Vengeance and the Legal Person: John Gower's 'Tale of Orestes'

Van Dijk, Conrad

Vengeance and the Legal Person: John Gower's 'Tale of Orestes'

Van Dijk, Conrad. "Vengeance and the Legal Person: John Gower's 'Tale of Orestes'." In Theorizing Legal Personhood in Late Medieval England. Ed. Boboc, Andreea. Medieval Law and Its Practice . Leiden: Brill, 2015, pp. 119-41. ISBN 9789004284647

[van Dijk states his purpose in the essay as an "attempt to situate the Tale of Orestes in relation to contemporary cultural attitudes to vengeance, justice, and the (gendered) subject. My aim is not to collapse the historical/literary distinction, but to reveal something about how literature can help us to understand the legal subject in the late fourteenth century" (120-21). Orestes is included in Book III of the CA, the Book of Wrath (1885-2195), where it appears under the sub-section "Homicide"--a location that, given the tale's several threads, has been negatively received by the few readers who have commented on it. van Dijk however argues for its coherence, beginning with the observation that "the conflation of the terms 'murder' and 'vengeance' . . . suggests that we have to think of 'homicide' as a broader concept than merely an extra-legal killing" (122). He focuses on the tale's conclusion, the suicide of Egiona, Orestes' step-sister, noting that taking her own life testifies to her loss of legal personhood, and consequently represents her only avenue to vengeance of any sort. In van Dijk's view her case poses a significant difficulty for Gower, who "naturalizes retribution (even when apparently cruel), because so much of his poetics is based on poetic justice" (134) and Egiona rationally would seem to bear little, if any, guilt in the crimes of the tale. Elsewhere, for example in Book VII, Gower provides a number of stories that illustrate how the cruelty of tyrants and their counsellors receives its proper punishment. In every narrative the final act of poetic justice mirrors the original crime" (134). While Gower "worries that . . . cruel and unusual punishment is unjust," he has always a larger justification on which to call: "exemplary punishment, when it risks cruelty, empties itself of human agency and ascribes all responsibility to God" (136). While registering this as an option often availed upon by Gower, van Dijk nevertheless is less interested in it as an explanation of Gower's thought-processes. His conclusion probes deeper and is thus most provocative: "there are . . . times when Gower seems willing to uphold abstract ideas over personal concerns, law over circumstance, and example over pity. This is perhaps the cost of Gower's keen interest in poetic justice, that the individual must be sacrificed (rather than rehabilitated or excused) for the greater good (the law, the lesson). This will obviously not be a popular conclusion. We like to see Gower as inevitably kind and non-judgmental, perhaps an image of ourselves at our best. Yet Gower also remains a moralist, and sometimes he takes what seem like short-cuts. Egiona's death brings closure 'Thogh that non other man it wolde'." (137). (N.B.: the article contains three flagable errors of fact. Fn. 45 quotes three lines from the "Tale of Jew and the Pagan" VII. *3307-*3309, without the asterisk, Macaulay's indicator of presence in a subset of Ricardian MSS only-and attributes the speech to the Jew, when the speaker is in fact the Pagan. J. Allan Mitchell is cited as "Allan J. Mitchell" throughout, e.g., Fn. 59, Works Cited.) [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 34.2.]


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