The Many Voices of Guenevere: Polyphony in “The Defence of Guenevere”

Student Author(s)

Dorothy Dickinson

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Curtis Gruenler

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In his poem “The Defence of Guenevere,” William Morris takes one of the most contentious characters in all Arthuriana and allows her to speak for herself. Guenevere, about to be burned at the stake for her adultery, argues her case before her accusers. The result is a layered, interesting monologue, in which Guenevere employs a range of different and disparate voices in order to confuse, accuse, and appeal to her listeners. Mikhail Bakhtin, in his work on literary theory, calls this ability to take on different voices “polyphony”. In my project, therefore, I explore the connections between Guenevere’s monologue and Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony, as well as the connections between the personas Guenevere assumes (of storyteller, lady, and knight) and the theories of deconstruction, new historicism, and feminism. By examining these links, it becomes clear that the Guenevere in this piece has transcended the role expected of her. She acts through the non-action of speech. She is focalised by the narrator and yet subverts that focalisation for her own cause. She stands accused and yet accuses. By multiplying her one voice into many, Guenevere shows herself to be complex and therefore human.

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