The proem of the fourth book tells us that the intense happiness of lovers rarely lasts for long, due to the goddess Fortune, who controls the fate of men. The narrator forewarns us that he must tell the story of Criseyde’s unkindness to Troilus, but assures us that this is solely the perspective of those people involved, and that he regrets speaking ill of her.
The fourth book starts by taking us again to the conflict between the Greeks and Trojans. The Greeks have been steadily demolishing Troy and so one day Hector and his nobleman try to fight them in battle. In the battle, the Trojan army acts brutally and as a result, their soldier Antenor is captured and it seems as if the city of Troy will be entirely taken. Calchas, the father of Criseyde and the one who fled to the Greeks after foreseeing the fall of Troy, tries to convince the Greek army to exchange the captured soldier for his daughter, who he has missed terribly.
Calchas’ emotional speech is met with acceptance by the Greeks, who agree to release Antenor. Greek ambassadors are sent to Troy to propose the exchange to King Priam. Troilus is present when they speak of exchanging Criseyde for Antenor, and he instantly becomes full of dread, although he can’t voice this. Hector opposes the deal because he doesn’t feel it is right to sell a woman for a prisoner. All of the other lords object to Hector and say that Antenor is very valuable to Troy and that Criseyde should be surrendered. The narrator hints at the foolishness of this decision, revealing that later on Antenor will actually betray the Trojans.
Troilus goes home and lies in bed, feeling out of his mind with sorrow. He flings himself around the room and batters his own body in frustration. He speaks to Fortune, demanding to know what he did to deserve such a cruel fate. He delivers a monologue where he describes his misery and cries out to Love. Pandarus comes to visit him. Seeing Troilus’ anguish, his heart goes cold. Though he is sad for his friend, he also encourages him to get out of his grief, pointing out that Troilus has gotten what he desired fully in that he has already united and fallen in love with Criseyde. He also reminds him that there will be other women.
Troilus, so deep in sorrow, takes little notice of his friend’s words. He tells Pandarus that for his whole life he will always be faithful to Criseyde. He says it is not in his power whether he is able to let go of Criseyde; love has him in its grip. Troilus becomes angry with Pandarus and tells him his advice is worthless. Pandarus responds by challenging Troilus to be a man and take Criseyde “by force.” Troilus explains that he will not do this, because to take a woman by force is seen as a great wrong in the city of Troy. His father, the King, has already decreed the exchange, anyway.
Pandarus advises Troilus that he shouldn’t pay any mind to what other people would think by stealing Criseyde. Perhaps Criseyde will even be expecting Troilus to take her back from the Greeks, and she won’t be upset. Pandarus tells him to go to the King and try to communicate his desires.
Rumor is quickly spreading about the exchange of Criseyde. When Criseyde hears of the news, she feels great rage at those who made the decision. Some women friends come to Criseyde and congratulate her on the news, thinking she should be happy to return to her father. Criseyde cannot hold back her emotions, and the friends believe she is weeping because she has to leave them behind. They try to comfort her to no avail and Criseyde runs to her bed, where she curses her existence and asks for death.
Pandarus comes to Criseyde and reads her a message from Troilus. Pandarus encourages his niece not to give up and put her energy in finding a “remedy” to the situation. Meanwhile, Troilus is alone in the temple, speaking passionately about predestination and whether God has decreed this fate for Troilus or not. When Troilus later goes to Criseyde, the lovers are so sorrowful that they can barely embrace each other.
They speak for awhile and Crisedye proposes a plan: she will return in 10 days, once a truce is reached between the Greeks and Trojans. She also suggests that in case there is no peace between the cities, there is a possibility she can trick her father into coming back to Troy. Troilus questions Criseyde if she will be true to her promise, threatening that if not he will never again have health or happiness. He worries that Calchas will overpower her and try to marry her to someone else. He begs her to run away with him instead. Criseyde replies that if they do this, they will regret it deeply later. She also advises him not to run away from his duties as a solider while she is away, because it is cowardly.
Criseyde states how she will always be faithful and will act in such a way to honor Troilus, not because of his position or riches but because of his virtues. Her love for Troilus will be everlasting, no matter the whims of the goddess Fortune. They say goodbye emotionally and part ways.
The fourth book sees a major conflict appear within the trajectory of Troilus and Criseyde’s flowering romance. In this section, we re-encounter Calchas who has unwittingly made a decision that impacts the life of the protagonists in a tragic way. Calchas’ insistence to have his daughter returned to him is an ironic moment where we see how even the best of intentions—reuniting with family—can have dire and unforeseen consequences. In this book, we see Troilus and Criseyde question whether they even wish to continue living, as their pain at being separated is so severe. Pandarus serves to bring in a dose of rationality, preventing the couple from making any irreversible decisions.
Throughout this act of the story, Chaucer repeatedly emphasizes how the news of Criseyde’s move to Greece devastates the lovers. Many of the pages of this book are dedicated to long speeches by Troilus and Criseyde lamenting and trying to make sense of why and how this twist of fates has occurred. The shock comes all the more severely because they are in the peak of their relationship, still somewhat blinded by the bliss of infatuation. Their sorrow even affects them on a physical level; in one scene, Criseyde’s beautiful face which was “once the image of paradise” can now only contain sadness, making her almost unrecognizable.
Here, Troilus is faced with a very important decision and test of his virtues, pushing him to ponder what is truly the right thing to do in this situation on all levels. On one hand, his passions tell him to disregard the decree of his own father, King Priam, and “steal” Criseyde before she can be taken by Calchas. On the other hand, Troilus thoughtfully considers Criseyde’s feelings in the matter, holding her viewpoint in the highest regard. To steal her would perhaps ruin his lady’s reputation, the thought of which makes him wish for death. Yet Troilus’ back and forth on the issue prevents him from taking action, instead spending most of this book wallowing in self-pity.
It is Pandarus, again, who comes to the aid of his friend and helps him snap out of it to some degree. Finding Troilus in utter desolation, he feels that he can only truly do one thing: try to reenergize his friend by speaking quite directly and powerfully about his responsibility in this circumstance. When Troilus admits he is reluctant to steal Criseyde and break the law, Pandarus responds sharply, exclaiming how “laws are broken all the time through love.” Pandarus, who has somewhat engineered Criseyde and Troilus’ entire romance, is not willing to let all be lost for the sake of social appearances, and his advice reflects one of the greater themes in Troilus and Criseyde, that of the supremacy of love above all else.
This book also brings to surface the theme of fortune versus free will. In the first few pages, the author notes the unpredictability of the goddess Fortune, who has favored Troilus in one moment, and in the next, has “thrown him from her wheel.” Later, Troilus speaks lengthily about predestination, wondering if it is in fact true that all events are ordained by God before birth, as was commonly believed in that historical period. Troilus considers various views of human choice in the unfolding of destiny, yet ultimately can’t come to any conclusion about which vision is the correct one, and his philosophizing brings him to the same place in which he started: the state of having a heavy heart.