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Troilus’ External Revelation: 
Comedy in the Second ‘Sorwe’

Tony Hahn


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Chaucer’s double sorrow Troilus and Criseyde is a dual-natured poem containing one painful tragedy and a second overlapping perspective: that of the tragicomedy. During the course of the poem, the reader (also referred to as spectator) cannot help but notice strong suggestions of comedic fabliau around Criseyde. Whether it is Troilus’ initial over-the-top obsession with her or Pandarus’ craftiness and always-playful mood, the woman that this tragedy focuses around is undeniably comedic.  Troilus seems different from Criseyde in almost every way: he is inexperienced, high class, a brutal warrior, a fatalist, and ever-serious.  During his amorous discovery and pursuit of Criseyde, Troilus also falls in love with her sense of personal honor, her freedom of will, her cheerfulness, and a very personal part of her character: her sense of humor. Troilus finally realizes the perspective of the woman he loves and, at that instant of illumination, sees his life as Criseyde may have seen it. At that point he laughs, signifying a union deeper than sexual intimacy between himself and Criseyde.
    Troilus begins as a tragic hero dedicated to discovering why the gods have decided his fate, yet he cannot comprehend the existence of freewill or the power of choice. In Book I, Troilus falls into a lovesickness. The pieces are set for an inescapable tragedy to take place. It is when Troilus discovers his feelings of love that they obsess his every thought, and these are the first signs of his loss of free will. His view on love is different from Criseyde’s: she is a woman who Alfred David remarks, “seeks fulfillment in love but not, like Troilus, apotheosis” (92). Where Criseyde makes the conscious decision to love, Troilus is bereft of that choice. When Pandarus arrives, Troilus believes without Criseyde’s love he will perish. Pandarus is difficult to classify, but in his relationship with Troilus, he acts as the sole instigator of action and often the voice of what may have been common sense in Chaucer’s day.   Pandarus, in expressing his discontent with Troilus’ apathy, aids the spectators to label Troilus’ strange behavior:
        But oones nyltow, for thy coward herte,
        And for thyn ire and folissh wilfulnesse,
        For wantrust, tellen of thy sorwes smerte,
        No to thyn owen help don bysynesse
        As muche as speke a resoun moore or lesse?
        But list as he that lest of nothyng recche—
        What woman koude loven swich a wrecche? (I. 792-8)
Pandarus does not understand why Troilus can’t help himself. More importantly, he believes Troilus is choosing not to act, which makes him a coward. Pandarus points out how no woman could love someone without the drive to help himself. If the story was a play, Pandarus might turn to the audience and laugh out loud at the suffering Troilus.  When Troilus distances himself, it is difficult to understand for not only Pandarus but spectators too, and therefore he becomes the object of comedy. His ‘folissh wilfulnesse’ to remain inactive in Books I and II is perhaps the result of his shame for having strong sexual desires for Criseyde. It eventually becomes, as will be discussed later, inaction because he does not want to impose his will upon hers (Aers 96).
    Troilus continues to be the object of criticism and humor from the perspectives of those around him and from the spectator’s view.  Aside from his zealous suffering while loving Criseyde, once he finally has a moment to speak with her, he is unable to speak. The article, “The Flaw of Troilus,” stipulates, “passages within Chaucer’s poem trace Troilus’s timidity to verbal insecurity, an inability to articulate properly his point of view” (Kearney 187). His timidity is undoubtedly part of his philosophy, for he is timid to choose, to act, and to speak. Spoken word is particularly interesting because from a Boethian worldview, words are binding rather than intentions. When Criseyde witnesses his loss of words, she does not blame him, but rather understands his good intentions towards her:
        But Lord, so he wex sodeynliche red,
        And sire, his lessoun, that he wende konne
        To preyen hire, it thorugh his wit ironne.
        Criseyde al this aspied wel ynough,
        For she was wis, and loved hym nevere the lasse.
        (III. 82-6)
This passage distinguishes Criseyde as being ‘wis’ enough to stay with Troilus despite his lesser follies. To the spectator, the beginning of this scene is comedic: Troilus complains time and again to meet this woman, but when he is finally allowed a chance, it seems to all go wrong. Spectators are comically engaged in watching Fortune’s wheel roll by Troilus and fruitlessly pass him every time (David 94). Not until Criseyde lets Troilus catch her, however, do things really get rolling.
    Criseyde changes Troilus in ways that are not immediately visible. When Troilus retreats to his room after the Parliament rules in favor of trading Criseyde to the Greeks, he is still under the impression that he can do nothing about it. In many ways he is correct. In Book IV, Troilus concerns himself with eternal things and begins a long soliloquy regarding the origin of determinism. The soliloquy is often criticized, called by Alan T. Gaylord, “confusing, clotted, harsh, dry, contradictory, and involuted […] It is ugly to hear” (34). This section of the poem is perhaps Chaucer’s joke on readers, undermining our expectations when witnessing a tragedy by giving us a logistical, step-by-step definition of determinism. More importantly, there is reason to believe that Troilus is trying to find proof of the existence of the idealized, romantic love. Even though his argument seems nonsensical at first glance, it is actually logically comparable to Anselm’s argument. For those unfamiliar with Anselm’s argument, it sets out to prove the necessity of the existence of God. Saint Anselm was a theologian and philosopher from Canterbury preceding Chaucer by more than three hundred years, so Chaucer surely knew his work.  Anselm stated that because God can possibly be imagined (as the greatest thing imaginable), he therefore necessarily exists (because if not, then something else, other than God, would be the greatest thing imaginable).  Troilus is marginally different, for he tries to prove the necessity of a man sitting in a chair: “That he mot sitten by necessite; / And thus necessite in eyther is” (IV. 1032-3). Troilus must have chosen a man sitting in a seat in desperate attempt to explicate his own dilemma while sitting in his room. Troilus tries to prove the necessity of love, the idea that put him in the seat. Troilus’ logic concludes that love is possible to imagine (as the greatest thing imaginable), and therefore it necessarily exists (because if not, then something else, other than love, would be the greatest thing imaginable).  Chaucer has Troilus reason to the very depths of his beliefs to discover that love is the cause—the necessity—encompassing everything in his imagination.
    Understanding Troilus as an unyielding lover and believer in love is essential to knowing Criseyde and her place in his ultimate revelation. Criseyde, unlike Troilus, is not simply the target of the comic fabliau, but rather an actress who is in on the joke. Before this is discussed in detail, we will first discuss Criseyde’s vastly different world of thought when compared to her lover. She most values her freewill and since, “Criseyde is constantly changing in the poem, […] in a deeper sense she never changes because she is constant in her mutability” (David 102).  She is positioned as the polar opposite of the Boethian model: living by her emotions, and judging decisions by experience. She makes intelligent decisions, which makes the internal dialogue of her thoughts interesting to behold:
                Allas! Syn I am free,
        Sholde I now love, and put in jupartie
        My sikernesse, and thrallen libertee?
        Allas, how dorst I thenken that folie?
        May I naught wel other folk aspie
        Hire dredfull joye, hire constreinte, and hire peyne?
        Ther loveth noon, that she nath why to pleyne.
        (II. 771-7)
It can be strangely entertaining to listen to Criseyde make a conscious decision to risk love with Troilus. Love can potentially take away her freedom of choice. She sees in other people’s ‘dredfull joye’ a feeling similar to her fear when she first learns of Troilus’ love for her. It is important to note the last line, translated, ‘she who loves no one, knows not why to complain.’ Unlike Troilus who thrives in self-pity, she does not admire the hardship love includes. According to Criseyde, there are aspects of love about which to ‘pleyne’ and, as we often see while she is with Pandarus, there are also parts at which to ‘lough.’
    Among those comic parts include when Troilus almost runs himself on his sword after Criseyde faints in Book IV. When seen by the comic fabliau spectator, this scene is shallow comedy. Apart from the petty humor of the situation, Criseyde comes to realize her deeper feelings for Troilus.  Criseyde’s swooning is a physical response from the depths of her heart that manifests her love for Troilus.  Furthermore, this is a moment when Criseyde begins to take on some of Troilus’ traits. She assumes, although figuratively, his need for physical support and his inability to speak, “Help Troilus!’ And therwithal hire face / Upon his brest she leyde and loste speche—” (IV. 1150-1). This surely reminds readers of how Troilus is often unconscious and asleep in bed during the harshest stages of love-sickness. During this sequence, Criseyde realizes she loves Troilus and may even partially understand the higher ideal of love that is essential to his being.
    Love continues to be potent even during what the so-called ‘betrayal’ of Criseyde. It is not so much a betrayal but rather a compromise and active (however limited) choice. In his essay, David Aers highlights the lack of options Criseyde is faced with during Books IV and V: “In agreeing that the relationship should be kept hidden in a secret oasis the lovers also affirm the society and culture which marginalizes and downgrades the values of love such as that evoked in Book III” (98). The love she feels for Troilus seems lesser because of her decision, but pragmatically it was the best choice to save her life, her body from Greek men, and her honorable place in society. Chaucer makes abundantly clear the pain she felt by having to heal the wounded Diomede:
        Men seyn—I not—that she yaf hym half hire herte.
        But trewely, the storie telleth us,
        Ther made nevere woman moore wo
        Than she, whan that she falsed Troilus. (V. 1050-3)
Chaucer is uncertain, even as the author, whether Criseyde really gave her heart to Diomede, but the ambiguity suggests the possibility that she is still ‘trewe’ to Troilus. Indeed, through narrating, Chaucer even excuses her ‘for routhe’ (V. 1097-9). She has no way of staying true to her values while still being intimate with Troilus. Deciding from the options given to her, as Aers puts it, “miserably, with self-disgust and yet resignation, Criseyde accommodates to the new man-made reality into which she has been pitched, and gradually accepts Diomede, recognizing that reunion with Troilus is never going to be allowed” (100).  Even while in the grips of war and surrounded by violent men, free will and Criseyde are inseparable.
    Without a good understanding of her relationship with Pandarus, we would only get the willful, yet more tragic part of Criseyde’s character portrait. She is always laughing and playing when Pandarus is nearby.  Their playfulness, “asserts through laughter the pleasures of eating, loving, and being alive” (David 91). For example, often Pandarus japes about Troilus’ dying from love. All but vanishing for most of Book V, Pandarus is a believer in staying alive long enough to enjoy life (David 91).  He relentlessly instigates Troilus and Criseyde’s sexual enjoyment, and even before they copulate takes pleasure in their desire for one another. Pandarus forces the letter (on which Troilus planted a thousand kisses) upon Criseyde, “‘refuse it naught,’ quod he, and hente hire faste, / And in hire bosom the letter down he thraste” (II. 1154-5). Pandarus’ enjoyment of this action is shared primarily with the spectator but probably not as much with Criseyde. The comic fabliau of this circumstance is obviously funny to the spectators whom, like Pandarus, may be willing to laugh at such dirty,  cheap humor.
    Another instance of comedy occurs when Pandarus tears off the clothes from Troilus, “And seyde, ‘ O thef, is this a mannes herte? / And of he rente al to his bare sherte” (III. 1098-9). As spectator, the reader can almost sense that a game is being played for the sheer enjoyment of the game, not for some higher ideal. Where Troilus believes he needs to be with her because of Fate, Pandarus may believe Troilus is just acting lusty, as men often do. He is unable  able to sympathize with Troilus, believing without question that men should have the initiative to act upon their desires.  
    Pandarus has an uncanny ability to know the audience he needs to impress, that is, both the reader and Criseyde. It is humorous that Pandarus can’t understand such a simple character as Troilus, when he possesses such a street-savvy knowledge of people and basic relationships. Apart from that, “Pandarus certainly knows his niece well enough to exploit her instinctive fears; perhaps he also understands that the crises he invents fulfill an emotional need for Criseyde and that she wants to be deceived” (David 98). Pandarus influences her options and hastens Criseyde’s decisions; this emphasizes mutability in the world yet degrades the value of her decisions because of their spontaneity.  Pandarus plots the situation where Criseyde is struck with wrath because Troilus was jealous of her infidelity. Whether she knows of Pandarus’ trick or not, Criseyde must act taken aback if she wants to preserve her honor. The deception caused by Pandarus is therefore an imaginative tool used by Criseyde to demonstrate to Troilus her good standing in society. All the while, those knowing of the plot get to enjoy these happenings, are removed from the drama as spectators.
    Pandarus suffers hearing the ‘pleyntes’ of both Troilus and Criseyde more than any other (save the reader). A ‘pleyne’ or ‘pleynte,’ as audible expressions of sorrow, are suitable opposites of Troilus’ much-debated ‘lough’ at the poems ending (laughter being audible joy). Chaucer uses variants of the word ‘pleyne’ more times in Troilus and Criseyde than in any of his other works; ten more instances than in the entirety of The Canterbury Tales (Tatlock 694).  Definitions and uses in The Oxford English Dictionary range from, “to utter or express something sorrowfully,” “to complain, or request redress for a wrong,” and even simply, “to make a mournful sound.” In Book III, Troilus rehearses his lines for Criseyde:      
“Mafay,” thoughte he, “thus wol I sey, and this;
Thus wol I pleyne unto my lady dere;
That wod is good, and this chal be my cheere;
This nyl I nought foryeten in no wise.” (III. 52-5)
One is scarcely able to rehearse laughter, but to practice the very ‘cheere’ and words of ‘pleynte’ is even more contrived (and ridiculous). Troilus is trying to embody the courtly model of ‘wooing’ a woman in order to win her love, but he cannot speak a word. Troilus does not want to befoul his intentions with the wrong words. This shows the major difference between Troilus and the courtly lover: a respect for the dignity of Criseyde. She is more deserving than a rehearsed recital of his ‘pleynte.’
    By being downright boring yet truly himself, Troilus is allowed to learn that Criseyde is a dynamic and fun person (especially in bed). But this education changes him for the better: “he has opened himself to Criseyde, renouncing the will to dominate; love ‘altered his spirit withinne’” (Aers 96).  He adopts, as evident in his decision to preserve Criseyde’s honor, a respect for the freedom of choice.  He is now able to turn away from Pandarus’ advice at the cost of perpetuating his sorrow alone in his room. This also demonstrates an increased sense of self-will: he decides to love Criseyde by respecting her values over his desire to be with her. His idealism has evolved even further beyond where it originally stood: it “is taken as the highest form of human love. If nothing human can be perfect, Troilus has done the best that is humanly possible. Beyond a certain point, he is powerless to make the rest of the world conform to his ideals” (Gaylord 26). Troilus’ ideal love really has no place in a world that trades humans like commodities and is dominated by male competition for dominance. The following ‘pleyte’ by Troilus about the world is later redressed by his demise:        
O soule, lurking in this wo, unneste,
Fle forth out of myn herte, and lat it breste,
And folowe alwey Criseyde, thi lady dere.
Thi righte place is now no lenger here. (IV. 305-8)
He makes a blatant attack on the world that limits his choices and in doing so shows he has evolved. His love for Criseyde will not die because he does not will it to. Troilus, though he may not realize yet, has found a reason to prefer his own subjective values instead of the values the world has set in place.  Making his single largest decision, Troilus, “suggest[s] rebellion against ‘good’ society [and] turns out to have undergone such a total ‘conversion’ that he refuses to ‘unloven’ Criseyde, whatever the outcome” (Aers 100).  When Troilus’ soul leaves his body and is in the heavens, he is still love-bound to Criseyde.
    Troilus makes a choice to attack and be killed since the world has no place for such lovers.  He runs headlong into battle and is slain by Achilles rather than Diomede, which signifies the absence of male competition for the hand of Criseyde. In her letter, Criseyde made Troilus aware of her decision, and he then knows it is people’s actions, rather than the gods’ that decide and shape the world. He chooses his own fate by continuing to love her. When breaking free, Troilus becomes unified with Criseyde’s deepest inner beliefs. He begins to imagine his life from Criseyde’s perspective; he is relieved to see a comedy:
And fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn his lokyng down he cast,
And in himself he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deth so fast. (V. 1816-22)
His disdain for the world and society’s constraint on lovers continues in the afterlife.  He holds his own view of ‘pleyne felicite’ in comparison with Criseyde’s worldly ‘vanite’ and realizes that they are the same thing. He begins to realize the powerful sorrow he feels from within can seem like just a game from without. He sees Criseyde, Pandarus, and the other spectators laughing about the enjoyable things in life, laughing even at the silly games people play. The ‘doble sorwe,’ once again, is Troilus’ tragic sorrow from within his body, and the comedic sorrow from a spectator’s point of view, from outside Troilus. He realizes, above all, that he died for his own cause: an ideal of love that held his lover’s happiness higher than his own. Overwhelmed, Troilus takes delight in the beauty and even the comedy of his own life. Troilus laughs “in himself” and finally feels the whole of Criseyde internalized into soul.







Works Cited
Aers, David. “Chaucer’s Representation of Marriage and Sexual
Relations.” Chaucer. New Jersey: Humanities International, 1986.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Ed. Stephen A. Barney.
London, New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.
David, Alfred. “Chaucerian Comedy and Criseyde.” Essays on
‘Troilus and Criseyde.’ Ed. Mary Salu. New Jersey: D.S. Brewer, 1979.
Gaylord, Alan. “The Lesson of the Troilus: Chastisement and
Correction.” Salu. 
Kearney, Milo, and Mimosa Schraer. “The Flaw In Troilus.”
The Chaucer Review 22.3 (1988): 185-91.
Tatlock, John S. P., and Arthur G. Kennedy. A Concordance to
the Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and the Romaunt of theRose. Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1927.