Tales of Ribaldry: The Third Day

June 6, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch “Tales of Ribaldry,” with Jon Lovitz playing a Victorian fop who pants with excitement at the double entendres and glimpses of flesh in the melodramas he introduces? That’s kind of what the third day reminded me of: things get spicy and sacrilegious and you can almost imagine the naughty giggles from the nine listeners. Maybe it’s because they took two days off; typically, Boccaccio says they take Friday and Saturday to pray and respect the Passion of the Lord and the Virgin Mother, but there’s no mention of organized worship or clergy.

All of the stories (except Dioneo’s) revolve around loves lost and regained, or won eventually through great effort. Many seem archetypal and influential. Emilia’s story, the eighth, put me in mind of Romeo and Juliet (although I don’t think it’s a direct ancestor): it tells of an Abbot who uses a “special powder” to knock Ferondo unconscious and make him seem dead, in order to have some fun with Ferondo’s wife while Ferondo is convinced he’s in Purgatory and receiving beatings twice a day. Many involve mistaken identities, often unrecognized royalty or nobility (more Shakespearean resonances here).

My favorite sequence of stories is the third through the fifth, which offer three presentations of the same central plot element. In each, a lustful relationship is consummated by using a surrogate and ventriloquizing in one way or another: first, a woman leaving instructions for trysts by “complaining” to a confessor, who scolds the desired lover for the behavior the confessor thinks he’s already done (but can only do with his directions). Then a horny monk prescribes a difficult penance for a pious husband, assuring that he will tell his wife what he must do and thereby indicate to her where and when they should get it on. Finally, best of all, a forlorn lover is granted a meeting with the object of his affection, but her husband insists that she must not speak during this meeting. The lover gets around the problem and wins her over by making an eloquent statement of his love, then by responding to it in her voice as he imagines it, sets up a tryst to which she consents. (Boccaccio! What a masterful job of tying his stories together in ways like this, little and small: far more than a series of little stories, they form a chain of themes, elements, archetypes, allusions. It’s really been an incredibly pleasurable reading experience so far, much more than all the lust and clergy-hatred would make you think.)

Most of the stories end with the lovers “enjoying” their love, and some of the stories end with the teller asking “May God grant that we enjoy ours likewise.” Lots of flirting going on, and it would seem from the conclusion of this day that we’re to believe that no one’s actually had sex yet. I don’t buy it! Orgies nightly!

One last note: it’ll probably be like this every day, but Dioneo’s story really is remarkably dirty. I feel like I’ve heard it before, maybe just as a joke or retold in The Canterbury Tales or something: the story of a hermit and a pious young woman in the desert. It’s a story built around the hermit convincing the girl, punningly, that her salvation depends on “putting the Devil back into Hell.” If you know what I mean. What a perv this guy is!

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