Troilus and Cressida
‘Let us steal off together right away!
For think what folly it is, when we can choose,
To grasp a shadow, and a substance lose!
I mean there is a chance for us, ere dawn
To steal away, and be together. . .’
Troilus, Book IV (p. 232)
‘Why don’t I bring all Troy into a roar?
Why don’t I kill this Diomede, and show
Some courage? Why not, with a man or so,
Steal her away? What more must I endure?
Why don’t I help myself to my own cure?’
Troilus, Book V (p. 244)
The story of Troilus and Cressida manifests itself in the form of an epic poem, set in Ancient Greek times, and the narrator invokes the muse of the epic, Calliope. Those conditions lead to the expectation that Troilus, the protagonist of this text, will be a heroic warrior figure. He is, however, not even close to being a hero, which is a signal to readers that Geoffrey Chaucer is re-envisioning the role of the epic male protagonist. In these passages, Troilus presses himself to be the character that fits into the epic tradition, and attempts to become the virile, dominating male that he is not. Thus, Troilus reflects the universal male struggle to conform to the masculine gender identity.
The first passage comes from Troilus’s late night meeting with Cressida toward the end of Book IV, right after she assures him that she will return to Troy quickly. Troilus doubts the truth of her words and proposes the following: “Let us steal off together right away!” (232). One senses the urgency in his tone connoted by the exclamation mark. Yet instead of indicating firmness in his command to Cressida to depart with him immediately, it betrays his anxiety. We know this because only one scene earlier than this one, Pandarus had suggested this exact same plot to Troilus, who hastily dismissed it. Therefore, we cannot read this sentence without doubting the sincerity of Troilus’s words. The exclamation point shows how distraught he is in this, the moment where he is supposed to step up and prove his manhood.
Troilus even attempts to exhibit the masculine trait of rationality: “For think what folly it is, when we can choose, / To grasp a shadow, and a substance lose” (232). Here he compares his idea to elope as a sure bet and Cressida’s to an insubstantial “shadow.” No doubt this is merely a statement of denial, seeing as how, a few pages before, he essentially tells Pandarus that eloping would be a poor idea. Troilus’s implication of his own idea as being solid, unlike a weightless shadow, is his way of going through the motions of male optimism and self-assuredness. He knows that what he says is a lie, but tries to make the lie truth by saying it aloud to his lover. And of course, like a good, manly epic hero, he dispels the idea counter to his by labeling it a “folly,” a silly blunder of a thought. Throughout the book, he has been kind to Cressida and viewed all of her ideas as sacred, but in the moment when he is supposed to take control of her as his submissive fiancé, he only pretends to conform to the poetic epic standard of a man. Because the front he puts on is a pretense, we can understand the text to be critical of male gender roles and how they force men to act in unnatural ways.
The second passage reasserts the notions established in the first, but does so in a different way: Troilus asking himself “why.” In these five lines, he asks himself five different questions, all of which question why, as a man, he does not act how men should. There are few places in Troilus and Cressida where Troilus questions his actions as much as here. He begins by asking “Why don’t I bring all Troy into a roar? / Why don’t I kill this Diomede, and show / Some courage” (244). As a male protagonist in a Trojan epic, he knows that others expect him to stir up trouble and to use violence as a tool for his cause. He realizes his implied duty to rally the city behind his cause, and to not let the will of the Greek defeat him without a fight. He explains that perpetrating violent acts would prove his courageousness. Yet he knows that he is incapable of showing courage, and so neglects to act on his male responsibilities. Again he mentions the plot to “steal her away,” and wonders why he cannot seem to help himself. As a man, the epic genre dictates that he be active in his quest to retain his woman. Troilus cannot live up to this standard and is instead passive, allowing her, ironically, to be stolen away from him.
The text in these passages questions men’s gender roles: exemplifying rationality, optimism, self-assuredness, leadership, courageousness, and vengeance via combat. That Troilus asks why he cannot help himself has major thematic implications for this work as a whole. He simply cannot be the man he is supposed to be because it is against his nature to stand up for himself. The genre demands that Troilus be a man, but because he cannot, we learn that the epic genre’s expectations for men are unrealistic. What really is a man, the text asks, and why do society and classical literature propose such narrow definitions for manhood? Chaucer’s tragic tale about the failed, antiheroic Troilus criticizes the dually demeaning and unrealistic notion that men should be defined simply as heroes and warriors, and shows that many men struggle with living up to their gender’s expectations.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde, Trans. Nevill Coghill. New York: Penguin Books, 1971.