Subject: English
Level: A Level
Exam Boards: All

###The Legend of Good Women

Third longest of Chaucer’s works after the Tales and T&C. Possibly the first significant work to use iambic pentameter/decasyballic couplets foreshadowing their use in the Tales later on- form of the heroic couplet, no doubt inspired by Chaucer for later use in the canon

Chaucer is reprimanded by the god of Love and his queen, Alceste, for his works (such as Troilus) that depict women in a bad light. Criseyde, according to the poem, is made to seem inconstant in love, and Alceste demands a poem from Chaucer that puts forth the good deeds of women and their inherent virtues. The legends of good women are Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Hypsipyle, Medea, Lucrece, Ariadne, Philomela, Phyllis and Hypermnestra. The sources for these legends include Virgil’s Aeneid, Vincent of Beauvais, Guido delle Colonne’s Historia destructionis Troiae, Gaius Julia Hyginus’ Fabula and both Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides.

It is probably unfinished- in the prologue nineteen ladies in waiting of Alceste are mentioned and also nineteen women are mentioned in Chaucer’s retraction, but several stories are left out- Esther, Penelope, Marcia Cantonis, Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia amongst them.

John Lydgate, in The Fall of Princes, asserts that Alceste’s command is historically accurate- Anne of Bohemia, who came to England in 1382 to marry Richard II, was said to have requested a poem. If this is true it makes Chaucer a kind of early poet laureate.

Conflicting ideas- is the work a satire against women or is it a satire on taking stories of a classical origin and twisting them? One possibility is that if it was indeed by royal commission, his heart wasn’t really in it and he gave it up early.


  • Cleopatra reigns after the death of the king Ptolemy. Antony is at odds with Ceasar and with Rome. They marry.

  • Octavian is angry at Antony’s desertion and they meet each other at sea to fight navally. Antony is defeated and Cleopatra flees, at which point Antony kills himself.

  • Cleopatra makes a shrine for him and throws herself into the pit of snakes

    • She dies for love and unity.


  • In Babylon, the Queen Semiramis has a ditch and high wall built with tiles. Two lords of high reputation live with only a stone wall between them. One has a son and one a daughter, who is closely guarded in case they act foolishly.

  • The two characters are Pyramus and Thisbe, according to Ovid. They are praised by report and although they never see each other, their love grows. They meet in secret as their fathers will not allow them to marry.

  • There is a tiny crack they use to speak to each other. They agree to flee and meet at the grave of King Ninus, a pagan god

  • Thisbe sees a lioness, who comes towards her, whilst she is sitting underneath the tree. She drops her wimple, which the lioness tears to shreds. Pyramus comes along and finds the torn wimple- Thisbe is hiding in the woods

  • He kills himself. Thisbe finds him dead and kills herself.


**Hypsipyle and Medea**

  • In Thessaly, Aeson gives his land and realm to his brother Pelias when he is too old to manage it. Aeson has a son Jason, who is a wonderful knight

  • Pelias decides to bring Jason down in case the people decide that they prefer him. He wants to send Jason to a faraway country

  • There was a tale of an island called Colchis beyond Troy, where there was a ram with a shining gold fleece and brass bulls that spat fire

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