No Friend Like A Sister: Anne and Phaedra in The Legend of Good Women

March 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

In The Legend of Good Women, the God of Love predicates his definition of a “good woman” on the actions of surrounding characters rather than the protagonist herself. Being “virtuous” requires no action in these legends. Instead, it insists on a passive and emotional response to the action of a traitorous man. The construction of Dido and Ariadne in their respective legends follows the God of Love’s commands exactly. As such, Dido and Ariadne are morally good women. However, as protagonists, Dido and Ariadne are inadequate on two levels. As individuals, they lack any compelling depth. As narrative devices, they lack the complexity necessary to advance the story. In order to follow the God of Love’s instructions while still writing a cohesive legend, Chaucer creates secondary female characters in the form of sisters. Geoffrey’s crafting of Anne and Phaedra and manipulation of their development fills in the narrative gaps that “good” women necessitate. They are not antagonists, but a completion of their protagonist sisters. As individuals, Dido and Ariadne lack balance between feeling and thought. The narrator ignores their back stories, and their personalities are virtually indistinguishable. The men of the story are given structural precedence; Theseus and Aeneus appear before Ariadne and Dido. Additionally, the narrator develops Aeneus as a character before he arrives in Carthage, and meeting Dido does not compromise his identity as a man or as a Trojan. Likewise, Theseus comes to Crete from the troubled city of Athens, and the Minotaur threatens his life. Although the narrator disapproves of their motivations, Aeneus does have a reason to leave Dido, and Theseus has a reason to enlist Ariadne’s help. Conversely, the narrator provides no rational motivation for Dido and Ariadne’s intense emotions beyond superficial attraction and pity, and each of them is still singularly motivated by these feelings. These empty characters cannot advance the narrative and therefore threaten to keep the story at stasis. Their prior development indicates that Ariadne would continue to listen sympathetically to Theseus, and Dido would continue to lust silently after Aeneus. As such, their inadequacy as individuals begins to affect their feasibility as narrative devices. In fact, the Legend’s titles are misleading in terms of narrative. Ariadne and Dido’s importance to the story is miniscule in terms of what they actually do. A good woman only feels, but a good protagonist must also think. Because thinking and feeling are mutually exclusive for the God of Love’s purposes, Anne and Phaedra also serve as narrative devices that spur the climactic actions of their respective legends. The supposed primary action in The Legend of Ariadne is Ariadne’s decision to supply Theseus with a weapon and a way out of the labyrinth. However, Phaedra originates the idea, and the pity that motivates their assistance is plural – “and of his wo they had compassioun” (1974, emphasis added). The responses to Theseus’ plight sound very similar. Ariadne says that “He shall be holpen, how so that we do!” and Phaedra says “To his help the beste reed I can…” However, the threshold of Phaedra’s capability is much higher than Ariadne’s. The key difference is between Ariadne’s “we” and Phaedra’s “I.” They both feel pity for Theseus, but only Phaedra can act on her feelings. Phaedra continues her statement of pity with a plan to actually save Theseus, and this plan eventually succeeds. While Anne does not significantly affect the end of The Legend of Dido, she serves to absorb and process Dido’s excessive emotion while also providing a rational balance to Dido’s feelings. Unlike the story of Phaedra and Ariadne, Dido’s emotions eventually take precedence over Anne’s thinking. When Dido speaks to her sister about Aeneus, she speaks only of Aeneus’ superficial qualities – “me thinketh he is so well y-wrought/And eek so lykly for to be a man” (151). Although Anne does not encourage Dido to pursue Aeneus, she does “seyde as hir thoughte, and somdel it withstood” (151). This brief interjection is representative of the internal struggle that a fully developed Dido would experience when considering the pros and cons of marrying Aeneus.The final scenes of each legend illustrate Dido and Ariadne as singular characters after being abandoned by their respective men. Without a complementary character to create variation, the scenes are necessarily similar. Theseus and Aeneus both leave while the women are sleeping, and they both sail to places more politically viable than Naxos or Carthage. To remain in character, Dido and Ariadne also must remain in stasis for the completion of the legends. Physically, Ariadne stays on Naxos, and Dido stays in Carthage. Emotionally, they spend their final moments as protagonists “compleining” (“Ariadne” 2216, “Dido” 1357). Dido’s suicide is more dramatic than Ariadne’s planting of a white flag, but both illustrate the same point. Without Theseus and Aeneus, Ariadne and Dido are narratively stuck. Because bad men created their identities as good women, their individual stories can no longer progress without Aeneus and Theseus. Phaedra and Anne play substantially different roles in the classical versions of these myths because they are primarily characters rather than narrative devices. In the Heroides, simply hearing Ariadne’s voice rather than the narrator’s develops her character well beyond the confines of the God of Love’s instructions. Ariadne is not merely wrought with grief but rationally angry about his betrayal. The addressee of Theseus’ Legend’s promises are ambiguous, but the Heroides clarifies that Theseus “said to [Ariadne]: “By these very perils of mine, I swear that, so long as both of us shall live, thou shalt be mine!” (Heroides 59) In addition, Ariadne takes credit for her role in saving Theseus: “O Theseus, had not slain with knotty club him that was man in part, and in part bull; and I had not given thee the thread to show the way of thy return – thread oft caught up again and passed through the hands led on by it” (Heroides, para. 99) Additionally, in the Metamorphoses, Ovid gives Ariadne full credit and agency for her actions in saving Theseus and no fault for leaving Crete with Theseus: “The door/So difficult, which none of those before/Could find again, by Ariadne’s aid/Was found, the thread that traced the way rewound/Then Theseus, seizing Minos’ daughter, spread/His sails for Naxos, where, upon the shore/That cruel prince abandoned her and she/Abandoned, in her grief and anger found/Comfort in Bacchus’ arms” (Metamorphoses 176). The action of the two versions is essentially identical, but the display of Ariadne’s thought process lends credence to her emotions and therefore develops her character. Even though Ariadne leaves Crete with Theseus unwillingly in the Metamorphoses, Ovid provides a story for her after Theseus abandons her. Her grief and anger lead to action—the finding of comfort in Bacchus’ arms. Tellingly, Phaedra goes unmentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides because she is unnecessary as a narrative device. A fully developed Ariadne does not require a Phaedra to think for her or initiate a plan. Likewise, Anna plays no role in Dido’s Heroides letter and a small but emotional role in The Aeneid. After Dido kills herself in The Aeneid, Anna takes on a role much like Dido in her Legend by considering herself a victim and blaming Dido for her selfishness:So this is what it meant? It was all to deceive your sister! This was the purpose of the pyre and the flames and the altars! You have abandoned me. I do not know how to begin to reproach you. Did you not want your sister’s company when you were dying? You could have called me to share your fate and we would both have died in the same moment of the same grief (Virgil 244)Similarly, after Aeneus leaves Dido, she implores him to “now to wyfe take/As ye han sworn, than wol I yeve yow leve/To sleen me with your swerd now sone at eve” (1319-22). Both Virgil’s Anne and Chaucer’s Dido are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to the ones they love, even to death. Anna’s character has room to be emotional because Dido is more dignified and rational in the Aeneid. The conversation during which Dido and Anna consider Dido’s marriage to Aeneus also differs completely, not only in its level of development. In Legend, Dido expresses her emotional attraction and Anna rebuffs her. However, in the Aeneid, they both show a balanced consideration of Dido’s emotional and political stake in the potential marriage. Just as in the Legend, Dido describes Aeneus’ physical appearance and qualifications as a warrior but insists that she is “set and immovably fixed against joining any man in the bonds of marriage ever since death cheated me of my first love” (Virgil 232). Instead of arguing against the marriage, Anne rationally offers the benefits to such a marriage by appealing to Dido’s emotional and political sense: “O sister. . .are you going to waste away. . .without knowing the delight of children and the rewards of love?” and “. . .what a city and what a kingdom you will see rising here if you are married to such a man!” (232-3). After the conversation ends, Anna has “lit a fire of wild love in her sister’s breast” (233). Although Anna does not play the same weighted narrative role as Phaedra, she does call attention to Dido’s inadequacy and resolves it by thinking. The decision to change the importance of Anne and Phaedra also manipulates the meaning of the collective Legend of Good Women. If this is Chaucer’s manipulation, then it only serves as commentary for conceptions of good women. However, if this is Geoffrey’s manipulation, this develops the narrator as a character. By providing complementary characters, he implies that Dido and Ariadne’s naïve virtue is not enough. Consequently, Geoffrey intentionally subverts the God of Love’s instructions in a way that he knows superficial reading will not catch. If Anne and Phaedra served as antagonists to Dido and Ariadne, they would either have to be bad or the real “good” women. A superficial reading implies that they are “bad” women because they do not fit the God of Love’s instructions. However, an ironic reading of the legends implies that Anne and Phaedra are good, while Dido and Ariadne are actually bad. However, as completions of Dido and Ariadne, Anne and Phaedra are also lacking. Anne argues against Dido’s marriage to Aeneus, and even though this turns out to be the correct decision, it discounts Dido’s feelings of love. If Phaedra does willingly leave the island with Theseus, then she ignores her sister’s feelings in favor of political gain. Morally, Dido and Ariadne can stand alone as good women. As narrative characters, however, Dido and Ariadne must be considered with Anne and Phaedra in order to be women at all.

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