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

R.D. DREXLER


20. Cresseid as the Other

Gretchen Mieszkowski argues in her monograph The Reputation of Criseyde: 115015001 that Robert Henryson was working within a well articulated tradition when he wrote The Testament of Cresseid and for that reason the poem does not represent anything new. Specifically she is arguing against the article by Hyder Rollins, The TroilusCressida Story,2 in which he implies that Henryson’s poem was, indeed, something new and was responsible for the tradition that made Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida an ‘unattractive play.’ In this article I would like to argue that Henryson’s poem is new but not in the way Hyder Rollins thought, that the Testament of Cresseid changed the way we look at the character of Cresseid and was the harbinger of a distinctively modern way of looking at character generally.

Mieszkowski, after she has discussed Henryson’s poem, turns back to Chaucer’s treatment of the story and argues that Chaucer’s treatment of Criseyde3 depends on understanding that she is a type, the ‘false Criseyde who takes pleasure in loving two men,’4 and thus Chaucer’s treatment, while it seems more sympathetic on the surface, is in fact firmly a part of the false Criseyde tradition. While I agree with Mieszkowski about the tradition,5 I think that the fact that Criseyde is false is not what is most important about her in either Chaucer’s or Henryson’s treatment.

Chaucer, it seems to me, was working inside two traditions – anti-feminist satire, as Mieszkowski recognises, and courtly love – and that this is crucial to how he treats Criseyde. Criseyde is false, and, in so far as Chaucer is working within the anti-feminist tradition, he is at pains to show her so, but more importantly he is working with the courtly love tradition. Chaucer does not take either tradition very seriously, and he creates a narrator who is completely overwhelmed by the courtly love aspects of the story; thus Criseyde is viewed sympathetically even though she takes little time in breaking her vows to Troilus

1 Gretchen Mieszkowski, ‘The Reputation of Criseyde, 1155–1500’, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 43 (December, 1971), pp. 71–153. Hereafter referred to as Mieszkowski.

2 Hyder E. Rollins, The Troilus-Cressida Story from Chaucer to Shakespeare, PMLA, XXXII (1917), pp. 383–429.

3 I will use the convention of spelling Cresseid’s name differently when referring to different treatments of the story. Thus Henryson’s character is Cresseid, Chaucer’s Criseyde, and Shakespeare’s Cressida.

4 See Mieszkowski, p. 102.

5 I should note, however, that her sense of the tradition depends on rather arbitrary chronological limits. The seed of the story in Homer supposes a quite different Criseyde and the subsequent treatment by Dryden in 1679 views her quite specifically as virtuous.

-221-

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