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Diedra has taught college English and worked as a university writing center consultant. She has a master's degree in English.
Have you ever been in a relationship with someone you felt was the one for you? Or maybe, Cupid has not yet ensnared you like Troilus, at the beginning of this poem? Ah, love--it is a story that has inspired countless dramas, books, movies and poems, including the one described in this lesson.
Set in the city of Troy during the Trojan War, Troilus and Criseyde tells the story of two lovers whose relationship is at the whims of Destiny and Fortune. It is written using rhyme royal stanzas with a rhyme scheme ABABBCC. The poem was composed in the mid 1380's by Geoffrey Chaucer, who also wrote the well-known book, The Canterbury Tales.
The poem was originally written in Middle English, an earlier evolution of the English language that does not much resemble Modern English. No, Shakespeare (who later wrote a play covering these two lovers) did not write in Middle English; his poetry is actually in Early Modern English!
Calchas, a Trojan prophet, foresees Troy's doom. Keeping his knowledge a secret, he deserts Troy and joins the Greeks, leaving his daughter Criseyde behind to bear the brunt of his betrayal. Later, Troilus sees Criseyde for the first time at Athena's temple. Troilus admits that he likes a pretty face as much as the next guy but finds the idea of love silly. This angers Cupid, and Troilus becomes the god's next target. Cupid lets his arrow fly, and it hits its mark; Troilus becomes infatuated with Criseyde. Over the next few weeks, Criseyde's uncle, Pandarus, offers to put his matchmaking skills to the test to set Troilus up with Criseyde.
Pandarus visits his niece, Criseyde, and tells her that Troilus loves her. He plays the sympathy card, telling Criseyde that Troilus is sick with misery over her. Criseyde, feeling sorry for Troilus, reluctantly agrees to date him. Pandarus leaves to tell Troilus the good news and helps him write a letter to Criseyde, which starts a lengthy exchange of letters between the couple. However, Pandarus doesn't stop there. He asks Troilus's brother to host a dinner party with the ultimate goal of giving Criseyde and Troilus time alone. He has Troilus lie in bed and pretend to be ill, and he brings Criseyde to see Troilus.
Troilus declares his feelings for Criseyde, who says little during their first meeting. Pandarus constructs a plan to bring Criseyde and Troilus together again. He deviously plans the dinner on the night a huge storm is expected. Torrential rain makes it too dangerous for Criseyde to leave, so Pandarus convinces Criseyde to stay at his house and offers her a private room. He surprises her by brining Troilus into the room through a trap door and asking Criseyde to confirm her affection for her overtly emotional lover. Criseyde reassures Troilus of her love, but Troilus is so overcome by the situation that he faints across the bed. Pandarus loses no time in pushing Criseyde into bed with Troilus. After Troilus wakes, Pandarus leaves, and the lovers spend the night in a romantic bliss. At dawn, they reluctantly part. The next day, Pandarus issues a warning to Troilus about Fortune and her highs and lows.
In the Greek camp just outside of Troy, Calchas, probably feeling guilty about abandoning his daughter, arranges for Criseyde to be exchanged for a prisoner of war named Antenor. When Troilus learns of this, he laments Fortune's cruelty. Pandarus suggests that Troilus and Criseyde elope, but Troilus won't hear of it. Desperate to cheer Troilus up, Pandarus visits Criseyde and asks her to appease Troilus because he is distressed about their future. Criseyde agrees, and Pandarus sends Troilus to her. After much discussion, Troilus offers to elope with her. Criseyde declines, saying she'll trick her father and return to Troy in ten days.
Criseyde goes to the Greek camp and meets a man named Diomede. Criseyde decides to go back to Troy; Diomede advises her to move on and forget about the Trojans. He is confident the Greeks will win the battle. Criseyde falls in love with Diomede and does not return to Troy after ten days. Though Troilus suspects her unfaithfulness, Pandarus encourages him to remain positive. After a day of battle, Troilus finds Diomede's coat with a brooch on it. Troilus recognizes the brooch; it was the same one he had given to Criseyde as a token of his affection. With Criseyde's unfaithfulness now certain, Troilus laments his misfortune because he still loves her. Troilus dies a valiant death in battle.
The poem is part of the tragic tradition, as indicated by multiple stages in the downfall of Troilus, the hero. First, Troilus meets an unhappy end; rarely in tragedies do the main characters live happily ever after. He is also an important person (one of the Princes of Troy) in his society, as is typical of the tragic hero. Also, the outside forces of Fortune and Destiny work against him and contribute to his downfall. Finally, Troilus gains the audience's sympathy at the end of the poem, when he meets his death courageously.
Whether you believe in destiny or not, it is a mainstay of Ancient Greek tragedies. We see Destiny's interference in Troy's defeat at the hands of the Greeks, which was predicted at the beginning of the story. Calchas foresaw this demise and hurried to the Greeks.
In essence, the Trojans weren't just fighting the Greeks; they were fighting destiny. The end of the poem shows what happens to those who fight destiny -- they lose. What Calchas saw at the beginning of the story came to pass in the final stanzas.
Chaucer uses the classical view of Fortune in Troilus and Criseyde. In the poem, Fortune gives and takes away. Troilus's time with Criseyde is attributed to the hand of Fortune. However, Fortune is never blamed more than when things go wrong in the characters' lives. True to this tradition, Troilus makes clear that Fortune is to blame when his romantic relationship and his city fall apart.
The theme of fickleness in love is apparent in Troilus and Criseyde's relationship; it begins quickly and, while they are near each other, remains passionate. However, when Criseyde leaves Troy, she soon forgets Troilus and manages to find another lover in less than ten days.
Troilus and Criseyde is an excellent example of the saying, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same.' Love is one of the most misunderstood and exhilarating experiences of human existence. That is why it is such an enduring theme throughout the history of literature, and why many love stories end in tragedy, just like this one.
The Greek tradition personifies the conditions that lead to tragic ends. It also allows some explanation for the fact that things don't always go the way we would like, despite a heroic effort. No matter the actions of Troilus, Destiny was already in motion, Fortune continued to balance the scales of gain and loss, and Love depends upon the thoughts and actions of the other person.
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Back To CourseComprehensive English: Tutoring Solution
14 chapters | 127 lessons
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