Troilus and Criseyde is arguably Geoffrey Chaucer's masterpiece. It's the same tale told by William Shakespeare and Bocaccio and lots of other people; but Chaucer's version is a bit special. It's set aganst the background of the Trojan war.Basically: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy gets girl's uncle to persuade her to go out with him, girl gets swapped for a valued prisoner, girl swears to return and her undying love, girl gets off with someone else within about ten minutes, heartbroken boy gets killed in battle and gets some perspective in heaven. Although it's set in a heathen world, it's got a Christian narrator, which raises all sorts of interesting moral questions. Chaucer seems particularly interested in free will (see Boethus' Consolations of Philosophy, from which he borrows heavily) and the role of women and the interplay between both society and the individual and the internal and the external. It's arguably the greatest of the medieval romances. Because Chaucer wrote in a London dialect - unlike, for example, the Gawain poet - it's not too dissimilar to modern English, and the layman can get into it pretty easily - if you have any trouble, try saying it out loud, and it often becomes clear. Anyway, here's a character study of the apparently fickle Criseyde, focusing on her love for Troilus, and on how much the decisions she takes are truly her own; and, basically, whether she's a bitch or not.
For I sey nought that she so sodeynly
Yaf hym hire love, but that she gan enclyne
To like hym first, and I have told yow whi...
Criseyde falls in love with Troilus as she falls out of love with him: by degrees. From flat refusal she moves to reluctant acceptance of his love, and ultimately grows to return it. But she does not do this independently. Her love is, at least initially, directed by her uncle, and her first interest is obtained under duress. When the relationship is finally consummated it is under the most extraordinary circumstances, which almost amount to rape. Whilst she does ultimately consent, this seems to be almost an irrelevance: her path is laid down for her and any decisions she makes are only significant in internal terms - that is, as characterisation rather than impacting on the most basic narrative. The simplest description of the story in eventful rather than emotional terms - Troilus woos Criseyde; Troilus and Criseyde sleep together; Criseyde is used as an exchange for a valued Trojan prisoner; Criseyde leaves the city; Troilus’ place is taken by another; Troilus kills himself - seems as if it would be more or less exactly the same if Criseyde was dragged through it kicking and screaming rather than assenting to each part of the process. After all, if Troilus’ love pre- and post- dates hers, it seems unlikely that even a complete failure on her part to return his affections would dampen them.
The way her love grows is worth examining in some detail. The principal emotions working on her which precipitate the first inclinations towards liking Troilus are embarrassment and fear: fear that two men may die if she does not do what they say, and embarrassment at the idea of being loved by such an obviously noble man and not at least returning his sentiment in some degree. As Jill Mann points out in her essay Women and Betrayal, when Criseyde first looks on Troilus after discovering his love, she blushes:
For of hire owen thought she wex al reed
Remembrying hire right thus, “Lo, this is he
Which that myn uncle swerith he moot be deed,
But I on hym have mercy and pitee.”
This is perhaps a superfically charming beginning to a love affair: many readers will instinctively find her blush adorable and evidence of her gentleness and modesty. But ultimately, it points to an unbalanced love. The early dynamic of Troilus and Criseyde’s relationship is entirely invested in him and his agent; all she does is react. And the principle reactions are hardly those that one might hope for upon a declaration of love: it seems as if falling in love is less uncomfortable than refusing to. This kind of decision making process seems utterly at odds with a traditional conception of romantic love.
As the process reaches its climax, Criseyde has a very disturbing dream. She sees her heart being plucked out by an eagle, and swapped with his. Here a normally romantic, attractive metaphor - lovers giving each other their hearts - is deromanticized and violently altered. Criseyde - and, because this is a dream, and therefore more general than events which form a direct part of the narrative, perhaps womankind - is portrayed as entirely passive, incapable of influencing events and violated by the male eagle. Given this disturbing image, it is not unreasonable to imagine that perhaps her subsequent love is borne out of a recognition of its necessity rather than genuine romantic feeling. This is not to say that romantic feeling does not follow, nor that this decision is neccessarily even a conscious one; but in a society which values women’s opinions so little that it will later use her as a bartering tool to achieve the return of a useful soldier, she must surely recognise that any decisions she does take are more a matter of making whatever course befalls her more enjoyable or bearable rather than actually dictating what that course might be. Hector’s protestations -
“Syrres, she nys no prisonere,’ he seyde;...
“We usen here no wommen for to selle.”
- though admirable, are not grounded in any kind of reality, either in the context of his own mythical world or that in which Chaucer lived. Criseyde is not a ‘prisonere’ individually, but, as David Aers points out in Chaucer’s Criseyde: Woman in Society, Woman in Love, her gender are captive to the whims of their fathers, husbands, and rulers, and are regularly used in a way not especially different from other commodities. Aers compares Chaucer’s descripion of Antenor in book IV with that of the heroine: on the one hand,
so wys and ek so bold baroun...
ek oon the grettest of this town
on the other,
The paradox of the power balance in any kind of medieval romantic relationship - on the one hand, the woman is loved for merely existing, whilst the man has to prove himself; on the other, the patriarchy has absolute authority over any woman, and women can only exert what power they have (largely sexual, as it is for Criseyde) in as far as they recognise its limitations and understand that it is essentially a power bestowed by men until it is used too liberally, when it may be brutally and swiftly withdrawn - is an inherently unstable basis for a love story, as Chaucer recognises. If a man can ultimately impose his desires anyway, what need is there to woo? Can Troilus’ wooing really be considered more than superficial? Perhaps he is not even aware of it himself - but his and Pandarus’ efforts repeatedly cross the line between coaxing and coercion. The pressure put on Criseyde to consumate the relationship is considerable, both in the instant itself and in the wider societal imperatives which she is inevitably aware of. Just as in a dictatorship direct intervention is rarely necessary, because the futility of protest is implicit, and the idea of freedom is almost inconceivable, so in a patriarchal society women have very little incentive for making entirely independently-minded decisions. It is not for nothing that Chaucer chose a romance set against a background of war: though the violence never surfaces in the text, there is a constant undercurrent, both a reminder of men’s role as the decision-makers and agents in society and simply of their sheer physical superiority. There is probably not even a conscious specific threat on Troilus’ part - but both parties, ultimately, understand how the game works, and are willing, if reluctant, participants.
It is perhaps this societal imperative to accept whatever is thrust upon her that makes Criseyde so receptive to change. She is conditioned by the world in which she lives to accept more or less whatever is imposed on her and to simply try and make the best of it. Jill Mann insists that her love is not an ordered and logical calculation, but rather a kind of piling up: each hypothesis becomes a fact, and thus leads to a new hypothesis, making it almost inevitable and involuntary. Mann suggests this is encapsulated in Chaucer’s conception of the ‘proces’ of falling in love:
And after that, his manhod and hys pyne
Made love withinne hire herte for to myne,
For which by proces and by good servyse
He gat hire love, and in no sodeyn wyse.
Mann argues that his portrayal of the pattern of her thought process fits in with this:
In contrast to the deliberate calculations of Bocaccio’s Criseida, who weighs pros against cons and and allows Troiolo’s handsome perso to tip the balance... Criseyde’s reflections proceed in a random, spontaneous, disorganised manner. Their zig-zagging movement is conveyed in the loose, additive nature of the phrases thta introduce each new idea: ‘Ek wel woot I... Wk sith I woot... And eke I knowe... Now sette a caas... I thenke ek...’
Mann goes on to point out that because in this passage (around lines 700-750 of book II) Criseyde is aware of her own beauty, a fact which she would have to publically deny,. we are seeing her most intimate and instinctive thought processes. So the idea that she chooses to be in love with Troilus because of her understanding of the necessity of ‘playing the game’ certainly needs, as we have already seen, to be refined: this is not a conscious decision at all, but something which occurs before the thoughts begin to form in her mind.
It might be a reasonable objection to this to suggest that if it is not a conscious thought, and Chaucer does not explicitly discuss it, then this basic knowledge of the necessity of doing the expected thing can not really be assumed on Criseyde’s part. But I would argue that the very nature of her acquiesence, the lack of any tumult of emotion (which is replaced by a flurry of worried considerations) until she has alreadyaccepted Troilus, and the way that Troilus and Pandarus woo her, suggest strongly that this is the case; and the clinching factor is the nature of her ultimate betrayal.
This is a kind of ironic, speeded-up replay of the romance between Criseyde and her original paramour. There is no single moment of choice, and the process is cumulative and spontaneous again. Her relationship with Troilus is in fact a kind of preparation for her relationship with Diomede - a rehearsal. And the way she has learnt to rapidly assimilate new sets of circumstances, which is precisely the pre-condition for her love for Troilus, is also precisely what precipitates its end. Not only does her betrayal devalue of their love in itself: it reminds the reader of the set of circumstance which led to their love, and deminishes it thus also. Permanent romantic love seems incompatible with Chaucer’s conception of a changeable soul, so that by the same token that Criseyde’s betrayal is, if not justified, at least set against extenuating cirumstances, her love is cheapened. It is a devastating double blow which brilliantly combines a retention of humanity and a sympathy for the difficulty of Criseyde’s predicament with moral authority and an insistence that what she does is wrong. Her own recognition of this encapsulates the breadth of Chaucer’s moral system:
But syn I see ther is no bettre way,
And that to late is nowe for me to rewe,
To Diomede algate I wol be trewe.
Her resolution to remain true to Diomede implies that she knows she did wrong by Troilus, but also that she must live in the world and make the best of the circumstances in which she finds herself, both morally and materially.
This fits exactly with Chaucer’s later statement that he will leave the judgement of her actions to other tellers of the tale.
The aubade in book III is perhaps the pithiest summary of the situation in which Criseyde finds herself. The coming of the morning, which symbolises,a s David Aers suggests, the reintroduction of society and civilisation to their relationship after their brief, heady retreat to animal passion, demonstrates how her love exists on two mutually depndent but nevertheless seperate planes. On the one hand, her love is necessary, and sensible, and more or less decided for her; on the other, once it exists, for as long as it lasts it is absolutely genuine in the intensity of its feeling. Her love is both real and forced; her betrayal is both realistic and necessary and wrong. It is precisely this paradoxical dichotomy which makes Troilus and Criseyde such a rich and powreful work of art.