Troilus and Criseyde:
"Beth War of Men, and Herkneth What I Seye!"
In all of Chaucer's dream-visions, we see highly unnaturalistic female figures: a dead woman, a bird, literary legends considered as such. All are in large part absent, silenced, abandoned, in poems not in some senses about women at all. In what was for hundreds of years Chaucer's most admired poem, Troilus and Criseyde , we find a realistic female character whose importance in the text and in modern interpretive debates may appear to contrast sharply with the earlier representations of women and perhaps to pave the way for the creation of a female speaker like the Wife of Bath. But how different is Criseyde from White, the formel, or Dido? Her legendary story served as a popular and consistent anti-feminist exemplum of the fickleness of woman throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance in England; what is the relation of Chaucer's Criseyde to this tradition?
In a reading of the poem that might be assigned to the early feminist stage of Chaucer criticism, David Aers argues that in the character of Criseyde, Chaucer was "exploring the position of woman" and its contradictions. The poem indicts "society," Aers suggests, for its commodification of people and its "appalling destruction of a great human achievement." The achievement in question is specified as "mutual love, involving the total person," as Troilus and Criseyde allegedly experience it in Book III. But is this love truly mutual, and is Criseyde in fact a "total person," according to the poem? Aers's own discussion would suggest not, and in fact he all but sees the objection I would raise when he celebrates Troilus's "compassionate response" to Criseyde in Book V
(1695–1701): here, Aers says, "Chaucer manifests the quality of love and commitment that has emerged from the relationship, for the male at any rate " (my emphasis). But if it is only "for the male," how can it be considered "mutual" or "a great human achievement"? What does "at any rate" ask us not to worry about, not to look into? Must human—or is it male—"love and commitment" always depend, as it does here, on the construction of Woman not as empowered other, but as an object to be excited to love, sympathized with for her weakness and complicity, passed beyond, and judged? If so, how is mutuality possible? The easy slippage from "human achievement" to "for the male at any rate" is characteristic of a great deal of modern Chaucer criticism. What happens when we try to arrest it?
In Troilus and Criseyde , I shall argue, the rules of the game are different not only for male and female characters, but also for the figure of the male poet and his fictional heroine, with whom he sympathizes and with whom he shares salient traits. Both the narrator and Criseyde, it seems, live with, recognize, and come to symbolize what we now call the indeterminacy of language, the untrustworthiness and inadequacy of words, but the significance of this fact is read differently by modern critics in each case. For the narrator's alleged unwillingness to resolve the contradictions he sees in his world, for his openness to experience as opposed to dogma, and for his good intentions, at least, toward Criseyde, Chaucer is today often celebrated as a great poet, even by critics who disagree about the meaning of his greatness. If any character in Troilus and Criseyde shares some of these signs of greatness, however, surely it is Criseyde. She lives with endless contradictions: as Constance Saintonge was the first, to my knowledge, to point out, she is hated, demeaned, and scorned for the very qualities that her culture tells her are valuable and proper in a woman: obedience, submission, and flexibility. Like the narrator, she is also open to change; when faced with exile among her enemies, she bends to new experience and chooses the
only means to survival. Throughout, we are told, her intentions are, or seem to be, good.
But Criseyde, unlike the narrator and/or author, is praised for none of these traits; why not? Is it because she stops reading and risks emotional entanglement, while he stays safely away from any practical involvement in love? Or is it that he knows what he's doing, while Criseyde merely acts as she does out of necessity and is as determined by the discourse that she speaks as by her gender? Aers, again, implies as much in contrasting Criseyde's lack of "adequate consciousness" in Book III (where he says she is not really in control but is enacting "the complex submission of a victim to the dominating groups that control her world") with "Chaucer's own insight and art," which see and reveal the victim's plight as she, the victim, cannot. This is a troubling conclusion, however, for if we are to give Chaucer the credit for aesthetic and moral greatness, then we must assume that it is Chaucer who controls the degree of consciousness that Criseyde exhibits. To what extent does criticism mirror without seeing the fact that the artist's "insight and art," including the illusion that he stands outside discourse and politics himself, depend on portraying a woman as unself-conscious victim, reifying her victimization? When the two are so alike in their material and symbolic relations to the problems of meaning in particular, how is it that the poet becomes a judge of meaning, while this female character remains a figure whose meaning is precisely what must and can be judged?
"Is this a mannes herte?"
In Chaucer's version of the opening scene at the Palladian feast, based on stanzas 18–31 of the first part of Il Filostrato , Troilus's sudden capitulation to the love he has previously scorned and mocked is curiously interrupted, and virtually told twice. In the first telling (183–210), Troilus, devoted to no lady himself, appears in the temple leading a group of
young men and busily mocking all those around him whom he sees falling in love. Overhearing this blasphemy, the God of Love takes revenge by shooting Troilus with Love's arrow: "For sodeynly he hitte hym atte fulle; / And yet as proud a pekok kan he pulle" (I.209–10). Here then we see Troilus acted upon by the timeless agency of the male god, Cupid; the proud knight is the victim, the prey, the passive recipient of love's wound. This scene takes place well before Troilus is said to have seen Criseyde; as in so many medieval fictions, the young man falls in love with love even before he has a female object on which to focus his attentions, and it is made clear that he does so because of the agency of a superior male force, the God of Love, whom he has attempted to thwart.
At this point, the narrator interrupts the plot for fifty lines (I.211ff.) with the first of what we come to know as his characteristic, often didactic and self-reflexive digressions. Rehearsing the familiar doctrina of love, he observes that proud men must be "subgit" (I.231) to its power; there is no "fredom" (I.235) from this servitude, and he advises willing acceptance of the inevitable. The digression ends with an elaborate, metafictional comment on the need to get back to the story and "leten other thing collateral" (I.262), a concession that alerts readers to the fact that the narrator's pervasive interest in the conventional ideology of love, and its constraining psychological and social implications for men, is anything but collateral.
Then, as the story moves back to the temple and the narrator rejoins his source-text, his description of Troilus's fall seems to start all over again, as we return to a preconversion Troilus:
Withinne the temple he wente hym forth pleyinge,
This Troilus, of every wight aboute,
On this lady, and now on that, lokynge,
Wher so she were of town or of withoute;
And upon cas bifel that thorugh a route
His eye percede, and so depe it wente,
Til on Criseyde it smot, and ther it stente.
And sodeynly he wax therwith astoned. . . .
Where are we, in terms of chronology and perspective, as we read this passage? Are we to assume that Troilus has already been wounded, as we learned earlier, but doesn't feel anything until he sees Criseyde? Or are lines 204–10 to be forgotten—are we starting the story all over again in line 267, this time with a more direct, naturalistic depiction of the episode, one that dispenses with the concealing fiction of Cupid and his arrows, and thereby implies, perhaps, that Cupid is just the little boy in Troilus himself and in every male lover of women? For in lines I.267–74, as in Il Filostrato and the literary tradition it follows, it is Troilus who is now actively charged with the responsibility and agency of the glance that, although it is accidental, seals his fate. With a clear sexual innuendo that contrasts sharply with the narrator's talk of submission and constraint, this male gaze actively penetrates the crowd and smites and fixes (on) Criseyde herself. The consequence of this penetration, however, is explicitly (in Chaucer only) a kind of paralysis for Troilus: after seeing Criseyde, "sodeynly he wax therwith astoned" (I.274).
In this line, the verb "wax," together with the suggestion of stones, or testicles, at least makes possible the understanding that Troilus has an erection at the mere sight of the lady; no knowledge or reciprocal action on her part is necessary or indicated. At the same time, the term "astoned" complicates an understanding of what such independent, even involuntary phallic hardening means. Elsewhere in the poem, it is either Criseyde or a man in a highly feminized position who is "astoned," and always the term or some variant is used not with a verb like "waxen," but with verbs that suggest only minimal motion, such as sitting, standing, or moving "softely" (see, for instance, II.600, IV.354–55, and V.1728–29). In the semantic context of the poem as a whole, then, the tag (or euphemism) in line I.274 not only hints at Troilus's arousal but at the same time reveals what is problematic: the instable, provisional, and uncontrollable quality of what would seem to be an indisputable index of maleness, and the paradoxical powerlessness,
dependence, and perhaps embarrassment of even the most potent male at the mere sight of a woman who does not, as far as we can tell, return his look or know that she has been seen, smitten, and (at least figuratively, for now) penetrated.
Compounding and protracting the representation of male sexuality as a problematic and unstable experience, a few stanzas later the narrator suggests again (harkening back, perhaps, to the earlier telling) that it is in fact Troilus's , not Criseyde's, interior parts that have been reflexively penetrated by a thoroughly ambiguous agency. First, as he watches her with pleasure (I.288–89), Troilus sees Criseyde's little "deignous" gesture (I.290) and the brighter look that follows it:
. . . for she let falle
Hire look a lite aside in swich manere,
Ascaunces, "What! may I nat stonden here?"
And after that hir lokynge gan she lighte,
That nevere thoughte hym seen so good a syghte.
From this moment, Troilus's desire once again is said to be growing, and again a stanza is added in Chaucer's revision of Il Filostrato:
And of hire look in him ther gan to quyken
So gret desir and such affeccioun,
That in his hertes botme gan to stiken
Of hir his fixe and depe impressioun.
And though he erst hadde poured up and down,
He was tho glad his hornes in to shrinke;
Unnethes wiste he how to loke or wynke.
Commenting on these lines, Winthrop Wetherbee argues that the verbs "quyken" and "stiken," with grammatical subjects that are not Troilus but his desire and his impressions, indicate that Troilus's experience "happens to him "; his "only action" is to draw in his horns. But the syntactically fronted element here, the putative source and goal of his passion, "hire look in him," in line I.295, is ambiguous with regard to agency—does it refer to Criseyde's appearance, her passive, looked-
upon (by Troilus) looks, or to Criseyde's gaze, her active looking? The preceding stanza has made either reading possible, for while Troilus has been watching "hire mevynge and hire chere," her outward appearance, he has also seen the expressive, mobile, possibly seductive look she actively gives in lines I.290–93, which itself prefigures in its movement the appropriate feminine trajectory from aloof disdain to a more welcoming fairness. (At the beginning of the scene in the Temple, moreover, Criseyde stood alone, but "with ful assured lokyng and manere" [I.182].) In line I.295, then, "hire look in him" may refer back to her own active, expressive glance, or it may allude to the piercing, smiting gaze of Troilus and what that gaze fixes. The more active role of the male seems to be confirmed in line I.298, for what is both quickening and sticking in the bottom of Troilus's heart is his impression of her, which again gives agency (and possession) to his own gaze (and perhaps hints at the gap between "impressioun" and reality). Yet by lines I.300–1, in contrast to his earlier "pouring" up and down, the hero is bashful, frightened, perhaps humble, and confused; even, the metaphor of the shrinking horns might imply, detumescent.
Just a few lines later, the agency only implicitly and possibly attributed to Criseyde in the phrase "hire look" is further qualified by a fairly direct translation of a conventional claim in Il Filostrato: "Love hadde his dwellynge / Withinne the subtile stremes of hir yen" (I.304–5; compare "che Amor dimorasse dentro al raggio / di quei vaghi occhi con li dardi sui" [Il Filostrato , I.29.3–4]). We clearly return here to the earlier argument for the external agency of love, which seems to imply that neither gender has much control over what is happening. The woman's look, powerful as it may be, is merely the container or site of a power not hers to wield at will; at the same time, the effect on Troilus, now as before (and later), is paralyzing: "sodeynly hym thoughte he felte dyen, / Right with hire look, the spirit in his herte" (I.306–7).
Altogether, this complicated and protracted presentation of Troilus's allegedly precipitous fall into love, interrupted by the narrator's lengthy
aside about the conventional cultural discourse in which he enmeshes his characters and then elaborately drawn out, raises many more questions than it can answer about gender roles and agency in heterosexual relations. In interpreting the whole episode, whom should we see as penetrated by whom or what? Is Criseyde smitten with Troilus's gaze, as lines I.272–3 suggest? Or is she something even less than a passive recipient, at this point, if in fact Troilus is struck with his own "impressioun" of Criseyde, as in lines I.295–9, or with the mysterious power in the wattage she emits, as in lines I.304–5? Does the power of love come from the God of Love, as in lines I.206–10; or from the (accidental?) lighting of Troilus's own penetrating gaze on Criseyde, fixing her as the object of his previously generalized girl-watching, as in lines I.267–73; or could the power somehow belong to Criseyde's own "lokynge," or at least to a part of her own self, the lady's eyes and the rays that they "stick" in Troilus's heart?
Courtly convention, the rhetorical strategy of a quasi-oral telling, or even authorial or scribal lapse can account for the apparent confusion in this plethora of possibilities. Those who argue for the mutuality of the love between Troilus and Criseyde might see it foreshadowed here in the ambivalence of the situation, for both male and female are given some agency and some passivity; both are also subjects of the higher power of love. But to the extent that there is a myth of mutuality in this poem, we do not see it yet; Book I is clearly about Troilus's falling in love. In light of what subsequently happens, I suggest that the narrative technique here calls attention from the outset to the question of agency and power in heterosexual relations, to the confusion within courtly ideology over precisely this issue, and to the problems of male sexuality in particular, which the conventions of romantic love both conceal and exacerbate through the emphasis on role reversal. The problem that we saw in all the earlier dream-visions is literalized and treated (somewhat) realistically here, and it becomes a crucial issue that the rest of the poem addresses. The courtly, aristocratic male lover in the very act of falling in love is, by convention and by rhetoric, rendered to some degree passive and submissive; he is subject to the God of Love, to the idea, at least, of the lady, and to his own impression of her; he is, in the terms I
am trying to use and examine here, feminized and interiorized by love, or by the language of love. He is nevertheless still ostensively seeking a heterosexual relation; he fixes a real woman in his gaze as the beloved object and so must go outside himself to penetrate her real body in sexual union; in an important sense being a lover is supposed to prove, not undermine, his manhood and his class status. The would-be virtuous nobleman who loves a woman is therefore in at least a theoretical bind from which escape is all but impossible.
The postconversion story substantiates what is suggested by the temple scene. Love is as debilitating for Troilus as he knew it would be, and later Pandarus and even Criseyde are, with good reason, anxious about the threat to his manhood posed by his new status as lover. In the first direct reference to the problem, Troilus thinks to himself that to die of love would be both "unmanhod" (I.824) and sin; it would be tedious to catalogue at this point the ways in which, however, it is living for love, here as in all the dream-visions, that actually threatens to unman the typical male sufferer from lovesickness (in Chaucer, with a few exceptions, a disease specific to men). Troilus's conventional, unmanly behavior reaches new heights in Book III, where the infamous bedroom scene, as Chaucer shapes it, confirms the real difficulty: if the lover is as conventionally submissive, frightened, infantilized, and unmanned by love as he is supposed to be, he will not be able to perform like a man in an actual heterosexual encounter.
In this central scene, Troilus has been hiding in narrow, interior places for a long time. When he finally enters Criseyde's bedroom, he is so stricken by her distress that he goes completely limp: he hangs his head, falls to his knees, and begs forgiveness. Then even his tears (symptomatic of other bodily fluids as well?) dry up, and according to the narrator his "vigour" is seriously diminished:
Therwith the sorwe so his herte shette,
That from his eyen fil ther nought a tere,
And every spirit his vigour in knette,
So they astoned or oppressed were.
The narrator may further hint, delicately and humorously, at the impotence of premature ejaculation as he describes the catatonic lover: "The felyng of his sorwe, or of his fere, / Or of aught elles , fled was out of towne; / And down he fel al sodeynly a-swowne" (III.1090–92, my emphasis). As Pandarus heaves the flaccid hero into bed, he underscores the problem: "'O thef, is this a mannes herte?'" (III.1098). When Criseyde joins in the effort to revive Troilus with kisses and caresses, she makes the same point: "'Is this a mannes game?'" (III.1126).
Before their ideal love can become sexual union, the role reversal of courtly love, the softening and unmanning of Troilus, must be undone; Troilus must be made to feel like a man before he can perform like one. So, after he begs for and receives Criseyde's forgiveness, she in turn asks him to forgive her for the hurt she has supposedly done him, and calls him her "swete herte" (III.1183). Surprised, since courtly ladies customarily grant mercy, rather than ask for it, Troilus begins to act like an aggressor: "He hire in armes faste to hym hente" (III.1187). Pandarus is able to withdraw, and the narrator is able to ask an odd question that further serves to restore Troilus, rhetorically at least, to the role of active male, or even predator: "What myghte or may the sely larke seye, / Whan that the sperhauk hath it in his foot?" (III.1191–2). Although the comment dearly alludes to Criseyde's dream of the eagle in Book II, a reader paying attention to the behavior of the actors in this scene may wonder who is supposed to be the lark and who the hawk. The following stanza confirms that the characters now play the necessary, proper masculine and feminine roles. Criseyde, the equivocally innocent lark, is said to feel herself "itake," and "Right as an aspes leef she gan to quake, / Whan she hym felte hire in his armes folde" (III.1198–1201). Troilus speaks in appropriately combative terms of her capture and necessary surrender as he strains her in his embrace: "'O swete, as evere mot I gon, / Now be ye kaught, now is ther but we tweyne! / Now yeldeth yow, for other bote is non!'" (1206–8). One effect of the hero's newly hardened, combative stance is to remind us of the realistic imbalance of
power in the lovers' relationship. Troilus, the son of Priam, is in a position of legal and social dominance, soon to be augmented by moral superiority, over the daughter of the traitor Calchas. His unmanly behavior before the consummation serves among other things to gloss over the brutal fact that he gets what he wants, and it allows Criseyde to appear to consent to what would otherwise resemble all too closely the lark's powerless surrender to the sparrowhawk's attack.
Even the stable difference that might seem to be thus revealed and grounded in the biological act of heterosexual intercourse, however, is short-lived in this poem. Before the stanza is out, Criseyde once again unsettles the clear gender difference and asymmetry of power presupposed by orthodox heterosexuality. In response to his command to yield, she offers her infamous answer: " 'Ne hadde I er now, my swete herte deere, / Ben yold, ywis, I were now nought heere!" (IIl.1210–11). Whatever it means about her own state of mind, her comment undercuts Troilus's play at manliness and reminds us that the apparent return to proper gender hierarchy—female and male, the lark and the hawk—is at this point only apparent and expeditious. The whole bedroom scene, wherein Troilus finally is able to gratify his physical desire, confirms what I suggest is implicated in the temple scene, where all this desire was first aroused: romantic or courtly love, as experienced by these characters and in the conventional code by which they are shaped, is a complex performance in which traditional masculine and feminine roles are confused and the problematic instability and provisionality of gender thereby enacted.
While Troilus's resistance to his feminization begins to take active shape in Book IV, it is not an easy process, and still in Book V his nightmares suggest that he unconsciously recognizes (and wishes for?) his affinity with women; he dreams that he is experiencing precisely what Criseyde is in fact undergoing, "the dredefulleste thynges / That myghte ben":
. . . as, mete he were allone
In place horrible, makyng ay his mone,
Or meten that he was amonges alle
His enemys, and in hire hondes falle.
Troilus's dream not only evinces his identification with Criseyde but also reminds us that he is living in a beseiged city and is a warrior as well as a lover. A projection of his divided identity, the dream reinforces the fact that this war affords him no alternative, public sphere in which he can develop as a real man, without a taint of the private and the feminine. Theoretically, it might seem that war, in this poem and in the chivalric code, functions in part as an outlet for the aggression that the courtly lover must sublimate, a forum in which the manly behavior that he appears to surrender to Love can be condoned and reaffirmed. War would also seem to allow men to evade the difficulty apparently inherent in the whole sphere of heterosexual relations: with women safely out of the way, men should be able both to bond with each other against a common enemy and to compete. (As we see in the Parliament of Fowls and again in the Knight's Tale , competition between men is in fact a sanctioned way of bonding within gender and class groupings.) Back in the heterosexual world, there might be yet a further benefit to the warrior, as his prowess may whet the desire of the lady. Indeed, Criseyde's first obvious inclination to love Troilus comes when she spies him riding through the gates of the city, fresh from battle, on his bleeding horse, wearing his battered helmet and shield. The sexual implications of this bloody ride through narrow gates are brought out in her infamous blushing response: "'Who yaf me drynke?'" (11.651). Here the ideologies of love and war seem to work together, shaping and shaped by male experience and serving men's interests.
But Troilus and Criseyde does not so easily restore the problematized manliness of the lover and allow us to understand war simply as a manifestation of or solution to problems of masculine identity. The poem suggests, instead, that even war, an all-male affair in which the narrator claims not to be very interested, poses a threat to the idea of stable gender identity, and hence to the very kind of masculinity that it seems designed to express and confirm. War obviously imperils some male bonds at the same time that it offers a forum in which others may be forged. In war, one side loses and is therefore at least figuratively dominated and unmanned, as Troilus's dream of being alone among his enemies suggests. (The story of the Calydonian boar, alluded to in Cassandra's interpretation of Troilus's later dream, also underlines the point; when Ancaeus of Calydon, stunned and challenged by the manly behavior of the maiden Atalanta, rushes into baffle, he is castrated by Diana's avenger.) In the particular war the poem describes, Troy is the losing side, and as
other commentators have pointed out, the poem repeatedly affirms the feminized nature of the doomed city: an enclosed space, a city of allegedly brave and lustful men like Paris in thrall to Helen and unmanfully devoting themselves, as the episodes in the temple and at Sarpedoun's palace suggest, to frivolity, the game of love, and other lighthearted pleasures. The way these heroes are unmanned by war is also revealed in the proposed exchange of Antenor for Criseyde, which not only implies her status as a prisoner but at the same time equates the revered martial hero (who turns out to be a traitor) with a mere woman. Finally, everyone knows the reason for this war—an archetypal war, the war of Greek mythology and the literary imagination—in the first place: the Greeks have come to Troy because Agamemnon was cuckolded and because they were worried about their failure as men to protect their women from the competing lust of other men. War, like love, is a sphere in which anxiety about the aggressive masculinity it seems to affirm is both cause (for the Greeks) and result (for the Trojans). Whether between men and women or between men alone, any stable relation of culturally gendered oppositions like passive and active, prey and predator, loser and winner, inferior and superior is temporary at best.
The imbrication of lover and warrior that we see here, and the concurrent anxiety about masculinity that men in both positions suffer, retrospectively gives new meaning to the figure of Troilus as he appears at the end of Book I, in the odd tableau that the Chaucerian text arranges after Pandarus vows to help Troilus win Criseyde. One stanza expands the moment in Il Filostrato when Troilo hugs and kisses Pandaro thus:
Tho Troilus gan doun on knees to falle,
And Pandare in his armes hente faste,
And seyde, "Now, fy on the Grekes alle!
Yet, pardee, God shal helpe us atte laste.
And dredelees, if that my lyf may laste,
And God toforn, lo, som of hem shal smerte;
And yet m'athinketh that this avant m'asterte!
"Now, Pandare, I kan na more seye,
But, thow wis, thow woost, thow maist, thow art al
My lif, my deth, hol in thyn hond I leye.
Help now!" Quod he, "Yis, by my trowthe, I shal."
Troilus's apparently instinctive response here reveals the aggression, nervousness, and ambivalence that accompany his aroused sexuality. He kneels, embodying the feminized position of both the conventional devotee of love and the royal son of a beseiged city—and he thus mimics the position in which we first see Criseyde, "On knees" before Hector (I.106–12), dependent, subservient, and prayerful. But the object of his appeal and his embrace is not the loved one, nor the (potential) enemy, but the male friend with whom he feels (or, in his own interests, pretends to feel) a deeper bond. The homoerotic cast to this scene is intensified not so much when Troilus embraces Pandarus as when he speaks words to Pandarus that are elsewhere directed to the lady, laying his life in Pandarus's hands and seeking his mercy. The boast of a warrior that first escapes his lips even as he kneels in the gesture of a grateful lover—"Now, fy on the Grekes alle!"—both points up the aggressive underpinnings of sexual desire, which he has just denied (in I.1030–36), and suggests that what he hopes to prove in attaining Criseyde is not his gentle subservience but his threatened dominance, his destablized manliness. This confused (for Troilus) and revealing moment symbolizes all that the poem as a whole implies about the interaction of courtly and heroic codes and the problems that beset masculine identity in both spheres. Feminized by, among other things, the inescapable circumstances of the Trojan War, Troilus seeks proof of his masculinity in the love of the most womanly woman; the conventions of love, however, are themselves at least as feminizing as those of war, and the hero is once again represented as a man caught in a vicious circle from which he cannot escape in this life.
Troilus, moreover, is representative: although the focus is on him, he is far from alone in his sufferings either as a private lover or as a male
citizen and warrior of Troy, and other men are feminized in similar ways by the densely interwoven circumstances of love and war in this story. Pandarus momentarily escapes from the subjugation and humiliation of both Troy's military situation and his own reportedly unsuccessful love affair into the active, controlling role he plays in bringing Troilus's desire to fruition. His managerial career, however, is short-lived; by the beginning of Book IV, when the exchange is announced, he is unable to devise a successful plan. In the last book, Pandarus for the first time is said to be constrained by political circumstances (see V.281–86); at a loss for words, he can only try to divert Troilus with the unmanly entertainment at Sarpedoun's. The last time we see him he resembles Troilus in Book III, for different reasons silenced—"He nought a word ayeyn to hym answerde" (V.1725)—and paralyzed, not in erect, manly astonishment like Troilus in Book I, but in frustration and speechlessness: "astoned . . . As stille as ston; a word ne kowde he seye" (IV.1728–9).
As Criseyde's uncle, Pandarus also represents the failure of the older male generation to protect Criseyde, a lack of traditional manly virtue portrayed too in Calchas, who abandons his daughter until his renewed interest can do her more harm than good. Calchas's self-serving betrayal of Troy subverts the chief patriarchal virtue of loyalty to the city-state that Troilus later embodies, and his wiliness and prophetic skills suggest traits often assigned inside and outside the poem to women. Even Hector, the older brother and the only man said to be stronger than Troilus himself, is unable to protect Criseyde, although he claims to wish to do so. But no man in the poem can offer the wall of manly steel that a woman as weak and endangered as Criseyde would arguably need and that she herself thinks she has found in Troilus. In the next section, I ask what this means in terms of the figure who is constructed by this story to account for the failure of human love, truth, language itself: Criseyde. For despite the poem's critique of both romantic and martial heroism and its resistance to any simple solution to the problems of manliness, Criseyde as archetype of wommanhede is still positioned in the place of, as the figure of, all moral and linguistic error and instability.
She that nyste what was best to rede.
In an early description of Criseida in the temple, Boccaccio says that she surpasses other ladies in beauty as the rose surpasses the violet. The Chaucerian rendering of the passage substitutes for this conventional poetic figure a comparison that has been described as both "bizarre" and "prosaic": "Right as oure firste lettre is now an A, / In beaute first so stood she, makeles" (I.171–72). To my knowledge, only an historical explanation has been offered to account for this odd revision—Chaucer means to compliment Anne of Bohemia. However, the substitution may better bespeak the specific textuality and conventionality of the Chaucerian Criseyde and of the feminine position in culture and language as it is confronted and constituted in this poem. Criseyde's beauty is first among women, peerless and preeminent, just as A is the first letter of the alphabet; the Western poetic system of signs and symbols in which the story is written begins, as it were, with the character of the beautiful Woman. Like a letter of the alphabet, she incites reading and writing. She is available for use in the composition of infinite numbers of larger units of writing (words and texts); alone she has no meaning, but as part of these larger units she means different things at different times.
Such a comparison begins to suggest, too, what so many modern commentators have described as Criseyde's most important trait: her ambiguity, her slipperiness as both a sign and a represented personality. As Charles Muscatine puts it in an oft-quoted formulation, "The difficulty of assessing the nature of Criseyde is almost proverbial . . . . Her ambiguity is her meaning." Mark Lambert gives credit to Criseyde's ambiguity for the appeal of the poem as a whole: "It is in good part because the reader must keep reinterpreting her that the entire poem shimmers as it does." Both Criseyde's notorious ambiguity and modern readers' pleasure in it, however, merit reconsideration and qualification.
Following an exhaustive analysis of analogues both previous and subsequent to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde , another modern scholar, Gretchen Mieszkowski, has argued that Criseyde's "final meaning" is fully fixed: no medieval reader would be fooled into thinking, as many twentieth-century critics have thought, that the apparent sympathy of Chaucer's narrator for his version of Criseyde reflected any true departure from her traditional function as a type of female weakness and unreliability. Two rarely discussed aspects of Chaucer's rendering of this story support Mieszkowski's point and extend its significance: first, Criseyde's characterization as a realistic female personality against a backdrop of mythic women; and second, the ambiguity of the men in the poem, whose words and actions Criseyde is obliged to interpret. Criseyde herself is just ambiguous enough to seem like a real woman, sufficiently in control of her intentions (which we can never fully know) to be held accountable for her behavior, but not strong enough to escape her fate, the meaning imposed on her.
The first strategy I want to explore by which Troilus and Criseyde actually fixes Criseyde's final meaning entails consideration of the mythic background that is original to Chaucer's version of this old story. In Criseyde, the central and psychologically developed female character, the narrative embodies one side of the double figure of fallen woman in the Middle Ages—her lack of control over her body, the world around her, and even the inner world of her own beliefs and perceptions—while alluding in embedded stories of other literary women to the other side of the picture—stereotypically feminine powers that prove dangerous to men. To put it another way, we might say that Criseyde is in the psychologically realistic foreground of the poem; but her meaning and function are shaped in part by the deployment of her character against a well-developed literary tradition that offers sharply contrasting images of women.
Early in the poem, this background intersects the foreground in the allusion to the Ovidian tale of Procne and Philomela that frames the long opening scene of Book II, wherein Pandarus first speaks to Criseyde
on Troilus's behalf. Initially, Pandarus is wakened from his own lovesick half-sleep by "The swalowe Proigne, with a sorowful lay" (II.64), who "so neigh hym made hire cheterynge / How Tereus gan forth hire suster take" (II.68–69), and he sets off forthwith for his niece's palace (II.77). The valence of the brief allusion at this point is not clear, or at least not single. There may be an indirect parallel, for example, between Tereus's betrayal of a sister-in-law in the myth and Pandarus's betrayal of a niece; or it may be Troilus, the hero who actually becomes Criseyde's lover, who is made analogous to Tereus the rapist in an early moment of dark foreshadowing. If the interpretive emphasis is laid instead on the correspondence between Criseyde and the female characters in the myth, however, the beginnings of a pattern in the representation of Criseyde emerge. Criseyde, like Procne and Philomela, is in some sense victimized by circumstances; and yet no matter how sympathetically we construe Criseyde in order to call attention to her victimization, she seems very unlike the two Athenian sisters. Where Philomela is without question raped, for instance, Criseyde, by most legal and lay definitions of this crime, is not, for in the bedroom scene in Book III and elsewhere she declares herself to be a willing, and, some would say, initiating partner.
At the same time, Criseyde ironically differs in another way from the mythic sisters: she turns out to be far less powerful, in the not very long run, than the betrayed Procne and the raped, brutalized, and silenced Philomela. In Ovid, the latter manages to break the silence Tereus sought to impose on her when he brutally cut out her tongue by using her archetypally feminine skills at the loom, making a weaving that tells the truth without words—a mode of communication to which, as we shall see, Criseyde in vain aspires. The wordless work of this female artist is sent to Procne, who can instantly read the text(ile) correctly and act on her own understanding—whereas Criseyde, as we shall also see, is ever
the misreader. In a rage, Procne rescues her sister and then avenges her by killing her own son, ignoring his cries of "Mater! Mater!" and serving his flesh to his father, Tereus. The Ovidian story seems to say that women will not be silenced by even the most extreme means, that female victims of the most brutal male violence can collectively punish men by turning their womanly skills of weaving, mothering, and feeding against them.
Criseyde, on the other hand, cannot bear witness in the same way as Procne and Philomela to the power of women to tell their wrongs, to the force of sisterhood, or to mythical male fears of women as sexual partners and mothers. She never complains (or seems to perceive) that, as some modern readers believe, she has been abandoned and victimized, or at least taken advantage of, by a series of men—her father, her uncle, and the military leaders of Troy, including Troilus himself—who, like the brother-in-law Tereus, ought to protect her. She never actually threatens the well-being of any of these men; Pandarus's and Troilus's warnings that she will be responsible for their deaths if she does not love Troilus are reiterated so often that the idle and conventional nature of this charge is apparent. Notably, Criseyde is not represented, like Procne and Philomela, as anyone's sister (although she does have a niece), and she gets anything but support from other women in the poem. Other female characters only appear in the poem when Criseyde's isolation from them is crucial: when, wittingly or not, they encourage her to accept the ideology of love that dooms her (like her niece Antigone), when they fail to guard her virtue (like the women who accompany her to Pandarus's house), or when they misunderstand her (like those who come to console her for the exchange and think she is weeping for the loss of their friendship).
Criseyde's dissimilarity to Procne and Philomela is underlined when the myth resurfaces to bracket the scene of her first arousal to love. In a mirror image of Pandarus's awakening to the chatter of the swallow, Criseyde, with her new problem, falls asleep to the song of the nightingale (II.918–24). The noise of one bird-sister rouses Pandarus from his
own sexually frustrated torpor to the possibility of vicariously indulging male lust, while the song of the other—coming after Pandarus's scene of persuasion—lulls Criseyde to a sleep in which her wavering guard can slip. In between Pandarus's awakening and Criseyde's falling asleep, courtly rhetoric has inserted itself to disguise the violence of the original myth. For when Criseyde hears the nightingale, he does not sing, as Philomela wove, of betrayal and brutality; like the nightingales in most poetry of the Middle Ages and later, he warbles instead "a lay / Of love, that made hire herte fressh and gay" (II.921–22). Immediately after his song, Criseyde dreams her dream of painless violation, in which the white eagle tears out her heart and replaces it with his own, "Of which she nought agroos, ne nothyng smerte" (II.930). This dream thus evokes and contains, like the poem as a whole, the sexual violence and mutilation that the myth of Procne and Philomela, the song of the swallow and the nightingale, brings to mind and then sets in contrast to Criseyde's story.
Criseyde is also set beside and against another mythic woman who is frightening and dangerous to men in a different way: Helen of Troy. Both Criseyde and Helen are actual characters in this poem, women living inside the gates of Troy, and both have significant relations to men in the enemy camp (a father and a husband, respectively), bonds which suggest the feared alliance of beautiful women and enemy forces. Both Helen and Criseyde are so enchanting that they unintentionally, at least at first, tempt the sons of Priam to put love of a woman before patriotic duty, and both thus represent the myth of potent female sexuality that holds in sway the strongest of men and the nations they form and defend. The legendary power of Helen is apparently still in full force; Deiphebus notes, for instance, that Helen "'may leden Paris as hire leste'"(II.1449). Criseyde is inscribed into a very different kind of legend. By the end of the poem we might say that she has, ironically, lost her sexual hold over Troilus because she is in turn equally attractive to
Diomede, and her threatening feminine beauty is vitiated and made into an inevitable moral failing.
Still other aspects of those legendary powers of women that the womanly Criseyde does not exhibit are evoked near the end of the poem, where another mythic reference added to the Chaucerian version of the story both sums up and expands the point I have been making. Asked to interpret Troilus's dream of the boar in Book V, his sister Cassandra launches into "a fewe of olde stories" (V.1459), offering a highly abbreviated version of Ovid's tale of the Calydonian boar (Metamorphoses VIII.270–525) in order to link the boar in Troilus's dream with Diomede by tracing his ancestry through the male line, through his father, Tideus, to Meleager, slayer of the Calydonian boar. There are many interesting intertextual effects here, but most important to my argument are the parts of the story that Cassandra pointedly foreshortens or omits (as in V.1482–84), especially as they allude to the figures of Atalanta and Althaea. In Ovid, Atalanta is an ambiguously gendered huntress: "As for her face, it was one which you could truly say was maidenly for a boy or boyish for a maiden," obsessively beloved by Meleager and fiercely resented by other men, especially after her spear is the first to wound the boar. The men are subsequently unmanned in their efforts to show her up; as Ancaeus, vowing vengeance, rushes into baffle, "the boar . . . fiercely struck at the upper part of the groins with his two tusks." In the fight that ensues when he attempts to give the spoils of the hunt to Atalanta, Meleager kills his maternal uncles. His mother Althaea then murders her son, as Procne does, to avenge her own kin.
In Chaucer, yet again, Criseyde's dissimilarity to frighteningly powerful mythic women, manly Atalanta and maternal Althaea, stands out. As if even the appearance of any possibly masculine traits needs to be firmly interpreted, the narrator early on glosses Criseyde's tallness, noted in Il Filostrato , by insisting that there is no ambiguity about her womanly looks: "creature / Was nevere lasse mannyssh in semynge" (I.283–84). Later Troilus, too, harps on Criseyde's womanliness, choosing epithets and endearments that stress her exemplary femininity (e.g., III.106, 1296,
1302, 1740–41, V.244, 473–44). The possibility that Criseyde is a mother simply never comes up in the sources, but the Chaucerian narrator simultaneously alludes to and dismisses it in his seemingly gratuitous claim of ignorance and indifference: "But wheither that she children hadde or noon, / I rede it naught, therfore I late it goon" (I.132–33). Criseyde might be a mother, and therefore like Althaea or Procne dangerous to more men than Troilus; but we can let that fear go, the poem as a whole confirms. True womanhood, as inexorably defined in the person of the realistic, attractive heroine, does not entail the frightening, maternal vengeance against father and son alike of Procne and Althaea any more than it involves the competitive, manly prowess and ambivalent appearance of Atalanta, or even the more subtle and appropriately feminine skills of the speechless weaver, Philomela, or the beautiful and politically savvy Helen. These manifold powers for which the men of Western myth seem to fear women—their mothers, the unattainable ladies of their dreams, and their actual female sexual partners and victims—are densely and deftly embedded in the mythic substratum in which the Chaucerian story of Troilus and Criseyde is grounded. For all its infamous ambiguity, the representation of Criseyde denies these powers to the central, verisimilitudinous, and psychologically vivid female character in the poem. As the salient features of Criseyde constructed by the interaction of foreground and background in the poem offset the very threats of femininity to which the text repeatedly alludes, Criseyde's "final meaning" is fixed as both real and paradigmatic.
Criseyde's presumed ambiguity can also be more directly and complexly interrogated from a second direction. The modern critical emphasis on this aspect of her depiction, and on the linguistic and interpretive problem she is thereby thought to represent, would seem to be supported by a commonplace of much medieval theorizing about the relation of readers and texts: the reader is a man, and the text—especially the problematic fictive text—a woman who may seduce him with her heady wiles, her beautiful duplicity, and her fleshy presence, unless he penetrates and masters her. Troilus accepts and reiterates this trope in his view of Criseyde at many points, and most markedly in conjunction with the consummation of their sexual relationship, when he speaks of Criseyde's eyes as "nettes" (III.1355) and adds: "'Though ther be mercy writen in
youre cheere, / God woot, the text ful hard is, soth, to fynde!'"(III.1356–57). But neither Troilus's conventional reading of Criseyde as the mysterious, mystical, and entrapping body of the female text nor the modern critical consensus about her titillating ambiguity tells the whole story. The emphasis on the enigmatic and equivocal nature of Criseyde as, paradoxically, a site of crucial meaning, occludes something equally important, although harder to assimilate, about the poem's representation of this female character. Criseyde is not only, like the letter A , a cipher for men to manipulate and a symbol to the readers, both inside and outside the text, who can construct meaning out of ambiguity and thus redeem the infidelity of women and words. She is also characterized as an unsuccessful and relentless interpreter of the words and intentions of others. At the level of dramatic interaction, Criseyde is at the very most no more ambiguous than the people and events around her: that is, no more ambivalent and disingenuous as a represented personality, and no harder to interpret as a character. If we look quite closely at the Chaucerian telling, it is indeed she who is most often cast as the reader of hard texts, and her seductions are quite literally shown to be abetted by her response to a variety of male-authored discourses, both spoken and written.
Books II and III tell us initially that reading is a fraught and gender-differentiated activity in which the woman character is baffled and ma-
nipulated by the concealed intentions of male speakers and the dominant cultural discourses, none of which serve either her personal or her positional interests. As if to situate Criseyde even more firmly in the highly textualized reality of this poem and to identify her as a reader in a narrow as well as a broad sense, the drama of interpretation in which Criseyde so often plays the role of inept and unempowered audience opens in Book II, in an episode once again original to Chaucer's version of the story, on a scene of actual reading. Come to woo his niece for his friend, Pandarus finds her in "a paved parlour" with two other women, listening to a third woman reading from a book, "the geste / Of the siege of Thebes" (II.83–84). Before Pandarus begins to put his own plan into action, he and Criseyde briefly discuss the story as she has heard it read so far; Pandarus says he knows it well, all twelve books. The gendered difference here is suggestive. Reading in this instance is an activity that we see women doing together, in a private place, until they are interrupted. Pandarus, the male intruder, establishes himself as one who has elsewhere already read and therefore knows the whole story, just as he will control the plot in the rest of Books II and III.
The failure or futility of Criseyde's efforts to control events, moreover, is blatantly underscored by the content of the reading here, for, as Cassandra later tells Troilus, Diomedes is a son of Tideus, a hero killed in the siege of Thebes (see V.1485ff.). In the poem, the Theban story is only later implicated in the Trojan one, but the early allusion reminds us that from the beginning the plot is in fact fixed, and Criseyde, entering part way through the story, can neither know this nor escape the part she is destined to play. For the poem's archetype of wommanhede , then, reading in old books is defined both as a personally significant, even determining activity—she is hearing the beginnings of the story in which she is already caught up—and a passive, unself-conscious one, in which the reader hears her own fate read, just as she falls into her place in an already written text, without knowing it: "al unwist" (I.93).
Following up on the implications of this literal scene of reading, in which we see Criseyde enmeshed at several levels in old stories, we find that the problem of reading the meaning of others' words and actions continues to be foregrounded in the repetition of the terms "mean/meaning" and "intend/intention" throughout the poem, in another pattern created only in Chaucer's telling. This pattern begins with Criseyde's efforts in Book II to understand precisely what Pandarus wants from her. On his first visit, he characteristically and strategically obfuscates the suggestion he has come to make by hinting at a wonderful secret and then refusing to tell it. He thus sets Criseyde up to ask, for the first of many, many times, a crucial question: "'Shal I nat witen what ye meene of this?'" (II.226). "'No,'" he says, "'this thing axeth leyser'" (II.227). Pandarus's answer is typically equivocal: false in one way, true in another. He intends to tell her of Troilus's secret passion quite soon; at the same time, however, a real answer to her question is "no." She will never know for sure what Pandarus means, or at least her suspicions or her understanding can never be openly acknowledged or confirmed. Pandarus's method is to tease and to deceive, and moreover the rules of the courtly love game forbid talk that is too direct or too frank. The situation described here and throughout this part of the poem (see, for further instances, II.267–73, 386–87, 473, 665; III.124–26) seems to bear witness to R. F. Green's suggestion that the ambiguity of courtly men's discourse was the problem any historical fourteenth-century noblewoman confronted as she struggled to interpret "luf-talkynge" and protect her honor: "The social reflexes of the medieval noble woman, at least in the later Middle Ages, needed to be far sharper than her modern counterpart's if she were to maintain the precarious balance between courtesy and propriety."
Criseyde's insistent, repetitious, quite possibly arch and yet apparently futile attempt to discover the deliberately obscured meaning and intentions of Pandarus and Troilus is met by their even more insistent claims that whatever she may suspect, they mean well. Pandarus peppers his discourse in Book II with direct protestations of goodwill that can only call our attention to his evasion and bad faith (see, for example, II.295, 360, 363–64, 437–38, 580–81, 592–93). Readers are licensed to see that he protests too much and that he intends precisely the "vilenye" and
"yvel"—those are his own terms—that he keeps indicting as a false interpretation of his words. As Pandarus speaks, the possibility that words faithfully convey (good) intentions is incrementally undermined, even as the fact is established that Pandarus has clear and conscious intentions to hide from Criseyde.
Already in Book III, moreover, the integrity of Troilus's own speech is compromised by the scene in which for once he does not merely follow Pandarus, but takes the lead in controlling and concealing meaning and using wordplay to acquit himself and his friend of wrongdoing. Here we see again not only that Pandarus and Troilus spend the night together more frequently than Criseyde and Troilus do, but also that the two men truly understand each other's desires and meaning, clearly and without the need of words. (See, for example, Pandarus's assurance to Troilus: "'For wel I woot, thow menest wel, parde,'" III.337). The depth and centrality of the homosocial bond and its intended impact on the semantic system itself is confirmed in Troilus's substitution of the words "gentilesse, / Compassioun, and felawship, and trist" for the term that Pandarus dares not speak to him: "bauderye" (III.397). His rationale for the semantic play, "for wyde-wher is wist / How that ther is diversite requered / Bytwixen thynges like . . . " (III.404–6), sounds like a scholastic quibble, the use of logic to support a private, personally beneficial reinterpretation of communally authorized meaning and to lay claim to the power to make and revise convention as necessary. His high-minded interpretation of the nobility of Pandarus's actions is problematized, and again the priority of the homosocial alliance is confirmed, in the offer he makes in the very next lines. So that you will know I do not think your service "a shame . . . or jape," he says, just tell me which of the women I control you want, and she's yours, "'my faire suster Polixene, / Cassandre, Eleyne, or any of the frape'" (III.408–10).
This scene encapsulates the efforts of Troilus and Pandarus to have and act on intentions, to retain power over the meaning of words, and
the ambiguities of their position. The equation of Criseyde with "any of the frape" of women should seem inconsistent with Troilus's other protestations of love; later, for instance, he rebukes Pandarus for suggesting that since there are lots of lovely ladies in Troy, the exchange of Criseyde is a minor problem. What the apparent inconsistency reveals, however, is a single underlying assumption about women. All that keeps Criseyde from crossing the fine but fatal line between a Mary and an Eve, a White and a Dido, an otherwordly ideal and "any of the frape," is her relation to Troilus, whose perception of her, his "fixe and depe impressioun," is what defines her (most of the time) as innocent, trustworthy, and good, and in turn defines him as loving, trusting, and noble. As we shall see, however, he too is a misreader, especially when the text is Criseyde.
Criseyde is not represented as blind to this problem of reading, the fact that she is obliged to interpret the intentions of men who do not say what they mean or mean what they say. She is characterized as worried about Pandarus's meaning from the outset, and ironically it is her awareness that (his, and perhaps her) words can deceive that leads her to invest herself in the false hope of something that can transcend language—that is, love. She yearns to overcome both the unreliability of men's words and her own uncertainty, her incapacity as a woman and as a reader to control or know for sure what people mean and intend. Consequently, she works hard to convince herself that it is possible to do so and that Troilus, unlike any other man she knows, can be trusted (see, for instance, III.162–66). Explaining Criseyde's conversion to love even before the physical culmination, the narrator affirms that what attracts her to Troilus is his apparent ability to bridge altogether the gap between utterance and intention, words and meanings, that as a struggling reader, a betrayed daughter, and a solicited niece, she has felt and feared from the beginning: "It semed hire he wiste what she thoughte / Withouten word , so that it was no nede / To bidde hym ought to doon, or ought forbeede" (III.465–67, my emphasis).
In the story's first mention of Criseyde, before she is named, she is described as a daughter that the traitor Calchas has left behind, "Al unwist" (I.93) and in fear for her life, "As she that nyste what was best to rede" (I.96). Repeated twice more in the last two books (IV.679, with minor syntactic variation, and V.18), this line might serve as a motto for the role of Criseyde as an unknowing, necessarily persistent but ineffectual reader of deliberately obscure texts, authored by men with intentions that they cannot admit (even perhaps, in Troilus's case, to themselves).
In this phrase, the verb reden does not literally refer to the reading of (written) words. In the fourteenth-century lexicon, as elsewhere in this poem, reden carries, along with its chief modern meaning, one of several earlier senses, some of which survive into Modern English and probably pertain in I.96: to give advice or counsel; to take charge, govern, or control; to interpret, perceive, or understand something obscure. In the context of Troilus and Criseyde as a whole, nevertheless, reden , in this phrase repeatedly used to describe the heroine, invokes and links the whole range of possible meanings. "She (that) nyste what was best to rede" encapsulates the complex of social, political, and linguistic activities that the female character wants to but cannot do and at the same time figures the relation between a woman's reading (a book, a cultural text, a man's social and sexual intentions) and holding responsibility and power (over one's own and others' actions).
Love brings Criseyde "joie" (III.469), then, when it seems to minimize the difficulty of knowing "what was best to rede" by simply making reading and interpretation unnecessary, short-circuiting the deceptiveness and ambiguity of fallen language, doing "withouten word." But neither Troilus nor the version of ideal love he represents can so easily resolve the problem of language for Criseyde or for any other reader. Love, unlike reading, is supposedly the sphere in which desire masters reason and words are redundant; the poem affirms, however, that despite Criseyde's hopes it is reading, an activity so far at least controlled by men, that directs love and fuels desire.
Why not conclude, as other readers have done, that the representation of Criseyde as a woman trying her best to exert control in a world where no man can be trusted reveals the narrator's (and/or the author's) sympathy for women in general and for this victim of ideology in particular? One problem that such a reading elides returns us precisely to the point at which we began: the problem of Criseyde's own ambiguity, which is not erased when we sketch in the fuller picture, as I have tried to do here, of her uncertainty in the face of other characters' ambiguities. Any discussion of Pandarus's and Troilus's deliberate obfuscation of an intention that knows itself to be illicit, for instance, also entails a further question that readers are directly impelled by this narrative to ask: when does Criseyde realize what Pandarus wants her to do with or for Troilus?
The narrator characteristically hints that Criseyde understands precisely what Pandarus has in mind at least as early as II.589–90, when she responds to his slip of the tongue with a giggle: "'Nay, therof spak I nought, ha, ha!' quod she; / 'As helpe me God, ye shenden every deel!'" At the very end of Book II, however, she is still described as "Al innocent of Pandarus entente" (II.1723), ignorant at least of his specific plan to lead her into the bedroom at Deiphebus's, where Troilus is pretending to be sick. Hints that she knows nothing or that she knows everything, throughout Books II and III, are always only hints, not clear proof of either Criseyde's ignorance and victimization or her knowledge and agency.
Augmenting rather than resolving this conjunction of innocence and complicity, particularly in Book II, Chaucer either adds to or revises Il Filostrato significantly, and we see Criseyde both as subject to discourses that she either encounters by chance or has thrust upon her and as participant in the process of internalizing the beguiling meanings on which Pandarus and the ideology of romantic love insist. Take, again, the moment when Criseyde glimpses that icon of love and masculine sexuality, the baffle-bloodied Troilus, from her window. In Boccaccio, Troiolo is seen after her internal debate; the repositioning of this scene in Chaucer, so that it precedes Criseyde's solitary deliberations, seems to emphasize the importance to her subsequent decision of what and how Criseyde sees. Criseyde, we are told, looks at the hero's bloodied horse and battered armor, "And leet it so softe in hire herte synke, / That to hireself she seyde, 'Who yaf me drynke?'" (II.650–51). The formulation succinctly suggests that Criseyde is both responsible for the impression that the visual text makes on her—she "let it" sink into her heart—and acted upon by an intentionally intrusive, penetrating, but obscure force; her own sense that she is acted upon by an unknown outside agent is reflected in the question she asks.
So too when Criseyde overhears her niece Antigone sing a "Troian song" (II.825) about the bliss of love and when she is forced by Pandarus to read a written and, though formulaic, more personally directed text, Troilus's letter (II.1093ff.), we see that Pandarus's plot and Troilus's desire are aided and abetted by the direct, sensory impact of a cultural discourse that Criseyde on one hand resists, or at least hesitates to rely on, and on the other hand wants to believe and so willfully internalizes. The emphasis in Book II on Pandarus's control over a meaning that he artfully conceals from Criseyde is summed up in the cliff-hanging close of the
book, as we see Criseyde about to be led into Troilus's sickroom: "Al innocent of Pandarus entente . . . arm in arm inward with hym she wente" (II.1723–25). Criseyde is literally, physically drawn further into the plot, and towards the bedside, at once without complete understanding—"al innocent"—and yet, and therefore with complicity, "arm in arm" with Pandarus.
We cannot, in short, view Criseyde's position as misreader as a position of either full innocence or full complicity, and the effects of her carefully constructed ambiguity are multiple and critical to the situation of characters and readers alike. Most obviously, the meaning of Criseyde and her representative womanhood is again solidified. The protracted and wavering course of arousal for the female staged in Book II and then continued into Book III reinforces the notion that whereas Troilus falls in love instantaneously, and despite his conscious intentions, Criseyde ponders at great length, hesitates, resists, and at some point chooses to consent. The difference suggests not only a physiological distinction but also, more interestingly, the discursive nature of female sexuality and the common notion that although a man cannot help himself, a woman can. In puzzling over Criseyde's claim that she has already yielded to Troilus, in lines II.1210–11, A. C. Spearing brings out another effect. "When exactly was the moment of yielding?" Spearing wonders, and then answers his own question: "We cannot tell: it seems to have happened in one of the gaps between scenes (perhaps after Criseyde awoke from her dream in Book II?) rather than in any specific scene." What does it mean, however, when a narrative locates the moment of female consent in "the gaps between scenes"? It may mean, I suggest, that we can never determine exactly when—or even if—Criseyde "yielded," because her consent is a fiction, one that she is forced to invent, believe in, invoke, and revise at crucial points in order to save face and survive. As Catharine A. MacKinnon has noted in studying modern legal definitions of female consent in cases of rape, given Western cultural constructions of gender, the very notion of a woman's consent is illusory. In yet
another way, the represented ambiguity of Criseyde's feelings and intentions serves to vitiate her power as either complicitous agent or innocent victim: as a woman and a reader, Criseyde in Books II and III is not allowed to be either unequivocally desirous (like a Criseida or a Helen) or completely indifferent (like an Atalanta, say, or like the formel eagle in the Parliament of Fowls ). Both unswerving desire and utter indifference are women's powers that Troilus and Criseyde alludes to but discharges, here as before, in the representation of Criseyde.
Effects of Criseyde's ambiguity that go beyond her character and the representation of femininity it enables emerge, moreover, when we consider what happens to the position of the reader and the problem of reading in Books IV and V. Through its insistent connection of the ambiguities of male meaning and intention with the story of Criseyde's seduction in Books I–III, I have suggested, the poem initially establishes an equation between (mis)reading and the feminine position. In that last, original scene in Book II, however, we already see that other characters, too, may be beguiled by the act of reading. Two others are cast as literal readers here: Eleyne and Deiphebus, who both "nothyng knewe of his entente" (II.1665). These guilty innocents, too, are manipulated and blinded by reading; Pandarus asks their advice about a letter from Hector, which they go off to ponder at some length. In Book III, after he leads Troilus to Criseyde's bedside for the first time, Pandarus too reads, or pretends to, as he withdraws to the fireside with the light, "and fond his contenaunce, / As for to looke upon an old romaunce" (III.979–80). Here, as throughout the poem, the reality of love is both contrasted with and intersected by the fiction of love. As in the final scene of Book II, moreover, (the pretence of) reading enables (the fiction of) privacy; so too Criseyde's intermittent sense of her private selfhood—"I am myn owene womman" (II.750)—is brought out by her struggle to read.
In Books IV and V, however, even Troilus and Pandarus are suddenly stripped by circumstances of their apparent power to establish meaning and stage events, and this shift returns attention to the general feminization of male experience that is at issue in the poem as a whole. The two men are explicitly reduced to the passive, constrained position as readers that they previously played with, feared, and resisted. Troilus is perhaps most notably put into the uncomfortable position of a reader confronting a difficult text whose meaning does not serve his interests or desires during his long wait for Criseyde's return. As he stares at the closed facade of Criseyde's empty house and rides by the places where
he has seen Criseyde dance, laugh, or sing, he now reads the story of their former love, and he seems to relish the textual, fictive quality of that past experience as he remembers it: "'Men myght a book make of it, lik a storie'" (V.585). Although the story of Troilus and Criseyde is in fact ended, Troilus keeps trying to read against the set, closed text, but the only way to resist the meaning that frustrates him is to be a bad, self-deluding reader. But that strategy fails, and we see the error and finally the impossibility of his attempted misreading. When he decides he has miscounted the ten days during which he awaits Criseyde, his self-deluding comment has ironic force: "'I understonde have al amys'" (V.1186). Troilus's misapprehensions reach a kind of comic, debasing nadir—debasing for Criseyde, above all—when he mistakes a "fare-carte" for his lady (V.1158–62). Even when Troilus finally understands and accepts the true meaning of Criseyde's absence, he still misreads: he deduces, for instance, that Criseyde deliberately gave Diomede the brooch that was a gift from Troilus, "'for despit, and ek for that ye mente / Al outrely to shewen youre entente'" (V.1693–94). Several hundred lines earlier, however, we were directly shown Criseyde giving that brooch to Diomede, with no suggestion that she did it in "despit" (see V.1037–50) or that she has any such dear or deliberately motivated intentions.
Throughout Books IV and V, Pandarus and Troilus repeatedly make this critical misreading: they assume that Criseyde can control meaning and have intentions (see, for instance, IV.173, 656–57, 853, 1416–18), but the poem suggests otherwise and insists that the archetypal misreader of others cannot suddenly become an author of her own intentions and acts. The assumption that Criseyde has intentions to be consulted and even relied upon cannot by itself bring into being what was never before imagined or allowed. If the Criseyde we read of has any intentions other than to survive in a hostile world, they are presented as no more than intentions; she cannot act on them now any more than she could earlier, or any more than Pandarus and Troilus can, when larger forces take over. She cannot single-handedly solve the problem of language and wield the power that would fuse word and deed, wish and fulfillment. In Book V, any hope that Criseyde had of trusting to the good intentions behind men's words, or of transcending words altogether, is even more emphatically dashed, and in the Greek camp Criseyde's role as misreader is replayed in a different place; but only the names, not the gender relations, have changed. Another male speaker, Diomede, takes over; he
successfully reads the meaning that others try to conceal while obscuring his own intentions in order to revise Criseyde's.
The reappearance of the man who at once conceals and controls meaning, for the time being, confirms the point that to be a (desirable) woman is in some sense to be a poor, submissive reader (see for example V.88–89, 105, 150–51, 775–76). Criseyde is thus right back where she started, trying to interpret the intentions of a single man now who combines the roles of lover and intriguer that Troilus and Pandarus separately embodied. She tries to answer Diomede's questions, and the lines might be taken word for word from Book II: "but, as of his entente, / It semed nat she wiste what he mente" (V.867–68). The "semed nat" directly raises the by now tired question of how much Criseyde knows, and how much she herself, the narrator, and the audience are all invested in her unknowingness. Although she perceives herself at this point as becoming more clearly a text—" 'O, rolled shall ben on many a tonge!'" (V.1061)—she is also forced to remain a reader, and as such she is still and always "she that nyste what was best to rede." By the end of the poem, Criseyde embodies for Troilus (as she has for so many modern readers) the original corruption of all faith in words, in verbal protestations of good intentions and meaning well: "'Who shal now trowe on any othes mo?'" (V.1263). Here we see in Troilus, and in the traditional interpretation of Criseyde he voices, the attempt, so familiar in Western culture, to locate the cause of human error in one gender so that the other may contemplate and subdue, if not avoid, error incarnate. But this reading of Criseyde, like Troilus's other misreadings, is not only false to the facts as we are shown them elsewhere; again, it also gives the woman more credit, in an odd way, than the poem as a whole does.
According to Troilus and Criseyde , the problem of the untrustworthiness of words is not actually a problem that any woman causes, although she may embody it and certainly suffers from it. The heroine in this story is not a wily manipulator of words and an agent of bad faith any more than she is an innocent victim, an agent of seduction, a mother or sister to be feared, or a hard text to read, although men may sometimes be put in positions where they believe in one or more of these assumptions about women. Criseyde is, rather, a powerless, self-blinding reader, like most people, who perforce accepts the meanings of those who have
social power over her. As in the mythic program, traditional fears about women's powers, specifically now their textual or discursive capacities, are here denied. Troilus voices some of those fears in conventional terms, but the poem as a whole dismisses them.
As usual, moreover, the problem is not just (or even, in this case) the woman outside, but rather the woman inside. Pandarus and Troilus make Criseyde the scapegoat for their own incapacities, and if we care to look, we see how and why misogyny works at one level. But they are just as powerless to control meaning, to act out their own intentions, or to have power as readers over the already written text as is Criseyde. Revising, then, the trope of the text as a woman to be penetrated by the male reader, the poem suggests that the act of reading, as performed by any of these characters, involves a relation to power that is commonly viewed in the Middle Ages as feminine and is specifically associated by the time we have finished the first half of the poem with the main, unreliable female character; but it is a relation from which males in the text are never immune. Readers of the poem, unsure of Criseyde's meaning and intentions, may also be implicated in these problems. In a relation to Criseyde that is analogous to her relation to Pandarus and Troilus, they too may yearn for a dear answer, a definitive reading, a moral appraisal of "poor Criseyde" by an open-minded, friendly judge. And this is where a sense of Criseyde's ambiguity, the narrator's and readers' foregrounded inability to know with any certainty what she thinks or why she acts as she does, serves another fundamental purpose, at once complicating and reinforcing moral judgments against her and tempering the narrator's putative sympathy so that he can finally control her meaning as a character. Only the figure of the poet can (mis)read in a self-constructive way in this poem, and as I shall suggest in the next and final section, his uniquely empowered position rests in large part on his resolution of Ciiseyde's ambiguity and his direct confrontation, from the characteristic position of the unreliable Chaucerian narrator, with the instability of gender and power in heterosexual relations.
N'y sey nat this al oonly for thise men,
But moost for wommen that bitraised be
Thorough false folk; God yeve hem sorwe, amen!
That with hire grete wit and subtilte
Bytraise yow! And this commeveth me
To speke, and in effect yow alle I preye
Beth war of men, and herkneth what I seye!
The narrator of Troilus and Criseyde interrupts his story for one last time with five stanzas of self-conscious commentary and conversation near the end of Book V (1765–99). Abandoning once more the Boccaccian text he has been following relatively closely for the past several stanzas, he seems ready to close the poem even before the hero's death and final transcendent vision. He begins to speak self-reflexively about the text in history, about his own relation as a poet to other great poets of the past, and about the poem's uses and possible abuses by present and future readers, who are conceived of initially as distinctly male and female. Like others in the poem, this excursus begins (V.1765–71) as if in answer to real or anticipated complaints, in this case unstated objections, perhaps, that his male characters are not manly and his portrayal of Troilus not heroic enough, not sufficiently or accurately interested in or expressive of the hero's masculine prowess. It is because his initial topic was love, the narrator argues, that he has purposefully not written about Troilus's "worthi dedes" in baffle; dismissively, he sends readers interested in martial matters, "whoso list hem heere," to "Dares" (V.1770–71). In the next stanza he turns directly to an alleged female readership, "Bysechyng every lady bright of hewe, / And every gentil womman, what she be" (V.1772–73). He asks women not to be angry with him on account of his representation of Criseyde's guilt, which, as he has so often noted, is already written "in other bokes" (V.1776). In lines usually taken to allude to the upcoming Legend of Good Women , he adds that he will more happily write stories, "yf yow leste," about a different kind of woman, celebrating "Penelopees trouthe and good Alceste" (V.1777–78).
In the third and, I think, pivotal stanza of the passage (V.1779–85), quoted in full above, the narrator seems to continue speaking to women, although he manages at the same time to suggest a certain loyalty to his own sex by explaining that he has written his poem "nat . . . al oonly for thise men" (V.1779)—presupposing, then, that it is to some extent written for men—"But moost for wommen that bitraised be" by men of "grete wit and subtilte," whom he curses (V.1780–83). The obfuscation of both his didactic intention and his allegiances along lines of gender is indicated by the odd correlative construction in V.1779–80, not only for men, . . . but most for women. He concludes this stanza with the claim that his sympathy for women motivates his speaking and with an en-
treaty (or warning) to the ladies that also sounds like what will come in the Legend: "Beth war of men, and herkneth what I seye!" (V.1785).
At first glance, this central stanza and particularly its closing line seem highly inappropriate to the story of Troilus and Criseyde , the legendary tale of a faithful man and the woman who betrays him. But the implications of this passage in fact befit and highlight what I have argued about the poem thus far. The narrator's reminder that it is more often women who are betrayed by men may serve to reinforce the perception that Troilus, from his early sufferings as a lovesick male to his final posture as the abandoned lover, is tragically feminized. Alternatively, or even at the same time, it may imply that Criseyde, the real woman, is in fact, in some senses, the betrayed one in this story. The attribution of "grete wit and subtilte" to those "false folk" who betray women is also in accord with the diminution of women's powers, for good or bad, that I have traced throughout the poem. As the presaged Legend of Good Women will confirm through its treatment of women known elsewhere for their great power, the narrator here implies that in fact females rarely have the strength to be so wicked, to be agents rather than victims of betrayal.
The imperatives in the last line of this stanza—"Beth war of men, and herkneth what I seye"—might also seem odd in at least a couple of ways. First, they raise the question of the narrator's gender. Isn't he, as we all assume, a man? If so, his first command contradicts or at least problematizes his second: if women follow his advice and are wary of men in general, as members of a fixed category, (how) can they rely on the male author's putative words of wisdom? Second, just what does this narrator intend to say to women, exactly? The second imperative, "herkneth," suggests that a dear (re)statement of some pertinent advice, in addition to the warning to be wary of men, will follow; otherwise, it is not at all obvious what a woman reader can take away as some positively useful moral of this story. But the narrator does not go on to give women anything to hearken to; instead, he jumps in the next two stanzas to a seemingly unrelated topic.
Suddenly, starting in V. 1786, he speaks about his poem not as a didactic piece for gendered readers troubled by the actual and imaginary difficulties of heterosexual relations, but as a literary artifact related to the work of past writers and endangered by the incompetence of future scribes and (mis)readers. In the well-known and highly traditional apostrophe to the text—"Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye" (V.1786)—the
narrator (moving most overtly into a position that is usually associated with Chaucer's) at once expresses his humble subjection to tradition and audaciously claims a place for his work in the canon of great narrative poetry here represented by the catalogue of masterpoets: "And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace / Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace" (V.1791–92). Then with a suspicious tone, reminiscent of the one heard at the beginning of the House of Fame or in "To Adam Scriveyn," he closes with a prayer for accurate transmission and correct interpretation of his text (V.1793–98).
The oddities and ambiguities of this whole digression, like those of its central stanza, are characteristic and telling; and the apparent disjunction between the problems of love and the problems of literature, between what we might call gender politics on one hand and the question of literary authority and the anxieties of authorship (in a manuscript age), on the other, is only apparent. Focusing on the situation of the narrator, as we are invited to do by his persistent self-representation and self-reflection, we see how the gender relations he so markedly puts into play among himself, his literary antecedents, his characters, and his readers are crucial to his fears and claims for the status and integrity of his "litel bok" and its author among literary forebears and future interpreters. I take the digression in V.1765–99 as an explicit closing metacommentary on the whole poem (and possibly on Chaucer's career as a poet to date). In it, we see the narrator's ultimate interest in empowering the figure of the secular poet and addressing familiar worries about the indeterminacy and instability of words, and the consequent difficulties of interpretation and the risks of being (mis)read. His strategy for serving this interest is grounded in the characteristic sympathy with women as characters and as readers he alleges here, together with the critique of (most) men who love women and (other) male authors who write about women that this sympathy implies. The Chaucerian version of the Trojan story thus openly interrogates and deeply complicates the misogyny it imputes to other men and prior tellings. But it does so, I shall argue, in a way that not only retains and even reinforces a proper difference between male and female, masculine and feminine, but also inscribes a notion of literary authority entailing a controlled engagement with women and the problem of Woman (inside and outside the masculine subject) said to be unavailable to other men.
The narrator of Troilus and Criseyde , like other Chaucerian storytellers, prominently displays both an attraction to and an affinity with his central
female character, that "ferfulest wight." Evidence of this special relation to Criseyde has been offered by a number of modern critics, many of whom take it as a sign of the author's exceptional understanding of the feminine plight and possibly his close, personal identification with the heroine. Donald Howard, for instance, praises Chaucer for his rare ability, as a male author, to see "into the mind of a woman," and even argues that the male reader is similarly privileged: "I have been Criseyde." Lambert concludes that "she [Criseyde] and not the poem's hero may be the more profoundly autobiographical creation." Other critics describe and evaluate the narrator's or Chaucer's putative identification with Criseyde differently. Eugene Vance, for example, calls attention to one specific and problematic similarity between character and author when he observes that "sincerity is no more Criseyde's trademark than it is Chaucer's." Barbara Newman sees the narrator's apologies for Criseyde as "disturbing" because he "so nearly succumbs to her ethic." But however they evaluate the fact, most modern readers seem to share the fundamental assumption that the narrator (and usually the author too) at once likes and is like Criseyde in particular and women in general.
As I have suggested in preceding chapters, however, the Chaucerian narrator's apparent affinity with women and similarities to his female characters may mark and respond to both the feminization of the position of the male court poet and his alignment in this regard with the feminized male lovers he so often writes about, and in this case the city-state they live in. Specifically, the narrator himself here displays precisely those feminine characteristics that Troilus and Pandarus respectively embody. Like the courtly lover, he is by convention humble, passive, timid, dominated, and devoted; like the go-between and artist figure, he is of necessity evasive, ingenious, a good storyteller, and a liar. However, the feminization of Troy and the leading Trojans, as we have seen, by
no means brings with it any particular understanding of women or effective concern for their well-being; on the contrary, the men in the poem exhibit both blatant and subtle forms of antifeminism, and Troilus and Pandarus in particular reveal their common devaluation of the female and the feminine as they struggle in different ways to be more manly, to resist the position in which they find themselves. I argue that the narrator, too, resists his feminization. But if we compare his strategies of resistance as a man in a feminized position with those of Pandarus and Troilus, we discover crucial distinctions between the figure of the poet and the two central male characters.
Pandarus's most notable way of resisting, or at least railing against, his own feminization is to take the active role in seducing Criseyde for the gratification of another man. The advantages of such a strategy might seem multiple: he not only avenges himself against women as a group but also solidifies his relationship with one of his king's sons; and he distances himself from the risks of actually loving a woman, from which he has apparently suffered in the past. But he is not as safe, after all, as it may seem, and the misogyny implicit in his behavior throughout the poem simply backfires at the end. He overfly acknowledges this misogyny in his last brief speech: "'My brother deer . . . I hate, ywys, Cryseyde; / And, God woot, I wol hate hire evermore!'" (V.1731–33). The Chaucerian version of the story departs from Il Filostrato here to intensify this response; in Boccaccio, Pandarus merely wishes never to see his niece again. Chaucer's Pandarus evinces a familiar motive for misogyny. He hates Criseyde and devalues all women, we can infer from the poem as a whole, because even the weakest of females has such power over men; Criseyde has not only changed the whole course of Troilus's life, but now, due to the same instabilities he once exploited, she has also predictably spoiled Pandarus's game and brought him face to face again with his own actual powerlessness. Worst of all, her behavior has called into question the authority of Pandarus's words and fictions; she has, in effect, however unwittingly, silenced the most garrulous, inventive of men. His proclamation of eternal hatred underscores this point; it is framed by a rhetorical question, "'What sholde I seyen?"' (V.1732), and ends with an admission of defeat, "'I kan namore seye'" (V.1743). Once he has admitted his misogyny, Pandarus quite literally has no more words; such forthright hatred of women does not, after all, generate much original discourse. Despite his many affinities with the narrator, then, as a manipulator and mediator of words and women, Pandarus is
finally very different in his attitude toward women. The narrator never hates Criseyde, and he doesn't let her spoil his game, or silence him. Instead, in fact, she becomes his game, and the poem as a whole testifies to his understanding that writing about this woman is the only game in town—for serious authors.
Troilus's way of resisting his feminization seems more subtle and complex than Pandarus's, and to many readers he is finally more effective in demonstrating his proper manliness and superiority to Criseyde, (even) in love—his integrity, his large soul and his important thoughts, his nobility of spirit, even his beatitude. Despite Pandarus's cynical urgings that he either ravish or abandon Criseyde, Troilus refuses; he retains his love and sympathy for her well beyond the point where he might reasonably start hating. Even when he sees the brooch on Diomede's collar and finally admits his lady's perfidy, he says he cannot find it in his heart to "unloven" her (V.1698): "'yow, that doon me al this wo endure, / Yet love I best of any creature!'" (V.1700–1). Troilus's refusal to hate Criseyde is an important step in proving his worth in the very arena where he has reluctantly risked entry, and where women are usually allowed to excel: fidelity to love.
In the third book of The Art of Courtly Loving , Andreas Capellanus explains why it is useful for noblemen like Troilus to learn how to love women. Andreas instructs his male readers: "Read this little book, then, not as one seeking to take up the life of a lover, but that, invigorated by the theory and trained to excite the minds of women to love you may, by refraining from so doing win an eternal recompense and thereby deserve a greater reward from God." And Andreas concludes: "For God is more pleased with a man who is able to sin and does not, than with a man who has no opportunity to sin." This passage suggests quite
clearly how the apparently conflicting points of view in The Art of Courtly Loving seriously cohere, and why Andreas's interest in courtly rules does not sit as oddly with his antifeminism as scholars have often thought; it also reads like a gloss on Troilus's experience, in Chaucer's telling. "Invigorated by the theory" [eius doctrina refectus ] of Love at the very beginning of the poem, the hero is then "trained [by teacher Pandarus] to excite" the mind of Criseyde to love in Books II and III, and Troilus learns his lesson well. But his fidelity to love, however praiseworthy, cannot in itself serve to designate proper manliness or moral worth; it is, as Andreas says, indulging so far and then refraining from what is so delightful that matters.
One of the first signs that Troilus can move on, can learn to rise above the love of women, appears in his response to the news of the exchange of prisoners. In Book IV, separated from the lady whom he has excited to love, he begins to recover the manly spirit that he often lost when he was with her in Books II and Ill, as he conceals his "affeccioun": "With mannes herte he gan his sorwes drye" (IV.154, my emphasis). Similarly, his first reaction to Pandarus's suggestion that he abduct Criseyde, thus acting "'with thy manhod. . . . To take a womman which that loveth the"' (IV.529–34), is to remind Pandarus that Troy is at war because of this false sense that manliness can ever prove itself when taking (or keeping) a woman is the goal. Now Troilus reverses his earlier position and shows his aspiration toward better manhood by aligning his own honor with a sense of the "townes goode": "'I sholde han also blame of every wight, / My fadres graunt if that I so withstoode, / Syn she is chaunged for the townes goode'" (IV.551–53).
At the end of the poem, moreover, Troilus is at last able to see that even his supposedly selfless adoration of Criseyde is a delusion, and it is then that he rises above both love and hate in his transcendent, Christianized, and conclusive vision that scorns and laughs at the "vanite"
and "blynde lust" of all earthly passion. In this vision, if not before, Troilus might be said to vitiate the feminization he has endured: he is no longer passive and submissive, subject to Criseyde and imprisoned in his desire for her or for what he thinks she represents; he no longer misreads what he sees. Instead, he has lost interest in the woman altogether and hence freed himself from subjugation to her power to provoke strong emotion; his vision surveys and then, with proper Boethian scorn, dismisses the earth he sees beneath him. Criseyde, then, affords Troilus the soul-saving opportunity to go wrong. Male virtue is made possible in this rendition of an old story by the improper, inevitable, and instable female desire the hero learns to arouse and then is strong enough to shun.
In modern criticism of the poem, however, a crucial question has emerged: should Troilus's eschatological vision be taken as the correct one, the one that satisfies the narrator and/or author completely and serves without further comment as the moral of the poem? Some readers defend Troilus's final judgment as one that the text approves, arguing not only that the sentiment is suitably Christian, Boethian, or Dantesque, but that the narrator himself has demonstrated from the beginning something of Troilus's final detachment. Others, by contrast, contend that Troilus's last position is undermined or qualified by the poem as a whole and fails to offer a sufficient conclusion to what they perceive as its meaning or Chaucer's intention. The critical debate, I suggest, reflects the importance of the characteristic ambiguities of closure in this poem, especially as they entail, here as elsewhere, the question of the narrator's gender and his alliances in the putatively timeless antagonism of the sexes in which he embeds his story.
There is certainly evidence to support both sides of this argument. On one hand, the narrator does anticipate and perhaps thereby sanctions
his hero's final transcendent distance and detachment from experience in his own attitude throughout the poem. He has insistently presented himself as someone outside the system of heterosexual love, and while he does not claim to have chosen this marginalized position, it means that he is already free, from the beginning, of the blind lust for a woman for which he, unlike Troilus, refused to risk his soul. The narrator's professed distance, submissiveness, inadequacy, and fear in the face of love is pointedly replicated in his (sometimes) detached, subordinate, deferential relation to the alleged literary sources of his story, a higher authority to whom he willingly submits. He repeatedly presents himself as a translator only, writing not from his own experience and feeling ("of no sentement I this endite" [II.13]), but merely taking the story "out of Latyn in my tonge" (II.14; see also I.394). Again and again, he expresses an ostensive and highly conventional humility and compliance with authority: "Myn auctour shall I folwen, if I konne" (II.49).
On the other hand, the narrator's brand of distance, detachment, and submission to higher forces remains fortified and enriched by the problematic, equivocal, characteristic interest he retains and admits in Criseyde and Woman, an interest that he never directly scorns or completely recants. While this apparently meek, acquiescent narrator quietly revises the traditional story extensively and pervasively, he becomes openly resentful, suspicious, and possibly even subversive of authority only when he speaks of his unfortunate obligation, because he is following his "auctours," to tell the sad truth about Criseyde. At the beginning of Book IV, to cite just one prominent instance, he signals an emotional investment in Criseyde in conventional terms, noting that his heart bleeds and his pen quakes "for drede of that I moste endite" (IV.14). He goes on to mention the allegedly painful subject of Criseyde's betrayal of Troilus in these interesting terms:
For how Criseyde Troilus forsook,
Or at the leeste, how that she was unkynde,
Moot hennesforth ben matere of my book,
As writen folk thorugh which it is in mynde.
Allas! that they sholde evere cause fynde
To speke hire harm, and if they on hire lye,
Iwis, hemself sholde han the vilanye.
In his comments on this passage, E. Talbot Donaldson reads line 15 as "a manful stroke, restating unambiguously for the last time the basic
fact on which the whole action depends" (my emphasis); lines 16–18, by contrast, suggest the narrator's characteristic effort "to soften" the harsh reality about Criseyde. In this formulation, Donaldson accurately (if unwittingly) points out the narrator's shifting assumption, here almost within the same breath, of masculine and feminine positions. The weight of the stanza as a whole seems to provide a typical show of sympathy with the female character, carried to the point of speaking, as the narrator so often does, to "soften" the harsh treatment of Criseyde by his literary precursors and even to impugn their honesty. This sympathy with Criseyde and dissent from the allegedly traditional and authoritative treatment of her character first inscribes that traditional opinion, however, as the hard fact on which the whole poem turns, restated here as elsewhere with a "manful" avoidance of ambiguity.
Furthermore, the narrator's insistence that his sources oblige him against his will to disparage a woman whom he is attracted to and pities is qualified by the fact that departures from the "auctours" he claims to follow frequently raise at least as many doubts about Criseyde's innocence as they do about her guilt, giving rise to those critical common-places about Criseyde's ambiguity, which as we have seen is so carefully and purposively constructed. Donaldson, again, finds proof in this phenomenon of the narrator's "wildly emotional attitude" toward Criseyde, his "avuncular" love of the heroine; Chaucer, on the other hand, he views as the unambivalent author "standing behind" this narrator, creating such an earnest but unreliable narrator in order to give us a different light on Criseyde—and to demonstrate his own impartiality. The strategy, according to Donaldson, leads to the following judgement of Chaucer, on one hand, and Criseyde, on the other: "We could never convict him [Chaucer] of having brought Criseyde's sincerity into question; on the other hand, as readers we may tend to feel that she bears some responsibility for having become the victim of the narrator's incompetence."
But if we are trying both to understand and resist the temptation to blame the female victim—even the victim of so figurative a crime as willful narrative incompetence—we are obliged to ask harder questions about the narrator's complicated self-representation and self-division and about the special relation to Criseyde and Woman that he claims for the figure of the male author. In the first place, it has been repeatedly shown that the separation of the unreliable narrator and the wise author is never as easy to make or agree upon as those who would argue for and from their knowledge of Chaucer and his intentions must assume. While many critics wish to hear the author at the end of the poem rising with or above Troilus, rejecting all that has gone before, the difficulty of knowing precisely where the voice of Chaucer kicks in can never be satisfactorily addressed. Throughout this study I have assumed, as I noted in my introductory remarks, that it is not possible to dismantle the complex fiction of Chaucer, if that means discovering for sure he who is "standing behind," pulling the strings. What we do and do not know about the historical contexts of the text, and what we assume about the function of language, should oblige us to avoid any such leap without a great deal of care, to concentrate instead on analyzing the positions that the narrating persona occupies and invokes and the effects that can thereby be generated.
Here those positions are, as I have said, substantially defined by the palpable ambiguity of the narrator's feelings and intentions concerning the female character. Unlike Pandarus, as we have seen, the narrator does not simply hate (and fear) Criseyde. Unlike Troilus, moreover, he does not directly claim to be able to forget or transcend her or the weaknesses she as Woman represents. To some if not all critics, indeed, the last lines of the poem, where the narrator too may leave women behind, can only be read as "diversionary," and what matters is the larger body of the narrative, wherein he repeatedly sympathizes with his heroine. At the same time, as we have seen, he draws his own life, his own voice, from the story that dramatizes, complicates, analyzes, and thus all the more richly reinscribes her betrayal, her weakness, her "crime." He hates the sin, and loves the sinner—from a safe distance.
In this finely wrought, thoroughly equivocal distance from and sympathy with Criseyde, the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde takes up a stance
that manages the problems of the feminization of the poet and the self-reflexive, self-destructive misogyny of the literary tradition: he simultaneously accommodates and resists the instability of gender and the problems of masculine identity from which his male characters suffer. Above all, he creates for the figure of the poet an empowering ambiguity not only about Criseyde but also (and hence) about his own gender alliances and his own intentions—an ambiguity first developed in and then denied to his characters. The compellingly lifelike characters are, within the story as told, full of contradictions, and nowhere are these clearer than in the depiction of their gender traits. The womanliest of women, Criseyde, is at times sexually aggressive; the proud and strong Troilus is often timid and weepy; the controlling, godlike Pandarus of Books II and Ill is also gossipy throughout, and in Book V he is helpless and speechless. The plot of the story, however, finally refixes the characters in positions that flatten ambiguities and restore proper gender alignments. Pandarus is frozen in the role of the all-too-clever male misogynist, while both the lovers find themselves in their original positions: archetypally and fictively masculine and feminine. Following a heroic death in battle, Troilus dwells in an abstract realm, detached from and scornful of life, free of self-interest, and closer to God; still alive, Criseyde is only more aware of her endless and inevitable subjection and error. He finally reads correctly, according to certain orthodoxies, and resists the seductive text of the female body and the love story. She finally takes her proper place not as the earnest, complicitous, and shortsighted reader she has been earlier but as text that can be mastered by character, author, and reader; as Davis Taylor puts it, "She becomes the subject of our judgment, not, like Troilus, judging us from heaven."
As I have argued, the narrator also feminizes the position of the reader by presenting Criseyde as the archetypal interpreter who cannot decipher, let alone control, the intentions of those whose texts she reads. Pandarus and Troilus, in the second half of the story, turn out to be equally poor readers. The narrator himself may be a "bad reader" too, but the result of his (mis)reading is that he rewrites the story, and in doing so writes in the uniquely empowered position of the equivocal, evasive, marginalized poet. The narrator alone is able to transcend the limits of both masculine and feminine genders by at once "understand-
ing" both and adopting, it seems, neither position. "Beth war of men, and herkneth what I seye": I am not a man like other men, but (and therefore) I have the authority over women (and myself) that they ought to but fail to have.
In recent comments on the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard's book De la séduction , American feminist Jane Gallop critiques the author in terms that would serve equally well to describe my view of the position of the poet inscribed and celebrated in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Baudrillard speaks, Gallop argues,
not from the masculine or masculinist position (which he identifies as against appearances and for profundities) but from a position that knows the truth of the feminine and the masculine and can thus, from this privileged position beyond sexual difference, advise women how best to combat masculine power. It is his assumption of this position of superiority, of speaking the truth—more than any content of "truth" that he may utter—which offends me. Women, he warns, are in danger of losing their power, but if they would only let themselves be seduced by what he says. . . . A line if ever I heard one.
To Gallop's observation, I just want to add: a remarkably old line, it seems.