Troilus and Criseyde

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Poem

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Calchas, a Trojan prophet who has divined that Troy is doomed to defeat, flees to the Greeks, leaving behind his beautiful daughter, Criseyde, a young widow. One day in April, the citizens of Troy are observing the rites of the spring festival. Among those in the temple is Troilus, a son of King Priam of Troy. Troilus, who has always been scornful of the Trojan swains and their lovesickness, sees Criseyde and falls deeply in love with her at first sight. Himself now sick with the love malady, Troilus invokes the god of love to have pity on him. Because he feels that he has no hope of winning Criseyde, he becomes the scourge of the Greeks on the battlefield.

Pandarus, Troilus’s friend, offers his advice and help when he learns that Troilus has lost his heart to a beautiful Trojan. When Troilus at length reveals that his lady is the fair Criseyde, Pandarus, who is Criseyde’s uncle, offers to become his mediator. Pandarus thereupon calls on his niece to gossip with her, and in their conversation he brings up the subject of Priam’s sons, praising the bravery of Troilus. Gradually he discloses to Criseyde that young Troilus is dying for love of her. Criseyde suspects that the intentions of neither Troilus nor Pandarus are honorable, and she cries out in distress, but Pandarus convinces her that Troilus’s love is pure. She feels herself drawn to the prince when she beholds his modesty as he rides past her house after a day of battle outside the walls of Troy. She decides, after much inner turmoil, that it would not be dishonorable to show friendship to Troilus to save the young man’s life.

At the suggestion of Pandarus, Troilus writes a letter to Criseyde, to which she responds in a restrained letter of her own. When Troilus, wishing to be with Criseyde, tires of this correspondence, Pandarus arranges a meeting by asking Deiphobus, Troilus’s brother, to invite the pair to his house for dinner. After the dinner, Criseyde gives Troilus permission to be in her service and to adore her.

Pandarus, eager to bring about a private meeting of the lovers, studies the stars and decides on a night that will be propitious for a tryst. He invites Criseyde to dine with him on that evening, with Troilus already hidden in his house. After they have dined, as the lady prepares to take her leave, it begins to rain, and Pandarus persuades her to stay. Through Pandarus’s wiles, the lovers are brought together. After yielding to Troilus, Criseyde gives him a brooch as a token of their love.

At about this time a great battle is fought between the Greeks and the Trojans, and several of the Trojan leaders are captured. In an exchange of prisoners, Calchas persuades the Greeks to ask for his daughter, Criseyde, in return for Antenor, a Trojan warrior. The Trojan parliament, after much debate, approves the transaction. Hector, another brother of Troilus, is unsuccessful in arguing that Criseyde should remain in Troy. Troilus is in despair.

After plans for the exchange have been made, Pandarus brings the lovers together again secretly. Criseyde, brokenhearted, tells the prince that their separation will not be for long, and that she will remain faithful to him. Troilus and his party accompany Criseyde to the place appointed for the exchange. There they meet Antenor, whom they are to conduct to Troy, and Diomedes, a young Greek warrior, leads Criseyde away to the Greek camp. Troilus returns to Troy to await the passing of ten days, at the end of which time...

(This entire section contains 737 words.)

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Criseyde has promised she will return. Diomedes manages to seduce Criseyde by the tenth day, however, and she gives him the brooch that Troilus had given her at their parting. In return, Diomedes gives her a horse he had captured from Troilus in battle.

After several weeks of anxious waiting, Troilus writes to Criseyde. She answers him, weakly avowing her love for him and saying that she will return to Troy at the earliest opportunity. Troilus, sensing that something is amiss, grieves. One day, he sees the brooch he had given Criseyde on a piece of armor taken from Diomedes on the battlefield. Knowing that Criseyde has forsaken him for another, Troilus seeks out and fights Diomedes indecisively many times. Eventually the unhappy Troilus is killed by the mighty Achilles.

Places Discussed

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*Troy

*Troy. Ancient city-state on the coast of Asia Minor. Although Troy was an actual historical place, Chaucer’s description of it bears no resemblance to the city Homer described in The Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) or to anything even remotely like the real city. It is, instead, the very type of a prospering, sensual city that easily corresponds to the court of England’s King Edward III. However, this is not to say that Chaucer intends specific correspondences between the characters of his poem and English persons he actually knew. Still, his wife Philippa and her sister Katherine Swynford likely had love affairs with John of Gaunt, the king’s third son and Chaucer’s patron. The great innovation of Troilus and Criseyde is that it combines ancient locations with courtly love formulas to convey a definite political message. The kind of love allowed within the context of the court necessarily produces only instability and unhappiness.

Criseyde is not Helen, but the Trojans would willingly send her to the Greeks to ransom their hero Antenor. Pandarus functions, as his name implies, to satisfy the sudden lust of Troilus and to attempt to find a protector for his niece Criseyde. In the world of Chaucer’s poem, all the characters do evil things from either neutral motives or simply for self-preservation.

Criseyde’s father Kalkas deserts Troy for the Greek side based on his own prophecy of the city’s doom. He leaves Criseyde behind, however palatially housed, and she soon acquires the protection of Hektor, the king’s son. It is easy to see the role that class conflict plays here and to think of the challenge posed to the aristocracy by the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. What is clear is that Chaucer saw the complicated political nature of humanity with a timeless eye, and that love has always been the mistress of war.

Bibliography

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Donaldson, E. T. Speaking of Chaucer. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. In three chapters devoted to Troilus and Criseyde, Donaldson discusses the connection between Criseyde and the masculine narrator who is described as loving Criseyde with avuncular sentimentality. Concludes that the ending of the poem reveals the instability and illusory quality of human love.

Frantzen, Allen J. “Troilus and Criseyde”: The Poem and the Frame. New York: Twayne, 1993. Includes a chronology of Chaucer’s life and works and a selected bibliography of criticism. The text covers the literary and historical context of the poem and a reading of the poem focused on internal framing devices of social and symbolic orders.

Howard, Donald R. “Troilus and Criseyde.” In Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987. A masterful biographical, historical, and literary study of Chaucer. Howard devotes a full chapter to Troilus and Criseyde, in which he focuses on Chaucer’s intended audience, his transformations of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il filostrato, the characters of Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus, and the achievement of the poem. Concludes that Troilus and Criseyde is Chaucer’s masterpiece.

Kaminsky, Alice R. Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” and the Critics. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980. An analytical survey of criticism on Troilus and Criseyde that includes chapters on the philosophy of the poem and on formalistic and psychological approaches to the poem.

Salu, Mary. Essays on “Troilus and Criseyde.” Chaucer Studies 3. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1982. Contains seven essays on the poem’s text, lessons, realism, paganism, comedy, and use of letters.

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