Chaucer, Troilus, 1 (ll. 1-938) Passages and Issues

Page Passage and Interpretive Issues

473-4    Book I begins with a formal "prohemium" (ll. 1-56) that manuscripts do not separate from the narrative itself, as in the proems to Books II, III, and IV.  Book V, unlike any of the previous four books, begins narrating the story immediately without any proem, at all.  If you like stylistic analysis, when you have finished reading the whole poem and know where each book is going, reread each book's proem and the tricky slippage between Book IV's end and Book V's beginning.  What dramatic effects is Chaucer producing with the style and content of these  "prohemia"?  Do not be afraid to count stanzas, and to notice each introductory passage's revelations, diversions, and evasions.

           Book I's proem also rewards special attention because it gives away the whole plot in lines 1-7 and 52-6.  Can it be any clearer than that?  Well no, obviously, because we often know plots' outcomes even before we read the first word (perhaps from the title, or widespread oral/aural knowledge).  Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) famously opens with the voice of Joe Gillis (William Holden) who narrates the rest of the picture despite the fact that he is already a corpse floating in Norma Desmond's swimming pool.  The key to our interest depends upon the narrator's ability to entice us to be curious, amazed, even, about the circumstances which led to the foretold end.  In Chaucer's case, one of his first and most effective strategies is, like Wilder's, his narrator.  Gillis seems too smart, too hip, to worldly to be trapped and killed in such a tawdry circumstance.  Chaucer's narrator is inextricably bound up with love, and from the first introdues himself as "the sorwful instrument, / That helpeth loveres, as I can, to pleyne [lament]" and as the one who "God of Loves servantz serve," though he claims not to dare to love "for myn unliklynesse" (I. 10-11, 15-16).  Keep your eye on this tricksy narrator who claims to serve any of us who are lovers and yet claims not to be one of us.

474-9    Criseyde's character is given fairly detailed social and emotional detail, especially when compared to the standard issue romance heroine ("the fairest lady that ever was," "no man can tell how beautiful...").  What do we know about her?  She's a widow.  She's defensive because her traitorous (or wise?) father, Calkas, has fled Troy and gone into service with the attacking Greeks.  People are likely to attack her so she seeks defenders and is infinitely sensitive to public slights, and she is scrupulous about observing the city's religious rituals even though they draw her out of her self-imposed isolation in her townhouse compound.  How does the narrative communicate these details in language about her appearance and behavior that is specific enough to yield close-reading evidence about her psychological state? 

          Note, too, that at a certain point, the observation of Criseyde is channeled through Troilus' eyes, and he is suddenly, utterly, smitten with love.  The action verb, "to smite," is especially appropriate here because there are at least two wars going on in this poem, the Greeks against the Trojans and Love against Isolation/Chastity/Naivete/Pride/what-else?  The "God of Love," himself, plays a role in striking Troilus to avenge the knight's mockery of others in love (I. 206).  If this poem's world includes supernatural deities whose weapons may not be withstood, what does that do to the poem's nominally Christian frame narrative in which "free will" makes us responsible for what we do, who we love, and what comes of that?

         Troilus' "enamourment" takes roughly 88 lines (ll. 204-392) to bring Troilus from the proud scoffer to the singer of a love song that is a loose translation of Petrarch's sonnet 88 (see note on 1028).  Compare the psychological detail of this passage with any previous medieval character's experience of falling in love and you will see something extraordinary.  "Love at first sight" may be the trite code used to describe both, but in Chaucer's case, the mechanism of love, the lover's preparation for its effects, the Beloved's triggering of the right stimuli to move the Lover to love, and the complex reactions the Lover feels, are all given room to happen, to mean, to make us feel something like them.  Be a scholar.  Chaucer is manipulating his audience.  What is he up to?

480-6    The arrival of Troilus' friend, Pandarus (also spelled "Pandare"), marks a dramatic swerve in the plot.  What would have happened to Troilus had Pandarus not entered the room to overhear his lament?  What would have happened if the friend who entered had not happened to be Criseyde's uncle?  Note that the uncle-neice/nephew relationship might be a good one to investigate for its anthropological significance in medieval English family structures, especially when it's uncle-neice and the lady is a widow with no other surviving male relatives.  Boccaccio's Pandaro is Criseida's cousin--why did Chaucer change the cousin to an uncle?  Chaucer does a good job of educating us, by dramatic interactions, about just what C and P mean to each other, what they expect they owe each other, and how that affects their access to each other's decision making.  But there is more here that is unspoken because Chaucer's contemporary audience would have known all about it from personal experience.

           Pandarus is an extraordinary creation, a fully-formed and yet enigmatic character.  Boccaccio's Pandaro has almost none of the depth of Pandarus.  The expansion of Boccaccio's Pandaro into Pandarus is one of Chaucer's most significant additions to the plot of the poem from which he was working.  Pandarus teaches Troilus to love, to express his feelings in poetry, to act rather than to despair.  So powerful is Pandarus' enhanced character that, from this poem, the pejorative noun and verb "pandar" come into being--one who brings others together for sexual purposes, usually for some actual or imagined benefit to the pandar.  How does this usage's reading of his character stack up against your own impression of Pandarus' character?  Is it fair? 

        If you like close-reasoned, rhetorical analysis of persuasive speeches, concentrate on Pandarus' various attempts to coax Troilus out of his love-struck funk.  He is a sophist.  That is, he will use any strategy that works, regardless of whether it is true or logically consistent/valid.  Remember that the most well-read sub-group of Chaucer's medieval audience, the chancery clerks of London who copied his manuscripts and spread his fame, were trained in rhetoric to compose speeches and letters for their employers.  What might they see in Pandarus' technique that a naive audience (i.e., Troilus, at least until Book V) might miss?

        Pandarus' persuasion takes a sudden turn when he finally hears the name of the woman Troilus loves (ll. 874-7).  Given that he is Criseyde's uncle, how else might he have received this news and what might he have done as a result?  Don't jump too quickly to a single conclusion.  The options are numerous and all are interesting as evidence of what Pandarus is and is not thinking.