Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is, as it was mentioned above, focusing on the equality of women and men and his work is more successful as a defence of women than Boccaccio’s because it is not so inconsistent and because it brings several notions about social position of women that were never discussed before. Ariosto’s defence of women is not constructed as a treatise on female morality or as a collection of stories about famous women, it is a romance epic. This choice of genre is unconventional because “epic would exclude ladies; romance and the custom of society would pair them only with knights and loves” (Benson 91). The important part of the epic story is the quest of Bradamante for Rugiero. She is a female warrior whose future is predicted and she has to save Rugiero – a valiant warrior, but oftentimes imprisoned – become his wife and found the house of d’Este. Their marriage “offers a model of male and female relations based on love and knowledge on both sides” (Benson 92). They provide a balancing counter-story to that of Orlando and his madness. Bradamante is allowed to be autonomous in a way that women in Orlando’s story are not, “yet the representation of her as finally choosing to accept Ruggiero’s dominion over her resolves the threat that her independence poses to the social and literary structure” (Ibid.). Ariosto included in Orlando Furioso many female characters – good and bad ones – to illustrate the humanist idea that women are equal to men in virtue and in vice. Bradamante then stands above all these other women being “an exemplar of the new woman of humanist thought” that is “autonomously chaste” and “willingly accept[ing] her husband’s dominion over her” and at the same time being also “active and capable in her own right” (Benson 92).
Orlando’s part of the epic plot stands as a criticism of misogyny. His madness is “an exemplum of the tragic consequences of adherence to the old system of relations between the sexes” (Benson 93). Orlando is expecting that Angelica, whom he loves, will be bound to him because he did valiant deeds in her name – but she chooses another man as her husband. His “vision of her as a helpless lamb in his dream, and his ignorance of what she really is like, all make him vulnerable to the complete disintegration of his system of values” (Benson 94). His madness and misogyny are a result of his unfulfilled desire with a woman he thought he owned. Next to the Orlando’s story there are stories of Ariodante, Rodomante and Rinaldo – each of these stories “is set in the context of a discussion of woman’s capacity for fidelity and the right of society to demand it of her” (Benson 94). In Rodomonte’s story appears another strong female character, Isabella. She meets Rodomonte when she is accompanying the dead body of her beloved. When Rodomonte wants to rape her, she manages to save her chastity by tricking him into killing her. She is interesting because her most important virtue is not her chastity, but her self-reliance. Women in romantic epic stories are usually – and in Orlando Furioso there are such characters as well – “helpless and passive; they rely on a passing knight to rescue them” (Benson 108). Isabella is heroic and relies on herself and is a “true martyr” because she chooses physical pain instead of spiritual violation.
The epic narrative contains also many stories about unfaithful wives – both guilty of infidelity and accused falsely – to demonstrate “the truth of the Pauline and humanist axiom that when the best woman is a part of a couple, her well-being is as much in her husband’s keeping as his is in hers” (Benson 116-17). The wife has to be supported by her husband, otherwise her perfection and chastity is nothing against the power of slander – or in some cases against the power of seduction. Ariosto shows women as having “the potential to be very good and admirable, when supported by their society and trusted to be so” (Benson 118).
His support of “interdependence” of sexes rather than independence connects his Bradamante to modern humanist thoughts and she thus “provides a precedent for the women of Ariosto’s own day” (Benson 125). That Bradamante and Marfisa are female warriors is not unusual because “the lady knight was a standard figure of chivalric narrative before Ariosto” (Ibid.) But Ariosto’s lady knights are the first “represented in a manner that led the reader to make generalizations about the role of women” (Benson 125). Their characters brought up difficult and important questions, such as: “Does a woman’s anatomy determine how she is to be treated by society or do her abilities? Does a woman’s capacity to defend herself necessarily invalidate a marital hierarchy that places woman inferior to man?” (Benson 126). In the first edition of the poem from 1516 these issues are not dealt with in any particular effort, but in the second edition from 1532 the second issue is “extremely important” and the first is “handled openly and seriously” (Ibid.).
Ariosto also comments on the difficult position of women in historical records, but he went further than Boccaccio. In the encomium of women added in 1532, the Narrator does not only defend women and celebrate them, he “attributes to women a desire for fame, and he advises them to break the dependent relationship that exists between themselves and male writers” (Benson 134). He admonishes them to write the stories of their own fame rather than let the male writers to record it how they wish. This particular part of Orlando Furioso shows what kind of difference these profeminist writers could bring to the self-esteem of the female sex – the situation of women was not much better in Ariosto’s time than in the Classical Greece, yet Greek women should stay unnamed, unnoticed, not credited even for their virtues, while Ariosto tells women of his age to take responsibility of their fame and record it themselves because men would otherwise still have control over them – “power lies in the written word” (Benson 135).
The last important topic of Orlando Furioso is concerning misogyny versus feminism in state government. The story of Marganorre, the misogynist tyrant, describes how Marganorre, who hates women supposedly because they were the reason of his sons’ deaths, makes women live in a suburban ghetto where they live without clothes as animals, while their sons and husbands live in the city. The powerless women are saved by Bradamante and Marfisa, who depose the tyrant and put him “in the hands of the exiled women for torture and execution, and establish a matriarchy” (Benson 139). But both these types of government are shown as unnatural. Ariosto is again claiming equality and interdependency of the sexes rather than superiority of one of them over the other.
At this point it is vital to discuss the relevance of a poet-patron relationship, as it is a power-balanced relationship between a woman and a man. In “Ariosto’s Threshold Patron: Isabella d’Este in the Orlando Furioso” Lisa K. Regan describes the vulnerability of this relationship: the patron holds power over the poet in economical terms, while the poet holds power over the patron’s image. Poets were, not only in Italy, “operating in a courtly economy where winning patronage was often directly dedicated to powerful figures” (Regan 51). Women, on the other hand, “largely because their perpetually vulnerable social position, and the rigid expectations held for their behaviour” were put “in constant need of praise” (Regan 51). This situation makes women a searched-for group of patrons. And the road to economic stability oftentimes does not end with the female patron – “Ariosto may well have seen pleasing Isabella d’Este not as a road to her patronage of him, but to better standing with her brothers Alfonso and Ippolito” (Regan 65). Women of the North Italian courts were “notable for their literacy and for their appreciation for the writings of courtiers, which meant an expanded market for the attempts to ingratiate oneself” (Regan 65). These female patrons were in a difficult position not only because of this exploitation of their “constant need of praise” to get to a better position with a male relative, but also because in these times women were particularly vulnerable to slander. Regan mentions that Isabella d’Este faced rumours of her infidelity only because her unchaste lady-in-waiting was also called Isabella and the literary text did not make it obvious, which lady is being discussed. The poet-patron relationship provided certain anxieties also for the part of the poet and these anxieties had to be reduced by writing: “if the vulnerability of the noble lady, and the insecurity of her hold on her reputation, was directly related to the insecurity of the courtiers beneath her, these insecurities were negotiated precisely through the act of writing” which served the poet to control his position at the court. If this reality of “the favour of powerful women” being “a competitive commodity, a commodity purchased through their concern with the public acclaim of their virtues” is taken from this region and applied to the English court, it explains the obvious reasons for the creation of Elizabeth’s cult – so many poets and writers praising her in forms of Cynthia or Gloriana in anticipation of a reward in form of reaching certain social status by flattering the queen. Taking into consideration that the queen was not a person to slander (otherwise the poet must have been a risk-taker or suicidal) it was inevitable that in this particular period the first proper female dramatic characters in vernacular would appear.