Themes of Sex & Society and The Problem With Honor in The Decameron
In Boccaccio’s Decameron, there are many themes that exist within his tales, one of these being a theme of Honor. A couple of tales that represent many routes of Honor are the tale of Tancredi and Ghismonda along with the tale of Ricciardo and Caterina. Even though Honor, especially in the Decameron, is an ideal set in place that structures morality, it should be used as a tool of decision instead of a “black and white” standard of life.
It is found that each tale portrays a different message about honor, Honor and sexual desire are not mutually exclusive in the world of the Decameron, and how Honor is very malleable and is usually a reflection of society. First, Honor and sexual desire are not mutually exclusive in the world of the Decameron. In both tales, neither truly cancels out the other, thus, making both possible to be satisfied.
Love and Honor are harmonious with one another. Continually, It is proven in Caterina’s tale that honor and sexual desire can coexist at the same time. When Caterina’s father and mother caught Ricciardo and Caterina intertwined on the balcony, her father said, ‘[…] this deed was quite unworthy of the love I bore you and the firm trust I placed in you. But what is done cannot be undone, and since it was your youth that carried you into such grievous an error, in order that you may preserve not only your life but also my honour, you must, before you do anything else, take Caterina as your lawful wedded wife. […] By this means alone will you secure your freedom and my forgiveness; otherwise you can prepare to meet your Maker.’ (pg. 436) This quote is quite significant as it shows that desire and love is taken into account in the preservation of honor. He equivocates youth to desire while keeping to his families morals. Ricciardo was to either wed and confirm that sexuality with a bond, or die. Thus showing that honor and sexual desire are not mutually exclusive.
Similarly, It can be said that honor and sexual desire can exist together if you are not caught. While neither tale has such a example, there is proof that honor follows reputation, hand-in-hand. What you want to be perceived as, is up to you. Additionally, Honor is very malleable and usually a reflection of society. In Tancredi and Ghismonda’s story, honor is often manipulated Further, Even in Caterina’s tale, honor is changed from different situations and families. Ghismonda’s father having a more rash reaction compared to Caterina’s. When confronted by Tancredi, Ghismonda speaks out and says, ‘I did not take a lover at random, as many women do, but deliberately chose Guiscardo in preference to any other, only conceding my judgment of us both, I have long been enjoying the gratification of my desires. It seems, however, that you prefer to accept a common fallacy rather than the truth, for you reproach me more bitterly, not for commiting the crime of loving a man, but for consorting with a person of lowly rank, thus implying that if I had selected a nobleman for the purpose, you would not have had anything to worry about.
You clearly fail to realize that in this respect, your strictures should be aimed, not at me, but at Fortune, who frequently raises the unworthy to positions of eminence and leaves the worthless in low estate.’ (pg 338) Ghismonda starts a powerful argument that terminates that pushes a notion further about how easily people construe the meaning of honor. Tancredi condemned Guiscardo because of his social rank and nothing much more. He would rather be right in his misjudgement than accept his morals have been coerced by a situation out of his control- this being Ghismonda in love with the man in his father’s court. However, Tancredi holds out his honor until the bitter end. Until he is confronted with honoring his daughters wishes of burying the two lovers together.
Ghismonda’s intelligence sees through societies cloud that disturbs judgments and makes a point to prove it, even if that meant killing herself.Finally, honor is portrayed in different ways in each story. Both tales have positions on honor, which reflect a moral inversion seen within the Decameron. In the tale of Caterina and Ricciardo, the story ends happily due to the fact Riccardo was caught and given a choice by Caterina’s father to either marry his daughter or be killed for romping around with her. While in the tale of Tancredi and Ghismonda, the story ends in tragedy due to a false honor. This honor devised was hidden underneath a layer of jealousy, and debatably, an insinuated desire for Ghismonda by Tancredi himself. Ghismonda also died in Guiscardo’s honor.
While Caterina herself does not think much on honor and is, as described by Boccaccio through Filamena, “… women, when left to themselves, are not the most rational creatures, and without the supervision of some man or other, their capacity for getting things done is quite restricted. We are fickle, quarrelsome, suspicious, cowardly, and easily frightened” (pg 62). Ricciardo expresses his respect and fear of their societies version of honor. Ricciardo states, “My lord, in God’s name, have mercy on me. I know that I deserve to die, for I have been wicked and disloyal and hence you must do with with me what you choose. But I beseech you to spare my life, if that is possible. I implore you not to kill me.” (pg 436)
Ricciardo acknowledges the social status and his desires. If he did not, his life would have ended there. Honor entails an exchange of respect that also defines you. In Ghismonda’s tale, she proves honor is tied to social status and personal endeavors. She states something majorly important in her argument with Tancredi, “[…] We are all born equal, and still are, but merit first set us apart […] Besides, it was not through hearsay that Guiscardo’s merit and virtues came to my notice, but through your good opinion of him, together with the evidence of my own eyes […] So that if I was deceived in my estimate of Guiscardo, it was you alone who deceived me.” (pg. 338-339) Ghismonda throughout defends her and Guiscardo’s honor against the mistaken beliefs of Tancredi. She argues that what morals and honor are built up on society and that Tancredi, without much thought to what he preached, proved Guiscardo to be worthy of a nobles honor.
Indeed, while Honor, especially in the Decameron, is an ideal set in place that structures the moral from the immoral, it should be used as a tool instead of a black and white standard of life. Boccaccio shows that honor is always misconstrued but holds a place in decisions. Between social status, morals and desire, it is clear that honor is complex. It is to this complexity where sometimes harsh actions come from. Caterina and Ricciardo’s story would stand to show honor in desire is possible while Ghismonda’s tale opens up the idea of honor and society being blended to the point where society defines us and not what is truly honorable.
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