Teaching Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as a non-linear text

Karen Smyth, University of East Anglia

Chaucer engages and uses the idealisations of romance in Troilus and Criseyde in order to characterise individuals in the social realm. To this extent he creates an impressionistic text that has an emotional journey that climaxes in a linear fashion in the growth and destruction of the love of the two main protagonists. In combination with the text appearing in a bound printed volume, one of the challenges we face in introducing this text to undergraduates is to demonstrate to them just how many interrelationships and juxtapositions there are in this narrative. It is only when students recognise how to disrupt the chronology of the reading experience that they can detect how Chaucer scrutinizes and exploits the discourse of romance. To that end, the following discussion offers a range of teaching strategies to achieve such an objective.

The first issue that students have to comprehend is how Chaucer’s story is set within a complex narrative frame. Here, a digital version of the text in the seminar room can be most useful, allowing key parts of the text to be focused in on. It is told in five books and the opening lines of each offers an introduction to a different stage in the story of the love affair. Before witnessing the burgeoning of young love in Spring, the opening lines of book I declare that the story is about the ‘double sorwe’ of Troilus:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,

That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye,

In lovynge, how his adventures fellen

Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie,

My purpose is, er that I parte fro ye.

Thesiphone, thow help me for t’endite

Thise woful vers, that wepen as I write (Book I, L.1 – 7).

Yet you have to wait for over fifty lines to discover what this ‘double sorrow’ is. Before then, the narrator declares his purpose. Stanza 23 is worth pausing and focusing on. The description of April is very similar to the opening 18 lines of his later collection, The Canterbury Tales, where Spring is described. The connotations of new fertility and the blossoming of nature act as a metaphor for the bourgeoning of new love. What, we might ask, might be the purpose of this? The implication by the narrator is that nature is starting to take her course. Hence, Troilus’s adolescent scepticism and cynicism that follows about love is already undermined with the innuendo that the poem is entering a stage, a period of nature’s sexual regeneration.

The narrator then dedicates this opening book to Thesiphone, one of the Furies who has a tormented and tormenting nature, explaining that the story is a sad one that has moved him to tears as he writes. The speaker is also a lover of sorts, writing, he says, for other lovers who form his imagined audience. While there is an omniscient style of narration employed, the narrator cannot resist from intruding and we get an apology because the tale he is about to tell about love is not something he can claim to have any success in; he acts as a mere vehicle or medium for love to be expressed, and will ‘God of Loves servantz serve’ (line 15). The last lines of the Book I proem then describe what the narrator understands Troilus’s ‘double sorrow’ to be.

Questions for student discussions:

• What is the significance of the Thesiphone reference in the light of the rest of Book I?

• Does it matter that the narrator is a lover-poet (of sorts) writing for other lovers?

• What is the significance of the Trojan background described in Book I?

Romance conventions and Chaucer’s complications

Chaucer’s discourse of romance in this text features a range of key conventions and traditional motifs, such as the arrow through the heart, the god of love as the mysterious external force, and the processes of love-sickness. You can perhaps see best how Chaucer uses romance conventions if we engage in close reading of the ending of Book 1, lines 1044 – 92. Here, the image of the heroic courtly lover expressed in terms of Troilus’s vengeance towards the Greeks – ‘Now fy on the Grekes alle!’ (Book 1, line1046) – demonstrates the ennobling effect of love. This closing of Book 1 adds impetus to the speed of the narrative action with heroic images of combat after the period of passive woe. According to de Charny’s definition of chivalric love, the chevalier’s excellence in armed combat acted as an indicator of his true worthiness for his lady’s love: ‘he who performs better is better esteemed.’ This conventional image of the love-struck servant developing as a mighty warrior is displayed in the closing emphasis of Book One focusing on Troilus’s bravery and honour: ‘in the feld he pleyde tho leoun: /Wo was that Grek that with hym mette a-day’ (Book I, line 1074 – 75).

Troilus’s natural nobility expresses itself in terms of the romance military metaphor: he defends his besieged city, acting as a force against his state of besieged emotions. The military metaphor alternates between military combat and love emotions. This enables Chaucer to reveal the stereotypical effects of love, where Troilus’s public stature is better esteemed and magnified into superlative terms:

For he bicome the friendlieste wight,

The gentilest, and eke the mooste fre,

The thriftiest, and oon the beste knight (Book 1, line 1079–81).

In the description of Troilus’s service to love and to its agent Pandarus, and in the exaltation of Troilus’s bravery (in stanza 155) superlatives are used. The tone changes from grave pledges of Troilus’s ‘trouthe’ with his life to adulation of his noble qualities. The language reflects the tone in using terms of absolute commitment and adjectives in the superlative form: ‘gentilest … moste … thriftiest … beste’ (stanza 155).

Another feature of romance writing in this passage is the use of terms of total devotion borrowed from religion. In stanza 150, Troilus affirms that his love for Criseyde has divine guidance: ‘God shal helpe us atte laste’ (line 1047). There is a predominant use of life and death imagery: ‘Quod Troilus, “that thow me recomande / To hire that to the deth me may comande’ (line 1056–57.). Total devotion in love has religious overtones of sacrificial death to the power of love.

While numerous passages such as this closing of Book 1 can illustrate key romance motifs, the nature of romance is challenged at some level at nearly every stage in the poem. For instance, as the spring imagery of lines 115–33 suggests, Troilus is in the natural state of maturing from adolescent notions (and mockery) of love. In an inversion of the chivalric ideal, Troilus is warrior first and then lover. Even in the final stanza of Book One, the tone shifts from one of celebration (of Troilus’s worthiness) to one of caution with the reminder of continued suffering: ‘fareth lik a man that hurt is soore / And is somdel of akyngge of his wownde’ (line 1087–88). The great misery and sorrow of Troilus highlights the conventional romance stage of unrequited love, and this change in tone acts as a narrative technique to create suspense and expectation. However, this poem is no ordinary romance, for Book 1 has closed without the courtly mistress’s knowledge of her knight’s love-service and with the reminder of Troilus’s suffering. The unconventional narrative disclosure at the start of Book 1 (the double sorrow of Troilus) affects the interpretation of these lines by reminding the reader that despite Troilus’s ennobled character, the wound caused by love will not only be healed by love, but re-opened through betrayal. This is a poem that explores many of the tensions and contradictions inherent in any attempt to encode the notion of an ideal love and apply such a formula to human experience. So what other techniques and strategies does Chaucer employ to demonstrate the complexity of romance models?

Student activity:

Examine Book 1 lines 155-210. This passage is the foundation upon which love is based, that is the moment at which Troilus falls in love.

• How does the encoded view of Courtly Love promulgated by Andreas Capellanus compare to Chaucer’s story of when Troilus first catches sight of Criseyde and falls in love (Book 1, lines 155–210)?

• Can you detect differences between these three models of romance (promulgated by Geoffroi de Charney, Andreas Capellanus and Chaucer)? You could focus on, among other aspects, who is in the premier position in each of the texts, the male or the female? Are superlatives used in each and with reference to what or whom? How is the actual moment of falling in love described? What kinds of processes of being in love are detailed? What roles do metaphors play? What is understood by ‘chivalric love’? How important is the idea of secrecy and how is it handled? Do any external mysterious and /or divine forces play a role?

• What do these complexities tell you?

Criseyde and Pandarus: complexities of the military metaphor

Criseyde is under siege from Pandarus’s strategic assaults, complicating the military-love metaphor, for if Pandarus is the enemy, what about Troilus? The climatic psychological point of interest is when Criseyde recognises she ‘may’ be in love, in Book 2 stanzas 81–83.

Student activity:

• Why does the focus on Troilus’s double sorrow shift immediately in Books 1 and 2 to the relationship between Pandarus and Criseyde?

• What is the relationship between Pandarus and Criseyde?

Criseyde: Victim or Traitor to Love?

‘Of Troilus in lovyng of Criseyde, / And how that she forsook hym er she deyde’ (Book 1, line 55-56). What is the function of this revelation? It directs our sympathies towards Troilus, encouraging the reader to examine Criseyde’s actions closely. The narrative disclosure at the start of Book I predisposes us to judge Criseyde as a ‘moral type.’ But when we examine the narrative more closely, we shall see the focus of the narrative is on her vulnerable position and active (internal) negotiation for an identity within the confines of the world defined by males, which challenges such a judgement.

How is Criseyde introduced in a narrative that is ostensibly focused on the ‘double sorrow’ of Troilus? Criseyde barely features in the opening two books. Most of Books 1 and 2 display the courtly conventions of the male lover’s distress, without the courtly mistress’s knowledge. The effect is to focus our attention not on the characters but on the nature of ‘courtly’ love, and that is a nature of indecision. The complexity of concerns and doubts extends the narrative period where there is no communication between the would-be lovers. As a result, Troilus and Criseyde’s relationship can be described as hard won, proving – according to Capellanus’s rules – its worthiness. On the whole, the opening books suggest that the ostensible function of the narrative is to relate an exalted love affair. But the narrator’s opening stance drawing attention to the treasonable nature of female love and the ever-present social realities that impinge on the narrative never allows any ‘moral’ conclusions about romantic love to remain unchallenged.

When we see Criseyde in the temple (Book 1, line 266–322), we are offered two differing views of her, and this ambiguity is what marks her throughout the narrative. Even before we have our first glimpse of Criseyde, our understanding of her is framed in a number of ways. At first a synopsis of the siege is presented, after which we are shown the abandonment of Troilus. It is only then that we are introduced to Criseyde, yet our first introduction is not of her elevated social position, but of her questionable social position, being the daughter of a traitor. She is vulnerable, and a widow, isolated. She herself is besieged within a besieged Troy. There is sympathy for her vulnerability from all quarters, with Hector and the court willing to protect her, but this is overshadowed by the narrator’s opening condemnation of her treason in love (in stanza 8). Chaucer leaves the reader in an uncertain position as to how to interpret the tone and the implications of her introduction into the narrative.

To focus on Criseyde’s first entry into the narrative: she is at the back of the hall, half secluded, there is no eye contact and she is all in black, yet she has an assured manner. While she is presented in superlative terms ‘in beautee first so stood she makeless’, she is not the typical courtly mistress. In stanza 19 there is even a subtle implication that she may have had children, why might this be? It emphasises her sexual experience over Troilus’s virginity. Such a suggestion is implied, but the reader is left wondering. It reminds us of her complex social background and the fact that she has possibly had psychological experiences. Yet in stanza 25 she is observed merely as an image, an object for Troilus’s desires, which underscores the rarefying and objectifying nature of romance. The effect of such a variety of contradictory images is to produce different narrative perspectives, withholding definitive judgements.

Student activity

• How is Criseyde described in this passage from Book 1 (line 281–94) where Troilus falls in love in the temple? You may want to think about the mtop-to-toe gaze, the use of superlatives, note what qualities Pandarus hails, how she is rareified, in what ways is she the object or subject? What power does she have? How does she make use of the elevated position Courtly Love affords her?

• How does this description match the versions of idealised feminine behaviour associated with the conventions of Courtly Love discussed in the previous Unit?

The quintessential romance moment, or maybe not …

Looking at the moment when Criseyde realises she may love Troilus should show us how Chaucer’s focus is on the psychology of a woman’s attitudes towards and behaviour in love. Criseyde certainly engages in the conventions of romance: patronage, resisting first advances, use of her elevated social position, chastising male jealously, allowing male sexual initiative (be it the eagle or the boar). But, her indecision about adopting the role of courtly mistress emphasises the experience of individual consciousness in relation to social norms. This ideal is further emphasized in Antigone’s song, which takes place in a garden, in March, a convention that indicates love is growing, and it is in this scene that Criseyde begins to accept the idea of love. However, while Criseyde’s status as a widow affords her some material security, her reputation as the daughter of a traitor casts a shadow over her.

Let us contrast the process whereby Criseyde falls in love in comparison to Troilus’s quintessential romance moment. As discussed above, after the rareification of Criseyde Troilus is introduced as a male predator: ‘as he was wont to gide / His yonge knightes, lad hem up and down’ (Book 1, line 184) on active parade while the females are passive objects to be gazed at. His adolescent mocking of those smitten by love, David Aers (1980) asserts, is an indication of male anxiety about his courtly identity as ‘the worthy knight has grasped that to fulfil the demands of the ego-ideal intrinsic to his class and gender identity he needs to participate in what he calls the “observances” of love.’ Troilus then follows the pursuit of ‘loves crafte’ by withdrawing to the secrecy of his bedchamber. (Remember de Charny asserts ‘the most secret love is the most joyous, and the most lasting, and the most loyal’). The image Troilus has retained of Criseyde unfolds in conventional expressions: ‘to love … serven … grace … oon of hire servants … travaille … grame … desir … pris.’ This discourse of romance discloses that Troilus’s ‘private fantasy is a product of public culture’ (Aers, 1980).

Student activity:

• Is the moment and process by which Criseyde falls in love equally a moment of public culture? Criseyde’s ‘moment’ is described at length some time later in the narrative (see Book 2, lines 596–31).

• Bearing in mind the extract from de Charny entitled ‘Chivalric Love’ and the rules of Capellanus that were discussed in Unit two, look at the manner in which the process of Criseyde falling in love is described in the narrative (Book 2, lines 876–930). Think carefully about the context of Criseyde’s reaction to Antigone’s song and her subsequent dream in relation to the poem as a whole.

The celebration of love, or of male triumph?

Read Book 3, line 1184–274, then read the following interpretation of the passage by Helen Phillips (Brown, 2000, p.286–97). To what extent do you agree with this reading?

This description of sexual arousal is created predominantly through the male experience: no celebration of Troilus’s hairy chest or delicately chiselled hips balances the itemization of Criseyde’s naked charms. Though joy, trust and embracings become mutual, the event is still conceived primarily as Troilus’s achievement, the moment when he ‘hath his lady swete,’ line 1245. The sparrow hawk image (line1191–92) conveys aggression, predatory possession and annihilation. Love in this image is not woman-friendly but a matter of male triumph, at odds with the mutuality conveyed in the woodbine image (line1230-32), and the discourse that presented Troilus earlier in the narrative as Criseyde’s humble slave. Its abrupt assertion [is that the] concept of sex is an assault on a woman … We cannot ask whether Chaucer merely follows contemporary assumptions, unexamined, or whether these statements and their world views, sharply discordant to the modern reader, are introduced with some consciousness of their provocative moral and emotional status. What we can say, however, is that Chaucer turns the predatory hawk image into a question for the reader to consider, both by using question form and by withdrawing authorial responsibility for interpretation (‘I kan namore,’ line1193).

As one of the key passages in Troilus and Criseyde for presenting the poem’s problematization of love, and its troubled awareness of the co-existence of impulses towards sacred and sensual, tragic and comic, within human perceptions of love, lines 1184–274 exemplify also that sense of unresolved multiplicity and contradiction that is the mainspring for much of Chaucer’s most powerful writing and his most provocative narrative structures.

Criseyde as manipulator?

A more traditional reading of this passage would argue she is presented as a manipulative woman throughout the text: that she is as calculating as her father was, in that she deliberates over whether to give in to love or not. Does the deliberating, hesitant nature of her ‘decision’ to fall in love mean that her love is not genuine, or can we see this process as evidence of a more genuine emotion? Does Troilus express a more genuine version of ‘love’ in that he was smitten instantaneously and completely by it, or can this inability to control or reason with emotion be seen as something inferior, in that it approaches lust or infatuation? Having been left twice already, once by her father and again by her husband though his death, she will have no wish to be left again. Also her position as a widow offers her some liberty:

I am myn owene woman, wel at ese –

I thank it God – as after myn estat,

Right yong, and stonde unteyd in lusty leese (Book 2, line750-53).

All this indecision comes to a climax in her dream (Book 3, line 925-32), where the exchanging of hearts by the eagle may be seen as a positive image, the eagle perhaps giving her courage and determination, but there are also more sinister implications of male dominance and violence. Her heart is taken without her consent, and is taken by a symbol of battle. This reinforces the image of her as besieged by the male.


• In Criseyde seeking Hector’s patronage, in what ways is Chaucer setting a precedent for her to succumb to male protection (as she later does in her relationship with Diomede)?

Criseyde and Diomede:

The relationship between Criseyde and Diomede illustrates a different nature of love that does not have such an idealised style. The animal imagery associated with Diomede and Troilus tells us much about both similarities and differences between what the characters represent. Diomede is envisaged as a boar in Troilus’s dream, a predatory animal and among the Greeks Criseyde fears for her honour. Troilus, however, was also envisaged as a predatory animal the white eagle in Criseyde’s dream. The male aggressive sexuality was however, qualified by the purity (white) and nobleness (eagle) of the vision. There is an implication that the courtly service of the awaiting male to the superlative lady is not an exaltation of feminine physicality and virtuosity, rather it acts as an indication of the male’s prowess in vanquishing such a superlative prize: ‘now be ye kaught; now is ther but we tweyne! / Now yeldeth yow, for other bote is non!’ (Book 3, line1207–08).

Final student activity:

Reflect on the various narrative strategies, their connections and conflicts, that Chaucer employs. To what extent do they encourage us to consider romance conventions from the viewpoint of the female?