The Boccaccio's Stance on Female Representation in The Decameron

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Boccaccio’s use of females throughout The Decameron sends mixed signals of his place on women. At times Boccaccio expresses a pro-woman stand while at other times his text can show the typical misogynistic views of medieval gender ideology. Stories like day one Tale ten (Master Alberto of Bologna), day four Tale one (the Ghismonda and Prince Tancredi), day seven tale five (the jealous husband) and even the introduction to the novel display the different uses and roles of females in The Decameron.

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Immediately, in the introduction to The Decameron, there is prejudice against women. After Pampinea suggests to the group of women that they should go on a road trip to get out of their disease ridden town. The women were eager to get going on the trip when Filomena says, “Pampinea’s arguments, ladies, are most convincing, but we should not follow her advice as hastily as you spear to wish. You must remember that we are all women, and every one of us is sufficiently adult to acknowledge that women, when left to themselves, are not the most rational of creatures, and that without the supervision of some man or other their capacity for getting things done is somewhat restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened; and hence I greatly fear that if we have none but ourselves to guide us, our little band will break up much more swiftly, and with far less credit to ourselves, than would otherwise be the case. We would be well advised to resolve this problem before we depart” (pg. 17). Although this just leads to the way the men were introduced to the story, Boccaccio gets to this point by downplaying the strength of the group of the women. Boccaccio could have had the three men enter the church without the criticizing of the female gender. This is important though, it sets a background to the upcoming stories by showing how women were stereotyped in medieval times. Boccaccio has women negatively portray other women when they are narrators as well. For a reader, someone might overlook the unjust behavior towards females when its coning from a female. While telling the tenth story of day one, Pampinea states “I am ashamed to say it, since in condemning others I condemn myself, but these over-dressed, heavily made-up, excessively ornamented females either stand around like marble statues in an attitude of dumb indifference, or else, on being asked a question, they give such stupid replies that they would have been far better advised to remain silent” (pg. 63). Some of the ladies in the group that is traveling don’t have much good to say about women in general. This quote shows when Pampinea couldn’t resist putting down the younger women of her day for being petty, stupid, and narcissistic.

Boccaccio does not only portray women negatively; many stories can even be from proto-feminist point of view. Some short stories in The Decameron even show a role reversal between men and women. Tale one from day four is an excellent example of this, in which Ghismonda and her father, Prince Tancredi, each have characteristics that would normally be assumed to be of the opposite gender. “She was as beautiful a creature as there ever was; she was youthful and vivacious and she possessed rather more intelligence than a woman needs” (pg. 291). In the short tale, Prince Tancredi is over barring as a father, and it almost seems as if he loves his daughter beyond the bond of family as if he has real attraction for her. He catches her with her lover, Guiscardo, and is in complete disapproval of it. Ghismonda being the brave character she is, confronts her father about his objection of her beloved Guiscardo by stating, “I am resolved neither to contradict you nor to implore your forgiveness, because denial would be pointless and I want none of your clemency. Nor do I have the slightest intention of appealing to either your better nature or your affection. On the contrary, I propose to tell you the whole truth, setting forth convincing arguments in defense of my good name, and afterwards I shall act unflinchingly in accordance with the promptings of my noble heart…” (pg. 296). Her confidence shines when she gives this speech to her father. She then follows through by committing suicide by drinking poison from a chalice that had Guiscardo’s heart in it. It's not only men who can obey the rules of courtly love and die for their loved ones.

Although Boccaccio does show prejudice towards women, some passages in The Decameron prove that he knew how hard society could be on women. Tale five of day seven is about an overly jealous husband and his beautiful wife. “…having married an exceedingly beautiful woman, became inordinately jealous of her. He had no other reason for this except that, because he loved her a great deal… he concluded that every other man must feel the same about her…” (pg. 506). “It wasn’t just a question of her not being able to attend a party or a wedding, or go to church, or step outside her door for a single moment: he wouldn’t even allow her to stand at the window or cast so much a solitary glance outside her house. Her life thus became a complete misery, and her suffering was all the more difficult to bear in that she had done nothing to deserve it” (pg. 507). The travelers all agreed that jealous husbands are the worst possible creatures on the planet and deserve to be given a good reason for their jealousy, and in this tale the husband was given a reason. The lonely wife managed to contact a neighbor through a crack in the wall and eventually got him to sneak into her house so they could enjoy themselves. In this passage we hear the opinion that women have the right to live their lives in peace and enjoyment.

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