From Canto Quinto of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso Translated by David R. Slavitt
Rinaldo is in Scotland, on his way to St. Andrews to act as Guinevere’s champion. On the way, he hears a woman’s screams and finds her with two cutthroats who are about to kill her. Rinaldo drives them off, has the young woman get on his squire’s horse’s crupper, and, as they travel, he asks her to explain how and why she came to this regrettable condition.
“I shall tell you,” she said, “of greater and worse
crimes than Greek tragedians ever recorded,
and if the sun itself appears averse
to visiting here in the north, it’s because of such sordid
and vile behavior as I am about to rehearse.
If men may kill their enemies in war, did
you ever hear of men killing friends who try
to do them only good? Does that not defy
“all common sense? But let me begin, my lord,
at the beginning, from the time when I first came
into the king’s daughter’s service. You’ve heard
of Guinevere, I should think: that is her name.
I had a fine place at court, but what occurred
was that cruel Love staked his peremptory claim
upon my heart. I was, I admit, possessed,
and Polinesso seemed to me much the best
“and handsomest of all the men--the Duke
of Albany. I loved him. Speech is easy,
and faces are there to be judged at a single look,
but of hearts how can we make analyses? He
came at last to my bed—in the room I took
which was Guinevere’s. It makes me rather queasy
even now to admit how, time after time,
up to her balcony Polinesso would climb!
“This is where she often slept but now
and then she would change rooms, to avoid the heat
of summer or winter’s cold, and that was how
the room could be ours and we were able to meet
with the help of a rope ladder that would allow
him easy access. It was, I thought, discreet,
that side of the palace facing dilapidated
outbuildings where no one went or waited.
“We met quite often, and no one ever suspected,
but I so burned with love that I was blind
to the tell-tale signs that his passion was affected
and not an honest expression of his mind
and heart and soul. Those dots I never connected
that would have drawn a picture in which I could find
the truth. Someone with more sophistication
might well have seen through his tergiversation.
“Who knows how long I might have continued believing
in the lies that both of us found convenient, had
he had not revealed directly that he’d been deceiving
me by a suggestion that drove me mad—
that I should now help in a plan of his conceiving
to attract my mistress Guinevere. This cad
was now in love with her, he claimed, and I
could further his suit and help him catch her eye.
“Outrage? No. Disgust? Say, rather, dismay—
that people, or at least some men, are like that,
the fly we find in the perfumed ointment, one might say.
I listened to him go on, explaining what
he wanted, which was to marry her but stay
with me as well. He said he loved me, but
she had rank and wealth. So his design
was for me to be his mistress or concubine.
“Men are villains, you see, but women are sad
fools, or, anyway, I was: I believed
that what he said might be true—for I was mad
with love and hoped that what he had conceived
might make a kind of sense, for when he had
the king as his father-in-law and had achieved
all his goals, we might find happiness
that could somehow outweigh my deep tristesse.
“And aside from his love for me, which he declared
over and over had not diminished, he
spoke of how grateful he would be if I cared
enough for him to do this thing, and I’d see
many proofs of his passion. I was scared
and confused and in love enough at last to agree
to speak of him to Guinevere and praise
him and further his suit in many ways.
“How could I deny him anything
or refuse to do as he asked? I was happiest
when I could please him. Therefore I tried to bring
the two of them together at his behest.
I did all I could think of encouraging
her to take some notice or interest
in him, but to no avail. For all my bother,
her heart was taken elsewhere, by another.
“This was a gentle knight, a courteous, handsome
fellow who had come to Scotland from far
off Italy, who’d learned how to fight, and some
people considered him matchless in arms (and they are
excellent judges, from whom to command some
praise like this is rare). He was on a par
with the very best we have in Britain or
anywhere else in the noble arts of war.
“He and a brother of his had come while young
to live in the court here, improve their skill,
and attain a certain refinement by living among
our lords and ladies. He’d earned the king’s good will
and, I might say, his love, as, rung by rung,
the monarch had raised him up—as monarchs will—
giving to him a number of towns and farms
and titles, too, with elaborate coats of arms.
“The name of this valiant knight was Ariodante,
and as dear as he was to the king, he was even dearer
to Guinevere, his daughter. Not only puissant, he
was also in love with her. Their hearts drew nearer,
burning as hot as Aetna’s significant e-
ruptions do. I cannot be any clearer,
but take it as a given that they were both
in love as if they had already plighted their troth.
“This love for him that filled her heart prevented
her from looking elsewhere or hearing a word
I said to her, for she was most contented
with Ariodante, and it never occurred
to her to look at the duke I’d represented
as handsome and charming—one she might have preferred
to her knight. But the more I tried, the more
annoyed she got. She said I was a bore.
“I told my lover--but he refused to hear--
that her heart was otherwise engaged, and she
would not respond to his suit. It was quite clear
that there was not enough water in the sea
to quench her ardor. For us to persevere
was absolutely hopeless for him and me.
Polinesso’s mood thereupon became quite grim
for he hated what I’d just reported to him.
“That hatred only grew and it took over
his entire being, for he was very proud
and could not bear it that some other lover
might be preferred to him. Therefore he vowed
that he would be revenged and she would discover
that he was a man of consequence—a cloud
on her horizon and on her gallant’s too,
and they would suffer much from what he would do.
“He said that he would sow discord between
the two and make them hate each other so
that they would feel toward one another keen
enmity and shame. He would bring her low
and visit disgrace upon her with a scene
so sordid, shameful, and public that there’d be no
living it down. What this scheme would be,
though it made him smile, he would not confide to me.
“He brooded for some time about the small
details, and then when he was ready said
what he wanted me to do, and I was all
loving and loyal and probably out of my head,
but there I was, I confess, at his beck and call.
‘Dalinda, he whispered (and I was filled with dread),
‘a tree that one cuts down will revive and then
one has to cut it down again and again.
“‘This is what I must do, and I will do it,
until the roots are exhausted and it can not
grow back again, after what has happened to it.
It is to my taste, or say my hunger that
this elegant scheme be carried out, and through it
she will be ruined by my intricate plot.
What I want from you, next time we meet,
is the clothing Guinevere lets drop to her feet
“ ‘as she undresses for bed. You gather and bring
them with you and put them on for our rendezvous.
Dress your hair like hers. Do everything
you can to appear to be she. And then when you
are up on our balcony, I’ll be imagining
her letting the ladder down to do
as we have done, on many and many a day--
so that my desire for her may fade away.
“I thought it a bit kinky and even demeaning,
but I did not see through to the fraud he had in mind.
I wanted to believe that he was weaning
himself away from his passion for her. We find
all too often, from duchesses to cleaning
women in love, that we can be willfully blind
to how are men are behaving and make excuses
for them. We can be very silly gooses.
“At any rate, he was at the same time speaking
with Ariodante, with whom he once had been
friends. He represented that he had been seeking
Guinevere’s hand in marriage and that they were in
love. Why was a so-called friend thus sneaking
around to interfere or trying to win
Guinevere’s heart? Is this a way to behave
for one who is neither a villain nor a knave?
“He asked why Ariodante pursued this vain
courtship that could not possibly succeed
and would only bring to all the parties pain.
‘If I were in your place, I should not need
any such prompting but would of course refrain
without the friend having to come and plead
for me to conduct myself in a proper way.
And on this subject that’s all I have to say.’
“Ariodante answered the Duke thus;
‘I am astonished also, and even before
you’d laid eyes on the girl, there was between us
two a love that could not have been any more
ardent or sweeter or any more rapturous.
She does not love you, and I therefore implore
you, who must know this as well as I do, to yield
the girl to me and, in honor, quit the field.