Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Decameron

Like a number of people enduring the quarantine of the present plague, I've been working my way through reading The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. I knew that the book's hundred tales had made a profound impact on literature in general, but I hadn't realized how important they were to the theater.

The framing device of The Decameron concerns seven women and three men who flee Florence during the Black Death. Outside of the city, with little else to do, they begin telling stories. Each of them tells a story on the first day, and over the course of ten days, they recite a total of one hundred stories, ten stories for each teller.

A woman named Pampinea gets the storytelling rolling by challenging everyone on the first day to tell a tale about whatever pleases them best. Panfilo tells the first story, about a scoundrel who is thought a saint, and then Neifile tells a tale about the debauchery in the Pope's court in Rome. It is the third tale, told by Filomena, however, that caught my attention, since it relates the same story as Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise.

In Boccaccio's version, the story is set in Alexandria, rather than Jerusalem, but the general idea is the same as in Lessing's play. Saladin, the Sultan who ruled the Islamic world during the twelfth century, is looking to borrow money from a wealthy Jewish merchant. Testing him, Saladin asks which religion is truly authentic: Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Knowing that there is no safe way to answer with any of these three, the merchant comes up with a parable to tell that gets him out of the predicament.

Lessing's version makes Saladin more sympathetic, and uses the merchant's parable as a general plea for religious tolerance. Still, many of the elements of the play are present in the tale Filomena delivers in The Decameron. This story is not the only one, however, that later provided fodder for drama. On the second day, Filomena challenges everyone to tell a story about someone who after suffering many misfortunes, finds unexpected happiness. Hmm... that sounds like a Shakespearean Romance.

And in fact, Filomena's own tale on the second day provided much of the plot for William Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Shakespeare did not necessarily read The Decameron directly, since some details in the play aren't in the original, but do appear in a Dutch version of the story called Frederyke of Jennen. The outline of the plot is still there, though. A man foolishly makes a wager on his wife's chastity, and then a villain hides in a trunk that gets carried into the lady's room. Creeping out at night, he examines the room, takes a ring of hers, and examines an unusual mark on her breast. Proof positive that he vanquished her virtue!

Of course, that's not how the story ends, either in Boccaccio or in Shakespeare. After hearing what sounds like incontrovertible proof of his wife's infidelity, the husband orders a servant to kill her. The servant doesn't have the heart to commit the deed, and instead of murdering her, he gives her a set of male clothes so she can escape unseen and reports the murder to her husband. In the climax of the tale, the lady reveals herself to her husband and exposes the villain. Shakespeare's innovation was to combine the tale with the legend of a British king who appears in Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, along with some events from the anonymous Elizabethan play Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune.

Filomena's tale on the third day contains some wonderful humor as she describes a woman getting a friar to unknowingly arrange trysts between herself and her lover. Molière incorporated elements of the tale in his play The School for Husbands. The ninth story of the third day is given by Neifile, and it provides the ultimate source of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well. Again, the Bard appears to have used an intermediary source, probably William Painter's Palace of Pleasure. Shakespeare also seems to have invented the role of the braggart coward Parolles, which is arguably the best role in the play.

On the fourth day, the stories concern those whose love ended unhappily, but these tales did not provide the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. Instead, Filomena's tale became the basis of the poem "Isabella, or the Pot of Basil" by John Keats. The fourth tale of the fifth day also apparently provided material for Lope de Vega's play The Nightingale of Seville, though I haven't read that one.

Other dramatists who have retold tales from The Decameron include Thomas Middleton, Apostolo Zeno, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Perhaps during our present quarantine, Boccaccio will inspire more plays. Now if we could only open the theaters to let them be performed....