The ancient poet Gower tells the audience that he has come to tell them an old tale. He lays the scene, in Antioch, where King Antiochus and his daughter have embarked on an incestuous relationship; to prevent her from leaving him, the King makes all her suitors answer a riddle; if they cannot (which none have yet), he has them executed. Their heads decorate the palace. (42 lines)
To sing a song that old was sung,
From ashes ancient Gower is come,
Assuming man’s infirmities,
To glad your ear and please your eyes.
It hath been sung at festivals,
On ember-eves and holy-ales;
And lords and ladies in their lives
Have read it for restoratives.
The purchase is to make men glorious,
Et bonum quo antiquius, eo melius.
If you, born in those latter times,
When wit’s more ripe, accept my rhymes,
And that to hear an old man sing
May to your wishes pleasure bring,
I life would wish, and that I might
Waste it for you like taper-light.
This’ Antioch, then; Antiochus the Great
Built up this city for his chiefest seat,
The fairest in all Syria—
I tell you what mine authors say.
This king unto him took a peer,
Who died and left a female heir,
So buxom, blithe, and full of face
As heaven had lent her all his grace;
With whom the father liking took,
And her to incest did provoke—
Bad child, worse father, to entice his own
To evil should be done by none.
But custom what they did begin
Was with long use account’d no sin.
The beauty of this sinful dame
Made many princes thither frame
To seek her as a bedfellow,
In marriage pleasures playfellow;
Which to prevent he made a law,
To keep her still and men in awe,
That whoso ask’d her for his wife,
His riddle told not, lost his life.
So for her many a wight did die,
As yon grim looks do testify.
Points to the heads of the unsuccessful suitors, displayed above.
What now ensues, to the judgment of your eye
I give my cause, who best can justify.