From Canto Quinto of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso Translated by David R. Slavitt
“‘That is what I would do, and if you had
that regard for me that you claim I should show, then why
should I be the one to excuse myself? It is sad
to have to say it, but between the two of us, I
am the one she loves and expects to marry. Her dad,
the king, loves me as well and has looked on my
suit with favor. Believe me, my friend, it’s true,
for I would not, for our friendship, lie to you.’
“This, of course, was just as the Duke had planned,
and he was now able to offer the reply
he had prepared, but it seemed to be off-hand
when he said, ‘My friend you are in error and I
am the one she loves, although I quite understand
how passion can deceive one, but let us try
to reason it out and be candid with one another,
keep nothing secret, and act as brother to brother.
“‘What I reveal to you, or you to me,
we must swear never to tell another soul,
for only such an oath will allow us to be
as honest as we must be to settle this whole
dispute between us. And if you will agree,
I think that we can navigate this shoal
without mishap and not risk having the great
friendship that is between us deteriorate.’
“How reasonable! How fair! Or so it appeared.
They took their oaths on the gospel and Ariodante,
suspecting nothing began. He volunteered
how he and Guinevere had a covenant he
trusted absolutely and he revered
the girl for her promise (in which he was confidant, he
said) that if her father had any objection
to their marriage, she would preserve her affection
for him and never marry another but would
live alone for the rest of her earthly days.
But he was hopeful that by his valor he could
gain the king’s approval and his praise.
His object was to do the kingdom good
and thus to earn the princess by these affrays.
‘Only the brave deserve the fair,’ it is said,
and he trusted in that, and believed that they would wed.
“Everything he said, of course, was true,
and he had no need whatever for persiflage.
He had no doubts at all about her and knew
that nothing the other could say could camouflage
or in any way disfigure their strong and true
love. Secure, he waited for a barrage
of utter nonsense from Polinesso, who’d
have no chance of shaking his certitude.
“After a pause, he admitted that that was the whole
story, that he had no other proofs nor did he need
any. He expect none from a soul
as pure and fine as hers. He said that he’d
be quite content to wait until their goal
of holy wedlock was reached—as God decreed.
To ask for anything further would be wrong,
although he hoped the wait would not be too long.
“All this, the duke had pretty much expected,
and it must have satisfied his bitter spite
to answer with a carefully affected
display of regret, ‘No, no, my friend, not quite!’
His plan was to make him feel not only rejected
but furious. ‘I am ahead of you in delight.
She only pretends with you, but with me it’s true--
not just in words but in acts of passion too.’
“‘With you, I am sorry to say, she is pretending,
leading you on, and feeding you false hope,
while with me, in our intimate and unending
conversations, she says you are a dope,
and mocks you, even as I am defending
your character and brains. You should not mope
on her account but make a nice clean break.
You think it’s love, but you make a grave mistake.
“‘Had we not sworn an oath, I would not say
how often it is that Guinevere and I
lie naked in her bed, and while we play
she speaks of you in mirth and ribaldry,
which adds a certain zest to our soufflé.
Her actions, I’m sorry to say, thus give the lie
to what she has said to you in cruel fun.
Look elsewhere, my dear friend, at anyone!
“To this Ariodante answered at once,
‘I do not believe a word you have said. I’m sure
you’re lying through your teeth. I’m not a dunce
or oaf, and I know that Guinevere is pure
as the driven snow in sunlight. For these affronts
to decency and to her, the only cure
is that you take them back, or else must prove
what you have said about the woman I love.’
“Here Ariodante is surprised, for the duke
says, ‘It is not fit that we engage
in combat over something where a look
is enough to demonstrate what I’ve said and assuage
our difficulties.’ This was an offer that shook
Ariodante’s confidence, and his rage
turned for a moment to fear. Could it be true?
and if it was, what on earth could he do?
“His life, he thought, might end right then and there,
in chagrin or grief or apoplexy. His face
was ashen a moment. ‘Let me see this rare
good fortune of yours,’ he said, ‘and I’ll yield my place
to you in this contest between a pair
of knights.’ But then, in order to save face,
he said, ‘I won’t believe it, I emphasize,
until I have seen it myself with my own eyes.’
“‘When the time is right, I shall let you know,’
Polinesso said, and went away, suppressing
a hearty horse-laugh, I dare say, although
perhaps he smiled. (I am, as you know, guessing.)
A couple of nights later, the cruel tableau
took place with me, quite innocently dressing,
as the duke had instructed me, in Guinevere’s clothing
while Ariodante was hiding, in fear and loathing,
“where the duke had told him, among those derelict
buildings, where nobody ever goes, but whence
one can observe that balcony we’d picked
for our many trysts. Ariodante was tense,
worried lest the bad duke might have tricked
him into coming here in malevolence—
to murder him. Otherwise he had no fear
about any misbehavior of Guinevere.
“As a precaution, Ariodante had brought
his brother along--Lurcanio is his name--
prudent and brave. Nobody better had fought
on the battlefield or at tournaments. He came
for protection, and Ariodante dreaded naught,
for having his brother along with him was the same
as having ten men standing beside him to fight
in this out-of-the-way place in the dead of night.
“To his brother, of course, he had not said a thing
about the purpose of their nocturnal foray,
but had only instructed Lurcanio to bring
his weapons with him and stand a stone’s throw away,
ready to come if called, and lingering
until Ariodante dismissed him. They
concealed themselves in those outbuildings and waited
but not quite certain what they anticipated.
“The brother promised that he would do as told,
and they waited in the darkness opposite
the balcony. Eventually the bold
and deceitful man showed up, whose clever wit
was now in the service of a cruel and cold
heart—although I was unaware of it.
He made the usual sign to me and I
appeared with the ladder that he could climb up by.
“I had dressed myself in Guinevere’s long white
gown with gold embroidery everywhere,
and there was a lovely cloth-of-gold net, bright
with crimson tassels, that I wore on my hair.
Everyone at the court knew that costume, all right.
It was hardly something anyone else would wear,
but I had it on as I went out there, visible
to anyone there. It was almost risible.
“Lurciano, meanwhile, had disobeyed
and followed after his brother, silent but close,
and curious, I should think. Somewhere in the shade
of a wall, he stood well hidden, prepared for foes
or anything else. I appeared at the balustrade
and they saw me in the moonlight, and only God knows
whether they doubted Guinevere yet. I guess so,
but then, next thing that they saw was Polinesso,
“ready, apparently, for his assignation
with the woman up there who seemed to be Guinevere.
At this point the brothers’ horror and consternation
was such that they were both ready, I do fear,
to believe their eyes, when the duke, with no hesitation
at all climbed up the ladder and in a mere
matter of seconds held me in close embrace
while kissing my mouth and neck and every place
“else he could think of to drive his victim mad.
I was ardent myself, quite unaware
that we were being observed. It was very bad,
but it was not at all my purpose to drive to despair
Ariodante –who watched this terrible cad
embracing and being in turn embraced by the fair
Guinevere . . How could this happen? Was he nuts?
Or were all women always and everywhere sluts?
“So what does he do, do you think? He cannot bear
such a world, such a life, and he wants to end it all
immediately. In his absolute despair
he plants his sword on the ground, blade-up, to fall
upon it and let the hardened steel take care
of his misery forever after a small
moment of discomfort. But his brother sees
what he is about to do and he’s
there to prevent such sin, such madness. Had he
been that stone’s throw away, he could never have come
to interfere. And in the event, he was glad he
had not followed all the instructions, as some
might have done. He said (being Scottish), ‘Laddie,
I know it’s a quite a shock to recover from,
but do not kill yourself for a girl! Hoot mon!
It’s better to find out now than later on.
“‘If anyone is to be killed, it should be she
for she is the one who is guilty. If you must die
let it be for honor . . . and let it be
later, rather than now. With your own eye,
you have seen what a filthy whore she is, and he
has done you a kind of favor. Quite frankly, my
advice is that we take this matter to
the king who, in such cases, knows what to do.’
“Ariodante stays his hand. Anyway
he appears to do so. His heart nevertheless
is pierced by how he has seen his beloved betray
her promises in flagrant lasciviousness.
Stunned, disoriented, and in dismay
he follows his brother away from this wickedness.
But his deference to his brother’s advice is a lie,
for his life is over and all he wants is to die.
“The next morning, Ariodante was gone,
having slipped away, guided by despair
and disgust, and for many days there was no one
who had any idea what had happened to him or where
he could possibly be. And what had set him upon
this desperate path, the only people there
who knew, were the duke and of course his brother, who’d heard
the rumors and speculations but said not a word.
“After a week, or I think it was probably eight
days, a traveler came with terrible news
for Guinevere and the others at court of the fate
of Ariodante who had elected to lose
the life he detested, jumping down from a great
height into the turbulent sea that subdues
even the strongest swimmer. In short, this renowned
knight had bidden farewell to the world and drowned.