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Chaucer’s Criseyde: Characterization Through Interior Thought

Book II of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde contains a rich portrait of Criseyde’s interior thought process, unlike the following Books III-V that seem to include less and less of her inner-thoughts during her escalating romantic affair with Troilus. In fact, by Book V of Troilus and Criseyde, Criseyde’s actions appear to be limited chiefly to narrative summary, even in the most climactic moment of betrayal with Diomede (V.1044-50). The decline in narration of Criseyde’s inner-thoughts from Chaucer’s lengthy Book II, can be correlated with the progress of Pandarus’ schemes and the ‘game’ he plays. Chaucer’s version of Criseyde’s inner-debate, as Joan Haahr argues in her essay “Criseyde’s Inner Debate: The Dialectic of Enamorment in the Filostrato and the Troilus, enriches her characterization. This essay contends that not only do the moments of Criseyde’s interior thought and the internal debate in Book II serve to characterize her, but that these moments of interior debate are examples of the narrator’s deliberate sympathy for Criseyde as a character who tries to exercise agency. Criseyde can never reason through the situation in which she finds herself, however, because of the manipulative skills Pandarus wields with such skill in his ‘game’ of love. Chaucer’s narrator, then, in his preface of Book II and in his unwillingness to reproach Criseyde’s character further at the story’s close, reveals his deeper purpose in including Criseyde’s extensive interior dialogue as a deliberate choice to sympathize with Criseyde’s character.

Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, which marks the beginning of Pandarus’ work as match-maker, is filled with a number of insights into Criseyde’s innermost thoughts and reasonings as she decides how she ought to respond to Troilus’ love. In Book I, Troilus falls in love with Criseyde and confesses this love to Pandarus. In Book II, Pandarus begins the process of convincing his niece, Criseyde, to fall in love with Troilus. Pandarus’ revelation to Criseyde of Troilus’ passion for her is coupled with his persistent efforts to persuade his ‘dear niece’ to return his friend’s love. This is especially apparent in Book II.309-810. In this passage, Chaucer illustrates the strange relationship between Uncle Pandarus and his niece, Criseyde. Though it will be discussed further later, Pandarus eagerly assumes the role of news-bearer of Troilus’ affection to Criseyde. Yet, Pandarus’ simultaneous role as strategist and the authoritative figure is apparent in his demands that Criseyde gratifies Troilus’ love with her own. In his long pleas, coercion, and arguments, the narrator sheds light on Criseyde’s thoughts as she processes all that Pandarus is saying. The personal debate Criseyde has with herself occurs at the close of Pandarus’ arguments and after Troilus rides by her window. The two glimpses into Criseyde’s interior thoughts as well as her inner debate in Book II. 309-810, serve as telling details into her character.

To analyze Criseyde’s character by examination of her inner-debate, one must understand what she argues for, against, and about. Her internal debate is almost entirely in opposition to loving Troilus, with less than two stanzas that positively consider returning his love. Criseyde’s reflections commence on the novelty of Troilus’ love with indifferent thoughts towards him besides the necessary civility, her thought process then escalates to negativity at the point that she states her independence. Immediately following these cynical statements, there is one stanza consisting of positive self-inquiry as to why she could love Troilus without blame. Between this favorable stanza and the stanzas full of misgivings that follow it, the narrator includes a small passage of input about the fear clouding of her mood. She is then entirely against the idea of loving a man at all; yet, her inner-thoughts conclude with optimism about Troilus. It should be noted, however, that the narrator comments after this and says she debated back and forth further, even after this statement. (II.701-810)

A striking fullness to Criseyde’s character is realized through this interior debate as she attempts to reason and to act in self-preservation. She does so with reference to but not in direct correspondence to Pandarus’ arguments, yet her constant wavering, “now hot, now cold”, speaks to the power he wields over her (II.811).

She takes the following course: first, she is lukewarm—almost indifferent—to the thought of Troilus’ love. She follows Pandarus’ line of thinking that there cannot be harm “to deal with such lord with gladness, for my estate and his health” (II.703-04). She is wise, in this same thought-process, to recognize Troilus’ kinship to the king, a fact which makes it worth remaining on his good side (II.708-14). She then says she will never pay him so much attention as to allow him “to boast [of her love] with just cause” (II.726-28). In this statement, she is attempting to exercise agency by drawing limits between herself and Troilus. She then asks herself, “what dishonor is it to me” if he loves her (II.731). She concludes, “men love women without without their permission and when it pleases them no longer, they leave” (II.734-35) Shen then moves from her indifference towards Troilus to resolving to refuse any man, stating, “I am my own woman… No husband is going to say ‘check-mate’ to me!” (II.750-54). It is ironic that after this bold statement of independence, that Criseyde makes a positive turn towards falling for Troilus by questioning herself:

What shall I do? To what end do I live?

Shall I not love, if I want to?

What, by god! I am not a nun!

And though my heart is set at rest

Upon this knight, that is the worthiest,

And keep always my honor and my name,

It be all right, it will do me no shame. (II.757-63; positive stanza)

At this point, there is then a brief narrator intrusion describing her ‘sunny’ thoughts to be overshadowed by clouds (II.764-70). Then after this one positive stanza, Criseyde returns to her fears, but this time they are fully negative rather than lukewarm. She asks why she should lose her freedom and put her self in jeopardy (II.771-75). She spends the latter stanzas lamenting the plight of women who love men who are unfaithful and fickle (II.785-98). Chaucer makes it evident to the reader that she fears the uncertainty of a man’s love and struggles with pleasing those who might observe her relationship with Troilus. Criseyde makes the firm statement that she does not want to have to “please they that chatter about love, and dream up things, to pacify their gossip” (II.799-801) The glimpse into her inner-thoughts concludes after this statement in two lines of positive resolve. Even yet, the narrator follows this amiable attitude to try loving Troilus with a note that she changed her mind several more times (II.810-12):

And after that, her thought began to clear up,

and she said, “Nothing ventured,

Nothing gained, like it or not” (II.806-08)

This internal debate thus shows Criseyde’s fears, her reasoning, and her attempts to make a wise decision regarding Troilus. Chaucer spends more time dissecting the logic of Criseyde’s mind, her legitimate fears, distrust of men, and yet also shows her weakness for helping her estate. The negative aspects of her debate far outweigh the positive yet the positive affirmations are poignant and reflect a Pandarus-like reasoning. The narrator does not portray Criseyde to be entirely convinced, however. It will require much more time. Instead of a flat character, one who easily gives into Pandarus’ persuasion and Troilus’ love, Criseyde tries to exercise agency by avoiding men, before she eventually gives in.

Complementing this reading of the churning inner-thoughts of Criseyde, Joan Haahr in her article states that Criseyde’s debate reveals a “mixture of practicality and naivety, [and] do not serve as a direct rejoinder to Pandarus’ meditation (Haahr 269). She states that within the sixty-three lines of this debate, the words “I,” “me,” or “my” occur 42 times. Criseyde is trying to reason for herself what the best course of action is according to “conventional morality” (Haahr 269). I agree with Haahr that Chaucer, unlike Boccaccio, gives Criseyde a rounded characterization. While Haahr provides useful insight into the characterization of Criseyde through her inner-debate, she does not give due emphasis the thoughts revealing a deep-seeded fear and fight for self-preservation evident in her internal debate as well as in her internal thoughts.

Not only is the passage of Criseyde’s inner-debate post-Troilus’ appearance important to the rounding of Criseyde’s character, but also two distinct moments of interior thought that precede her internal debate give insight into her character. Like the content of her internal debate, these moments of reflection in Criseyde’s conversation with Pandarus, reveal her fear and self-preservation tactics as she ‘feels at what he means’ (II.386-92). In two different instances, amidst Pandarus’ claims and commands concerning Troilus’ deep love for Criseyde, the narrator allows us to see her internal thoughts. In these brief moments, a skepticism can be observed which alludes to her strange relationship with her uncle, Pandarus. Criseyde is very distrustful in the interior of her thoughts and acts as if she is playing a game in these two specific moments.

Marjory Woods in her article, “Chaucer the Rhetorician: Criseyde and Her Family,” like Haahr, also contends that Chaucer presents Criseyde as a rounded character. Woods, however, argues that Chaucer’s narrator works as “prosecutor,” by first making a plea for Criseyde through her interior thought and then showing her degradation of character. She argues that part of this rounding is through Criseyde’s family values. While I agree with Haahr that Criseyde is characterized by her internal debate, not through her family or moral values as Woods argues. Both articles do, however, present the view that Criseyde is a rounded character. Woods and Haahr miss the weakness of Criseyde to Pandarus’ schemes which show her to be a product of manipulation. Her main ‘rounding’ or characterization is rather in her inner-debate. Though she is limited to reacting to Pandarus’ coercion, she does so with shrewdness and careful thought. As the story progresses and Pandarus’ schemes intensify, this resistance is less apparent.

The narrator provides the first glimpse into Criseyde’s internal distrust of her uncle’s intentions after Pandarus reveals to Criseyde the ‘news’ he has that Troilus loves her. In telling her this, Pandarus also demands her “help,” consisting of “nothing but a friendly look,” and presents the stakes as his and Troilus’ death (II.316-385). In his initial presentation of Troilus’ love for his niece and request for her help, Pandarus is careful to speak of her relationship to Pandarus to be “such love friends that reigns all over this town” (II.379). The narrator shows Criseyde’s distrust of Pandarus’ initial request:

Criseyde, while listening to him in this manner,

thought, “I shall feel what he means, for sure,”

“Now Uncle,” she said “what would you advise? (II. 386-392)


She is unsure of Pandarus and takes time to calculate what he could mean and this suggests a suspicion of him and concern for her safety. She thus asks him for his advice, but we learn from the narrator that she does this more to discover Pandarus’ intentions than to be advised.

The second moment of interior thought preceding the inner-debate in Criseyde, underscores the importance of reputation to Criseyde, particularly in consideration of her fragile political position. As the daughter of a treasonous father who fled to the Greeks, Criseyde is only living in Troy because of the mercy of Hector (I.110-19). This second glimpse of Criseyde’s internal thought follows her fearful response at discovering Pandarus’ actual intention for her—that she love Troilus. Criseyde then accuses Pandarus of not having her best interest in mind, prompting him to threaten to leave (II.435-48). She grabs him by the cloak to beg him to stay.

And [Criseyde] thought thus: “Unfortunate things happen thick

and fast continually for love, and in such manner

as men be cruel in himself and wicked;

and if this man killed himself—alas!—

In my presence, it would be no comfort.

What would men would deem of it I cannot say;

It necessitates me to play very shrewdly. (Book II. 456-462)

In this moment of interior thought, Criseyde reflects on the cruelty of love and decides to ‘play’ Pandarus’ game cautiously; what becomes evident in her grasp to try to control her situation and ensure her safety, is that she is already submitting to Pandarus’ scheme. For, Criseyde worries to herself that Troilus committing suicide would “be of no comfort,” and only cause her further distress. Thus, her attempted internal resistance to Pandarus’ schemes, that results in subconscious submission is exemplified at this moment. Pandarus presents her a situation of Troilus’ love that can only be remedied with one option: that she submit. “Necessitates me to play shrewdly” is the key line to this stanza, for it refers to Pandarus’ ideas and insistence as a ‘game.’ This idea of playing a game between Pandarus and his niece is referring back to the “painted process” that Criseyde mentions (II.424). It is as if they both are aware they are playing psychological games with each other. However, unknown to Criseyde is the fact that Pandarus is the player.

By comparing the content of the internal thoughts and debates of Criseyde in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde with those of Boccaccio’s Filostrato, it becomes evident that Chaucer’s narrator includes much more characterization through these glimpses of internal conflict. Though internal debate, specifically, occurs in both Troilus and Criseyde as well as Filostrato, Boccaccio’s use of internal debate is a rhetorical convention while Chaucer’s use is a choice of a sympathetic narrator who sees a complex Criseyde. In Boccaccio, Criseyde’s internal debate, which occurs during Pandarus’ persuasion, parrots Pandarus’ arguments (Haahr 261). This version of Criseyde’s debate, using the rhetorical device of disputio custom, does not show Criseyde to have a rounded character or exercise agency (Haahr 262). The aforementioned two instances of interior thought prior to Criseyde’s internal-debate are absent from Bocaccio’s Filostrato. The result is a Criseyde who gives in speedily to Pandarus and does not reason for herself. She is actually giving in to his persuasion as he speaks.

Chaucer’s narrator contrasts the inner-debate of Filostrato by presenting a difficult-to-persuade Criseyde who does not even begin to consider complying with Pandarus’ request until after he speaks and after Troilus’ rides by her window. Her internal debate is considerably more lengthy and is not a complete repetition or concession to Pandarus’ game (Haahr 261). Arguments such as Woods’, that assert that insights into Criseyde’s character are merely a part of a fair case against her, fail to appreciate the internal workings of her mind that the narrator purposefully presents (Woods 34). Chaucer does not just make use of the rhetorical device of disputio custom as Boccacio does. Rather, his Criseyde’s interior thoughts to show her characterization and reveal her as a character with depth.

Chaucer’s narrator, however, does not show her as having agency, but rather shows her as round as she tries to control her situation; the inner-debate rather serves as a device to show Pandarus’ manipulation of Criseyde and her failure to resist. Pandarus has a strategy and affects Criseyde without her realizing it. He does this by manipulating the elemental within Criseyde and then following it with physical force. Hear fears for her security and reputation are at the forefront of her inner-debate and these are the very weaknesses Pandarus manipulates. He seems to know her better than she knows herself so she never has a chance. Having a chance, however, is not the point. Her interior thoughts and struggles of her initial resistance to Troilus garner sympathy from the narrator. Criseyde, in her thoughts, seems to ignore Pandarus’ foolish arguments, such as the “cloak of friendship” and secret meetings, but also to take seriously the threat to Troilus’ life and her reputation (II.319-322, 379-380).

What is more, though it is clear that Pandarus is not acting within the confines of Courtly Love, his “game,” or “painted process,” motives are unknown to the reader. What the reader is aware of, however, is the power of his persuasion and its overwhelming effect on Criseyde. As a third party interfering with and endangering his niece’s honor, Pandarus defies the rules of courtly romance (Ragland 8-12). It is, however, apparent that Pandarus’ manipulation is full, powerful, and all-consuming in the story. Even when Pandarus’ power over Criseyde dissolves in Book V, the damage of manipulation has already been done (Guthrie 150-53).

This full level of manipulation is possible because the game Pandarus plays never gives Criseyde a choice, especially because he follows his coercion with force. The ‘force’ that ensues after Pandarus tells Criseyde of Troilus’ love in Book II is the grand ride-by of Troilus makes in front of Criseyde (II.610-663). This sense of force is significant in that it does not give Criseyde a moment to her own reflections but rather keeps her in a constant state of stimulus. Her inner-debate is thus manipulated by the coercion and force Pandarus exercises over her. This type of persuasion-force pattern clarifies how Troilus and Criseyde’s romance advanced to the degree it did. It was never a question of whether Criseyde had agency. Rather, when Criseyde tried to exercise her own reasoning and agency (her two internal thoughts during Pandarus’ news as well as her inner-dialogue), she cannot withstand the master manipulator, Pandarus. She attempts to play a ‘game’ with Pandarus that she is bound to lose because Pandarus is playing an entirely different game—one that has unclear motives even to the reader.

Moreover, the increase in Pandarus’ control over Criseyde’s actions has a linear relationship with the decrease in Criseyde’s interior voice in the subsequent books and is most visibly manifested in Book V. As shown in her interior thoughts and internal debate, Book II of Troilus and Criseyde invests ample time on Criseyde's interior voice. Books III-V mostly omit Criseyde’s internal thoughts. These subsequent books exhibit the increase of Pandarus’ manipulation and eventual success in uniting her with Troilus. The more Pandarus manipulates the relationship, the less Criseyde seems to reason. The thoroughness of Pandarus’ success in exploiting Criseyde, is substantiated in the narrative summary of Book V. This phenomenon of the now voiceless Criseyde is exemplified in just one stanza of Book V.

I also find in stories elsewhere,

When dioxide’s body was hurt by Troilus

She then wept many a tear

When she saw his wide wounds bleed,

And that she took good care of him

And healed him of his sorrows,

And Men say—I not—that she gave him her heart. (V.1044-50)

In a single stanza towards the close of Book V, the culminating moment of betrayal in and most momentous choice of action for Criseyde—falling in love with Diomede—is narrated. The once verbose narrator, who illuminated Criseyde’s reasoning and thought processes throughout Book II, summarizes the climax of Criseyde’s character in the briefest manner possible without reference at all to her interior thought. The fullness of Pandarus’ manipulation is complete: Criseyde no longer exercises any agency. Contrasting  Woods assumption, this stanza shows not the ‘other side’ of the case against Criseyde, but rather the steady progression of a manipulated character.

In the few stanzas following this narration of Criseyde’s betrayal, Chaucer seems to identify his narrative motives as he shows Criseyde’s interior thoughts and their subsequent decline throughout the story. Chaucer’s narrator reveals himself to be sympathetic to Criseyde. Again, this fact contrasts Wood’s argument that Criseyde is a rounded character—not one to sympathize with, however—because Chaucer presents both sides to her story (Woods 33-34) The narrator uses Criseyde’s interior thoughts to round her character; the progression is a deliberate choice by the narrator. He pushes back against the public’s shaming of Criseyde. If we agree with Woods that he is only showing her good side to then argue what is wrong with her, then we miss the intricacy of what Chaucer is doing with Pandarus in painting him as a master manipulator of Criseyde. The question where the narrator’s sympathies lie is fulfilled in the following stanza of Book V.

I do not wish to reproach this poor woman

Further than the story devises.

Her name, alas, is published so wide

That it ought to be sufficient punishment for her guilt

And if I might excuse her in any ay,

For she is so sorry for her dishonesty

Here, I would excuse her yet out of my pity. (V.1092-99)

The once more open narrator who spoke in the invocation of Book II, seems to make his intentions and sympathies for Criseyde known in this stanza. Seeing Criseyde’s interior thought throughout Book II thus makes us sympathetic because we can see the power of Pandarus’ manipulation. What is more, Criseyde’s reasoning process is simply nowhere near Pandarus’ skill level. She never acts, only reacts. These facts combined with an exploited Criseyde, create a character to which the audience can sympathize. 

Through the interior thoughts of Criseyde in Book II of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer illuminates the complexity of Criseyde’s characterization as well Pandarus’ ability to manipulate her. Criseyde’s character, thus, becomes lost in narration as her love affair with Troilus comes to fruition in the subsequent books. By Book V, Criseyde’s actions are limited to narrative summary, even in the most climactic moment of betrayal with Diomede (V.1044-50). The decline in narration of Criseyde’s inner-thoughts from Chaucer’s lengthy Book II, seem to be linearly related in that the more manipulation Pandarus forces upon her, the less interior thought is given to her in the narrative. This correlation seems then to imply that it is Pandarus’ overwhelming ability to control Criseyde that limits her agency and ability to reason. The moments of Criseyde’s interior thought and the internal debate in Book II served to characterize her in a way that made the reader sympathetic to her downfall; for it becomes evident that she cannot withstand the dexterity at which Pandarus plays his match-making game. It is this very sympathy may have served as the detached narrator’s motivation for writing the story. If no other plea is made for Criseyde, Chaucer’s words may suffice for this woman whose “name, alas, is published so wide that it ought to be sufficient punishment for her guilt.”



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