The Tragic Argument of 'Troilus and Criseyde'.
The appeal of the story of Troilus and Criseyde has proved just as potent as that of the city that provided so fittingly doomed a backdrop for their doomed love. Once Benoit de Sainte-Maure's twelfth-century elaboration of the sorrows of Homer's obscure Trojan prince and his treacherous lover Briseida had been put into Latin by the Sicilian jurist Guido delle Colonne, the tale of their deluded and faithless affection quickly gained popularity. Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde was repeatedly put through the presses, thus ensuring the lovers' continued notoriety in the early modern period: the unhappy pair are mentioned by Shakespeare in at least eight plays other than his own full-scale reworking of their tragedy; his Petruchio even sentimentally (or perhaps presciently?) keeps a spaniel called Troilus.
It is at Chaucer's hands, however, that Troilus's story comes of age not just as a hauntingly powerful depiction of the exhilarations and pains of romantic love, but also as an extended philosophical enquiry that sets about answering three universal questions: What happens to us when we fall in love? Why do we betray those whom we profess to love? And, most pressingly, how far are we responsible for the bad things that happen to us? Gerald Morgan's The Tragic Argument of 'Troilus and Criseyde' offers an extraordinarily attentive reading of Chaucer's poem. The three central characters (the lovers and Criseyde's meddling uncle Pandarus) receive close attention, and Morgan's patient elucidation of the nuances of Troilus (at times stanza by stanza) sets the work not only in the context of Chaucer's manipulations of his principal source, Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, but also of the poet's debt to a wide range of classical, scholastic, and vernacular influences. One of the most fascinating sections of the book is Morgan's examination of attitudes towards melancholy and lovesickness in medieval thought.
Chaucer opens his poem by declaring that he will trace Troilus's journey from 'wo to wele, and after out of ioie' (I.4), but suffering is of course not always deserved, and discussions of the role of Fortune in human affairs thread their way throughout the poem. The influence of Boethius on the narrative is particularly marked: in probing Troilus's foolish puppy love and Criseyde's subsequent treachery, Chaucer balances moral accountability for one's actions against tougher notions of unyielding necessity; indeed, the poem is famously dispatched both to Gower and to Ralph Strode, the Merton logician who opposed Wyclif 's necessitarianism (V.1857). Chaucer salutes his finished work as 'litel myn tragedye' (V.1786), in all likelihood the earliest confident usage of the word in English, and the title of Morgan's study appears to promise a sustained discussion of the poem as such; in fact, despite sections that address Aquinas and Bradwardine on freedom of will and Fortune, the cursory handling of this aspect of the poem slightly disappoints.
Morgan's careful exploration of the poem is an undeniably impressive accomplishment; however, there is a sense in which the study's thoroughness is also its principal weakness; greater selection would have yielded a slimmer, but fresher, argument. For example, while frequent reference to the Middle English Dictionary firmly roots the discussion in its linguistic context, undigested citations of the Dictionary entries are not as illuminating as they might have been with fuller explanation. Nonetheless, Morgan's identification of Troilus motifs in numerous later texts makes this a pleasurable read: references are made not just to other texts in the Chaucerian canon and Henryson (although more on the Testament would have been welcome), but also, among others, to Austen, George Eliot, Wilde, and David Lean's Brief Encounter.
Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde dominates the English literary landscape. Morgan's commentary on this seminal text is magisterially thorough, wearing its erudition lightly. Any reader seeking a comprehensive and authoritative introduction to the poem will find this book of considerable interest.
Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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