William Morris depicts Guenevere presenting a series of arguments, both psychological and evidential, for her innocence of the charge of infidelity raised by Sir Gauwaine, but her real argument is her own sincerity. The argument begins with pleas for sympathy from the crowd for her spiritual confusion, her helplessness against the power of her passion, and her loveless yet immutable marriage. These pleas are confessions of emotional infidelity meant to touch the audience with their unfeigned sincerity and openness. Yet, when she comes to the details of events, her account seems abrupt and evasive; she accounts for the blood on her sheets by saying that she slept upon a knife-point, and abandons her account of the fight between Launcelot and Mellyagraunce with the words, "'By God! I will not tell you more to-day, / Judge any way you will — what matters it?" This refusal to continue her story can be read either as a sign of frustration with the unalterable injustice of her plight, or as a sign that she cannot give a thorough account of her innocence.

"The Defence of Guenevere" is primarily a dramatic monologue, with occasional objective descriptions from a third-person narrator. The reader has no immediate access to the events in question, and can only make judgments based upon Guenevere's subjective account, and other versions of the tale that the he has heard. Therefore, the emphasis of poem is not on the retelling of events, which can be deceptive, but the attitude and self-presentation of the speaker. Guenevere herself recognizes this, claiming:

will you dare,
When you have looked a little on my brow,

'To say this thing is vile? or will you care
For any plausible lies of cunning woof,
When you can see my face with no lie there                         240

'For ever? am I not a gracious proof —

She further argues that her royalty ensures her moral feeling, and would therefore prevent her from feigning emotion.

'Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
Whatever happened on through all those years,
God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.

'Being such a lady could I weep these tears
If this were true? A great queen such as I
Having sinn'd this way, straight her conscience
sears;

'And afterwards she liveth hatefully,
Slaying and poisoning, certes never weeps, — -
Gauwaine be friends now, speak me lovingly.                       150

Even though, to the audience, the case is one of Guenevere's word against Gauwain's word, and his evidence, Guenevere claims that she herself, in her naked sincerity, is evidence of her innocence. The reader is therefore faced with the problem, of whether honesty is really a perceptible quality. Furthermore, the reader can infer from the necessity of Launcelot's arrival at the poem's conclusion that Guenevere's supposed sincerity is not proof enough for her accusers and the court.

Questions

1. Where is the reader meant to look to judge Guenevere's honesty? To the third-person narrator? To outside sources? Or is he, rather, supposed to judge based upon how Guenevere's speech itself moves him?

2. Sympathy is a central concern of the dramatic monologue. Aside from the fragments of third-person narration, how does "The Defence of Guenevere" compare to Tennyson's "Ulysses" in the way it potentially challenges the character of the speaker?

3. Does the poem's rhyme scheme effect the reader's perception of Guenevere? If so, how?

4. How does religion figure into the poem's idea of proof?

5. How do the physical, narrative details of Guenevere's account (and the narrator's description) relate to the symbolic language of Guenvere's early arguments?


Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts William Morris Discussion questions for William Morris

Last modified 11 November 2004