Chaucers presentation of Troilus and Criseydes love reflects the insurmountable influences of the conventional social ideologies in a patriarchy Essay

Quod Love, ‘I shal telle thee, this lesson to lerne. Myne owne

trewe servaunt, the nobel philosophical poete in Englissh,

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whiche evermore him bisieth and travayleth right sore my name to encrese…’

from Testament of Love by Thomas Usk, Book 3 Chapter 4

Chaucer’s contemporaries considered him a love poet, a ‘true servant’ of Venus, exploring all aspects of love: the courtly love tradition, sexual love, friendship, Christian love and divine power.1 For the purposes of this essay, I intend to explore his treatment of love in Troilus and Criseyde, undoubtedly one of his greatest works. Chaucer’s poem couples his overriding focus on the universal theme of love with an important moral and philosophical viewpoint, addressed mainly through his narrator. At first the story appears to be a classical setting negotiating the trials of love and war during the siege of Troy; closer reading reveals that it is representative of medieval court romance as it presents a chivalric view.

The setting may be the great Trojan war of antiquity but through Chaucer’s representation the characters are medieval knights and ladies. Their seemingly ‘courtly’ behaviour arises out of the contemporary tradition of medieval romance and love poetry, which David Aers coins, ‘a certain cult of ‘love’2 and the concepts of Christian love. Chaucer recreates Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, 3 transforming it from a simple poem of love and war in which love stands firm into a tragedy. Thus, the backdrop of the Trojan War from Il Filostrato becomes a causal factor which, coupled with other influences, such as Boethian philosophy and Ovidian conceits of courtly love, symbolise how history, culture and society shape individual destinies and, ultimately, act as a destructive force on Troilus and Criseyde’s love.4

Contradictory strands of courtly service are linked through Chaucer’s representation of Troilus, who initially symbolises the idealised courtly love tradition;5 Pandarus, representing Ovid’s attitude6; and Criseyde, who provides a less idealised stance and yet one which is self-reflective and less misogynistic than we may expect.7 In the established patriarchy of Troy, Criseyde’s position is ultimately dictated for her. While the traditional power roles of male and female are inverted in the Courtly Love Tradition whereby the knight, devoted to his lady, subjugates himself to her to do as she demands, the established patriarchy of the medieval world ultimately renders this position untenable.

The events of the Trojan War compounded with the female’s status conspire to destroy the love affair and prevent the realisation of the ideal.8 Chaucer deals with the fate of his main characters in a morally serious way although alternative readings are overly simplistic when they argue it was the absence of Christian marriage that caused the love affair to end – there are other societal factors to be considered. It follows criticism that Chaucer’s version of Troilus and Criseyde highlights the fickleness of women to serve as a warning against transient earthly love in favour of love of God. In the fourteenth century this was an increasingly prevalent view with which Chaucer would have been familiar and a superficial reading may lead to this commonplace conclusion.

The poem details how a Trojan prince, Troilus, falls in love at first sight with Criseyde. It then describes his progresses through scheming and good fortune to win her love with the help of a wiser, mature Pandarus. However, fortune turns and Criseyde is forced to leave the Trojan camp, exchanged for a Trojan prisoner, Antenor, in the Greek camp. Traded to the Greeks, Criseyde breaks her promise to return to Troilus – choosing Diomede. Soon after, the heartbroken Troilus dies in battle. This brief outline may suggest the blame lies with Criseyde as she has forsaken Troilus and as a conventional courtly love poem this is unacceptable, especially to its contemporary readers.

Chaucer, however, layers this medieval romance with Christian morality which his audience would have appreciated and a closer analysis belies such a reading. Chaucer’s handling of his sources, the standpoint of the narrator and the poem’s emphatic ending, the detailed depiction of the Criseyde (with her self-reflection evoking some sympathy for her dilemma) suggest his concern was with a representation of love that is determined by celestial, societal and cultural forces. Criseyde is, to some extent, exonerated by circumstance, although as Jill Mann notes chance was also a contributory factor.9 Moreover, Troilus rises to the eighth sphere, the ‘reward which Christianity allowed to the righteous heathen’ which sure reflects his virtue in love.10

Chaucer’s opening highlights key aspects of courtly love and love’s coercive power when immediately after Troilus’s ‘surquidrie and foul presumpcion,’11 love’s vengeance takes effect. Contradictory viewpoints are observed when Troilus sets eyes on Criseyde and falls in love: ‘Withinne the temple he wente hym forth … / Til on Criseyde it smoot and ther it stente.”12 Chaucer’s narrative allows us to view Troilus from an external viewpoint which is then counterpoised by insight into his emotions and his immediate feelings of love for Criseyde.

It is through such complexities that the themes within the poem are exposed. Chaucer’s addition of nine extra stanzas detail Troilus’s subjugation to love’s power,13 as the narrator highlights which places the focus on celestial love’s intervention. With Pandarus’s help Troilus is able to implement successfully many of Ovid’s suggestions from the Ars Amatoria. A pivotal scene is in the interaction between Pandarus and Criseyde, after Troilus has fainted, ‘And downe he fel al sodeynly a-swowne.”

Troilus, who had arrogantly asserted he would not be controlled by love, is immediately bound and brought to love sickness (in need of the Benedict runs the pun in Much Ado about Nothing).15 Pandarus praises love’s power to convert the reluctant lover and helps Troilus to learn the chivalric code of the language of love but it is a language which exploits: love is presented as something of a game played by men’s rules. Troilus delegates the supervision of the love affair to Pandarus, writes letters, lies and tricks Criseyde (with the feigned suit by Poliphete and the supposed jealousy over Horaste) until she succumbs to his protestations of love. Pandarus also sets about talking Criseyde into loving Troilus. The dialogue adds to the poem’s dramatic effect as the ideas of what love is, or should be, are presented, as Pandarus states:

… ‘O thef, is this a mannes herte?’

… And seyde, ‘Nece, but ye helpe us now,

Allas, youre owen Troilus is lorn!’

‘I wis, so wolde I, and I wiste how,

Ful fayn,’ quod she. ‘allas, that I was born!’

‘Yee, nece, wol ye pullen out the thorn

That stiketh in his hertre?’ quod Pandare.

‘Sey ‘Al foryeve,’ and stynt is al this fare!’16

Given his persuasion, it is difficult to see what else Criseyde could do as the daughter of the traitor, Calkas: she has no actual control over her life or love and its chance intervention when Troilus appears in the street below her window.

The courtship of Troilus and Criseyde draws an interesting contrast with Diomede’s wooing as well as reinforcing the concept that love is competitive, a power game ‘played by men for their own satisfaction’17 and reflective of war.18 Both Troilus and Diomede are seen as predatory with the latter more so, as part of Criseyde’s attraction for him rests in the fact that Troilus, his enemy, loves her and if he conquers her he conquers Troilus. The language is conventional for both:19 …but Chaucer’s irony is foregrounded in Diomede’s conquest. Diomede may talk of… but we know that his aim is to ‘net’ Criseyde: ‘To fisshen hre, he leyde out hook and lyne’20 In Book 3, however, the narrator, remarked how Troilus’s heart is caught in ‘Criseyde’s net’ and he is, ‘narwe ymasked and yknet.’

The juxtaposition of Diomede’s eloquent, courtly language of love and his actual intent highlights Criseyde’s position: the ideology of courtly love is an elaborate conceit and for all his obsequiousness, the knight holds the power over the lady who is essentially an object to be taken. Thus, the image of the flower emphasised through the poetic structure, works in two ways; its symbolism is both complimentary and reductive alluding to the male’s chauvinistic conceit and act of conquest:

Whoso myghte wynnen swich a flour

From hym for whom she morneth nyght and day,

He myghte seyn he were a conqueror.22

As Aers argues, Chaucer returns to the image from the Knight’s Tale wherein ‘heterosexual desire… becomes a displacement of competition… for the possession of women’23 to satisfy the male.

Chaucer firmly places Troilus within the courtly love tradition and his love affair follows its designated pattern, but part of the poem’s complexity and greatness is Troilus’ transformation and growth into love as Chaucer tries to create a unity between human and divine love. At the mid-point in the poem, Chaucer’s retelling relies heavily on Boethius’s Consolation in its focus on the ‘holy bond’ of love as well as Boccaccio. In Book 3, he presents us with three key references to love: the hymn to love in the Proem; Troilus’ thanksgiving speech to love; and, Troilus’ hymn to love.

Before Chaucer introduces the earthly, erotic consummation of the lovers, he forecasts this through the divine love which imposes on human experience. It is also seen in his primary source, Il Filostrato, where Troilo sings in celebration of love24 and Troilus’ later hymn (1744-71) is almost a paraphrase of Troilo’s song:25 ‘knetteth lawe of compaignie/And couples doth in vertu for to dwelle.’26 These references frame the details of the affirmation of sexual union and it is at this point – rather poignantly – that Chaucer reveals a shift in the relationship of the lovers.

It is clear that Troilus is no longer playing Cupid’s game of conquest but that he is actually in love. Moreover, he is able to appreciate Criseyde’s autonomy and afford her a status which she would not usually have. After the consummation of their love, Troilus is no longer bound by the conventions of courtly love. The celebration of love highlights how he is in love and the growth of his desire.

Consequently, when the Trojan patriarchy dictates that Criseyde will be traded, Troilus appreciates Criseyde’s autonomy and refuses to treat her as they have done. He refuses Pandarus’ advice as he refuses to see her as a commodity to steal away. Although at the start of their courtship, he lied to her and sought to control her, now he refuses to dominate her and allows her to make the decision: love ‘had altered his spirit so withinne.’27 This new quality of love is also suggested in Chaucer’s Proem in Book 3 which links two contradictory strands of love in its invocation to Venus. While it praises her goodness as the agent of divine, celestial love it is compounded with a reference to the pagan goddess, ‘Jove’s doughter deere.’ Chaucer’s alignment of these differing elements of the divine, celestial and sexual love to create unity will unravel as the lovers act out of obedience to Venus:

Ye folk a law han set in universe

And this knowe I by hem that lovers be

That whoso stryveth with yow hath the werse.28

The framing device of Book 3 emphasises that Troilus cannot not love Criseyde and that his fidelity in love is a given. The events that conspire against his love and determine his fall and rise to fall again are mirrored in the fortunes of Troy, its war and in the cultural contradictory strands of love. The one overshadows the other, controlling Troilus’s destiny and his ‘double sorrow.’ For the love and sexual union to survive, they would have had to go against their society. Faced with the choice, Criseyde who has already suffered on account of the war, given her father’s treachery, cannot elope: she does what is demanded of her by the Trojan parliament.

Troilus presents Criseyde convincingly as a woman fully aware of her position in a male dominated world where she is doubly vulnerable – as a woman and the daughter of a traitor.29 Even Hector with his protests, ‘We usen here no women for to selle,’30 cannot protect her. As Aers argues, the lovers’ bliss as they consummate their love may seem like paradise but it is a secret paradise, which – while it provides an escape from the destructive society that has, in part, contributed to its creation – cannot survive.

Their secret love affair cannot challenge the cultural hierarchies in which love is downgraded before militaristic male strength and dominance symbolised by Diomede. While Troilus is prepared to fight against the dictates of society if Criseyde will agree to elope, she cannot. Just as her circumstances in Trojan society lead her to agree to a relationship with Troilus which grew into sexual union and a sense of ‘hevene blisse,’31 she lacks the confidence to rebel. Traded into the Greek camp, she reconsiders her position and finally accepts the relationship that the predatory Diomede offers as it provides her with a measure of security and stability.

Laura Howes’ interesting study on public and private places enhances Aers argument. She notes how Chaucer frames his private love affair with the same two public spaces that Boccaccio uses in Il Filostrato of the public temple for Troilus’s initial sighting of Criseyde and the plain between the Trojan and Greek camp for their parting. In Chaucer’s reworking of, Il Filostrato, however, he often uses public spaces for the lovers’ meetings rather than private which supports Aers reading of the interrelatedness of the lovers and society. In keeping with the courtly love aesthetic, Chaucer uses the garden, a symbol of passion and fecundity, which Howes argues becomes a ‘visual analogue for the ideal love affair.

Boccaccio only uses the garden once at the zenith of the lovers’ affair while Chaucer has used it some four times by then.’32 Yet, it offers only an illusion of safety that crumbles before social convention just as courtly love tradition’s code of secrecy which seemingly protected Troilus and Criseyde eventually contributes to a situation which they cannot control. While the concluding lines of the poem with the anaphora compounding with the syntactical parallelism create a melodic mournful note:

Lo, such an end had Troilus for love!

Lo, such an end his valor, his prowess!

Lo, such an end his royal state above,

Such end his lust, such end his nobleness33

Chaucer’s presentation of Troilus and Criseyde’s love reflects the insurmountable influences of the conventional social ideologies in a patriarchy. Although the poem has a pre-Christian setting, many argue that Chaucer draws a message of Christian morality, through the representation of Venus, that the romanticised love of Troilus and Cressida, while very beautiful, does not have the protection of the Sacrament of Marriage, so ultimately fails. Such a reading ignores the destructive forces of war which destroy the ‘hevene blisse’ of the lovers but not Troilus’s unshaken love for Criseyde.