The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

ANNE M. McKIM


19. The European Tragedy of Cresseid: the Scottish
Response

The title of my paper is of course prompted by the recently published book of essays, The European Tragedy of Troilus, edited by Piero Boitani. Few would disagree that there’s also a European tragedy of Criseyde: as early as the fifteenth century the Scottish poet Robert Henryson articulated precisely this aspect of the story of the ill-fated lovers when he composed The Testament of Cresseid. and identified his work as a ‘tragedye’.1 The contributors to Boitani’s book concentrate on the personal fate of Troilus, the central importance yet changing significance of his death in almost all versions of his story from antiquity on. The sometimes radical changes to the end of the Troilus story prove, Boitani concludes, that ‘after antiquity the end of the story is felt to be unsatisfactory, disturbing, and hence open to debate and reinvention.’2

The most significant innovation to the Troilus story was the introduction by Benoit de St. Maure and his imitators of Brisseida/Criseida and the love-andbetrayal plot which not only complicated the story but changed the sense of Troilus’s tragedy from an epic to a romantic one.3 Chaucer’s role in introducing this European figure into English Literature, and from there into Scots, has long been recognised. It was clearly Chaucer’s portrayal of Criseyde that inspired Henryson to compose a tragedy in which he graphically presents her suffering and death as a companion piece to the English poet’s tragedy of Troilus, and the account there of his suffering and death.

The nature of Henryson’s tragedy has been the subject of a number of studies which have explored the Testament as a tragedy in the Boethian sense of a fall from prosperity to misery, as a Senecan tragedy, and in his article, ‘Henryson’s “Tragedie” of Cresseid’, Steven R. McKenna has described the heroine’s progress as a ‘downfall into enlightenment’ and Cresseid herself as a tragic figure ‘who must not only discover, but must bear the burden of her own identity’.4 My focus is narrower: how the Testament and another late medieval Scottish poem derived from Henryson’s poem, offer quite radical responses to, even revisions of, the Troilus story.

The Testament of Cresseid is unmistakably a reworking, a reinventing, of the ending, specifically the fifth book, of Chaucer’s five-book Troilus. While in a number of respects Henryson’s poem picks up and develops Chaucer’s account,

1. The Poems of Robert Henryson ed. Denton Fox (Oxford, 1981), line 4. All subsequent quotations from the Testament are taken from this edition.

2. The European Tragedy of Troilus ed. Piero Boitani (Oxford, 1989), p. 299.

3. Boitani, p. 281.

4. SLJ, 18 (May 1991) p. 29.

-211-

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