Tag Archives: Madonna

The Canterbury Tales

Somehow, I managed to avoid having to read The Canterbury Tales in high school and at university.  So I decided to inflict that punishment on myself independently.

125381146First, a little background info might be in order, since few non-English majors would ever read something like this for fun.

Chaucer was born of fairly middle-class parents, but some good luck for his father and himself saw him rise to a more prestigious place in 14th century society. He could speak English, French, and Latin. At the time he wrote the Canterbury Tales, no one was writing in English. The clergy spoke Latin, and the court (society around the king) spoke French. English was the language spoken in daily life in London, and people were just beginning to think of writing it down.

Chaucer drew heavily from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of tales told by a group of young people hiding in the Italian countryside to escape the plague. And he borrowed very heavily from a lot of sources. I don’t think many people realize how similar many English classics of the 14-16th centuries are to other texts.  If there were copyright laws during that time, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chaucer (among others), would have been guilty of 100+ counts.  At the time, most stories were told orally. They were the same stories, told over and over, but the storyteller was judged not on his originality, but on his style in telling (and embellishing) the familiar tale. The copy of the Canterbury Tales that I have is a Norton Critical Edition with many of the sources included in the back of the book.  Sections are lifted word for word in a few places, and the plot of each one of the tales has a direct relationship with the sources.

So…the Canterbury Tales begins with a prologue, explaining that the narrator is among a group of pilgrims, about to set out on a voyage to Canterbury.  Canterbury was/is the head of the church in England–though at this time, it was the Catholic, not Anglican church.  Canterbury is also of extreme importance because Thomas Beckett, former archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in the church itself. He became a martyr and was canonized ‘St Thomas of Canterbury’.  Pilgrimages to Canterbury were very popular, quite common. Chaucer uses this journey to tell all of his stories, in the guise of many different levels of society, from the poorest to the richest, from the clergy, scholars, even women (gasp!). Each story is told in the style that each of these stations would give–the most educated tell subtle and well-crafted tales, the bawdier members tend to make quite a few vagina-related puns and tell more raucous and less moral tales.

The two most famous tales are the Knight’s Tale and the tale of the Wife of Bath. The Knight’s Tale features a very familiar plot to anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Two virtuous knights fall in love with the same woman, who is of course chaste and beautiful and untouchable, as all good women were supposed to be. Shakespeare borrowed the plot for The Two Noble Kinsmen. The Heath Ledger movie has very little to do with the first of the Canterbury Tales, but it did introduce the world to naked Paul Bettany as Chaucer himself.

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Where the Knight’s Tale is chivalrous and adheres to quintessentially medieval ideas about men, women, honor, and romance, the Wife of Bath embraces everything scandalous. She gleefully tells her shocked audience (before starting her tale) that she has been married 5 times. She talks about how she has controlled her husbands, marrying them for money, until she became rich. Then she could marry for love.  You’ll find a similar plot in the seminal classic ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna.

DVDcov_Madonna___Material_Girl_by_melliekinsThe Wife of Bath is pretty much the only female character in the Canterbury Tales that is a realistic portrait of a woman.  Some are bawdy and classless, others the silent and beautiful paragons that no woman has ever actually been. The Wife of Bath defends her own history (her 5 marriages) by challenging men to prove her own interpretation of the scripture wrong. She has her own opinions, and she won’t be bullied out of them.

On the other hand, she’s a pretty terrible person. She admits freely that she took advantage of her first 3 husbands, using her ‘charms’ to make them pay (monetarily and in other ways). She conforms to a lot of the bad stereotypes attributed to women by men, and she’s unapologetic about those flaws.

The wife of Bath aside, The Canterbury Tales is not a fun read for women. Almost every tale is replete with misogyny, often resulting in violence and/or rape. And there’s a big chunk of virulent anti-Semitism that really adds to the ambiance and makes you want to burn your house down.

When I first started reading it, the Canterbury Tales was sort of fun. The Middle English was like a puzzle. If you thought about it, if you read it aloud, it was like a game.  Here’s an example. Read it aloud.

How greet a sorwe suffreth now Arcite!

The deeth he feleth thurgh his herte smyte;

He wepeth, wayleth, cryeth pitously;

To sleen him-self he wayteth prively.

He seyde, ‘Allas that day that I was born!

Now is my prison worse than biforn;

Now is me shape eternally to dwelle

Noght in purgatorie, but in helle.

Readable, right? It’s actually really good for your brain to read something like that–a similar effect to learning a new language.

But as I kept reading, the rampant sexism and really truly awful antisemitism just got more and more and more tiresome and upsetting. By the time I finished, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m glad I didn’t have to study this in school, or to write an essay on it. Because all I got out of the experience was anger.  A lot of people debate whether Chaucer was a feminist or misogynist. The Wife of Bath is an independent strong woman…but she’s also a gold-digger and a manipulator. And the rest of the women are either whores or angels.  I’m inclined to think Chaucer a realist. And the reality of the time is women were given very little leeway, and many had to conform to the stereotypes to survive.  Is the Wife of Bath a bad person for taking advantage of her first 3 husbands? Maybe.  But on the other hand, she was first married when she was 12.  Can you blame her?

I would not recommend reading this unless you’re really interested in the time period, and can deal with some truly bullshit stuff that went down in the Medieval era.

 

W./E.

Despite some terrible reviews, I decided to give this film a chance because I really find the whole abdication scandal of Edward VIII very interesting, and this did have a very different spin on it than all of those History Channel specials talking about how Edward was a Nazi sympathizer.  I think a lot of the terrible reviews come from people who dislike Madonna, or dislike her as a filmmaker.  Because while it wasn’t a great film, there were parts of it that were nice (the music, the visuals, the costumes).  It certainly doesn’t deserve the same Rotten Tomatoes rating as Showgirls.

The film follows two similar stories.  One is that of Wallis Simpson, an American woman who was married and divorced twice before the King of England decided he wanted to marry her (actually she was still married to the second guy when they really fell in love).  The PM, the British people, his family didn’t want Edward to be with her, and he ended up giving up the throne so that they could be together.

The other story is of a very wealthy American housewife, Wally (Abbie Cornish), married to a workaholic philandering abusive doctor in Manhattan.  She was named after Wallis Simpson, and she jokes that her parents ‘wanted her to marry a Prince’.  That probably influenced her in marrying her dreadful husband.  She is drawn to the story of Wallis and Edward, because of her namesake and her similar situation, so when there is an exhibit and a Sotheby’s auction selling many of their personal possessions, she goes every day to …well basically to imagine herself living out Wallis Simpson’s life.  She meets a security guard there, who is really a Russian intellectual, named Evgeni (Oscar Isaac).

The 1920s half of the story is infinitely more interesting than its modern counterpart.  Wallis Simpson’s abusive first husband makes you sort of immediately sympathize with her and excuse most of her behavior. I found both actors who portrayed Wallis and Edward (Andrea Riseborough and James D’Arcy) to be really charming and believable.  You understand immediately why Wallis is fearless, is a survivor. You also understand why Edward would be drawn to her when he’s surrounded by sycophantic socialites.

When the 20th century equivalent Wallis is abused and cheated on, however, you just wonder why she doesn’t just leave him.  She complains he made her give up her career when they got married, and she does cliché housewife crap like secretly take IVF drugs to try to get pregnant.  All I was thinking was why doesn’t she just leave him, get her job back (or a job), and have a kid on her own.  Or something. Do something. It doesn’t make me empathize with her, it makes me dislike her.

As I said before, the film is really visually appealing, particularly the period half of the plot.  There were also a few really interesting scenes that made me think about what it is to be a woman.  Wallis (the original) talks about how people have never called her beautiful. They’ve called her attractive, which is the polite way of saying she has done the best she can with what she has.  She also says something like…if I couldn’t be the most beautiful, at least I could dress better than anyone else in the room.  It is so sad and so true that so many women feel that the best they can hope for is to have people notice the effort they put into their appearance, even if they never feel confidence spring out of all that effort.  And the really sad thing is that a woman like that is probably better off than most women who don’t put in any effort, because they are too busy despising themselves for having chubby ankles or non-photoshopped ab muscles.  But I digress!

I did find myself being bothered by some of the glossing over of facts.  I mean, Edward and Wallis did meet with Hitler in 1937, and Edward gave a full Nazi salute during the visit.

The film sort of palliated this whole incident as rumor and malicious gossip, but there’s …there’s a fair bit of evidence that Hitler, at least, thought that Edward was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. I read an article that said the FBI was conducting surveillance on the couple, and that there were suspicions that Wallis had an affair with a Nazi, to whom she passed secrets.  Of course the FBI haven’t released any of these files, to my knowledge, so it’s still all conjecture. Still that puts a rather unpleasant spin on what the film calls an incredible love story.

Not that the movie is trying to paint it as a fairy tale, especially for Wallis.  It’s very obvious that the abdication crisis meant that neither Wallis nor Edward would be able to be together without giving up a lot of their lives.  In fact, they were never allowed back to England again–Wallis came back for Edward’s funeral in 1972, but they were never brought back as a couple.  They both were sort of miserable (in the film) because though they could now be together, they couldn’t really live their lives.  Edward’s brother, the new king George VI, wouldn’t take his calls or allow him to return home.  Tabloids (and apparently the FBI) followed them everywhere.  And, as the film points out, after such a monumental sacrifice, it was impossible for either of them to end the relationship, even if it soured. They were rather stuck together.

The film also really deifies Edward as a doting, loving husband and a genuinely good man who was forced to choose between his country and the woman he loved.  Some of that may be true, but it also makes you wonder about that choice.  If you consider that his abdication came in the mid 1930s, when the entire continent could already see that another horrific war was coming. In that same year, Nazi Germany invaded the Rhineland, radical forces took over Japan, Italian forces started to expand into neighboring territories, the Spanish civil war began, Italy, Germany, and Japan became de facto allies–this was all during one year! It was a full 3 years before WWII officially began, but it’s as clear as day what was going on.  This is the moment that Edward decides to leave his post, his country, his duty.  To leave it to his poor brother, George VI, played recently by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.  As a younger brother, George (known as Bertie by his family) had never expected to have to be king, and here was the responsibility heaped on his shoulders less than 1 year after his father had died, with a world preparing for an epic disaster. Not to mention his speech impediment and his discomfort in the public arena. In the movie and in real life, Edward doesn’t seem to have put much thought into what that meant for his brother, his family, his country. That’s not a man that I think I could love.  I’m not one for duty, traditionally, but in situations like that your responsibilities are not only to your own happiness.  And the film just…glazes over these facts, painting Edward as someone who wants to help in the war and contribute something, but isn’t allowed to.

So the film is naive at best.  It also seems sort of…self-indulgent.  I’m not enough of a film buff to really describe why I got this impression. I don’t have pretentious words to describe the choices directors make in setting up shots or whatever. I found the period half of the movie interesting, even if it was unrealistic.  The 20th century part of the movie was just …pointless.  Predictably, Wally eventually leaves her abusive psychotic husband–though I must point out that she only leaves him when Evgeni comes and takes her away from their apartment to his own.  So, really, she gets rescued.  And he takes her back to his apartment in Queens or Brooklyn or similar, and he has one of those apartments that is meant to look Spartan and bare, and be the opposite of her posh Upper East Side place with her husband.  So there’s exposed brick and a grand piano and lots of second-hand paperbacks.  But in reality, people pay thousands and thousands of dollars for their apartments to look exactly like that.  So it’s bullshit.  Then the two of them, again, predictably, start dating and she’s so much happier that she abandons her Chanel dresses and starts wearing newsboy caps and playing pool at bars.  Okay then.  Because if you change men, your wardrobe changes immediately too.  Or maybe I’m just supposed to believe she was really hip the whole time and now her true self can come out.  Either way, I found it nauseating.

I think you could make a really amazing film out of just the period parts of this movie, and that it would be 1000 times better for eliminating the modern equivalent altogether.  It’s an interesting subject, especially when you consider if he had not abdicated, whether England would have had a Nazi sympathizer for a king and a pacifist for a PM.  How would modern Europe look if that had happened?  That’s a far more interesting topic than one silly housewife and her need to compare her life to the woman she was named after.