A Cause Study on Troilus' Passivity in Shakespeare and Chaucer

"Whi Troilus hath all this hevinesse"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

25 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Themes of Passivity
2.1 Rationality Overwhelmed
2.2 Problems of Courtly Love
2.3 Passion Unbridled: The Loveris Maladye of Hereos
2.3.1 What was known to the authors?
2.3.2 Love Melancholy in Chaucer
2.3.3 Love Melancholy in Shakespeare
2.3.4 Fatalistic tendencies

3. Passivity Removed

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

‘And of hymself ymagened he ofte To ben defet, and pale and waxen lesse Than he was wont, and that men seyden softe “What may it be? who kan the sothe gesse Whi Troilus hath all this hevinesse?“‘ (V.617-21)

The story of Troilus, his love of Cressida and her betrayal of this love against the backdrop of the Trojan War is a European story, manifold told by many authors through the centuries. Troilus himself is a character from ancient times, first mentioned shortly in the Iliad, before Ovid picks up the theme in his Metamorphoses. The first version of the story as it is known today appears in the middle of the 12th century in Benoît de Sainte-Maure‘s Roman de Troie . Giovanni Boccaccio‘s rewriting of the story in his Il Filostrato around 1340 increased its fame and had ‘the father of English literature‘ Geoffrey Chaucer base his epic poem Troilus and Criseyde (1380s) thereon. Although Chaucer himself attributes the story to one “Lollius“ no such writer is known today. However, it did not stop there: Henryson, Lydgate, Caxton - they all contributed their own versions to the overall tale, and so did Shakespeare in 1603 with Troilus and Cressida.

Nowadays, we find ourselves thus confronted with a conglomerate of different aspects of the same story. The focus is sometimes set on the war themes, sometimes on the lovers, some authors target the love, some the betrayal. Sometimes the female protagonist is called Briseis, then again Criseide, Criseyde, Cressid or Cressida, although her character remains roughly the same. She is an unfaithful woman, not constant in her love or convictions, and although she is nice to look at, she is “as false as Cressid“ (III.ii.195), to borrow the idiom coined by Shakespeare. Troilus however is constant in his name, if not in his character. In the Roman and the Filostrato Troilus seems to have stepped right out of a romance, a strong hero with a just love, second only to Hector in his greatness and with more than twice as many speaking lines as Criseide. When it comes to Chaucer, both characters receive almost the same total speaking time, which lifts Criseyde to a more complex persona, but in the meantime seems to cost Troilus a lot of his manly bravado. We see him experience a greater amount of self-reflection, develop a character with more emotional depth but also ‘lose the name of action‘. By the time Shakespeare wrote his play, the general storyline was probably well known to the bard and his audience. His Troilus resembles closely Chaucer‘s character and also the notion of Pandarus as a go-between for the lovers follows his example. Striking is also that contrary to other depictions, both in Chaucer and in Shakespeare Troilus himself is not a particular strong character. He displays a certain “hevinesse“, a reluctance to move and act according to his dreams and wishes that makes him appear very passive compared to other main characters.

From the moment he first sees Criseyde onwards, Chaucer‘s Troilus is unable to come up with a plan to fulfill his desires. He depends heavily on Pandarus to set up the romance - it is Pandarus who devises the idea and the contents of the letter sent to Criseyde, it is Pandarus who woos her in Troilus‘s name and it is also he, who organizes the first meeting of the would-be lovers as well as the setting for the consummation of their love. Meanwhile Troilus is busy wailing in bed, bemoaning his yet unrequited love. When Pandarus has finally brought them together, Criseyde watches him expectantly. Now would be the right time to act on his love, but instead he faints, and only awakes like sleeping beauty after she took the first step to kiss him. Later, when the news of her immanent departure reaches him, in the council of princes he does not speak up against her leaving, but instead relies on Criseyde to comfort him and to devise a plan of their reunion (regardless that it is never put into action). In short, “Troilus is reduced in Chaucer‘s poem to such impotent passivity that he threatens to become a laughing stock to the modern reader“ (Fisher 401).

Shakespeare‘s Troilus does not take quite as much time to contemplate his misery, but he does not articulate his desire for Cressida to remain in Troy either, he only asks “is it so concluded“ (IV.ii.68), before cursing his fate. He too loses the ability to act, may it be in matters of love where nothing occurs without him consulting Pandarus about detailed instructions first, or may it be in matters of war, as displayed by the very opening of the play with him disarming, seizing to fight in battle and thereby neglecting his duties for king and country. Not that he believes fighting to be unnecessary, no - during the discussion with Priam and Hector on Helen‘s value he argues for the importance of honorable battles - it is just that he does not see himself fit to perform anymore. It is only later, after loosing Cressida, that he storms back into battle, set on revenge against Diomedes. To regain this resolve to fight however, he requires some time by himself - when he witnesses Cressida‘s unfaithfulness first hand, he negates what he saw, refuses to believe what his eyes just saw and leaves.

Chaucer pioneered in this way of describing his hero and Shakespeare followed his lead, both in the individual portrayal and in the general structure of their works (Shakespeare‘s five acts are very similar in composition and content to Chaucer‘s five books). Ann Thompson points out that “critics are by no means agreed that the play shows first-hand evidence of the poem, and while most are prepared to admit a high degree of probability, since Chaucer‘s Troilus and Criseyde was not only the best-known English version of the story, but also the Chaucerian poem most highly esteemed by the Elizabethans, attempts to prove a definite relationship have not been sufficiently convincing to gain general acceptance.“ (Thompson 111) Hence, I will assume for this paper that there is a direct relation between Chaucer‘s and Shakespeare‘s works1, as I will continue to demonstrate in the following.

This paper sets out to analyze the origins of Troilus‘ display of passivity in love and war as described above. Why are these two versions of Troilus so fundamentally different in their core when held against the example of earlier writers? And why do their heroes appear so weak and passive in their actions? Is this presentation a simple whim of Chaucer, repeated by Shakespeare, a plain weakness of character inane in their Troiluses or is there a method to his madness?

I will try to show that while each representation in itself is unconventional, it also represents important themes of each authors‘ individual time and age. I will delineate the signs of selfish immaturity each Troilus possesses (as can be expected of an adolescent hero) and how this inexperience allows for them to be overwhelmed by sensation when confronted with the beautiful Cressida/Criseyde. I will then focus my attention on their struggle with the practical application of high moral ideals of the courtly code of chivalry. Due to their at least partial failure at said concept, for instance in language and bearing, I will then describe their fall into the depths of love melancholy, Pandarus‘s attempts at curing them and, in a final chapter, the transformation wrought in them through the gained experience of love and betrayal.

In the following I will therefore demonstrate how these ideas each contribute to Troilus‘s observed passivity and how Shakespeare used Chaucer‘s work to create a lively and realistic Troilus who fits into his day and age while maintaining its principle ancient characteristics.

2. Themes of Passivity

As already briefly mentioned above, a series of complex problematic concurrences in the nature of each Troilus leads him to a condition which renders him incapable of performing any precisive actions. I will provide a critical examination of each partial aspect by demonstrating how the particular condition occurs in Chaucer‘s and than in Shakespeare‘s character.

2.1 Rationality Overwhelmed

When the reader first encounters Troilus, he finds himself at a very different position in each work. While Shakespeare starts in medias res with a Troilus already in love, already miserable, Chaucer‘s Troilus is yet unaffected. In both cases however, we encounter a brash, self-centered and prideful yet naive youth who in a princely attitude displays a condescending behavior towards his surrounding. In Chaucer this is displayed through the manner Troilus is first presented.

This Troilus, as he was wont to gide His yonge knyghtes, lad hem up and down In thilke large temple on every side, Byholding ay the ladies of the town, Now here, now there; for no devocioun Hadde he to non, to reven hym his reste,

But gan to preise and lakken whom hym leste. (I.183-9)

He is riding confidently, self-assured through firm beliefs and his knightly company. And while riding, he begins to loudly mock all lovers as well as their patron god: “O veray fooles, nyce and blynde be ye!“ (I.202). He is presented as someone “who believes that truth derives from a substantial relation between term and object, and that his will and heart are firmly subject to his reason“, that “he himself can avoid becoming a thrall to desire because desire should have no power over reason“ (Hill 26-8).

Thus, with youthful unconcern, he is actively taking notice of the women around him, even if it comes from the distant evaluation of “preise and lakken“. The scene emphasizes both his strong male posturing and his naiveté towards the world for a last time, before his concept of the world order together with his rationality is shattered as his gaze settles on Criseyde: “And upon cas bifel that thorugh a route/ his eyes percede, and so depe wente,/ til on Criseyde is smot, and ther it stente“ (I.271-3). Here he is stopped by power of her glance, feeling “rigth with hire look thorugh-shoten and thorugh-darted“ (I. 325). Already in this moment it can be observed that not all is as it should be. In traditional romances the hunting metaphor in her language is always attributed to the male lover, the one who takes the active part in establishing a relationship. In this case on the other hand, it is Criseyde in action, taking that very faculty away from Troilus. He cannot defend himself against that impact of Criseyde‘s image, for the “process of Troilus‘s apprehension of Criseyde proceeds from the sensitive faculties [that is: the five outer senses] to the rational faculties by the way of the imagination“ (Hill 32). Troilus‘s heart however, where that linkage takes place2, is the very medium which is affected by Criseyde‘s “fixe and depe impressioun“ (I.298). Thus incapacitated, his imagination is incapable of performing its duties. The imagery used to describe his first impression of her is quite similar to ideas of Boethius‘s De Consolatione 3 concerning the Stoic view of a ‘passive soul‘, thus already foreshadowing the later development of Troilus. Right from that moment on (cf. I.300-15), “sodeynly he wax therwith astoned“ (1.274), he finds himself paralyzed by a love that “drives out his warriorship“ (Knight 77). Although what follows is a great amount of pathos and self-pity, Chaucer ends his first book with Pandarus promising to help his friend in matters of love and wooing, and thus assured, we see a Troilus who is much improved by love in every way.

Shakespeare‘s first scene just starts at a point where Pandarus already offered his assistance a while back and instead of a renewed valor, Troilus‘s inconsistency is highlighted. This Troilus, self-described as

weaker than a woman‘s tear

Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance,

Less valiant than the virgin in the night,

And skilless as unpractis‘d infancy, (1.1.9-12)

this Troilus “takes on the worst aspects of Chaucer‘s character, his helplessness and his tendency to dramatize his pathos“ (Thompson 118). He, too, is self-centered, princely, and starts the entire play with an order for his varlet to serve him. The news that his brother Paris has been wounded does not concern him overmuch and he considers his inner disharmony more significant than the thousands of Greeks threatening his city. He surrenders his active warrior life for a hope for Cressida‘s love and allows his higher reason, his rationality, to be overruled by his current desire. The image here is the same as in Chaucer:

I tell thee I am mad In Cressid‘s love: thou answer‘st, “She is fair“; Pour‘st in the open ulcer of my heart Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice... (I.i.50-3)

He is not himself anymore since he first saw Cressida, since all her beauteous attributes fell through a gaze into his heart and stopped his rational faculties from working properly.

2.2 Problems of Courtly Love

The difference between both Troiluses is rooted in the distinct approach of the ,problem‘ at hand, which is also based on the literary conventions of the time of each author. Chaucer was still closely accustomed with the ideas of the chivalric code of courtly love, while by Shakespeare‘s time it was vastly outdated. The term of courtly love, invented towards the end of the 19th century to describe the conventions of love in 12th century France, is characterized by certain ideas: that the “love must be secret, that the mistress deserves the service, even worship, of her lover, that the lady‘s love ennobles, and finally that the price of such love may be pain, suffering and sometimes death“ (Heffernan 66), as it is a mostly one-sided love. Avicenna describes the highest form of it in his Treatise on Love: “if a man loves a beautiful form with animal desire, he deserves reproof, even condemnation and the charge of sin [...]. But whenever he loves a pleasing form with an intellectual consideration, [...] then this is to be considered as an approximation to nobility and an increase in goodness“ (Avicenna 221 in Heffernan 77). This increase in goodness can be observed in Chaucer‘s Troilus:

“he bicom the frendlieste wight,

The gentilest, and ek the mooste fre,

The thriftiest, and oon the beste knyght

That in his tyme was or myghte be;

Dede were his japes and his cruelte,

His heighe port and his manere estraunge,

and ecch of tho gan for a vertu chaunge“ (I.1079-85).

He tries with some success to adhere to the conventions of love dictated by society, but suffers as a consequence by “sight of, and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish, above all things, the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love‘s precepts in the other‘s embrace“ (Cappelanus 2).


1 A further analysis of the question how well Shakespeare knew Chaucer and his works, would go beyond the scope of this paper. Ann Thompson however gives a very detailed report on that question in her book “Shakespeare‘s Chaucer: A Study in Literary Origins“, especially in the chapter on Troilus and Cressida (p. 111-165)

2 In the name of reducing this paper to the required length, I will forgo a detailed presentation of the medieval concept of the workings of the mind. My interpretation of the present texts according to said ideas, is based on Batman‘s De proprietaribus rerum (Book 3) , Robert Burton‘s Anatomy of Melancholy (146ff) and Nicolas Coeffeteau‘s Table of Human Passions (1-11) . For a more recent comprehensive account see Lily Campbell‘s Slaves of Passion.

3 Chaucer knew this text very well, since he worked on a translation of it into the English language right before he started writing Troilus and Criseyde.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


A Cause Study on Troilus' Passivity in Shakespeare and Chaucer
"Whi Troilus hath all this hevinesse"
University of Göttingen  (Englisches Seminar)
Shakespeare's Problem Plays
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Shakespeare, Chaucer, Passivity, Melancholy, Courtly Love, Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus and Cressida
Quote paper
Imke Fischer (Author), 2017, A Cause Study on Troilus' Passivity in Shakespeare and Chaucer, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/376741


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