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Critical Analysis of Chaucer’s Legends of Good Women

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Many of the criticisms of Chaucer’s Legends of Good Women stem from his style of writing – he presents himself as a reader and wonders if he should trust the authority of the text over his own experience. In the Prologue, The God of Love is presented as a literary critic who judges Chaucer’s previous work, condemns it, and assigns the poet a new task of writing. There is a sense of authorial irony through his construction of the narrative persona: Because he positions himself as a reader in his poems; it allows him to leave out vital parts of the story, even though he is the narrative author. This creative choice causes many scholars to criticize his narration as facetious – In fact one critic said, “It is no help to look at the Legend of Good Women, the tone of which is so subtle that critics still can’t decide whether the poet is making fun, or saints, of all those women'(cite). One of the debates centers around Chaucer’s treatment of women in the text – some scholars assert that Chaucer is a profeminist writer due to his depictions of virtuous women who remain true and faithful to their lovers and themselves, Others argue that Chaucer’s Legends does not depict strong, virtuous women in an attempt at profeminist writing, but rather to highlight the legends that expose the tradition of antifeminist narrative and shows the impact it has on women. In reality, Chaucer’s Legends does both, and succeeds as a work meant to challenge the conventional readings of these legends and lend a profeminist view of women that was not popular at the time.

First, the ambiguous narration of the poems must be addressed: in the prologue, there are nineteen ladies in waiting mentioned, yet he presents the tale of only ten women “I saw advancing ladies nineteen, in royal habit, at full easy pace; […] And true in love the women were each one.” (pg. 129: 283-290). – this is further corroborated by Alceste, who says: “Hero, Dido, Laodamia here, And Phyllis, hanging for your Demophon, And Canace, whose face alone brings cheer (pg. 128: 263-265) While Dido, and Phyllis are mentioned in the Legends, Laodamia and Canace are not. Throughout the legends, it is hinted that Chaucer at one point became bored and stopped short writing certain legends, and even leaves the ending unfinished. This contributes to the challenging nature of the poems, as it causes the audience to question whether his omissions were due to laziness or served some literary purpose. Additionally, considering the fact that the women are an essential part of the Legends, it is interesting to note that a majority of the poems begin with an introduction of the male hero. This is seen in the legends of Hypsipyle and Medea, Ariadne, Philomela and Phyllis. If one reads the Legends as a satire, in which Chaucer’s tale are mostly about bad men rather than highlighting good women, then this choice and his later omissions start to make more sense. The first omission is seen after the tale of Dido and Aeneas: “And who of this letter would himself remind Read Ovid, and in him he shall it find” (cite). Before being directed to read the Ovid Heroides for the full letter, Dido states “I may as well waste on you this letter, though for it I’ll not be the better,” (cite) She acknowledges that writing a letter to Aeneas is a waste of time, he has already betrayed her and sailed away, never to return. Writing a letter to him will prove futile, and only prolong her grief. Therefore, the choice to omit the letter is not because of laziness, but rather a choice Chaucer makes in agreeance with Dido. He too finds writing the letter to be more harmful than good, and by omitting it he is able to preserve a semblance of Dido’s dignity. If one were to indeed follow the narrator’s advice and read the letter in the Heroides, one would find it to be a letter lamenting over her misfortune, in which she describes the cause of her death: “In the marble of my tomb, carve: ‘From Aeneas came a knife and the cause death, from Dido herself came the blow that left her dead’” (Heroides, 65). In addition, the letter serves as a summary of the events that have just occurred, giving more reason to its omission.

The second omission is seen in the story of Hypsipyle – During Jason’s voyage to find treasure for King Pelias, the narrator omits the list of the heroes that accompanied Jason on his voyage: “But whoever would know who was there, let him go read Argonautica, for that will yield a list long enough” The narrator does this in order to keep the main focus of the poem on Hypsipyle and Jason, rather than spend a considerable amount of time listing the heroes on Jason’s ship. Although, with the mention of Argonautica, it is important to note that the narrator also omits another important aspect of Hypsipyle’s story: saving her father from death. In the Argonautica, the legend of Hypsipyle expands on her background and how she came to be Queen of Lemnos: After failing to honor the Aphrodite, the goddess cursed the women of the town with a foul smell. Their husbands abandoned them, causing the women to seek revenge on their significant others through murder, of not just their husbands, but of their male relatives. Although, Hypsipyle could not bear to kill her father and saved him from the oncoming assault. The narrator’s version of the legend purposely omits a detail of the story that makes women seem capable, despite it painting Hypsipyle is a far more positive light. He does this in order to keep with the theme of his poem and focus more so on Jason’s betrayal of Hypsipyle, and to maintain the theme of his poems, which assumes the ultimate goodness and righteousness of all women. Consequently, by omitting the story he is able to preserve the ‘good name’ of women and maintain the moral of his Legends.

The narrator also omits the crimes of these ‘good women’ for that very reason, and to further highlight the immoral actions of the men in the stories. While Medea’s story traditionally depicts her as a lascivious, powerful murderess, Chaucer makes her a great deal more sympathetic. When Medea is first introduced, the narrator describes her as: “So wise and fair, that fairer never men’s eyes did see” (cite). his description, followed by an immediate warning: “And as Fortune owed her foul mischance, she grew all enamored of this man” (cite) Due to the Legend of Hypsipyle, Jason is a character already known to the reader, and there is already an expectation of villainy from him. Once this warning is given, any possibility of a character redemption evaporates, as this line foreshadows not only Medea’s eventual fate, but also the actions Jason will soon display. This also lets the audience know that Medea was not in control – her emotions, and the fate she eventually suffers, was bestowed on her by fate. This makes her an even more sympathetic character, as the audience is led to believe that her misfortune was not a result on any previous actions on her part, but rather it was due to the Goddess of Chance.

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Although the myth has different endings, the best known one is that after Jason abandoned Medea to marry Glauce, it sent Medea into a rage. She killed Glauce and her father by sending a poisoned dress and crown to her, and then she killed her own children further revenge against Jason for abandoning her. By omitting this essential part of the legend, Chaucer gives the reader an opportunity to look deeper into the character of Medea and examine her motivations and reasonings; Through omission, the narrator is able to position Medea in a positive light, while emphasizing Jason’s deplorable actions. Instead of positioning her as a heartless child-killer, Chaucer gives reason to her madness and turns most of the blame onto Jason for abandoning her. This thus re-writes the legend of Medea into one where Jason is the primary antagonist, and further emulates Chaucer’s intention of writing about good women.

In the Legend of Lucretia, the narrator directly comments on and shames Tarquinius for his actions. In this poem, Lucrece cries in her chambers while lamenting over the absence of her husband. This behavior falls in line with the expectations outlined in these Legends of a loyal moral wife, and her tears are described as virtuous: “And that visage suited her withal. And her tears too, full of purity, embellished her wifely chastity” (cite). Unfortunately for Lucrece, it is her tears and ‘wifely chastity’ that attract Tarquinius to her. Upon gazing on Lucretia’s beauty, Tarquinius sneaks into her room at night rapes her. Overcome with shame, she tells her husband and her family what happened to her before killing herself (cite). The narrator proclaims: “Tarquinius who are the king’s heir […] why have you outraged chivalry? why have you done this lady a villainy?” (cite). Tarquinius as a character acts as a critic of common the ‘chivalrous, knightly man trope: despite the popularity of these tropes, they contribute to unrealistic expectations of male behavior, which often don’t reflect real life. Despite the code of honor being prominent amongst courtly men, many of them failed to adhere to it.

Adding to the satirical nature of the poem, as Lucretia dies, she does so in a ‘ladylike’ way, making sure to fall with care: “For in her falling she yet had care, lest her feet or any part lay bare” (cite). Even in death, she must be cautious to keep her virtue and dignity intact. Irony is displayed in this legend, due to the fact that the same qualities which made her desirable are also responsible for her dark fate.

The last and most debated omission is seen in the story of Hypermnestra. Similarly to the tale of Hypsipyle, the narrator’s omits details in the story that involve violent acts committed by women. In Ovid’s Heroides, Hypermnestra and her sisters are ordered to kill their husbands, and all obey except for Hypermnestra (cite); in Chaucer’s Legends, he only discusses Hypermnestra’s heroism. Through this, the narrator is trying to control the narrative and portray women as inherently good. He foreshadows her death early on: “Towards the bad, aspects had she of Saturn, that had destined her to die in prison” (cite) but then leaves the legend unfinished. In a way, she is able to escape death through this narrative and leaves open the potential for readers, specifically female readers, to gain agency through the construction of their own ending.

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Critical Analysis of Chaucer’s Legends of Good Women. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-chaucers-legends-of-good-women/
“Critical Analysis of Chaucer’s Legends of Good Women.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-chaucers-legends-of-good-women/
Critical Analysis of Chaucer’s Legends of Good Women. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-chaucers-legends-of-good-women/> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
Critical Analysis of Chaucer’s Legends of Good Women [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 3]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-chaucers-legends-of-good-women/
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