As Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics by Carolyn Dinshaw emphasizes, “relations between men and women are always in need of exegesis” when we view the “intersection of hermeneutics with the question of the feminine”(Dinshaw, 133). In this exegesis, an “image of the allegorical text as veiled captive woman passed between men” is created(Dinshaw, 134).
In interpreting Geoffrey Chaucer’s text as feminine and the clerks and scribes who record it as masculine, a certain level of translation is involved. The Clerk’s Tale undergoes a duality of translations, as it is a man who relays or translates the tale to another male, but the tale discusses woman as the point of interest. The clerk in his account of Walter and Griselda exhibits uncharacteristic linguistic sympathy and admiration for the wife as opposed to the husband, which causes him to be labeled “as coy and stille as dooth a maide were new espoused” by his audience the Host(Chaucer, 293). The responsibility of a clerk was to translate or interpret a text, and so this particular clerk is able to interpret of Griselda as a virtuous female text “translated” from poverty to nobility(Chaucer, 306).
“For though that evere virtuous was she,
She was encressed in swich excellence
Of thewes goode, yset in heigh bountee.
And so discreet and fair of eloquence,
So benigne and so digne of reverence,
And koude so the peple herte embrace,
That ech hir lovede that look on hir face”,
is Griselda described upon being clothed in her royal garb(Chaucer, 308, 407-413). “For though that ever virtuous was she”, her steadfast loyalty and virtuous womanly behavior is only magnified by her “swich excellence of thewes good”, as now her outward aesthetic matches her innermost beauty as a good- hearted and well- behaved candidate of marriage. We see “Translatio… the making of a trope (all figurative language in general, in which there is a substitution of an “improper” term for a “proper” one)”, in action as Griselda has been stripped of her “improper” maiden’s clothing and transformed into “proper” regal clothing fit for a queen(Dinshaw, 138). Griselda’s preexisting “eloquence” and “reverence” are not lost in this translation, but are instead amplified by her new look and elevated social status. Chaucer, via the clerk’s narration, portrays Griselda as a woman who already possessed the noble qualities necessary, and simply needed to become easier on the eyes so that ”koude so the peple herte embrace” and love her all “that look on hir face”(Chaucer, 308).
“Translatio always involves a relation to a previous authority or figure of the proper… an establishment of another authority or propriety”(Dinshaw, 137). This transformation of Griselda from a comely, lowly maiden to submissive queen symbolizes her removable from under the gaze of her father to that of her husband. The clerk expresses his displeasure of the treatment of the “povre creature” Griselda through the positive adjectives his attributes to her person both before and after her transformation(Dinshaw, 135). The clerk is ridiculed for his opinions of her, as The Clerk’s Tale could also be seen as a guide for men on how to choose and train a good wife who does not grutch. Most men would see Walter as a hero who has molded a mere maiden into a fitting and obedient queen, and instead he is beguiled in the narrative for his cruelty towards his wife. In the eyes of the clerk, it is not Griselda’s “encresse in swich excellence” that makes her wonderful, but how she reads as a gentle woman(Chaucer, 308). Although she is a “veiled captive woman passed between men”, her patience shines through in ways that surpass her aesthetic and translation(Dinshaw, 133). In altering the translation of the literal text in a more female as opposed to male gaze, the clerk uncovers the injustice done unto Griselda that the Host chooses to take lightly and easily overlook.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Mann. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 1989.