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  • Marriage or Politics?Dramatizing Griselda
  • Janet Levarie Smarr

The final tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron, that of Griselda and Gualtieri, presents a double relationship: one is husband and wife, the other a ruler and his peasant subject. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo emphasizes both aspects of the relationship, calling attention first to rulers who “would be better employed as swineherds than as rulers of men,”1 and then to wives who, when mistreated, may find a lover who will treat them better.

It is remarkable how many playwrights sought to dramatize this story, given that most of the narrative consists of two people who, across a largely uneventful and unnarrated span of more than a dozen years, are never in conflict.2 Granted, the final scene, with its ampler assembly and sudden revelation, has theatrical allure; but how can the rest of the story be turned into drama? Playwrights who took up this tale almost always felt the need to add other characters so that, if there is no conflict between the main couple, there may at least be some contrast between that relationship and other relationships. But creating these alternate characters and relationships requires selecting a theme that such contrasts may display, and that has tended to mean choosing an emphasis: marriage or politics? Private feelings or public obligations?

Around 1600, the playwrights of two nations independently took up the tale with a focus on marriage and love. Thomas Dekker collaborated with Henry Chettle and William Haughton in a 1599 play entitled Patient Grissil, which sets her marriage against a reverse couple in which the wife (a cousin of the marquis) repeatedly humiliates her socially inferior husband, while the marquis’s sister Julia, observing both couples, vows never to marry at all.3 The play takes on that popular Renaissance theme—to marry or not?—which is Gualtieri’s dilemma in the original tale. As both the marquis and his cousin vow [End Page 221] to become better spouses, the play ends with the henpecked husband urging the unwed Julia to reconsider her decision.4 Peyré observes, however, that the exemplarity of Grissil is undermined by the effects of her example on the two other women, who become determined to reject either male domination or marriage altogether.5

Lope de Vega’s El exemplo de casadas y la prueba della paciencia, written between 1599 and 16036 and first published in 1615, focused on the topic of marriage by greatly expanding the marquis’s initial debate about whether to marry; his judicial review of a series of prisoners condemned for spousal murder adds understandably to his hesitation.7 Meanwhile, Griselda (renamed Laurencia) receives at the same time both a wedding proposal from a wealthy prince who has heard of her repudiation by Gualtieri (renamed Enrico de Moncada) and Enrico’s command to return to the palace to prepare it for his new wedding. The other characters see the preferable choice as obvious (especially given Lope de Vega’s extending the period of her renewed peasant life to five years), and are horrified by Laurencia’s decision to return to Enrico, but the alternative makes her active choice of Enrico clear. She is not merely submissive out of necessity, but faithful to her marriage and her love.

Around 1650, as I have written elsewhere, Carlo Maria Maggi wrote what, as far as I know, is the first emphatically political version of this tale.8 He brings in a woman who, in contrast to Griselda, speaks and acts like a Machiavelli, willing to use violence and fraud to accomplish her will, which is to take the recently vacated place as ruler’s wife. In a court full of intrigues and deceit, Gualtieri and his brother spring their trap against suspected traitors. Griselda’s father becomes (I have argued) the central point between the criminal self-assertion and utter masochistic abjection of the two women. It is he, the one complete outsider to the court, rather than his daughter, whose protest to Gualtieri provokes the final revelation and resolution. I have suggested that Maggi, in writing this play as well as some of his poems, was reflecting on the question of what attitude...


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