Geoffrey Chaucer

Troilus and Criseyde

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Troilus and Criseyde Summary

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Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer is widely regarded as one of his more influential works, alongside The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote this poem in rime royal, a unique stanza form introduced in his works. Rime royal consists of seven-line stanzas written in iambic pentameter and has been employed by poets such as William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth. It also served as the basis for the Spenserian stanza, first introduced by Edmund Spenser.

Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in Middle English sometime during the 1380s. Chaucer’s work, like Shakespeare’s after him, had the ability to touch both the common people and nobles at Court; for this reason, courtly romances like Troilus and Criseyde gained popularity among different classes. Although the story had been told before in France and Italy, Chaucer’s version is slightly less cynical and misogynistic. In the centuries that followed, many writers  referenced Chaucer’s version of the  story, including Shakespeare, who brought it to the stage as Troilus and Cressida.

The narrative takes place during the siege of Troy. A Trojan soothsayer named Calchus foretells Troy’s fall and flees the city in fear. He shifts his loyalty to the Greeks, abandoning his daughter, Criseyde. The Trojans do not take kindly to his betrayal, and treat Criseyde with the scorn they feel for her father and his actions.

She meets Troilus, a Trojan warrior, who angers the god Cupid (also known as Eros) by making fun of love. Cupid decides to punish Troilus by making him fall in love with Criseyde. Criseyde’s uncle, Pandarus, then plots to bring the pair together. He helps Troilus write to Criseyde, and then arranges for them to meet again at a party, telling her that Troilus is ill to elicit her pity. At that event, Troilus confesses his love for Criseyde and is met with a lukewarm reaction. When Pandarus brings them together to meet again, Troilus faints and Criseyde admits to loving him. Pandarus arranges for them to spend the night together, and for that short time, they are in bliss.

Meanwhile, in the Greek camp, Calchas misses his daughter. He arranges for the Greeks to make an exchange, offering up Antenor, a Greek prisoner, in exchange for Criseyde. Not everyone in Troy is fond of this idea. Hector, the Prince of Troy, objects to it, as does Troilus. The latter, however, keeps this to himself. Instead, he suggests to Criseyde that they elope, but she refuses, saying that this would not be wise.

In lieu of running away together, she swears that following the exchange, she will leave her father and return to the city of Troy. She promises to be with Troilus again in ten days, but he leaves feeling as though something will go awry. When Criseyde returns to the Greek camp and her father, she begins to realize that keeping her promise to Troilus is unlikely. Troilus writes her letters, but her responses are dismissive.

On the tenth day, the day that she once intended to return to Troy, Criseyde meets instead with Diomede, who woos her. At the same time, both Pandarus and Troilus wait for her return, though Pandarus eventually realizes she isn’t coming back. It takes Troilus a little longer to come to the same conclusion, but when he does, he curses Fortune. It is likely that this poem is the source for the phrase “all good things must come to an end,” and indeed those words sum it the plot succinctly.

It is at this tragic point that the narrator breaks with the story to apologize for the depiction of women. Though as mentioned earlier, Chaucer’s depiction of the female sex in Criseyde is kinder than previous works  that paint her as fickle, she is still easily led by others, including her uncle Pandarus.

The narrator tells of Troilus’ death in battle, and then breaks with the story again to instruct on the superiority of Christianity over paganism. The narrator dedicates the poem to “moral Gower” and “philosophical Strode,” and finally begs Christ’s mercy. As for who Strode and Gower were, little is known of the former, while the latter was a man Chaucer entrusted with power of attorney for a period of several months in the late 1370s.

The 1380s were a time of political unrest. The Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt both shook the fabric of government. Chaucer’s decision to write a story of courtly love against a backdrop of an infamous war is not surprising. However, like many early and middle Englishwriters, Chaucer felt a need to balance the presence of paganism and monotheism, and of the ancient and modern ideas of the time.

Perhaps this is why Chaucer elected to dedicate Troilus and Criseyde to a philosopher and a man whose morals he esteemed. Either way, an examination of this tale offers insight into the minds of the late-fourteenth century English.