The nature and context of love in the chosen literary works is somewhat different. Each of these works belong to a different era and represent the sensibilities and customs of their times. At the same time, love is a universal human phenomenon, which transcends time and localized culture. To this extent there is unity within the diverse manifestations of love that the chosen works illustrate. The rest of this essay will highlight the various treatments of love in this set of five literary works.
In the classic 14th century book Decameron, the 100 tales of love are narrated by seven young women and three young men. Having isolated themselves from other humans during the devastating epidemic of Black Death, the ten secluded individuals give vent to their creative imagination through these tales. Love is expressed under a range of situations and characters. Some of the tales border on ribaldry while others are narratives of tragedy. There are numerous instances of adultery and illicit affairs in the work. Notable among them are those of Guinevere and Lancelot. Indeed, this love affair had made such an impression on popular culture that even Dante alludes to it in his Divine Comedy written centuries later.
The Decameron is much more than a merely sensuous work. In it are tales of love that succeed amid great adversity. Equally, there are stories that end in tragedy. There are those that are high in passion and intensity. Some tales are exemplary on psychological probity, especially those where women conceive schemes to manipulate men. In sum, the value of the Decameron lies in the fact that it contains substance to go along with its apparent eroticism. For example, many of the adulteries and infidelities on part of women are projected as resulting from them being lovesick. Boccaccio rather sympathetically portrays the condition of such women. He goes on to say how illicit love is caused by lack of social and political liberties for women.
The Divine Comedy is an imaginative theological journey during the after-life. The protagonist, which is the author himself, traverses the three realms of Hell, Purgatory and eventually Heaven in his epic journey. The novelty of this great work is its inclusion and reference to numerous historical characters of high esteem. Although love is not a recurrent theme in the work, it is treated as a determinant of the seven deadly noted in Christian theology. For example, when love is excessive, it can lead to tendencies of gluttony, greed or lust. When love is found to be deficient, it can lead to sloth. The malicious version of love is related to such sins as envy, pride and wrath. These degraded forms of love are compared to the purer form of love that a devotee shows toward God. Dante suggest that while love of God is divine, many forms of love among humans suffer through corruption. Love is a recurrent theme in Divine Comedy, but it is mostly treated in the backdrop of sin. Dante’s imploration to the reader is to channel our capacity for love toward God alone, for all other forms of love prove to be ethically dubious.
In Canterbury Tales, author Geoffrey Chaucer, expresses the theme of love in various hues. The tales that make up this book are distinct accounts of a group of pilgrims. Chaucer conceived and wrote his work a century after Boccaccio’s Decameron. Chaucer had obviously read Decameron and was impressed by it. This is evident in the incorporation of some stylistic and thematic elements from Decameron into his own work.
However, as opposed to the eroticism and sensuality of Decameron, what we have in Canterbury Tales is manifestation of other forms of love. The Knight’s tale, for example, begins by showcasing brotherly love between two Knights. But due to a common interest in a woman, their relationship soon sours and morphs into a ruthless feud. In the late medieval period of Chaucer’s literature, chivalry was taken seriously. This is especially true of the nobility and the knights. Moreover, chivalry is shown to be an integral part of romance. Men of honour were expected to win over the women they love through display of courage and sacrifice. This sentiment is at play in the Knight’s Tale. The fact that Chaucer himself participated in the Hundred Years’ War reveals his conviction in chivalry.
It should also be noted that some other tales in the Canterbury Tales bear the opposite sentiment. In Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee, for example, chivalry is somewhat treated with scepticism. In one story Chaucer ridicules the overwrought formality of certain chivalrous acts. In another, he critiques the propensity for violence that chivalry entails. Hence in Canterbury Tales the treatment of love is sparse and largely in the context of chivalry and honour.
Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince is essentially a political treatise. Yet, it espouses certain views on love as well. For instance, in the chapter titled Cruelty v Mercy, Machiavelli suggests something unusual. When deliberating on the choice between fear and love, Machiavelli prefers the former to the latter. He believes that since the two concepts are incompatible a strict choice will have to be made. And since being feared creates safety, it is preferable to be such. On the other hand, to love or to be loved is to make one vulnerable and weak.
There is an element of ruthlessness behind Machiavelli’s reasoning. Speaking on behalf of the Prince’s interests the logic makes sense. After all, the foremost quality that a Prince should possess is authority. Nothing more than fear lends this authority. Even for keeping his troops subservient and efficient, a fear of retribution is necessary. Love, on the other hand, might endear the Prince to his subjects and peers, but does not offer him security. Machiavelli goes on to qualify this position by stating that fear thus invoked should not be excessive. Being the political tract that it is, The Prince also concerns itself with the ‘love of liberty’. Though Machiavelli comes across as an oppressive apologist for imperial power, there is a veiled expression of the love of liberty in the work.