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Alatiel and Helen: War Caused by Beauty?

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  1. Introduction
  2. The first evidence that Euripides' play is not going to follow the traditional account of Helen
    1. Abrupt change in the story from its expected course
  3. Euripides' Helen and the question of the relation of language to metaphor
  4. The divine gift of Theonoe
  5. The story of Alatiel in the second day of Boccaccio's Decameron
  6. The mercantile view
  7. Conclusion
  8. Works cited and consulted

Few storylines are more familiar than that of the woman so beautiful that men cannot resist her and will stop short of nothing, even murder or treachery, to possess her. The most famous of these women is of course, Helen, with ?the face that launched a thousand ships,? many of which came back empty after the Trojan War. Reviled by antiquity for her role in that war which caused the death of so many of Greece's finest men, Helen was also condemned for her adulterous?and sometimes seen as all-too-willing?relationship with her abductor, Paris. Euripides, however, in his play, Helen, picks up the apologetic version of her tale from Stesichoros' ?Palinode to Helen? and claims that she in fact never went to Troy, but was spirited away to Egypt where she remained chaste and secure. This rendering of her story protects Helen's metaphorical/mythological status from Paris and a public opinion that would try to reduce her to a physical object. The princess Alatiel, however, in II, 7 of Boccaccio's Decameron, has no such defense, and despite, or perhaps because of her physical experience of love with nine different men, she fails to become a candidate for metaphor. The death and destruction in these stories is not, then, caused by the incomparable beauty of these two women, but by their struggle to maintain or attain a higher ontological order.

[...] Alatiel become the nameless and selfless partner of pornographic fantasy who makes no emotional demands on her mates and frees them of all moral responsibility for their desires.?[18] Other critics, such as Giuseppe Mazzotta, have seen in Alatiel's silence a commodification that is supported by the fact that her journey is an approximation of medieval trade routes. She even begins the story as a pawn in a transaction between her father and the King of Algarve. Millicent Marcus agrees that is a mercantile commodity, transferred from port to port and literally consumed by her various possessors,?[19] but Mazzotta argues that: She can never really be possessed: all the efforts to own her are ironically twisted: it is her beauty that possesses and haunts the men; a derelict object, she gives value to them; she must be kept hidden, but like gold, everyone is compelled to show her; even her silence seems to mock the sense of mastery of those who possess language.[20] This mercantile view is supported by the text itself, especially in the episode of the two young shipmen in the service of Marato: discovering that they were both in love with the same woman, they talked the matter over in secret and agreed to make the lady's conquest a mutual affair, as though love were capable of being shared out like merchandise or profits,?[21] a side remark which seems to show Boccaccio's own voice coming through. [...]


[...] Stern. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press Robert Emmet Meagher, ?Introduction,? Helen (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1986) xxiv. Euripides, Helen in The Bacchae and Other Plays, trans. Philip Vellacott (London: Penguin Books, 1973) 136. This view must have influenced Ovid and his irony when he later wrote of the supposed escapades of Zeus in his Metamorphoses. Ibid. Ibid. Philip Vellacott, ?Introduction,? The Bacchae and Other Plays (London: Penguin Books, 1973) 28. Ibid. Euripides 142. Euripides 143. Euripides 155. Euripides 164-165. [...]


[...] Alatiel most likely does as well, remaining complacent in her physicality, and she therefore is not a candidate for metaphor for all her ?experience.' So although the stories of Alatiel and Helen have similar components in the destruction caused by their beauty and the fact that they both use a lie to be restored to their husbands, actual or intended, they are fundamentally different in that Helen retains her metaphorical status whereas Alatiel fails to ever attain it. The murder and war which surrounds them stems from the efforts of the naturalists surrounding them to treat them as physical objects, ignoring the fact that they are women with souls who need spiritual love. [...]

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