George H. Boker is little remembered today partly because he excelled at romantic drama, a form that modern readers, with their love of realism, seldom appreciate. Leonor de Guzman, with its emphasis on palace intrigue, and The Betrothal, with its assumption that aristocrats are better than others, understandably have little appeal for the modern American reader. Francesca da Rimini, however, deserves the attention of modern readers: The play’s complex characterization and democratic theme can sustain interest even today.
Francesca da Rimini
Francesca da Rimini, in spite of its imitative blank verse, is the best dramatic rendering of the love story recorded both by Giovanni Boccaccio and by Dante. The first version of Boker’s masterpiece, written in 1853, was never published; the final version was published in 1856. There are important differences between these two versions. In the published version, the participants in the love triangle—Lanciotto, Francesca, and Paolo—are emphasized more or less equally. In the 1853 version, in contrast, Lanciotto is the central figure. Further, the love scenes involving Francesca and Paolo, including the one immediately preceding the consummation of their love, are largely absent in the 1853 version. These changes served not only to decrease Lanciotto’s importance but also to increase the audience’s sympathy for the two young lovers.
Because it is shorter, the 1853 version moves more briskly to the conclusion. For example, in the 1853 version, Boker immediately prepares the audience for the climax by having Francesca, the inadvertent cause of Lanciotto and Paolo’s strife, appear in the first scene. In the 1856 version, however, Francesca does not appear until act 2, and Boker uses the first act to reveal the personalities of the two brothers and their relationship to each other. On the other hand, the published play is generally superior to the earlier version because it allows for richer characterizations. Both versions, though, to Boker’s credit, emphasize character rather than plot.
Paolo loves his brother, but, an idler, he has not the discipline necessary to ignore his feelings for his brother’s wife. Francesca, while she has the audience’s sympathy, is too much a victim to have their unreserved admiration. Forced to become engaged to a man she has never met, she is deceived about Lanciotto’s hideous appearance by the three most important people in her life—her father, Guido; her servant and confidante, Ritta; and the man with whom she has just fallen in love, Paolo. She recognizes that Lanciotto has a more noble character than Paolo, but she is nevertheless repelled by his deformities. She displays free will in a single scene only, one not present in the 1853 version, in which she, more than Paolo, seeks consummation of their love. Francesca becomes a victim again in the last scene when Lanciotto, in an effort to force Paolo to kill him, kills her.
Lanciotto, a more complex figure than the young lovers, both repels and attracts the audience. He first appears as a hideously deformed and vicious, almost barbaric, warrior. Although his father pities the defeated citizens of Ravenna, Lanciotto wants to see the city burn and its women crying. An uncivilized man, he is also deeply superstitious. He believes a warning by his nurse that his blood will be mixed with Guido’s, and later he fears doom when he thinks he sees blood on his sword. Paolo and Maletesta, the brothers’ father, are more civilized than he and chide him for his superstitions, but he remains convinced that evil awaits him.
Juxtaposed to Lanciotto’s savagery and superstition are his deeply felt emotions, which gain the audience’s sympathy. The audience understands his desire to destroy Ravenna when he reveals the reason for such rage: His first memory is of the death of his nurse’s husband at the...
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