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Boccaccio's Decameron

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Introduction

Boccaccio's Decameron Boccaccio's The Decameron is today acknowledged as a masterpiece of medieval literature, and its influence can be seen in the work of other great writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare. Yet, the intellectual elite of his time rejected his masterpiece when it was first published, overlooking his wit and ingenuity and choosing instead to decry his lack of etiquette and political correctness. Clearly, he was prepared against just such attacks, for throughout his work he cleverly weaves in his defense against would-be detractors, using the narrative frames of himself in both the first and the third person points of view. In the Prologue, Boccaccio the author makes plain his ostensible purpose for writing - having survived a bout of lovesickness thanks to the encouragement of his friends, he now hopes to provide women afflicted by the same curse a diversion from their melancholy in the form of stories. This lovesickness is quickly juxtaposed with the image of the dreadfulness of the Black Death in the author's Introduction. Here, he sets the background of his tale in a time of which horrors would still be very much alive in the memories of his readers, and hence framing the extenuating circumstances for the ribaldry and impiousness that is to follow. Indeed, "in the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished", and out of necessity, standards of sexual propriety had also fallen (Boccaccio 7-9). ...read more.

Middle

The first story of Day Six is meant to illustrate to the reader what exactly he thinks about storytelling. He likens it to the gentlemanly arts of swordplay and riding. He shows how it is neither the content nor details of a story that matter, but rather how it is told. In this, he answers the critics who accused him of plagiarizing ideas from other well-known tales at that time or fault his recollection. The knight in the story possessed a tale which was "in itself...indeed excellent" (Boccaccio 447), but due to his poor delivery he makes a mess of his tale, and his unfortunate listener Madame Oretta is comically portrayed as falling ill, testament to the harm that a badly spun yarn can cause. The crux of the entire story, however, lies in her timely comment to the knight which saves her from further agony. She says to him, "Sir, you have taken me riding on a horse that trots very jerkily. Pray be good enough to set me down." (Boccaccio 447). The sexual reference here is unmistakable. Boccaccio is equating the art of storytelling to that of lovemaking. In that light, would not the young, unmarried women to whom he is addressing the book be able to savor that sensual pleasure vicariously by reading his stories? Bawdry though they might be, if the stories fulfill the function of helping to satiate the reader's appetite for sex and prevent worse sins like fornication, perhaps the Church should not be so opposed to it. ...read more.

Conclusion

He presents the different narrative layers as if he had no hand in the stories at all, " I could only transcribe the stories as they were actually told...even if one could assume that I was the inventor as well as the scribe of these stories (which was not the case)..." (Boccaccio 800). Last but not least, he emphasizes that once the storyteller has fulfilled his duty to entertain, the story is merely what the listener wishes to make out of it, for "like all other things in the world, stories, whatever their nature, may be harmful or useful, depending upon the listener" (Boccaccio 799). Ultimately, the critical reader must heed what Boccaccio has written in the Prologue, and "learn to recognize what should be avoided and likewise what should be pursued" (Boccaccio 3). His stories "will not run after anyone demanding to be read" (Boccaccio 800). The reader who has read this far has no right to be outraged by his lack of modesty, for he has always had the option of turning away. By delighting in the tales enough to read the entire book to its conclusion, the reader has become complicit in the crime. Boccaccio has negated his responsibility to uphold morality due to the sheer nature of his job as a storyteller. The clergy and others who would have had reason to condemn the book have been caught wrong-footed and cast in a bad light by the genius of Boccaccio once again - only this time, it is happening in real life. ...read more.

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