seydeCharacter Construction in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde
Chaucer’s epic poem, Troilus and Criseyde, is not a new tale, but one Chaucer merely expanded upon. One of these expansions that Chaucer’s work has become renowned for is the improvement of the characters. Generally, Chaucer’s characters have more texture, depth, humanity, and subtlety than those of the previous tales. Of the three main figures in the epic poem, Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus, Pandarus is the character that Chaucer took the most liberty with, creating and evolving Pandarus until he had taken on an entirely different role. However, this is not to say that Chaucer did not add his own style to Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s continual development of the primary characters definitely lend more interest and humor to the epic poem, Troilus and Criseyde.
The most interesting character by far is Pandarus. He serves as the protagonist and go between for Troilus and Criseyde. In fact, one could argue if it were not for him, Troilus may never have attained the brief affections of his lady love, Criseyde. When Pandarus comes across an uneasy Troilus and inquires as to the cause of his trouble, his speech is very eloquent. It is this speech that gives the reader his first glimpse of how subtlety and indirectness will initially characterize Pandarus. Further along the passage, Pandarus torments Troilus into anger, causing him to reveal the source of his woe. (Chaucer 24-5). In regard to the introduction of Pandarus, Kirby concludes:
“Chaucer makes us feel that here is a witty, likable chap who does not
take life too seriously and who does not hesitate to mingle friendly works
with good-natured taunts.” (127)
Pandarus also reveals that he is fairly well educated with his allusion to Niobe. In addition to the revelation of his education, this also reveals Pandarus’ penchant for a pattern of persuasion which he employs throughout his role.
“Pandarus thinks the that way to make a man do something that he does not want to do is not to tell him bluntly and baldly what course of action he should pursue, but rather, gradually to lead up to the main point, expanding on the notion in various ways and especially by quoting sufficient authority and testimony to show his plan is the correct one, in fact, the only one possible” (Kirby 133).
This demonstrates that not only does Pandarus have a classical education, but that he also maintains some grasp on the concept of psychology.
Aside from the intellectual side of Pandarus, Chaucer develops a very human aspect to this character. Chaucer purposefully places Pandarus in the role of the unrequited lover, making him seem less feeble-minded. At the same time however, Pandarus reasserts his illogical reasoning in order to convince Troilus to divulge his heart wrenching secret. Even after Troilus’ curt dismissal, Pandarus continues to badger the beleaguered knight, demonstrating yet another strong personality characteristic: tenacity. This is supported by Pandarus physically shaking Troilus.
“And with that word he gan hym for to shake,/And seyde, “Thef/ thow shalt hyre name telle,/But tho gan sely Troilus for to quake/As though men sholde han led hym into helle,”(Chaucer 36).
Consequentially frightened, Troilus tells Pandarus of his love for Criseyde, Pandarus’ niece and even goes so far as to agree to enlist Pandarus’ help in bringing his niece’s heart to the beleaguered knight.
In his dealings with his niece, issues of Pandarus’ morality comes into being, especially as his roll of the go-between for Troilus and Criseyde. “The word pander, where he has bequeathed the English language, illuminates the negative connotations that are put on his actions in modern meaning” (Berkley Research 3). In regard to Pandarus’ selling of Criseyde’s honor, one scholar believes that his loose morals would be fitting for someone of younger years, but on an older man, it would be a serious affront to his morality (Rosetti 177). A slightly more favorable view holds that as Pandarus is beholden to aide a friend, Chaucer uses the character’s charm to influence readers to view the act as less of crime. Finally, one can take the opinion that Pandarus’ actions coincide perfectly with the ideas of Courtly love and therefore are less odious (Kirby 181). However grim these opinions maybe, Chaucer, and as a result, Pandarus, takes the bull by the figurative horns and addresses the issue. Criseyde questions Pandarus after his declaration of Troilus’ love by saying:
“Alas, for wo! Why nere I deed?/For of the world the feyth is al agoon./Allas! what sholden straunge to me doon,/When he, that for my beste frend I wende,/Ret me to love, and sholde it me defende?” (Chaucer 61).
Pandarus presents his position on the basis that he is aiding a friend. But with Troilus, Pandarus argues the exact opposite. He claims he is suffering from pangs of guilt. He states that he has behaved like a pimp through true friendship and Troilus exonerates him (Chaucer 125-6). “Thus it seems that Pandarus’ moral conflict is found not only among scholars, but in the characters themselves. Both Criseyde and Pandarus realize that he is not fulfilling his duty as an older relative” and that by pleading the case for Troilus, Pandarus is dishonoring Criseyde (Berkeley Research 5).
After coaxing Criseyde to pass the night at his house and after hiding Troilus in a cramped closet, Pandarus’ actions reveal his true busy-body qualities. He is always present during the conversations of the lover and often stays past the time to leave by unobtrusively claiming to read books. It would appear that his curiosity goes beyond his desire to aide, marking him as a voyarist. However, after the momentous night when Criseyde takes Troilus to be her lover, Pandarus’ role diminished until the time of Criseyde’s betrayal is made known. In his indecision over what to do during the awkward revelation of Criseyde’s betrayal, Kirby argues that
“This powerful scene, depicting the great comic figure at a moment of high tragedy, showing his complete helplessness, his utter inability to do anything further to help his friend and yet, with it all, his great generousity and mercy, Is the last in which Pandarus appears” (Kirby 176).
This depicts the final development of the character Pandarus. He has come full circle from the amicable, helpful friend, to the original pimp, to the very soul of generosity. It is in the complexity of his character for fully demonstrating true human beings rather than the age-old stereotypes that the true genius of Chaucer is fully realized.
Unlike the imaginative character of Pandarus, Troilus follows fairly closely with the previous sources. He is the epitome of the courtly lover. Paul Baum states that
“Troilus has but one religion, that of Love. He is neither pagan nor Christian, but always a devout follower of amour courtois, an embodiment of the best elements of the code. He has not thought, commits no act, which is not in perfect harmony with the tenets of his religion” (152).
The tenets of courtly love are outlined by C. S. Lewis. They hold that the lover will always choose to serve the lady he loves, requesting that he would be the only one she allow to serve her. Secondly, he must be faithful to his lady and vice versa once the lady of his heart accepts the lovestruck knight. Furthermore, the knight will continually worship the lady and accomplish whatever tasks he deems will make himself worthy of her. Lastly, and most importantly, courtly love involves the utmost secrecy. The love shared must be kept secret less the lady’s honor (who the knight has sworn to uphold and dutybound to protect) becomes blemished.
As seen throughout the entire epic poem, Troilus duly qualifies every last tenet of courtly love. We see him smirk at those in love before he is struck by Cupid’s arrow. At the very sight of Criseyde, Chaucer writes “And of hire look in hem ther gan to quken/So gret desir and such affeccioun,/That in his hertes botme gan to stiken/Of hir his fixe and depe impressioun” (14). After Troilus has been struck by Cupid’s arrow, “he continues to mock all lovers in order to maintain secrecy about his love (Berkley Research 8). Finally upon revealing his secret to Pandarus, Troilus dedicates himself to serve Criseyde and the god of love.
“And to the God of Love thus seyde he/With pitous vois, “O lord, now youres be./Yow thanke I, lord, that han me brought to this./But whether goodesse or womman, iwis,/She be, I not, which that ye do me serve;/But as hire man I wol ay lyve and sterve” (Chaucer 19).
He proves himself worthy of his lady’s love by accomplishing great deeds in the battle against the Greeks. “At the same time, Troilus is very gentle and tender about town, illustrating the supposed ennobling qualities of loveIn a like manner, he hunts dangerous beasts, but lets the smaller one escape, thus showing his bravery and his tenderheartedness” (Berkley Research 9). Beyond these acts, Troilus demonstrates the various characteristics of the courtly love by swooning at his lady’s disapproval, becoming highly agitated and distressed over his lady’s absence. He is tormented by having to keep his love a secret, but is duty bound to uphold the secrecy. In effect, he is torn between his soul’s desire and his heart’s desire.
In addition to all of this, Troilus seems to be quite passive. He follows along with the deceits of Pandarus, despite the fact it only serves to dishonor Criseyde. When Criseyde is named for the exchange, Troilus fears that any action on his part will result in the death of his lady love. Furthermore, Troilus never doubts that Criseyde will remain faithful to him. Even at the moment of realized betrayal, Troilus treats his lady with respect as he still loves her. He states
“Thorugh which I se that clene out of youre mynde/Ye han me cast; and I ne kan nor may,/For al this world, withinne myn herte fynde/To unloven yow a quarter of a day!/In corsed tyme I born was, weilaway,/That yow, that doon me al this wo endure,/Yet love I best of any creature!” (Chaucer 305).
By claiming this, Troilus proves he is the epitome of courtly love, by holding a love that cannot be banished by the betrayal of Criseyde, which makes it an everlasting love. Thus the character of Troilus can be defined as ideal, virtuous, and noble in his love Criseyde, making him the soul of tenderness. However at the same time, by exemplifying the hero, Chaucer shows how ridiculous and pathetic the courtly lover is, especially at his most romantic moment.
In contrast to Troilus, Criseyde plays the part of the courtly lady, but Chaucer makes her a more humanly figure. Because of her realistic qualities, Gordon argues that the real tragedy belonged to Criseyde. She states
“To have developed the latent tragedy of her situation, her brightness and beauty dwindling as soon as she leaves Troy, her moment of self-realization in the presence of the crude Diomed, when she acknowledges her weakness, her feeble effort to recover as she slides backward, would have made a different poem” (157).
Gordon also claims that Criseyde’s treachery was a direct result of her father’s traitorous actions and her uncles dishonorable actions.
When Criseyde is first introduced, she is dressed in widow’s garb, mourning. She has all the honorable intentions that get pushed aside with Pandarus’ help. However, upon her first speech with Pandarus, readers gather a rather conflicting opinions of Criseyde. Despite her explicable anger over Pandarus’ proposition, Criseyde fears for Troilus’ life, believing he will actually commit suicide over her. Her fear leads her to agree to Pandarus’ deceit, making readers interpret her actions as flirting. Chaucer seems to support this by portraying Criseyde as a timid person:
“Criseyde, which that wel neigh starf for feere,/So as she was the ferfulleste wight/That myghte be, and herde ek with hire ere/And saugh the sorwful ernest of the knyght,/And for the harm that myghte ek fallen moore,/She gan to rewe, and dredde hire wonder soore,” (Chaucer 63).
According to Gordon, Criseyde’s unease over the proposition demonstrates her worldly understanding. She argues that nature of “switch love” is the central moral question of the poem, and that question that Criseyde continually deals with (Gordon 157). Furthermore, Criseyde must consider the question of honor as she is at court and gossip is a lethal weapon. Her concern here demonstrates the practical side of Criseyde. Her rational side is shown by her consideration of Troilus’ suit. She weighs the facts that he is a son of a king, a great warrior, and deemed a good man by most. She neatly traps Troilus beneath her by allowing him to serve her only under one condition: he has no other sovereign except for herself. Her intelligence is only emphasized by her capitulation to Troilus. When he asks her to yield, she responds that if she had not yielded already, she would not be in the room. Furthermore, she did not appear surprised when Troilus showed up in her chambers. All these qualities represent the humanity that Chaucer has endowed Criseyde with.
Despite the realistic qualities Chaucer endows Criseyde with, he fulfills her role as the lady love. She does not question the authority of men or fate, as demonstrated by her reaction to the news of her exchange. Furthermore, she believes that she cannot be disconnected from Troilus as her love for him binds her to him for all time. She upholds the tenant of secrecy even when people assume she is crying from joy as they congratulate her on the exchange. Criseyde even goes so far as to contemplate a slow painful death by starvation in order to stay loyal to Troilus. With her great sorrow due to her departure from Troilus, Criseyde remains blind to Diomede. Her sorrow is doubled when she fails to convince her father to return her to Troy.
This is where the tragedy of Criseyde begins, according to Gordon. Criseyde tragedy is self-deception. She never realized she was capable of betrayal until she actually committed the act (Gordon 137). It is noted that when Criseyde is listing all the reasons for her love to Troilus, she lists more of his manners than his character. Furthermore, it is noted that in the first part of the epic poem, only Criseyde’s looks and demeanor are commented upon, whereas in the second part of the poem, the reader gets a more concise view of Criseyde’s character (Gordon 137). It is not until Book V, that Chaucer refers to Criseyde as the “slydynge of corage” (272). With her acceptance of Diomede, Criseyde breaks the code of courtly love, marking her as weak and perhaps a bit of an opportunist. In fact one can argue that Criseyde’s choice of Diomede was one of practicality rather than of romance (Berkley Research 17). However, Chaucer defends Criseyde by claiming:
“Ne me ne list this sely womman chyde/Forther than the storye wol devyse./Hire name, allas! is punysshed so wide,/That for hire gilt it oughte ynough suffise./And if I myghte excuse hire any wise,/For she so sory was for hire untroughte,/Iwis, I wolde excuse hire yet for routhe” (282).
Criseyde’s fall from grace is the ultimate mark of humanity that separates her from the stereotypical ideal of the courtly lady. She recognizes she has committed a wrong, even thought she believes she can never atone for it. The very fact that she does break a tenant of courtly love demonstrates Chaucer’s willingness to create characters that delve outside the stereotype world.
It becomes obvious that Chaucer has given great thought and imagination to carefully depict his three characters to help evolve his plot and give a human interest perspective to an otherwise old story. His use of contrast is spectacularly essential. He shows Troilus to be the very typical courtly lover. Whatever derivations Troilus develops only emphasizes his uniqueness as a figure of Chaucer. In contrast to the innocence of Troilus’ love, Pandarus is portrayed as old and extremely shrew. He knows how to weasel even the most treasured secrets from a body and manipulate that to further his own interests. Pandarus is arguably one of the most original and imaginative character of Chaucer. While not as original as Pandarus, Criseyde represents the ideal courtly lady with a realistic twist. She sharply contrasts with Troilus with her rationality and even her practicality. She measures every action first, while Troilus just follows whatever way will lead him to his perceived goal. All combined, Chaucer manages to create an ideal constantly embued with originality that invokes the readers continual interest in the epic poem, Troilus and Criseyde.
Works Cited Page
Baum, Paul E. Chaucer: A Critical Appreciation. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1958.
Berkeley Research. The Development of Character in Troilus and Criseyde. Proprietary document. San Francisco, California: Berkeley Research, 1997.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Edited by R. A. Shoaf. East Lansing, Michigan: Colleagues Press, 1989.
Gordon, Ida. The Double Sorrow of Troilus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Kirby, Thomas A. Chaucer’s Troilus: A Study in Courtly Love. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1958.
Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936.
Rosetti, W. M. Chaucer’s Troylus and Cryseyde Compared with Boccaccio’s Filostrato. London: Oxford University Press, 1875.