Fiammetta thinks it’s cruel to be asked to tell tales of unhappy lovers, especially since the company left Florence to avoid their woes. Nevertheless, she will fulfil Filostrato’s command with the story of Tancredi and his daughter (later identified as Ghismonda). Tancredi loves Ghismonda so much that he takes longer than usual to find her a husband, and when she’s quickly widowed, he doesn’t bother to find her a new husband at all but keeps her home with himself.
Day 4 begins with a complaint about the theme and a suggestion that Filostrato’s desire to hear stories of misery is, in some important way, as unbalanced as the chaos the brigata left behind in Florence. Nevertheless, the company is made up of self-controlled young men and women, and she will follow the command of her (temporary) sovereign to the best of her ability. Her tale begins with a harsh reminder of the second-class and objectified position of women, who are subject to their male relatives (husbands, fathers, brothers). Tancredi hesitates to find her a husband the first time and refuses outright the second, and she is captive to his desire to keep her.
Ghismonda is beautiful, vivacious, and “has rather more intelligence than a woman needs.” Living a grand life in her father’s home but with her sexual needs ignored, she decides to take a lover. She falls for Tancredi’s valet, Guiscardo, who is of humble birth but has an excellent and noble character. He returns her affections, and the two look for a way to be together.
Although The Decameron generally celebrates intelligence and at several points feminine wit is especially praised, here Ghismonda’s intelligence is presented as a liability. Fiammetta, like many of the brigata’s women, is as likely to voice antifeminist sentiment as her male companions. Again, despite Boccaccio’s claims to love and respect women, the book’s general outlook on females is based in medieval misogynistic or antifeminist stereotypes. Ghismonda has very little recourse when her father decides to keep her as his own possession instead of arranging a second marriage for her. Thus, Tancredi sets up himself the circumstances under which Ghismonda will allegedly stain his honor by taking a secret lover to fulfil her natural sexual longings. The contrast between Guiscardo’s social status and his excellent character contributes to the book’s argument that a person’s true worth is to be found in their character rather than their station in the world or their wealth.
Ghismonda smuggles a letter to Guiscardo explaining that a huge cave lies under the palace with steps leading up to a door in her bedroom. The cave can be accessed through a shaft on the hillside that has been obscured by years of undergrowth. Ghismonda tells Guiscardo to wear a leather suit for protection from the brambles, to drop into the cavern, and to climb the stairs to her room. She excuses her maids, Guiscardo climbs the staircase, and the two make rapturous love for the better part of the day.
Ghismonda demonstrates her intelligence when she comes up with a way to meet with her lover and a clever way to get the message to him secretly. As in other tales, Giovanni Boccaccio includes specific details that add to the feeling of realism in his writing, in this case the protective clothing Guiscardo must wear to protect himself from the brambles.
Having established this discreet way of meeting, they enjoy each other often until their happiness attracts the envy of fortune. Tancredi habitually comes to Ghismonda’s bedroom to chat. One day, while she’s in the garden, he sits down behind her bed to wait for her, and he falls asleep. He wakes up to the sound of Ghismonda and Guiscardo having sex. Horrified, he keeps quiet, and when the lovers part, he climbs out of a window and secretly returns to his own rooms.
Tancredi expresses his immoderate love for his daughter when he expects to be able to have access to her for conversations whenever he wants. Even her bedroom isn’t a private space, demonstrating her vulnerability to his control. The theme of the day’s tale dictates that her happy affair will be short-lived, but the tale places the blame on fortune, since the lovers are discovered through no indiscretion of their own, but through random chance. The garden is one of the few spaces to which Ghismonda has access, although in this tale it doesn’t represent a place of protection for the lovers, but rather a space of danger, since her time there indirectly allows Tancredi to observe Ghismonda and Guiscardo together.
At nightfall, Tancredi has Guiscardo arrested. The prince chastises the valet for the crime he has committed “against that which belongs to me.” Guiscardo answers, “Neither you nor I can resist the power of Love.” The next day, Tancredi confronts Ghismonda. He so completely trusted her honesty and virtue that he couldn’t have imagined she would take a lover unless he saw it for himself—which he did. He’s also horrified that she picked a base-born servant. He is torn between punishing her as she deserves and forgiving her out of love, and he demands an explanation before deciding.
When Tancredi chastises Guiscardo for taking one of his possessions, he means sexual access to his daughter. Although he’s failed in his duty to find Ghismonda a new husband, she—and her sexuality—are under his control until he does. Guiscardo’s retort implies that Tancredi’s love for his daughter is in some way inappropriate, or at least uncontrollable. Tancredi also articulates a worldview shared by other aristocratic and royal characters in the tales that love affairs might be natural, but crossing class lines should be avoided at all costs.
Ghismonda assumes that Guiscardo is already dead, and, resolved to quickly follow him, answers her father with a proud heart that helps her to overcome her feminine weakness. Instead of “screaming and sobbing” like most women, she answers Tancredi with neither contrition nor “womanly distress.” She admits to loving Guiscardo, a circumstance that was in part prompted by her father’s refusal to find her a new husband and her enforced idleness in his home. Pointing out that she is flesh and blood, young, and sexually experienced, it’s only natural that her “amorous longings” would find an outlet.
Ghismonda’s self-control in the face of enormous personal tragedy is very impressive. And it is a notable contrast to antifeminist assumptions about women being weak and emotional. Throughout this tale, Ghismonda proves herself to be the self-regulated one while her father is guided by excessive emotionality. In defending her actions, she raises the specter of excessive female desire that forms an important part of antifeminist stereotypes, but her explanation remains calm, measured, and rational, based in an understanding of the human sex drive as natural and necessary. And the “enforced idleness” that contributed to her falling in love with Guiscardo recalls the lovesickness of the French Princess in II, 8 and the reasons given by Boccaccio for why women suffer more acutely from love than men in the Prologue.
Ghismonda didn’t take a random lover but looked carefully for someone who was worthy of her love. Tancredi implied that he would have preferred her to have taken a noble lover, but fortune frequently elevates the unworthy and oppresses the noble-spirited; class shouldn’t be taken as the only indication of a person’s worth. Ghismonda was attracted to Guiscardo’s character, which Tancredi’s high opinion confirmed. One can’t call Guiscardo base, and if he’s poor it’s only because of Tancredi’s stingy payments. Ghismonda, refusing to beg for mercy and prepared to die, sends Tancredi away.
Ghismonda’s defense of her choice of lover is one of the clearest indictments in the tales of the idea that wealth and status are the markers of nobility rather than character or temperament. She also connects status to fortune—the blind force that moves humans about more or less at random. Titles and wealth are accidents of fortune since they are more often conferred by birth rather than earned by integrity and effort. If Guiscardo isn’t a gentleman it’s not his fault but the fault of fortune, and maybe Tancredi’s for refusing to pay him as richly as his character deserves.
Tancredi doesn’t believe that Ghismonda will commit suicide, so he decides it’s safe to get the revenge he wants by killing Guiscardo. He has Guiscardo’s heart put into a gold chalice and sent to Ghismonda with the words: “Your father sends you this to comfort you in the loss of your dearest possession, just as you have comforted him in the loss of his.” Ghismonda has already prepared a poisonous potion. Declaring that the gold vessel is a worthy coffin for Guiscardo, Ghismonda sends a return message to her father saying that his gift clearly shows how he loves her.
It doesn’t seem like Tancredi’s anger is fully satisfied by executing Guiscardo, so he taunts Ghismonda as well. Although he’s clearly underestimated her in his belief that she won’t commit suicide, it’s possible to interpret the “gift” of Guiscardo’s heart as a test designed to see if she loves her father more than her lover. Its excessive nature is also an example of Tancredi’s inability to control himself. Notably, the words of his message remind Ghismonda that women are subject to the control and authority of their men generally while they reassert his ownership of Ghismonda specifically. And finally, Tancredi’s spiteful actions demonstrate his inability to be as dignified as either his daughter or her allegedly low-class lover.
Looking at Guiscardo’s heart, Ghismonda curses her father’s cruelty and mourns the short life allotted to her lover by fortune. She floods the chalice with silent tears and kisses the heart over and over. When she feels that her mourning has been sufficient, she adds the poison to the chalice and, without any fear, drinks it and lies down with the heart to wait for death. Her maids, confused by her words and unaware of the heart’s origin, fetch Tancredi, who “bursts into floods of tears” on seeing her. Reproaching her father for his cruelty, Ghismonda asks that she be buried publicly with Guiscardo. She then dies. Amid much mourning and tardy repentance, Tancredi honorably buries his daughter with her lover.
Although fortune may have allotted Guiscardo a short (and low-class) life, Ghismonda is clear that responsibility for his death, the gruesome abuse of his corpse, and her impending suicide lie with her father. The maids are confused about what’s happening because the affair was a closely-kept secret and only gained the power to ruin Ghismonda’s reputation (or Tancredi’s) after he gave in to his overpowering jealousy and thirst for revenge. Her dying wish drives this circumstance home in forcing Tancredi to publicly acknowledge his daughter’s affair, which he feels dishonors himself. Her silent tears yet again show her to be in far greater command of herself than her father is, and they vividly contrast with his excessive display of emotion (coded as womanly according to the book’s gender stereotypes) over her death.