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The role of women in The Book of the Courtier is somewhat ambiguous. Generally, women are viewed as foils for gallant, cultured courtiers, and in the course of the conversation (sparked, interestingly enough, by a woman, Lady Elisabetta Gonzaga) two different roles for women emerge. One, articulated by Lord Julian, suggests that a courtly woman should be at least somewhat educated, for the purpose of maintaining interesting conversation. In this formulation, women needed to be able to dance, to have a certain familiarity with literature and the arts, and other finer things. They should also not, he asserts, engage in the habits traditionally assigned to women, particularly gossip. The other view, held by Lord Gaspar, is that women, as the weaker and inferior sex, should not worry themselves with education, but rather with being virtuous wives and mothers. Neither suggest that women should be anything other than the objects of men's affection, or that they should have any identity independent of that of men. Lord Julian even says that women married to an abusive, ugly, or unfaithful husband have no right to seek a lover:
If this mishap chance to the woman of the palace, that the hatred of her husband or the love of another bendeth her to love, I will have her to grant her lover nothing else but the mind; not at any time to make him any certain token of love, neither in word nor gesture, nor any other way that he may be fully assured of it.
Generally speaking, then, women are not their own agents. Men should learn to dance and sing in order to amuse them, but women had no right to seek out knowledge and wisdom for its own sake. Ultimately, The Courtier is reflective of a certain masculinity, and women are defined in opposition to it. On the other hand, there are strong women depicted in The Courtier, particularly Emilia Pia, and the picture of women's roles that emerges is not an unproblematic one. Count Gaspar is marginalized for his views, which are viewed as far too reactionary.
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