Zwîvalaere : King Mark as a site of conflict in the Tristan legend : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English Literature at Massey University
This thesis examines the shifting portrayals of the character of King Mark in six medieval Tristan texts. Over a period of three centuries the depiction of Mark slowly deteriorates from the noble king presented by the early poems to the treacherous and malevolent villain found in Malory's works. Betrayed by both his nephew and his wife, Mark's character has tragic possibilities which can detract from the sympathetic portrayal of the central lovers. In their illicit passion, Tristan and Iseult violate feudal, familial, and emotional bonds with Mark; if the lovers are to retain their honour, Mark must seem worthy of betrayal. Tristan's disloyalty is lessened when his uncle becomes a murderous violator of kinship bonds; Iseult's infidelity becomes understandable when her husband becomes vicious and lustful; and the lovers' subversion of Mark's authority becomes acceptable when his kingship is shown to be corrupt. As uncle, husband and king, Mark is portrayed as trapped by his circumstances; while the lovers accept their doom passively, Mark is an individual waging a futile war against fate. Like Tristan, he is constantly torn between love and honour, between his public duty to uphold the social order and his private desire for Iseult. As the site of moral and social conflict, Mark is arguably the most interesting and problematic character of the Tristan legend.