly.” The story is short and simple: two noble knights, “bosom friends” from adventure and fighting live in relative close proximity to one another. One knight, Guillaume de Roussillon, falls “hopelessly” in love with the wife of his friend, Guillaume de Cabestanh. Upon bringing his love to the lady’s attention, Guillaume de Roussillon successfully woos his friend’s wife. Unfortunately though, the other Guillaume discovers the affair and is filled with mortal, vengeful hatred for his dear friend. He arranges a tournament which his adulterous pal can’t help but join, and promptly sets in motion plans to murder him. Guillaume de Cabestanh lies in ambush for his friend, attacking him at close range with several men. Guillaume de Roussillon is unarmed, and unable to prevent the husband of his love from tearing his heart out of chest “with his own hands” while screaming “Traitor, you are dead!” (350). With his wife’s lover successfully vanquished, Guillaume turns his sadistic attention towards his wife, turning the heart into “a dish that was too exquisite for words” (351). The wife eats every last morsel, savoring the ‘hearty’ dish. Roussillon then explains the true nature of her meal, in horrific detail. His wife, obviously shocked by his barbaric gesture, tells his that he is an “evil and treacherous knight,” and throws herself out of the nearest window. Roussillon panics at this, leaving town the next morning. The townspeople uncover what had happened, and buried the two lovers together.

[...]

The last story of the last day is unquestionably the centerpiece for cruelty in The Decameron. And it comes from a surprising source. Dionio is one of the three male narrators, goes last on each day, and is probably the most entertaining storyteller of them all. He tries to change the mood after Filostrato’s day of gloom, but eventually tells the most negative story of them all. He does preface it by saying that he does “not advise anyone to follow [this] example,” and that it is filled “senseless brutality” (784). His story is about the cruelty that the Marquis de Saluzzo, named Gualtieri, exudes on his wife. Gualtieri did not want a wife, but as tradition dictates, he took one. A peasant woman, named Griselda, is chosen, and then Gualtieri goes to work. He sets out to humiliate and mentally torture her, just for his own satisfaction. He tells her that their children have been murdered, and that he must take another wife. She waits six years living in absolute poverty, but eventually breaks Gualtieri’s patience. Gualtieri then decides that it is time to return her children and they live out the rest of their life together. The oddest thing about this story is that for how cruel Gualtieri is to his wife, she passively accepts it, not voicing the smallest complaint. This is what frustrates Gualtieri, and forces him to put an end to his game. The lesson from this story is a strange one indeed. The near god-like patience of Griselda is something that could be admired, but it seems insane that she would stand for any of it, without any form of resistance. And although the story lacks the gore that some of the others do, it makes up for it in psychological torture, which can prove to just as harmful and any physical attack.

The use of cruelty, punishment and gore as devices for storytelling in The Decameron work to help delineate the moods, attitudes, and feelings of the various narrators and add another layer of interest to these stories. Without these in place, the stories would fall flat, and would actually make for much less engaging reading. Perhaps that is the reason why they are all so prevalent in the stories. These are not the only motifs that bind the hundred stories of The Decameron together, but they do help to create a new dimension of intrigue. The placement of unjust violence in the hands of the unintelligent also speaks much of Boccaccio. Emulated by Chaucer, Boccaccio crafts a framework of a negative moral compass. A “what not to do” guide for his contemporary Florentine. Although these stories are collected for the most part, rather than invented, the more subtle elements such as choice of motifs and narrative voice are where Boccaccio’s own influence can be seen. Overall, the punishment, death, and psychological cruelty are all elements that without which, The Decameron would be greatly lacking.

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