Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal

Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal

Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal

Adultery: An Analysis of Love and Betrayal


My lords, if you would hear a high tale of love and death, here is that of Tristan and Queen Iseult; how to their full joy, but to their sorrow also, they loved each other, and how, at last, they died of that love together upon one day; he by her and she by him.

—Joseph Bedier, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

Isolde, Queen of Cornwall. See Iseult. Iseult, Queen of Cornwall. See Tristan.

—The British Library, London, Main Catalogue

Legends opening with words like these, irresistible to listeners everywhere, and long ago forming the backbone of ballads sung by roving troubadours, told of the love of a knight for a lady who was always already betrothed or married to another—a lord, often one to whom the knight owed allegiance. The knight was doubly bound by the code of honor that sustained chivalry and by the Christian ethic, forbidding the consummation of any love but that between married couples. As part of his knightly duties, he had to undergo all manner of trials of his strength and his wits, pitting good against evil, but also to demonstrate to his lady how deserving he was of her love. To succeed in this goal of love was a moral—a virtuous—goal. He had to prove himself worthy of her and overcome many obstacles to gain her. But, if he was successful, if he did capture her, and if their love was consummated, death—since it was adulterous, passionate love—would surely follow.

The ballad epitomizing such fatal love is that of Tristan and Isolde—the "great European myth of adultery." This myth remains firmly lodged in Western consciousness, running—as such stories must—underground, not . . .

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