The themes natural desire and honor are emphasized in the tales Caterina and Ricciardo and Tancredi and Ghismonda. Natural desire and honor conflict with each other in these tales. This conflict causes some of the characters to react positively to their situations while others react negatively. Obeying the laws of natural desire and honor results in Caterina’s marriage while opposing natural desire and abusing honor leads to Ghismonda’s death.
In Caterina and Ricciardo, Caterina’s marriage is foreshadowed by her sleeping with Ricciardo and her father witnessing their act. Caterina convinces her parents to let her sleep on her father’s balcony. Messer Lizio says, “‘Take whichever bed you please…Then let her sleep there and hear the nightingale singing to her heart’s content.’ “(396) In this case, the nightingale refers to Ricciardo. By allowing her to sleep on the balcony, her father is maintaining his authority while she can satisfy her sexual desires. She longs to be with Ricciardo and is free to sleep with him. Additionally, the balcony is a symbol of adulthood for her. (Lecture 5) She is also intelligent because she is being very deceptive and sneaky towards her parents in order to get what she wants.
Although Caterina is intelligent, her father eventually finds out about her affair. Messer Lizio says, “‘Your daughter was so fascinated by the nightingale that she has succeeded in way-laying it and is holding it in her hand.’ “(397) Caterina’s father is obviously disappointed by his daughter and Ricciardo for playing him. She thought that rebelling against her parents and hiding out on the balcony with her lover would allow her to get away with her behavior. Even though she has some freedom, she is still not out of her father’s grasp. He has the power to watch over her and make sure she is obeying his rules. However, her father understands that her behavior is caused by her sexual desire to be with Ricciardo.
Fortunately, Messer Lizio resolves the situation by allowing Caterina to marry Ricciardo. He says, “‘She will remain yours for as long as she lives…secure your freedom and my forgiveness; otherwise you can prepare to meet your Maker.’” (398) By commanding Ricciardo to marry Caterina, he is following his patriarchal duty and society’s expectations. When he tells Ricciardo that he will meet his “Maker” if he does not wed her; he is implying that he has no other choice. This proves that although he is thrilled to be with the love of his life; Messer Lizio’s threat to punish him is not the only reason why he marries her. Therefore, Messer Lizio is able to maintain his honor and the two lovers are able to satisfy their sexual desires.
While both parties won in Caterina’s tale; that is not the case in Tancredi and Ghismonda. Ghismonda’s death is prompted by her father’s refusal to marry her and the killing of her lover. Because Ghismonda’s father is unwilling to marry her; it will lead to negative consequences for the both of them. Boccaccio writes, “Her father was so devoted to her…she decided to see whether a secret lover was worthy of her affections.” (292) This demonstrates Ghismonda’s bravery to attempt to fulfil her natural desires although she might feel guilty about upsetting her father. She understands that she has to take action and stand up for what is right and acceptable in society even if her father does not like it. Tancredi has an unnatural obsession with his daughter and is jealous that she is interested in another man. (Lecture 7) Ghismonda represents a clutch that her father wants to hold on to and has a very difficult time letting go.
Tancredi’s failure to adhere to his patriarchal duty causes Ghismonda to continue to meet up with Guiscardo until he discovers her secret. The author says, “The sight filled him with dismay…he could carry out the plan of action that had already taken shape in his mind.” (294) This is contradictory because Tancredi is not carrying out his plan of action yet. He is so shocked and scarred that all he can do is sit and watch Ghismonda and Guiscardo. His intention is to kill Guiscardo, but he is taking the time to process what is happening because it is too much for him to handle. Ghismonda is being insubordinate to her father even though that is not her intention. She does not want to hurt her father, but at the same time she wants to satisfy her love for Guiscardo.
This sin motivates Tancredi to murder Guiscardo when Ghismonda defends herself. Ghismonda says, “‘The daughter you fathered was also made of flesh and blood, and not of stone or iron.’” (296) Ghismonda is justifying her love for Guiscardo to Tancredi. She knows that it is natural for humans to have sexual desires and is trying to convince her father to understand her point of view. The way in which she addresses her father demonstrates her emotional maturity. On the other hand, her father acts feminine and as a “jilted lover” because he is desperate to have her all to himself. (Lecture 7)
Guiscardo’s death harms Ghismonda so much that she commits suicide. The author writes, “She said no more, but leaned over the chalice…and began to cry in a fashion wondrous to behold, her tears gushing forth like water from a fountain….” (300) Although Ghismonda has presented herself as tough; she has emotions. This emphasizes that she is not immune to misfortune and is not afraid to express herself. She is paralyzed and is willing to do anything to unite with her lover even if taking her life away is necessary. Tancredi is not bringing honor to his family name and is ruining his reputation. He is unconcerned about defying the laws of nature and is not aware of how much his cruelty toward his daughter has impacted her soul.
Honor and natural desire do not always agree with each other. This occurs because humans do not always think rationally. If every character is strong-willed, then both honor can be conserved and natural desires met.