William Morris begins "The Defense of Guinevere" by describing her with her hand to her cheek as if to hide a "shameful blow."

BUT, knowing now that they would have her speak,
She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,

As though she had had there a shameful blow,
And feeling it shameful to feel ougnt' but shame
All through her heart; yet felt her cheek burned so,

She must a little touch it; like one lame
She walked away from Gauwaine, with her head
Still lifted up; and on her cheek of flame

The tears dried quick; she stopped at last.

Morris uses the word "shame" repeatedly in the opening of the poem which prompts the reader to think of her as a woman brought low, rather than a Queen. She even walks like "one lame" which subordinates Guinevere even further in relation to her audience. Yet, before concluding that Guinevere, from the narrator's point of view, encompasses nothing but weakness and shamefulness, it is important to note the motif of fire in the description. Her "cheek of flame" alludes not only to a shameful blush but also to a blush passion. Indeed, she emphatically and bravely "threw" her hair back to expose her brow, she walks with her head "Still lifted up" with pride rather than hanging low as we would expect from someone weak and shamed.

Her rhetorical power is also clear from the start as she calmly and formally addresses her audience saying, "O knights and lords." Her speech employs the strategy of story telling through analogy, and Guinevere skillfully compels the audience to enter into her own reasoning of the situation. However, it is equally important to note that, although Guinevere appears to have an advantage by speaking so eloquently, her words ultimately indicate her powerlessness; she is forced to speak in order to delay punishment for the treason which she has committed. She must wait for Launcelot to rescue her. Hence, Guinevere occupies an extremely uncertain position, despite the relative strength of her speech.

Indeed, the narrator's ambiguous description of her voice questions her rhetorical power further. The description initially emphasizes femininity in that Guinevere's voice begins "low" and "full of tears". Yet it rises, becoming "full loud" and clear which suggests strength and conviction. Nevertheless, the narrator does not stop here, asserting that Guinevere's voice finally becomes "shrill,/ Growing a windy shriek in all men's ears." In other words, Guinevere has ended up as a hysterical woman, and the narrator displays her as some kind of possessed woman in the eyes of the men before her. At this point, Guinevere is highly gendered, having exposed her feminine and emotional volatility rather than the calm demeanor of an orator.

Questions

1. William Morris begins this poem in the middle of a scene and in middle of the story of Guinevere and Sir Launcelot. Does this hinder the reader's appreciation of the scene or would background information have been unnecessary?

2. Is it important that we know that Guinevere is the Queen? Why?

3. Who is the narrator? Do you think that the narrator male or female? Does the narrator support Guinevere wholeheartedly?

4. Guinevere's cheeks are flushed at the beginning of the poem AND at the end. What does it signify in each case?

5. It seems as though Guinevere confesses to her crimes outright. Why, then, does she repeat the set of lines, "Nevertheless you, O Sir Gawaine, lie/ Whatever may have happenn'd these long years,/ God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie"? What does this inconsistency do to our opinion of Guinevere's character and integrity as someone telling the "truth" in front of the court and the eyes of God?

6. Compare Guinevere with Helen of Troy.

Related Materials


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

Last modified 5 July 2007