Survey of World Literature
In the times of ancient and medieval Arabic folklore, as well as fourteenth century Italy, there are many themes and ideas that the two share. One of the most common and controversial themes is the representation of women. Within the stories that are told, the roles of women range from being completely powerless, to having complete control.
In the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, the prologue starts with the treachery of King Shahzamans wife and therefore ends with Shahrazad saving the women of King Shahriyar kingdom. Shahrazad uses her stories to prove to the king that not all women are represented by his unfaithful wife. Her stories have many different types of women. These types range from women who are just as spiteful and cunning as the king’s wives, to those who are heroic and who show great integrity and kindness. Through these stories she tells, she stalls for time as well as entertains the king. With this, she slowly brings the king back into perspective.
In Shahrazads first story, the first two women appear to be devious. The tailor’s wife was silly enough to stick a bone into the hunchback’s mouth, she quickly begins to take control of the situation. The first brother that encountered the landlord’s wife was described as ‘wicked’, and the others encountered an old woman enticed and tortured them. This pattern of deception amongst the women is similar to the deceit of the Queens, not to Shahrazad. In the “Tale of the Enchanted King”, instead of waiting until the king leaves, the queen drugs her king and goes out of her way to have an affair.
Not all the tales that Shahrazad told were about treacherous women though. Towards the middle, the views begin to switch. The roles of women begin to take a more important step. In the tale of “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, the mother of the shop sold all of its contents and took to cotton spinning to support her child as well as herself. The selfless woman had wished for happiness only on her son. The shift in characteristics allows for the comparison to be made between Shahrazad and Aladdin’s mother. When Shahrazad asks King Shahriyar to spare her life and not give her the same fortune as the other women, she says “For if you destroy the mother of these infants, they will find none among women to love them as I would”.
In the “Tale of the Black Eunuch”, the mistress mourned when Kafur told her that her husband was dead. “My masters wife and daughters shrieked and rent their clothes and beat their faces.. My mistress set the entire house in chaos, smashing up furniture.” (Tales 238). Unlike the earlier women whos loyalties to their kings was nonexistent, this was a tale of true and genuine love, as well as honest grief.
“The Tale of the Second Dervish”, both the princess and the jimnees woman sacrifice themselves to save the protagonist. “How can I kill an innocent man whom I have never seen before?” was what the jimnees woman had said even though she might die given her refusal to kill the dervish.
Shahrazads questions the king about the reason he kills his brides is because he does not want to submit to the same kind of disgrace as before even though he does not truly understand his bride, however Shahrazad is innocent to those faults and yet destined to still die.
In “The Tale of the Second Girl”, the girl had not committed adultery, and yet she was about to be condemned to death. She said “The old woman went on persuading me until I put my head, as it were, into the bag and consented”. It had not been her idea to allow the kiss to progress. It was her husband’s own distrust of her that caused the riff between them. It was King Shahriyars suspicions and distrust of women that prompted him to bed and kill every virgin he married.
Shahrazad does not naively try to tell the king that all women are good, and this is shown in her story telling. There are women who are cunning and full of lies, but there are also women who are innocent of treachery. Some women are loyal and loving towards their king just as Shahrazad is. Thus, after one thousand and one nights, the king decides not to kill her. He finally realizes that she is “chaste and tender, wise and eloquent” and has nothing in common with his late wife.
Through these tales, as well as the frame story of One Thousand and One Nights, you see how the power and control goes from the Kings murders and the destruction of these virgin lives, to one woman putting an end to it with just her words. It shows how the love and innocence of a woman can change a man in power, even in a time in which women were considered disposable.
Similarly to that, in the Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, women were also held in a lower social society than men were. Women at the time were not supposed to have any other role in society other than wife and mother. Boccaccio demonstrates that even though women did not have many options, they still had the upper hand in most relationships. In the tales of Boccaccio, he tends to favor women, and make them the source of goodness and beauty. Although he depicts women as lustful and cunning, they still are shown strength and positivity.
During the time of the black death, a group of seven women and three young men fled from their home to a villa in Fiesole for two weeks. To pass the time, each member of the group would tell a story every night. They end up telling over 100 tales.
The strength that Boccaccio’s describes of women comes from the many hardships that they must endure in their lives. Unlike men, when women are dealt tragic situations, more than likely the situation is out of their hands and must be dealt with.
In the story involving Marquis of Sanluzzo, Gualtieri, and his bride, Gualtieri is looking for a wife, and meets Griselda. He puts her through many horrific tests to see if she is worthy for marriage. Throughout all of the events he put her through, Griselda remained patient and calm, and accepted her fate, which helped her in the long run. From that story, may came to realize the true patience and strength women carried.
Although, when it came to sexuality, his tales told of how women were actually more sexual than men. One story told of how a young man was going to work for a convent. In the convent, he would be the sole sexual outlet to all of the nuns. This sexual desire of the women strongly overwhelmed him.
When it came to being sharp and cunning, women also had the upperhand. This skill surpassed the men in most of the stories. He tells that women show the most expertise and experience when it comes to formulating plans. In the story of Rinaldo and his godchild’s mother, the narrator tells of the elaborate plans of both Rinaldo and Madonna. Madonna, who seemed to be unintelligent and less able to device a plan like Rinaldo, came up with an extremely elaborate scheme. By telling of how uneducated Madonna was, it strengthened the idea of a cunning woman by exposing her plan.
While Boccaccios stories give women a positive view, there are also some in which men greatly surpass women. On the eighth day, the priest trick Belcolore into sleeping with him. When she discovers his plan, she decides to stop talking to him. The only way the priest could handle his anger is by cursing her to hell or threatening her with purgatory. This method shows that men get their way through dishonorable means. It is shown that through every male victory comes an unjust way in which it was gained.
In comparing the role of women “One Thousand and One Nights”, and “The Decameron”, there are many similarities as well as differences. In One Thousand and One Nights, the depiction of women begins very negatively. It shows women in an extreme negative light, starting with the betrayal of the kings wives. Within the tales, Shahzarad brings a new light to women, and tells that the acts of one woman can not be said of the rest. Towards the ends of the tales, the king comes to realize that not all women are cunning and lustful and some are patient and can be trusted.
On the other hand, in the Decameron, women are projected as patient and strong, but also cunning. In the tales, the depiction of women ranges from patient to cunning to their sexuality. The given times between the two tales, the Ancient Middle East, as well as Ancient Florence also gives to how women are depicted, which is lower in the social status.