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La Farce de Maitre Pathelin- the character of Guillemette

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La Farce de Maitre Pierre Pathelin has been called “a little masterpiece”. In comparison to most earlier works of French medieval literature, it is highly complex in many aspects. In the words of Cazamian, “a high level of artistic creation is reached.” This essay will focus on Guillemette and study both her role in the play, and the complex nature of this character. Such a study should give the reader an idea of the plays “high level of artistic creation”, and also illustrate some of the many witty double meanings and underlying messages that are present right throughout the Farce.

Although Guillemette appears in only four of the ten scenes of the Farce (according to the scene division in the modern French translation), she is much more than just a peripheral character. She has a big influence on the events of the play. The cloth that is stolen is largely for her, as Pathelin promises her: “Pour vous, deux aulnes et demye” . This is important because the entire play is based around the theft of this cloth. As well as this, Guillemette is probably the character most responsible for the drapier’s eventual madness. This is thanks to her successful deception of the drapier when he comes to collect the payment he has been promised. She encourages the drapier to think that he is going mad; for example when she exclaims to him: “Ha! Guillaume, il ne fault point couvrir de chaume ycy. Me bailliez ses brocars? Alez sorner a vos coquars, a qui vous vouldr[i]ez jouer.” So it can be seen that, despite only appearing in less than half of the play’s scenes, Guillemette is essential to the story of the play.

Furthermore, in relation to the plays other protagonists, Guillemette is very intelligent. Despite the fact that her husband Pathelin, the play’s central character, is a lawyer, he seems inferior to her in intellect and maturity. This comes across most clearly in scenes I and III. The fact that Pathelin and Guillemette are the only two characters in these scenes means it is easier to compare the two characters here than in other scenes with more characters. In the dialogue between the two in scene I, Guillemette’s persistent scolding and mocking of Pathelin shows the audience that she is the dominant partner in the relationship, and does not share Pathelin’s childishness. For example she tells Pathelin that he is “sans clergise et sans sens naturel”. In comments such as “qui emprunte ne choisist mye” and “n’oubliez pas a boire, se vous trouvez Martin Garant” it is clear that Guilemette is much more down to earth than her husband. At times her role is actually more like that of the mother, than of the wife, of Pathelin.

In scene III, when Pathelin returns with the cloth, Guillemette’s intelligence and sharp logical way of thinking is shown once again when she immediately perceives that Pathelin has used trickery to get the cloth: “Or, par le peril de mon ame, il vient d’aucune couverture.” Another interesting aspect about the above-mentioned passage is Guillemette’s use of the legal term “couverture”. Especially when contrasted with the coarse, base register of language that Pathelin uses when replying to her: “Parmy le col soye je pendu s’il n’est blanc comme ung sac de plastre! Le meschant villain challemastre en est saint sur le cul.” – not the type of language that one would expect to hear from a lawyer. This contrast in the register used by Guillemette and that used by Pathelin encourages the interpretation that Guillemette is more intelligent than her husband. This helps to make Pathelin seem comic and ridiculous, hence making a mockery of the exalted, prestigious position of lawyers in society.

In the same scene, Guillemette’s maturity is also evident in the way that she thinks of the consequences of sinful actions. Unlike Pathelin, she is not reckless in her approach to the future and she bears in mind the possibility of having to pay for unjust deeds later on. She asks to Pathelin (about the cloth): “qui le payera?”, and reminds him of the penance he has had to pay for previous crimes: “Souviegne vous du samedi, pour Dieu, qu’on vous pilloria: vous scavez que chascun cria sur vous pour vostre tromperie.” Guillemette is not reckless like her husband and is well aware of the possible consequences of his theft: “on viendra, on nous gaigera, quanconque avons nous sera osté”.

In scene V, a similar comparison can be made between the intelligence of Guillemette and that of the drapier. It is true that Guillemette has the advantage over the drapier in that she is at home and Pathelin is on her side against the drapier; but one would still assume that a crafty tradesman would be more quick-witted than a simple housewife. Yet, as already noted above, Guillemette manages to completely outsmart and deceive the drapier, leaving him dumbfounded. In this scene, as in scenes I and III, Guillemette’s cleverness is clear.

So Guillemette comes across as more intelligent than the other main characters in the play; and, unlike them, she is not the victim of trickery. The result of this is that Guillemette is the character with whom the audience can identify with most closely. In a play such as the Farce, where there is no narrator, one of the characters often plays the role of an intermediary between the characters and the audience. Such a character encourages the audience to feel more involved in the play and to see it as a reflection of their own society. In the Farce and it is Guillemette who plays this role, and it is in this way that she is most important. At no point does she address the audience directly, as for example, do characters in pantomimes. Yet she helps the audience’s understanding of the play and gives discreet pointers throughout the Farce.

In Scene I, for example, as shown above, Guillemette makes fun of Pathelin and shows herself superior to him. She also lets the audience know that he is not a morally good character and therefore it is not necessary to feel pity at his misfortune. In this way, the audience learns that Pathelin is a ridiculous and comic character and that he is unworthy of any respect. The way in which Guillemette interprets the action of the Farce for the audience is also clear in scene V, when she explains to the drapier (and also, though indirectly, to the audience) how it is that Pathelin can speak in so many different languages and dialects. Hence, members of the audience who are not able to understand these languages are not left confused. Rather, thanks to Guillemette, they understand what is happening, even if they do miss the humour in what Pathelin says here.

So throughout the play, the audience can identify with Guillemette. She gives discreet pointers as to how to interpret the play. She also encourages the audience to feel that they are superior to Pathelin and the Drapier, as she herself is, and hence to laugh at their misfortune. Nevertheless, the play is, after all, a Farce, and accordingly, Guillemette is far from being a model person. It has already been noted above that she, probably more than any other character, is responsible for driving the drapier to madness. She agrees to act as Pathelin’s partner in crime and to take part in Pathelin’s immoral plan: “Par l’ame qui en moy repose, je feray tres bien la maniere.” There is also the underlying possibility, and several pointers that suggest, that Guillemette might be a prostitute.

Guillemette is the name of a “fille de joie” in Francois Villon’s poem Le Testament which would likely have been known to much of the contemporary audience. This possibility is further evident in Guillemette’s conversation with the drapier when there is play on the word “bas”. The drapier asks Guillemette: “Quel bas? Voulez vous en l’oreille, au fond du puis ou de la cave?” Then, her reply is like something that a prostitute might say to a client: “Hé! Dieu, que vous avez de bave! Au fort, c’est tousjours vostre guise.” This remark also suggests that the two see each other often, and hence, perhaps Guillemette is a prostitute and the drapier a regular client of hers.

In conclusion, despite only appearing in four of the ten scenes of the Farce, Guillemette is an essential character and has a huge influence on the events of the play. Despite the fact that she is only a housewife, she seems more intelligent than both the lawyer and the crafty drapier. This adds to the ridiculous nature of these two men and to the humour of the play in general. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, Guillemette is the character with whom the audience identifies with most. In this role she shows the audience how to interpret the play and to see it as a paradox of their own society, yet without addressing the audience directly. In all these ways, a study of the character of Guillemette illustrates the impressive complexity of the play. Yet the suggestion that she is a prostitute serves as a reminder that she is, after all, just a character in a Farce.

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