Troilus and Criseyde (hereafter T&C), it is an important work by Chaucer and perhaps the most important after The Canterbury Tales. Paradoxically, Professor Seth Lerer suggests that it is this play which is Chaucer’s most medieval but also most modern play.
Based on a range of myth and legends based around the stories of the Trojan War, T&C is based on a soldier who was in love but was manipulated by the uncle of the woman he loved (Criseyde), to bring them into bed together; but, with the eventual overcoming of the Trojans by the Greeks, Criseyde is exchanged for a prisoner while Troilus dies in sadness. Not the most uplifting of tales, but hey, we have plenty of emo art today, so who are we to judge?
T&C is a story about love and betrayal in the political and erotic worlds (…obviously). Chaucer bases his rendition of this story off of Giovanni Bauchio’s Il Philostroto, a philosophical work from which Chaucer draws many of his characters for T&C. Interestingly enough, though, Chaucer invents a fictional source—Loleious—to cite his inspiration while greatly manipulating Bauchio’s own poem: he enhances the status of the narrator, he enhances the status of Panderous (the friend and go-between), and he enhances the over-all psychological complexity of the protagonists. In the end, Chaucer’s text is more than a mere augmentation—it is a re-writing and an example of how medieval readers always read in order to re-write but also Chaucer’s own anxiety about whether future writers will re-write and recast his own works.
As a narrative, T&C is a story in five sections, or five books (readers of contemporary epic fantasy or of Victorian literature will be already familiar to this sort of literary organization). The story begins, predictably enough, when Troilus is struck by cupid’s arrow upon seeing the widow Criseyde; he turns to his friend, Panderous, who also happens to be Criseyde’s uncle (how fortuitous!), and asks for advice. Panderous responds with a series of schemes which aim to put the couple in bed together (see how this is reaching out to modernity? Think: romantic comedies…). All of which ultimately forces the reader to ask who is exactly loving who, and for what reasons? Is it the classical Cis-heteronormative love of Criseyde or is it of Panderous’s voyeurism (which… is a kind of love, I suppose)? All of that is book one.
Book two concerns itself with scenes of instruction, in particular scenes of instruction writing letters: in the middle ages, letter writing was a highly instructed art and had whole manuals of instruction imparting the best methods to write the most unique, well-written, and decorative letters. When you were a lover, diplomat, priest (or, really, anyone in public or private life) learning how to write letters was an essential part of expression; so, Troilus comes to Panderous for an education in the art of letter writing (this is kinda like in modern movies how the protagonist will go to an older grandfather like figure for romantic advice or the older brother in teen romances), so it is an epistolary love, or a love between two people writing letters (again, think of romances concerning communication, like Letters to Julia, and other such romantic dramas). Panderous then brings together his elaborate ruse as soon as the characters are put together.
Book three shows us characters eventually coming together: Troilus—love sick, lethargic, frightened; Criseyde: world-weary, aware, suspicious; Panderous: voyeuristic, anxious, excited. Panderous manipulates the lovers who eventually consummate their relationship where Troilus then gives burst to a lyric song followed by the narrator’s own anxious reflections on what it is he can and cannot report (in fact, the narrator muses on whether he can rally describe what their relationship has been).
In book four we see the scene of betrayal in parliament. Of the ultimate exchange of Criseyde for a prisoner of war.
Book five, meanwhile, the final book, Troilus feels betrayed (shocking!) while he and his love exchange a final round of love letters; Troilus dies and Criseyde’s reputation is destroyed and Panderous is shut up, while the narrator sends off his poem to his friends (what a dick).
To turn a bit to the characters themselves, what can we say about Troilus? Well, he is a classic smitten lover. He speaks in Petroc, the language of love-poetry during his burst of lyricism; medieval love-poetry worked by means of oxymoron, by means of the association of two opposites which held together paradoxically express the desire of the lover. A burst which maps Troilus philosophical and spiritual contradictions.
Criseyde, meanwhile, is depicted as worldly and knowledgeable. She appears, at first, as someone who does not need male companionship. Yet, for some reason, she permits herself to fall for Troilus; she, in fact, represents many of the medieval philosophical and cultural conceptions of ‘the woman.’ For example, when she debates on whether she should fall for Troilus, many modern critics have seen in this as being a precursor to feminist self-reliance. In fact, so strong are these overtures that in future medieval literature, the notion of being a ‘Criseyde’ is to be a prostitute, thus identifying how much of a transgressive proto-feminist role this character instituted.
Panderous, meanwhile, is perhaps the most disturbing and complex of the characters, His name, for instance, gives us modern people, the word ‘pander.’ He is violent; when delivering letters at the end of book two, he literally thrusts Troilus’s letters down Criseyde’s bosom (or as professor Lerer calls it, “aggressive postmanship”). Lerer suggests that Panderous may, in fact, be a kind of anti-type of the poet himself: a manipulative, a creator of fiction, and a purveyor.
The figure of the Chaucerian narrator is clearly besotted with Criseyde, whom he lavishes great delight in describing her physical form and even uses her to reflect on the nature of the world and philosophy. Lerer suggests that this narrator may be the first unreliable narrator in literary history; he is someone whom we, the reader, wants to trust, but really should think twice before fully trusting—the narrator, after all, is not merely someone who is telling a story, but someone deeply involved in its implications (the philosophical, mainly such as if we have free will or are out actions preordained; if we accept the viability of an all seeing God, then do we really have the ability to decide for ourselves?); as in, the relativity of language and how language works, specifically, translation, linguistic nominalism, and linguistic difference.