Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
Troilus and Criseyde, the only long work completed by Geoffrey Chaucer, is based on the legend of the Trojan War. The characters, however, behave in the best tradition of the medieval romance. Chaucer, an incomparable teller of tales and a great poet, combined his two talents to create this perfectly constructed narrative poem. The effective depiction of character and its development in this work forecasts the shrewd observations of human nature Chaucer would make in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).
Troilus and Criseyde is a paradox of artistic creation. At once both medieval and modern, it holds vast problems of interpretation yet pleases with its wit, style, comedy, and humanity. The work cannot be dated with complete certainty, but certainly by that point in his career, Chaucer—diplomat, man of letters, public official, and onetime prisoner of war—already had a literary reputation, which the appearance of Troilus and Criseyde did nothing to diminish. Chaucer’s contemporary reputation, in fact, probably rested with this poem at least as much as with the later and much-loved Canterbury Tales. It was certainly Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, more than any other poems that addressed the same subject matter, that later poets used as a source for their own works. The fifteenth century Scottish poet Robert Henryson, for example, wrote of Criseyde’s ignoble end in The Testament of Cresseid (1532), and William Shakespeare tried his hand at the story with Troilus and Cressida (pr. 1601-1602, pb. 1609).
Chaucer himself found the story in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il filostrato (c. 1335; The Filostrato, 1873); possibly Chaucer was working from an intermediate source—Le Roman de troyle et de creseida by Beauvau. The story itself derives from the Trojan legend, but Troilus and Criseyde are such minor figures in Homer’s story (and never meet there) that it is apparent that Chaucer had more in mind than the simple retelling of a classical tale.
Much of the discussion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about Chaucer’s purpose in writing the poem focused on the palinode, that is, the concluding section of about one hundred lines, in which the narrator repudiates the courtly love that has governed the action of the lovers for more than eight thousand lines. Subsequent criticism has focused on Chaucer’s attitude toward love in general, on the poem as tragedy, and on how best to read the poem.
Courtly love was a highly conventionalized, and un-Christian, tradition, dating back at least to Eleanor of Aquitane’s court in twelfth century northern France. The courtly love tradition held that love was sensual, illicit, adulterous, secret, and hard to obtain. The lady, the embodiment of virtue who was yet cruel to her lover, granted him her favors only after he had suffered agonies of frustration. Troilus and Criseyde practice courtly love until Criseyde violates one of its prime tenets, loyalty. By defecting from Troilus, she destroys the spell the courtly love tradition casts on the minds of Chaucer’s audience. At the very end of the poem, all readers are made to examine the priorities of courtly love and, on a deeper plane, devotion to human love over the love of God. The palinode at the end raises the question of how human beings should live their lives and whether they should desire and want the things of this earth, which can so easily be stripped away. Troilus clearly is the victim of the love of a weak woman, and he discovers that his fate is a tragic one. The narrator at the work’s end asks readers to avoid becoming victims of fortune by devoting themselves to God and God’s love.
One of the most important aspects of the poem is the elaborate psychological development of its characters. Before Chaucer, the most advanced way of representing psychological states in literature was to abstract feelings and emotions, as well as virtues and vices, embody each in a character, and have these characters contend for possession of the individual. Never before Chaucer had the whole human being been depicted as a feeling, growing person. The tendency in earlier literature was to make the protagonist universal, as is Everyman in the morality play. The characters in Chaucer’s poem are in no sense universal. While they are not particularly admirable characters, they share the same psychology with their readers—that is, they show weaknesses and strengths that are very human.
Criseyde’s character depends on her situation. In the opening of the poem she is in a dangerous position, afraid of the Trojans, afraid of love, afraid of human involvement—afraid, even, of herself. Her natural inclination is to hold back when Pandarus approaches her on Troilus’s behalf, but Pandarus makes a union with Troilus seem desirable, even reasonable. Troilus can protect her socially and politically, and after Pandarus approaches her, she begins to develop complex reactions: fear, resistance, questioning, need, and hope. Troilus and Criseyde are characters who live in a real world of human flaws, vices, joys, hopes, and predicaments. Chaucer’s achievement in perfecting psychological realism is of the first magnitude.
Chaucer does not present a consistent view. The narrator in the first eight hundred lines of book 2—up to the point where Criseyde decides to accept Troilus as her lover—is privy to Criseyde’s thoughts. After that, the narrator no longer knows what she is thinking but only what she says. Chaucer seems to praise courtly love throughout much of the poem, then suddenly rejects it in the conclusion. Such inconsistencies reflect the medieval aesthetic theory, which holds that art should convey truth. Since the only real truth, in this view, is the permanence of God’s laws in God’s realm (which is unknowable), humans, who live in their own separate, lower realm, cannot know absolute truth. What they do see is changeable and impermanent. Artists, who try to depict truth as best they can, find that their art becomes as changing and inconsistent as the world they observe. Since they cannot share in God’s realm, both artists and audiences must be content with inconsistencies in art.