Studying ephemera allows learning about the topics that used to be important many centuries ago. “A Tragical Ballad” discusses the problems of love, male-female relationships, and other issues related to sexuality. A prominent place in this piece belongs to the depiction of female jealousy, which represents women as predators who are not willing to give up their man and lose the opportunity to have their personal life settled. There are four female characters in the story: the fair Eleanor, the Brown Girl, and Lord Thomas’s and Eleanor’s mothers. Each of these women has an important function in the development of the plot. However, the two young females play the most important roles. Being unable to forgive Lord Thomas for different reasons, none of the girls feels happy until the issue is resolved. Unfortunately, the resolution is tragic, the story ending with the death of all main characters. “A Tragical Ballad” depicts the diversity of women’s nature that can vary from sincere, gentle feelings of love to jealousy and violence which may cause death.
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The main theme of the ballad is tragic and undivided love and the aftermath to which it has led. This topic is rather typical both for literature and real life since people frequently find themselves in intricate triangles where someone’s feelings do not receive the expected response. The text of the ballad upholds normative gender roles, where men and women try to find a resolution to their senses and prospects for the future.
Lord Thomas is not sure which of the two ladies he should marry: “fair” Eleanor whom he loves “dear” or the “Brown Girl” who is rich and has “houses and lands” (3, 4, 9). A traditional way of seeking advice is asking one’s parents, so Lord Thomas naturally asks for his mother’s blessing. Although this female character is secondary, the advice she gives to her son plays a crucial function in the story. Lord Thomas’s mother gives preference to the rich girl, thus neglecting the true feelings of love and tenderness existing between her son and Eleanor: “I charge you with my blessing, / Bring me the Brown Girl home” (11-12). The choice which the young man makes following his mother’s guidance leads to the disclosure of the question of sexuality in the poem.
The problem of choice is related to differences in physical appearance in the two girls. Eleanor is young and beautiful, and she wants to be with Lord Thomas with all her heart. She dresses nicely – “cloathed herself in gallant attire” – and she has such good manners that many people take her “to be some Queen” (41, 44). However, when it comes to love affairs, it becomes evident that this young lady can be rather rude and jealousy. When Lord Thomas informs her about his coming wedding, she says, “I thought to have been thy bride myself, / And thou to have been the bridegroom” (27-28). Such reaction explains Eleanor’s character and emphasizes that the girl is not ready to give away what she considers hers so easily. She is not only tender and sweet but also ready to fight for what she thinks she deserves. Upon arriving at Lord Thomas’s house and seeing his bride, Eleanor asks with contempt, “Is this your bride?” (49). This question presupposes that she is mocking Lord Thomas for his choice and is laughing at his bride.
Eleanor is angry and devastated, as any woman when rejected by the man she loves. Further explication of Eleanor’s nature is given in the line “Despise her not” (53). By saying so, the girl suggests that Lord Thomas does hate the Brown Girl. Thus, it can be assumed that Eleanor is haughty and judges her rival by appearance. It is true that Lord Thomas’s choice of his future wife is based on the financial stability of the Brown Girl and not on his feelings to her. However, hearing such an opinion from Eleanor allows making assumptions about her sexuality. It is evident that the girl wants to be treated according to her assets, the greatest one of which is her beauty.
It is possible to conclude that Eleanor is narcissistic and contemptuous of others by analyzing the words she uses to describe herself. When she compares her looks to those of the Brown Girl, she expresses her dissatisfaction with Lord Thomas’s choice, her pain of being left out, and her anger. Eleanor mentions that Lord Thomas “might’st have had as fair a woman / As ever trod upon the Ground” (51-52). Thus, when she finds herself in a situation where her feelings are hurt, Eleanor displays her true nature, which is selfish and scornful. Undoubtedly, her reactions and words are the result of the situation in which Lord Thomas put her. However, the girl’s desires are expressed in a way that is not pleasant or pitiful.
The Brown Girl is the second important female character in the ballad. This character represents a typical group of females who fail to attract men by their looks but can gain some attention with the help of their money. In some cases, such women realize that they are being used. On other occasions, they do not suspect anything and believe that men court them because they are sincerely attracted to them. In the ballad, the character of the Brown Girl belongs to the second type. She did not suspect that Lord Thomas was about to marry her because of her “houses and land,” thinking that he loved her earnestly (3). Thus, the girl is rather upset when she finds out the truth. As well as Eleanor, the Brown Girl is angry and jealous. However, her jealousy differs from Eleanor’s in that she is rather upset than envious.
The text exemplifies the two girls’ attitude toward marriage by showing what each of them is ready to do in order to become Lord Thomas’s wife. It is apparent that getting married is highly important for the Brown Girl and Eleanor alike. To show that she is worthier than her rival, each girl employs a different strategy. Eleanor implores to Lord Thomas’s feelings and reminds him of how beautiful and unique she is. On the contrary, the Brown Girl does not have a similar advantage, so her jealousy and bitter disappointment are reflected through hurting the object of her misfortune. The Brown Girl takes her “long and sharp” “pen-knife” and stabs Eleanor (58, 57). Even at this point, Eleanor does not miss the opportunity to assert her looks one last time. She explains what has happened by saying “O dost thou not see my dear heart’s blood” (67). Here, once again, she uses a rhetoric question that is mixed with irony. And once again, she points at her beauty and beseeches sympathy and pity.
When analyzing gender roles in the text, it is necessary to mention the significance of both girls’ mothers’ characters. Lord Thomas’s mother is depicted as a mercenary woman who is more interested in wealth than in her son’s happiness. Since “fair Eleanor <…> has got none” of the assets, the mother says she does not want to have her as a daughter-in-law (10). This moment demonstrates that the woman does not believe in true feelings or at least does not find them more important than financial stability. Meanwhile, Eleanor’s mother is portrayed as a wise and sympathetic woman. She says that “There’s many are our friends <…> / And many that are our foes” (33-34). By saying this, Eleanor’s mother is trying to save her daughter from being ashamed when she goes to Lord Thomas’s wedding.
Without his mother’s advice, Lord Thomas would not have caused a tragedy. However, it is crucial to mention that the disaster could have been averted if he had not been dating two girls in the first place. The ballad describes a set of normative gender roles in a situation that is quite common in relationships. Young people’s decisions are governed by their parents, and the man cannot choose between two girls. The text shows a link between sexuality and crime: the girl murders her enemy, and the young man kills her for that. Finally, he also kills himself upon understanding what has happened and what situation he has entered. This situation is less common that the unhappy love of two people, but it is not less tragic. As the author mentions in the end, “There were never three lowers sure, / That sooner did depart” (75-76). Hence, it is emphasized that the case is not typical, and three people dying because of undivided feelings and jealousy is a rare occasion. Because of that, the story becomes highly dramatic and implores to a deeper understanding of its causes.
“A Tragical Ballad” covers several sexuality-related themes, such as the body, desire, and marriage. The desire governs all main characters’ decisions and dictates their actions. Lord Thomas’s desire to own two girls at a time makes him lie to them and prevents him from making sober-minded decisions. Fair Eleanor’s wish to be treated like a queen leads to her becoming a contemptuous person who despises someone who is not as beautiful as she. The Brown Girl’s intention to gain fairness makes her kill Eleanor out of jealousy. It is evident that each character’s issues are connected with unresolved sexuality aspects or other related themes.
The analyzed ephemera offers an insight into individuals’ secret desires and hidden thoughts when they are involved in a love triangle. The story of the three young people serves as a lesson to those who consider that feelings do not have power over people. Sexuality may be both a good and a bad tool, depending on who is using it and on what side of the relationships a person is situated. “A Tragical Ballad” is indeed a tragedy not only because of deaths but also due to the cause of them. Jealousy and desire are warning signs to people in romantic relationships who can learn that these concepts are likely to cause serious negative outcomes.