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Both within ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ by Chaucer and ‘An Ideal Husband’ by Oscar Wilde, the theme of power is explored, with various characters attempting to increase their power often by corrupt or deceitful means. Although corruption is explored through a variety of characters, the male protagonists Januarie and Lord Chiltern both appear to be the most corrupt in their attempts to gain power however, as both authors create a society in which corruption is already rife, the corruption of these men is not so heavily criticized as they are perceived to be merely be reflections of contemporary society. Wilde particularly emphasizes the way in which characters are able to gain power for themselves through the depiction of characters such as Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring, whereas Chaucer suggests that almost all people must engage in some level of corruption in order to gain the power they desire, perhaps because they are limited by the existing social structures of the time.
Wilde and Chaucer both demonstrate – through the characters of Lord Chiltern and Januarie respectively – the way in which the male desire for power inspires corrupt behavior. Wilde’s narrative is constructed around Lord Chilterns’ corrupt and ‘scandalous’ behavior in his youth in which he obtained and exploited a letter which came into his possession whilst he was working for Baron Arnheim, a letter now in the possession of the knifing Mrs Cheveley. At the beginning of the play, Wilde describes Lord Chiltern as an ‘upstanding gentlemen’, placing particular emphasis on the way in which people admire him both as a husband and as a politician. However, what becomes immediately clear to the audience is that this power and respect Robert holds is not as a result of his own self-determination, but is in part due to the scandal he was involved in when he was younger. Whilst discussing his predicament with Goring, Lord Chiltern emphasizes how he did not regret his decision but that it showed ‘strength and courage’ to ‘yield’ to the opportunity which had presented itself to him, and that he did not particularly regret having engaged in such corruption. Within Victorian England, political scandal was incredibly common and in the late 1890s several leading politicians had disappeared after being implicated in scandals; thus, as corruption in the Victorian government was common, it perhaps does not occur to Robert that his behavior is so dastardly. Wilde’s presentation of a character who is both perceived to be incredibly upstanding but is in fact corrupt creates conflict for the audience who may be uncertain as to whether or not they should trust Lord Chiltern. However, as the Victorian theater audience was typically upper class, they may have either not been unsurprised by the corruption present, as they were familiar with it, or may else feel threatened by such a play which dared to question their own social standing and its origins; this latter aspect may in fact explain why Lord Chiltern is exonerated at the end of the play, not simply returned to his position but in fact elevated to a more senior position in government. On the other hand, Chaucer creates a male protagonist whose thirst for power does not result in corrupt behavior in such an explicit sense, although he clearly lies about his potential in order to gain. The Merchant first introduces Januarie as a ‘knyght’, but one who is is ‘hoar’ and ‘olde’ and thus not desirable because, in the view of Morden, he is unable to fulfil the expectations of a courtly lover. Januaries’ self-deception about his desirability and possible exploitation of his position as a knyght enables him to attract Mae, a partner significantly younger than himself. Although Januarie’s character is not likeable, the audience is made to feel some sympathy for his plight and the way he seeks a wife and a marriage which he believes will be ‘esy and so clene’, however the way in which he attracts such a young girl seems shocking, particularly to a modern audience. Within Chaucer’s England, it was not uncommon for young girls to marry older men as this ensured their financial and social security, however the age gap between Mae and Januarie does raise questions about the motivations of each character; some critics argue that the exaggerated age difference between Mae and Januarie helps to emphasize the comedic elements of the story, as well as emphasizing its allegorical nature. Therefore, although Lord Chiltern and Januarie desire to gain personally in their pursuit of power, arguably it is Lord Chiltern whose behaviour seems most outrageous, and who the audience feels less sympathy for as he does not show remorse for his actions, whereas Januarie seems genuinely to be less aware, and self-deceiving about his own potential ability to secure power.
Within ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, the pursuit of power is depicted to have gendered expectations, with women who seek power often becoming vilified in a way in which the male counterparts – who are clearly corrupt – are not. In ‘An Ideal Husband’ the villain of the play is Mrs Cheveley, who attempts to blackmail Robert using the letter, to break down the family unit and destroy Robert’s reputation. Immediately, Wilde characterizes Mrs Cheveley as the villain through her dress, describing her as ‘lamia-like’, likening her with the mythical creature reputed to have destroyed families by eating children. Additionally, the description of Mrs Cheveley’s ‘thin, red lips’ creates and pale skin creates a vampirish image, contrasting her with the other characters and clearly presenting her as the villain. When Mrs Cheveley confronts Robert, she is incredibly ‘plain’ with him, stating her precise expectations. The audience prior to this point have warmed to Robert as they have viewed him through the eyes of those who respect him and thus feel threatened by Mrs Cheveley. Critics such as Gower have argued that Mrs Cheveley’s actions in exploiting the letter are not worse than Lord Chiltern’s use of it and that the only reason Mrs Cheveley is vilified is on account of her gender and this sense is emphasized through the way in which Mrs Cheveley is portrayed as mimicking Lord Chiltern’s lines of arguments, inverting them to suit her means. In Victorian England women were expected to be obedient and subservient and thus Mrs Cheveley’s behaviors is even more shocking to a contemporary audience, who would be appalled at her behavior. Although it is never expressed what Mrs Cheveley seeks to gain through Robert’s intervention in the Argentine canal scheme, presumably she will reap financial and other rewards and therefore is corrupt in the sense she tries to gain personal power through dishonest means. A year after writing ‘An Ideal Husband’,Wilde was on trial for gross indecency, and was being blackmailed over letters which implicated his relationship with the Queensbury’s son Bowsie and thus Wilde was incredibly familiar with the idea of blackmail. Although it would be easy to outrightly show that Mrs Cheveley was a corrupt villain, the fact he draws parallels between her and Lord Chiltern creates a sense of moral ambiguity surrounding their characters and their desire for power, perhaps reflecting the complexity of the predicament that he found himself in. Similarly, in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, Chaucer creates a narrative in which Mae exploits Januarie and his blindness for her own personal gain. Mae’s marriage to Januarie would already have resulted in her having an elevation in social status as well as securing her financially for life (divorce did not exist in Chaucer’s society) and thus even her marriage to the unattractive Januarie can be shown to be an attempt to boost her status. Mae’s exploitation of Januarie’s blindness for her own personal pleasure is vilified by the Merchant, who uses a disapproving tone through his descriptions of Mae’s actions with Damyan, remarking in fact that it is was almost too rude to go into detail. Mae is also depicted as exploiting Januarie’s blindness by contradicting his assertions about the sex she had in the tree, stating that his vision was not fully restored is also criticized by the Merchant, who suggests that Mae was exploiting the physical problem of her husband. However, critics such as Williams assert that it is important to remember that ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ is designed to be used as a device by the merchant in order to explicitly criticize all women (including his own wife, who is the ‘woost ther kan be’) and thus cannot be believed in its entirety. Nonetheless, the overall effect of both of these texts is that women seeking power are presented as being more villainous and unacceptable than their male counterparts.
However, clearly it is possible to seek power in manners that are not corrupt as demonstrated through characters such as Goring and Mabel Chiltern. Within ‘An Ideal Husband’, Goring’s slightly aloof nature and dandyish qualities set him apart from the other characters in the sense that he does not appear to care what others think of him. Similarly, Mabel Chiltern, as woman in a secure financial position as the ward of her brother Robert Chiltern, she is not required to seek a husband outrightly, although of course the end of the play does depict their engagement. Lord Goring’s sense of power is attained not through his conformity or his engagement to Mabel even, but by the way he is seemingly removed from politics and the events of the play. When Goring orchestrates the plot to eradicate Mrs Cheveley, he does so from his own home, using information he has gathered through observation; as Goring is not going to be directly impacted by anything he does, he is able to act effectively and without concern for his reputation. Critics such as Kutchner have suggested that Lord Goring was Wilde’s ‘slightly fanciful’ representation of himself and thus here it appears that Wilde may be suggesting that a lack of reputation, or rather a lack of a conventional reputation was in fact an asset as it allowed one to act in any way without it impacting your reputation. Goring’s dandyish qualities present him as a man whose primary concern is not politics or family – the qualities Lord Caversham, his father, thinks he should prioritize – but in fact aesthetics and wit, and, as one critic remarked ‘it is far harder for a scandal over appearance to cause long term damage’, whereas a role in a corrupt political sphere could in fact damage him. Thus Lord Goring is presented as being able to gain power through non-corrupt means because the avenues of power he seeks are different from Robert and do not involve the corrupt politics. Additionally, Szanter argues that Mable Chiltern in fact holds some of the greatest power in the play because of her wealth and social status, both of which means she is under no pressure to marry quickly. Also, Szanter argues that, unlike Lady Chiltern, Mabel Chiltern is not constrained by marriage and thus has fewer expectations imposed on her. This line of reasoning suggests that in fact power is not something which is just gained through corruption suggests it may be obtained by other means such as birthright, although this obviously is not accessible to everyone. On the other hand, Chaucer does not demonstrate that this is the case in any way, perhaps reflecting a time period with limited social mobility and a greater emphasis upon social class and patriarchal values.
In conclusion, both Wilde and Chaucer explore power and various means by which it can be obtained. Although the male protagonists Januarie and Lord Chiltern both appear to be the most corrupt, it is the women who are most vilified for their corrupt nature. Wilde shows that it is possible for characters to gain some power for themselves through non-corrupt means, although this is arguably as a result of birth right rather than their own self-determination. Both Wilde and Chaucer show that corruption was endemic in society and often resorted to by characters who are limited society’s expectation of their class and gender.
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