William Morris, “The Defence of Guenevere” (560-568)
This poem begins with Guenevere's adulterous actions described upon her cheek as a fiery flame, which may religiously suggest the flames of hell thrusted upon her for her sins. During this time, Christian religion played a large role in the lives of Victorian women, and Guenevere faces punishment for committing this crime. The poem is her testimony to defend herself against the accusations of Gauwaine. Since Morris begins this poem in the middle of her testimony, we don't get to hear what Gauwaine has to say about the crime except that Lancelot had been found in her room. Guenevere opens up about her depression during the rapid changing of the seasons, especially in spring when her marriage felt the most unsatisfying. She describes her failed marriage with Arthur and a period of time where she has cheated on him by subtly comparing her marriage to a path. She strays from this path by reaching the ocean, a new man, who washes over her with lust and newly-found love. This is most likely Lancelot, but the descriptions are too vague as to exactly pinpoint what gives her this grand rejuvenation. Guenevere admits to kissing Lancelot in the garden outside her castle, but she makes it sound like her beauty is so captivating that this romantic moment shared between them is inevitable. Based on this account, Guenevere probably only kissed Lancelot once and that was all that happened between them. Whether this constitutes as adultery or not, she is trying to prove that it did not grow beyond this intimate moment. She feels as though she has already suffered from God's punishment enough by "slaying and poisoning" through self-inflicted wounds (line 149). She shouldn't have to be burned at the stake as suggested by Gauwaine.
When Lancelot finally defeats Mellyagraunce to win the trial for Guenevere, the punishment she fears permeates from the wicked, summer heat while she's tied at the stake. It's absolutely crazy that a man has to be challenged to a fight to protect a queen's honor. With the medieval themes of this poem, the lack of chivalry shown by the male characters in this story is severe. Gauwaine wants to end Guenevere's life at all costs, and Mellyagraunce frames Guenevere for adultery. This can relate to Victorian society in that men are supposed to be as virtuous as women in that they need to protect women and remain loyal to their wives. However, Victorian men, and medieval men, are not perfect, and their toxic masculinity doesn't allow chivalry to always take the lead in every encounter with a woman. While it is unclear as to whether or not Guenevere cheated on Arthur, using her beauty as her excuse adds to the current issues of "what was she wearing" argument commonly used in sexual assault cases. Guenevere selfishly uses this excuse; regardless, men have taken advantage of her beauty to control her. Overall, the men in this story play God and condemn Guenevere for destroying a perfect matrimony which should otherwise be sacred and pure. While they want her to pay for her sins, Mellyagraunce has just as much blame, since he had intended to rape Guenevere. Nevertheless, Mellyagraunce is ultimately punished when he is slain by Lancelot, but moreover by God for his crimes.