Month: November 2016

The Wife of Bath and Katherine Minola (part 1)

Both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare dedicated a large portion of their respective bodies of work to stories about marriage and examinations of marriage through those stories. In addition, these two great authors of the English language both evince a tendency to focus upon similar questions surrounding marriage, such as the origins and nature of romantic love, the consequences of spousal unfaithfulness, and the roles of husbands and wives in relation to each other.[1] There are many possibilities for the origins of this similarity of interests between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Marriage and all of its facets, including male-female relations, ἔρως, childbearing, and childrearing, are, after all, ubiquitous aspects of the human condition and always of immediate interest in any historical moment.

In spite of Chaucer’s frequent identification as a “medieval” poet and Shakespeare’s popular designation as a “Renaissance,” or, more recently, “early modern,” poet, it is also not to be overlooked that, as John Spiers writes, “The community that discovers itself in Chaucer is already recognizably the English community of Shakespeare.”[2] The implications and assumptions engendered by the identification of each with his particular historical era aside, the two are separated by only 200 years, a substantial but not exceptionally large amount of time. “If [Shakespeare and his contemporaries] are moderns, Chaucer also is a modern,” continues Spiers,” if Chaucer is mediaeval, they also are mediaeval.”[3] Ultimately, Spiers concludes, “Shakespeare’s English is the complex fulfilment of, or development from, Chaucer’s.”[4] This is true not only of the language itself, but also of the ideas conveyed through that language as well as the style in which they are conveyed.

The influence, direct and indirect, of Chaucer upon Shakespeare is evident in the latter’s treatment of marriage in comparison with that of the former. It is well-established that Shakespeare drew upon Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and other works by Chaucer for the subject matter of his plays. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, says Helen Cooper, “influenced two earlier plays of Shakespeare’s, Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”[5] two plays written around the same time as the writing of the Taming of the Shrew.[6] Shakespeare, in addition, continued to draw on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales throughout his career. “A further possible area of influence from the Tales on Shakespeare emerges in the last plays,” continues Cooper.[7] “The theme of women’s endurance of undeserved suffering in Henry VIII, The Winter’s Tale, and Pericles may owe something to the Clerk’s and Man of Law’s Tales.”[8] Given that Shakespeare drew upon at least one of the members of Chaucer’s Marriage Group of Tales for his depictions of suffering women and that he was writing plays influenced by Chaucer at nearly the same time that he was writing the Taming of the Shrew, the similarities between Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and Shakespeare’s Katherine Minola seem unlikely to be merely coincidental. Instead, the character of Katherine Minola and the story of her “taming” present another case of Shakespeare’s borrowings from Chaucer.

[1] For example, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde examines the origins of romantic love as well as the consequences of unfaithfulness. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an examination of the origins of romantic love with a substantial amount of content that is fascinatingly similar to the story of Troilus and Criseyde, of which Shakespeare wrote his own version in the play Troilus and Cressida.

[2] John Spiers, Chaucer the Maker (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 422.

[6] Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, eds., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 109, 118. Wells and Taylor date Two Gentlemen of Verona to 1590–1591, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to 1595, and The Taming of the Shrew to 1590–1591, placing all of the plays within four to five years of each other and making Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew coeval.

[7] Cooper, 422.

[8] Ibid.

Defining Humanism

When attempting to define humanism, the most obvious and immediate reference point is undoubtedly the humanists of the Renaissance. It was at this time that the very word “humanist” entered the English language, apparently under the influence of the Italian coinage umanista, meaning “student of human affairs or human nature,” attributed to the Italian poet Lodovicio Ariosto. In this use, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, “the original notion appears to be ‘human’ as opposed to ‘divine,’ that is, a student of the human achievements of the pre-Christian authors and philosophers, as opposed to the theological studies of the divines.” A humanist, then, is one whose interests and studies are focused in the world of the productions of the human mind.

It may further be extrapolated from this concentration on the achievements of mankind that the humanist is concerned with providing human answers to human problems. In his book on the World of Humanism, Myron P. Gilmore describes the Renaissance humanists as “an aristocracy of the intellect, the first apostles of the salvation of society by the use of human reason.” The otherworldly orientation of the Middle Ages has certainly been exaggerated. It would, therefore, be an exaggeration to emphasize too greatly the Renaissance humanists’ departure from the earlier, ostensibly more theologically inclined thinkers of the medieval period. There was, however, a definite trend toward a greater faith in the abilities of human reason that is evident in humanist thought. According to Paul Tillich, for example, it was precisely the “detached scholarly attitude toward the contents of the Christian faith” engendered by the Christian humanism of Erasmus which led to his conflict with Martin Luther.

Yet the existence of such a perspective as the “Christian humanism” of Erasmus is evidence that the humanists’ faith in human reason need not necessarily exclude the Christian’s faith in the revelation and workings of God. Writing of his early twentieth century revival of humanism, Irving Babbitt argued that “humanism . . . may . . . work in harmony with traditional religion.” Babbitt reasons that humanism is a supplement to religion, perhaps even a necessary one given the predominance of secularity in the modern age. While “it is an error to hold that humanism can take the place of religion” and “religion indeed may more readily dispense with humanism than humanism with religion,” says Babbitt, humanism serves religion in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most important way in which humanism can act as a supplement to religion is in forming a conduit by which individuals of various faiths can meaningfully interact and cooperate on matters of shared concern. Babbitt notes that “the Catholic Church has . . . been well inspired in rounding out its religious doctrine with the teaching of Aristotle and other masters of the law of measure.” The phrasing Babbitt uses here is perhaps questionable, as the medieval Catholic philosophers were not so much “rounding out” Catholic doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy so much as they were allowing that philosophy to form the non-Christian foundation upon which the Christian faith could build and thereby bring human knowledge to completion. Babbitt is right to assert, however, that because of this addition of Aristotle’s philosophy to the particulars of Catholic doctrine “it follows that the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be able to co-operate on the humanistic level.” For cooperation between two groups to take place, there must be a certain shared foundation of ideas and interests. The “humanistic level,” to use Babbitt’s terminology, acts as that shared foundation for the Catholic and the non-Catholic as well as for the Christian and the non-Christian more generally in its emphasis on the good of mankind and the ability to human action to achieve this end.