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Chapter 3 - The Widow and the Sovereign

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 August 2023

Justin Steinberg
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
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Summary

This chapter explores the poetics of punishment, contrasting Dante’s contrappasso (countersuffering) with Boccaccio’s beffa (prank). It argues that, for Boccaccio, Dante’s contrappasso illustrates a “hegemonic” conception of justice. In this sovereign system of justice, criminal offenders have to pay back more than an eye for an eye: they owe a debt to the divine “state” above and beyond that owed to the victim. The beffa instead embodies a communitarian form of justice in which victims are fairly compensated. In the art of the beffa, it lacks decorum to take more than an eye for an eye. Boccaccio brilliantly reveals how Dantean violence needs always to be in excess; what is poetic in this form of poetic justice is its license to “outdo” tradition. Boccaccio explores this phenomenon in the haunting tale of the scholar and the widow (8.7), where the scholar punishes a widow who humiliates him by forcing her to endure a series of Dantean punishments. In doing so, he turns private vengeance into sovereign punishment, teaching her a lesson on behalf of all scholars.

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Law and Mimesis in Boccaccio's Decameron
Realism on Trial
, pp. 84 - 110
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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