Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Criseyde's Swoon and the Experience of Love in Trolius and Criseyde

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Criseyde's Swoon and the Experience of Love in Trolius and Criseyde

Article excerpt

   Therwith the sorwe so his herte shette
   That from his eyen fil there nought a tere,
   And every spirit his vigour in knette,
   So they astoned or oppressed were.
   The felyng of his sorwe, or of his fere,
   Or of aught elles, fled was out of towne;
   And down he fel al sodeynly a-swowne.

   (Troilus and Criseyde 3.1086-92)

   "O Jove, I deye, and mercy I beseche!
   Help, Troilus!" And therwithal hire face
   Upon his brest she leyde and loste speche--
   Hire woful spirit from his propre place,
   Right with the word, alwey o poynt to pace.
   And thus she lith with hewes pale and grene,
   That whilom fressh and fairest was to sene.

   (Troilus and Criseyde 4.1149-55)

DESPITE their different paths to falling in love, once they have arrived at love's door Troilus and Criseyde exhibit some of the same behaviors, including, as the epigraphs above show, a tendency to swoon in stressful situations. Although the contexts of these swoons and the responses to them are markedly different, it is hard not to think of them comparatively. (1) But what do these swoons indicate? Do they imply that Troilus and Criseyde have reached a kind of emotional parity? Or is Chaucer using these parallel experiences to suggest that, in spite of these similar moments of emotional turmoil, the two lovers actually share very little? Deciding questions such as these largely depends on how sympathetically readers respond to both characters' experiences in the poem. Equally influential are readers' critical predispositions regarding Chaucer's intentions. Naturally, differences in readers' critical dispositions have led to widely disparate interpretations of the characters and the poem they inhabit. Still, since we are reading the same poem, I would like to use this essay to demonstrate how even critics holding very different positions ultimately share some common critical ground when evaluating it.

In her essay devoted to Troilus's swoon in Book Three, Jill Mann characterizes it as part of a process she calls "mutual surrender" (326). Mann argues that when Troilus swoons before Criseyde at Pandarus's house she realizes that he has given himself wholly to her. As a result, Criseyde can then give herself to him without fearing his domination or feeling hypocritical about yielding to him. Mann uses Troilus's swoon to examine "the whole context of Chaucer's examination of the complex evolution of the power relationships inevitably involved in the situation of any two people in love" (331), and concludes that "Chaucer's conception of [the roles of men and women] is based, not on literary conventions or religious doctrine or social orthodoxy, but on 'law of kynde,' which he must have trusted would work as powerfully on his twentieth-century readers as on his fourteenth-century ones" (332). In other words, Mann believes that Chaucer speaks for the ages in Troilus and Criseyde about a universal condition that in the specific case of the characters of Troilus and Criseyde demonstrates a genuine and good form of love. (2)

Whether or not one accepts Mann's interpretation of the nature of Troilus and Criseyde's love, Troilus's swoon indisputably leads to the consummation of their relationship and the brief period of love's mutuality in the poem. On the other hand, Criseyde's swoon, which serves as a bookend to Troilus's, engenders a process that disturbs love's mutuality and instead leads to its dissolution. This process is clearly illustrated in Book Four when, in response to the Trojan proposal to exchange Criseyde in return for Antenor, Criseyde swoons and then, upon awakening, tells Troilus that her departure to the Greek camp will lead, not to a rupture in their love affair, but to its continuation. That Troilus and Criseyde never come close to being reunited supports the view that Criseyde's reasoning is specious and underscores Mann's point that love flourishes in an environment of mutuality and withers when one lover attempts to dominate the other. …

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