Kelly McAree

The Genre of Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus contains the features of many different genres.  In this sense it can be seen as an epic because it attempts to include everything.  The text can also be seen to ‘transcend’ genre.  By using motifs from every genre it becomes difficult to pigeon-hole the text and therefore attempts to reject a readers expectations of what the story might entail.  Chaucer makes it clear that the story will contain sorrow from the outset ‘The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen’ (bk 1.1) but the use of different genres allows for some ambiguities and deviates from our expectations.  Barry Windeatt argued in the Cambridge Companion that:

‘the absorption, combination, quotation, and transcendence of genres is
a distinctive part of the nature and meaning of Troilus and Criseyde’
                        (pg 138, emphasis mine)

Here are some examples of each genre within the text:

➢    At the start of book 3 Chaucer evokes Calliope- the muse of epic poetry
‘Caliope, thi vois be now present,’ iii.45
➢    The background of the story is reminiscent of the epic as it deals with Homeric material - the fall of Troy.

However, the subject itself is not epic as it deals with a private and intimate affair, which is more suitable as romance.

➢    A romance is typically about the deeds of noble men and has a more concentrated scope than an epic.  Troilus fulfils this criteria as the protagonist is an honourable man, being the brother of Hector and just as worthy as him in battle and in moral thought—‘The same pris of Troilus I seye’ (ii.182)
➢    The text covers the intense and transfiguring nature of love—‘Blissed be love, that kan thus flok converte’ (i.308) and because this is Troilus’ first experience of love, the story can be seen as the young man’s adventure into the unknown or his quest for requited love.  The setting is also exotically distant.
➢    However, some conventions of the romance are not found in Troilus.  For instance the hero is repeatedly referred to as second to his brother Hector, and he does not benefit from a happy ending (in terms of love).
➢    Metrical form = rime royal.  This form had narrative associations that reminds the reader of contemporary popular romances

➢    There are many requirements for a tragedy.  In a Shakespearean sense the story must contain a tragic flaw, a motif includes rising and falling and the genre is customarily defined by its ending.  A few stanzas into book 1 and we are already being told of the sorrow and misery to follow.  At the start of book 4 the reader is presented with fortune’s wheel along with a prediction that he will fall from it (4.1-6).  Unlike characters in Shakespearean tragedies, Troilus and Criseyde have no definite ‘tragic flaws’.  It is the action that makes the text a tragedy.  Troilus seems to be a tragedy of fortune.
➢    Boethius defined tragedy in his Consolation of Philosophy as:

o    ‘What other thyng bywaylen the cryinges of tragedyes but oonly the dedes of fortune; that with uniwar strook overturneth the realms of greet nobleye’ ( ii. 67-70)

➢    HOWEVER due to the hero’s ascent into heaven at the end of the text, the losses he suffered do not seem tragic because he is happy.  Furthermore, in comparison to heaven nothing else matters.  As John Steadman argues (Disembodied Laughter), it is hard to plot a rise and fall in terms of gaining and losing goods that are transitory and worthless.
➢    Another type of medieval tragedy is the de casibus tragedy.  This type of tragedy takes no account of Aristotle but only depends on having a great man fall from prosperity.  Troilus may not adhere to this as the hero does not fall from wealth or does not lose his status.  He dies a warrior. But in fact de casibus can be understood less literally: Troilus falls from the heights of his happiness in Book III.

➢    Chaucer makes it clear that he is discussing historical events.  He refers to historical and epic writers such as ‘Omer, Dares, Dite’ (i.146) to enforce this.  He also uses pagan beliefs to place the story in history ‘Lo here of Payens olde rites!’ (ii.1849).
➢    Structure- five books similar to the five acts of dramatic texts.  The form matches the medieval understanding of Seneca’s tragedies.
➢    The text contains lots of dialogue

➢    Ballades e.g. dawn songs iii.1422-42 and 1450-70.
➢    Lyric written in same metrical form as the rest of the poem- Rime Royal

➢    Pandarus draws on elements of plotting and characterisation that resembles Fabliau- go between practises deceptions to accomplish the meeting and union of lovers.
➢    The coming and going through secret doors.  For example when Pandarus arranges for Troilus to secretly enter Criseyde’s chamber to consummate their love.

➢    Allegorical potential comes from the Roman de la Rose and the Consolation of Philosophy and knowledge at the time the book was written in.  The fall of Troy was seen as a warning against the example of Paris who chose his lust for Helen over an active or contemplative life.  Or the story of the Trojan war was been related to the type of body that gives in to lechery - Entering of the Trojan horse.

Through the use of these genres, Troilus and Criseyde presents us with many types of experience.  It involves everything in the same way that love does.  Though Chaucer labels his poem ‘litel myn tragedye’ (5.1786), because this label occurs so late in the poem it is asking us to question this form rather than simply accept it.  The declaration makes the reader question why he calls his text a tragedy—his hero has just ascended somewhere.  Chaucer asks us to consider the definition of Tragedy in light of the story we have just been told.  The story does not follow the usual conventions of tragedy, it is not the rise and fall of a prince that captures the reader, it is the rise and fall of something that can affect anyone: love.