Gower Bibliography

Oedipus, Apollonius, and Richard II: Sex and Politics in Book 8 of John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Watt, Diane. "Oedipus, Apollonius, and Richard II: Sex and Politics in Book 8 of John Gower's Confessio Amantis." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 24 (2002), pp. 180-208.


Watt offers a reading of Gower's "Apollonius of Tyre" informed by psychoanalysis, but rather rather than simply reading the events in the tale according to a Freudian script, she also uses a comparison to other versions of the story in order to demonstrate the ways in which Gower consciously reshaped the narrative. The mixture of methodologies is a bit dizzying. Statements such as this one, "But in a sense Amans is guilty of incest in so far as he seems to be engaged in an oedipal struggle with his own incestuous parents, Venus and Cupid, the Queen and King of Love" (182), which is offered without any further support, stand alongside the careful comparison of texts, for instance in Watt's demonstration that his tale of Apollonius Gower places much less emphasis on lineage and genealogy than any of the analogues (183-84). The juxtaposition of the two different sorts of arguments evidently presumes that Gower himself was as conscious of the psychoanalytical dimensions of his text as Watt is. Watt's purpose is to use the conclusions that she draws on Gower's depiction of the characters in assessing the way in which Gower intended to offer instruction through the tale to Richard II. "The political replaces the genealogical" in Gower's story, she asserts; "there exists a connection between the poem's construction of gender and sexuality and its political concerns and historical contexts" (185). But where María Bullón-Fernández, making a similar claim, sees the connection between Antiochus' incest and Richard's tyrannical rule, Watt claims that Gower also offers his criticism of Richard through Apollonius, who is "implicated in the crime of incest and tainted by homosexuality" and who "is culpable of misusing his knowledge and power" (185). In making her argument, she has a great many specific observations to make about the tale and about the poem, only some of which can be noted here. The impenetrability of the riddle in Gower's version, she observes, "is in itself a clue to its meaning," for in its "grammatical indeterminacy" it "reveals itself to be concerned with something that is unethical and corrupt" (187). But while "with its references to the devouring of the mother's flesh, [Gower's version of the riddle] expresses the speaker's repressed desire to devour or to marry/to sleep with his own mother" (188), mother figures are more active in Gower's tale, even in their absence, than in other versions of the story, beginning with Antiochus' wife. The daughters are imperiled not just by the sexual incontinence of their fathers but by "the absence or cruelty of the maternal figures" (189). "In Gower's tale, then, the role of women as wives and mothers is crucial to the proper functioning of the household" (191). Antiochus' riddle also expresses his repressed desire for his father, and "just as the infantile desire for the mother is displaced onto the daughter, so the fixation of the father reemerges in a search for the son" (192). The riddle thus "draws our attention to the homosociality, or what Luce Iragaray calls the hom(m)o-sexuality, of patriarchal society" (ibid.). Thus Antiochus allows Apollonius to escape, but as Apollonius continues to flee after he is already safe, he reveals that he himself "has become obsessed with the father figure" (194). As Freud suggested, such "father-fixations . . . resulted in the feminization of the son," as manifested by Apollonius' mastery of rhetoric, "traditionally associated with femininity and effeminacy," by his failure to kill Antiochus, and by "the passive role he plays in his relationship with his future wife" (194-95). Apollonius also becomes implicated in Antiochus' crime by this failure to reveal it, and though he has no conscious incestuous desire for his own daughter, Gower's depiction of his reunion with Thaise heightens the resemblance between Apollonius and Antiochus. In depicting his female characters, Gower uses the story "to examine and to attempt to unravel female sexuality and desire" (199). The conclusion reestablishes "normative male control of female desire," but along the way the sufferings of Thaise and her mother are an extension of those of Antiochus' daughter, and their "resurrections" represent her "posthumous redemption" (202). That Gower intended the tale as a comment on Richard II is indicated by the political purposes manifest throughout CA and by the historical reports of Richard's disturbed personality, a portrait that is "to some extent confirmed by Gower's complex representations of kingship" in this tale (203), which reveal "his cynicism about Richard II's conduct and rule" (205). Antiochus's behavior, of course, may "be intended as a warning to Richard II against arrogant behavior and arbitrary rule" (205). "The implicit praise of Artestrathes's wife," moreover, "might be read as a celebration of the mediatory role of Anne of Bohemia" (205-6), while "the resurrection of Apollonius's wife and daughter," representing the king's subjects and his country, "may also mark the (albeit temporary) restoration of the power of the council's to curb the king's will" (206), though "the recontainment of female sexuality" suggests that "Gower's political vision is ultimately a conservative one" and he does not advocate the overthrow of the king (206-7). Apollonius is a figure for the king both in his flaws and in the fact that he does not learn very much during the course of the tale. Amans too fails to learn, but "unlike Apollonius, he does not see the fulfillment of his desires either. . . . In the final analysis, Amans's misdirected desire reflects the king's unchecked will and it is perhaps his failure in love which looks most like a prognostication of the usurpation of Richard II's throne. At the same time, Gower's decision, not only to sign his own narrative, but to identify himself with Amans, and thus implicitly with Richard, may indicate his personal frustration with and sense of failure about his role, not as poet of love, but as political advisor" (207-8). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 22.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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