Brother as Problem in the Troilus

By O'Brien, Timothy | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Brother as Problem in the Troilus


O'Brien, Timothy, Philological Quarterly


Even before Diomedes arrives in the Greek camp with Criseyde, for whom the Trojans have exchanged the seemingly more valuable Antenor, the bold Greek hero positions himself as an inevitability. One of the requests he makes of Criseyde, in 21 lines of "and" clauses (5.127-47) building to the unavoidable conclusion that he is and always will be her "owne aboven every creature" (5.154), is this one: "And that ye me wolde as youre brother trete" (5.134). (1) Because that request is one of many in a rather astonishingly sudden "come on" by the Greek hero, the emphasis on the brotherly relationship is easy to overlook. Yet it results from what has to have been a remarkably careful selection of terms, and not just because that term is a timelessly effective exploitation of familiarity, as in the lyric "Brother, can you spare a dime?" (2) Diomedes' use of "brother" here serves as the climax to Chaucer's development throughout his poem of the theme of brotherhood and the complex ways in which that relationship and the term itself get exploited--by the poem's characters and even to a lesser extent by the narrator.

Scholars have touched upon the brotherly relationship in the Troilus only to the extent that they focus on some related element--friendship, for instance, or the poem's claustrophobic setting and the close, even cliquish and in many cases familial relationships depicted in that setting, not to mention the related and certainly more sensational concern among scholars with hints of incestuous elements within the story and its allusions. Though the term "brother" and the relationship it names often comes up in these connections, I think it is productive to untangle it from them at least partially so that we can understand what Chaucer does with words, with cultural terms, in this poem.

Such a focus is not lacking in discussions of the Canterbury Tales. In fact, because of David Wallace's identification of the social forces determining that work's "associational" structure, particularly the influence of the guild language, with its emphasis on horizontal, fraternal relationships, the poem's repetition of terms for brotherhood makes even more sense than it did before, when the term was seen primarily as a key element in Chaucer's portrayals of religious hypocrisy. (3) Such characters as the Friar in the Summoner's Tale and the monk in the Shipman's Tale use terms of familial attachment--brotherhood and cozenage--as a way to hoodwink the unsuspicious "consumer" of those terms. Emphasis on the guilds leads Wallace to regard the obviously religious satire implied by the use of "brother" within the Friar's Tale as, in fact, Chaucer's interrogation of the guilds' use of that term and of the confrontation of the urban and expansive associational structure with the more traditional, limited structure of the country parish. (4)

According to Jean Jost, "brother" or a variant occurs 101 times in the Canterbury Tales. This frequency, she writes, "[suggests] the concept's strong linking function throughout the work," whether the term is employed positively or negatively. On the basis of these occurrences Jost draws the following picture of brotherhood within the Tales, the list going from the strongest to the weakest bonds:

(1) literal brothers of the same mother such as Placebo and Justinus in the Merchant's Tale; (2) closely related kin such as the cousins Palamon and Arcite in the Knight's Tale; (3) the putative "cousins," the monk and the merchant, in the Shipman's Tale; (4) the three comrades who pledge sworn brotherhood in the Pardoner's Tale; (5) men connected in some affectionate or emotional bond such as the philosopher and his "leve brother" in the Franklin's Tale (V. 1607); (6) those bound together in a religious confraternity such as the Franciscans in the Summoner's Tale; and (7) simple acquaintances who acknowledge the other's friendship, as does Harry advising the Miller, "Robyn, my leeve brother" (I 3129). …

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