|The Accolade, Edmund Blair Leighton|
Not Guinevere. Regardless of what she does behind Arthur's back, she is acknowledged in every version as a paragon among queens for her performance of her duties. She does the arm candy thing at every tournament and Pentecost feast Arthur throws. She hosts Maying parties and leads court excursions. She even (in an ironically Anglo-Saxon move, given who the historical Arthur's enemies were) offers the cup to his knights when they gather. (We'll ignore that one time the cup was poisoned and she was accused of murder. That's not the point.) Guinevere knows what none of the other queens do: her title is a role. She has lines to memorize and marks to hit, and she nails them all, every single time. Even the writers who don't like her (ahem, Tennyson) freely concede that publicly she is everything and more that a queen should be.
|Sir Launcelot and the Queen Talked Sadly Together,|
But not hard enough. Guinevere is a problematic queen for a reason.
When at last she begins her affair with Lancelot, writer after writer leaps on those problems. The perfect queen who betrays her duty, her husband, and her kingdom presents a stunning piece of hypocrisy. It doesn't help that Guinevere is actually a crucial piece of the lasting legend of Camelot. Arthur the lawgiver creates a kingdom, but it's Guinevere who brings civilization. Arthur only gets the Round Table because it's part of his wife's dowry. Without Guinevere, Camelot would lack its most potent symbol, as well as much of its courtly appeal and chivalric code. So for one of the true backbones of the realm to break faith with its highest aspirations is an act that undermines not only Guinevere personally, but the entire kingdom she represents.
|Lancelot and Guinevere, Michael Manomivibul|
In one sense, of course she can't be sensible and thoughtful; she is too symbolic a figure not to be identified first and foremost with her position, and her betrayal is too great not to exploit symbolically in literature. But the transformation of Guinevere from angel to harridan is also much too simple. If she's so obnoxious, why did Arthur fall for her? Why does her court mostly like her? There's got to be something else going on, something not symbolic but human.
|La Belle Iseult (also called|
Queen Guinevere), William Morris
A would-be painter and a revolutionary craftsman, Morris wrote the first work to present Guinevere not as a symbol of a decaying realm built on a dream and a lie, but as a human woman caught between passion and duty. The Defence of Guenevere imagines her at her trial before Arthur's knights, speaking on her own behalf with eloquence, dignity, and full awareness of herself. Brilliantly, her "defence" rests on that very thing nearly all earlier Arthurian chronicles deny her: total emotional honesty. Having at last found love, she demands to know if she "must...give up forever...that which I deemed would ever round me move, glorifying all things; for a little word, scarce ever meant at all, must I now prove stone-cold for ever?" She describes her agony of conscience, the anguish of love, the delight at its fulfillment and the shame she feels at that delight. She is, at last, open and honest and entirely sympathetic.
|Guinevere, Meredith Dillman|
*(Morris, of course, had personal experience with a problematic woman torn between love and duty: his own wife, Jane, one of the great muses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It's not hard to see where Morris could have drawn from life; but it is moving that he, the cuckolded husband, can summon such vast sympathy for the adulterous wife.)