Troilus and Criseyde Themes

Troilus and Criseyde Themes

Courtly Love

Love is central to Chaucer’s tale, and Troilus and Criseyde’s love affair follows many conventions of the medieval concept of ‘courtly love’. This includes worship of the maiden from afar (Book I), rejection of the male by the virtuous lady (Book II), and chivalric behaviour (Book V). In Book II, Troilus complains of a sickness that he cannot recover from, and he regularly faints. These are presented as symptoms of ‘lovesickness’, a medieval idea that suggested to be deprived of one’s love was a physical illness, and exhibited symptoms that could only be cured by wine and women. The maiden initially rejecting her suitor was also an important element. She must first be seen as publicly demure, and rejecting his first advances, before admitting to his desire. However, Chaucer’s love affair ends differently to other romances, which traditionally end happily. Criseyde must betray Troilus for Diomedes for the sake of protection, therefore there is a lack of chivalrous behavior present on Criseyde’s behalf. Yet, Troilus and Criseyde’s love affair was conducted honorably until the end, with Troilus refusing to abduct Criseyde and elope with her.

Fortune versus Human Choice

Chaucer, and Chaucer’s narrator, regularly comments on Fortune, represented by the goddess Fortuna and her symbol of the wheel. Whilst a man is held at the top of Fortuna’s wheel, he is in good fortune. Yet, he is in danger of the wheel suddenly turning and losing favour. At the beginning of Book I, it is warned that Troilus will move ‘from woe to joy, and then out of joy’, confirming from the start that his fortune will fluctuate and end badly. It is a large question concerning Chaucer’s text, whether the characters are controlled wholly by Fortune or if they can intervene with human choice. There are decisions which are made within the romance that are clearly orchestrated by human choice: Troilus and Criseyde’s initial meeting at Deiphebus’ house, the exchange of letters, and the lover’s consummation. Yet, Fortune also seems to make some decisions throughout: Criseyde moves to look out her window just as Troilus is riding past, she hears Antigone sing a love song in the garden right after she considers Troilus as a love interest, and Troilus finds Criseyde’s brooch on Diomedes ship, confirming the betrayal. The pattern of Troilus’ fortune is almost symmetrical in the five book text: he is atop of the wheel in Book I, II, and half of III, falling for the remainder of the book. Fortune is therefore not only a thematic concept in Chaucer’s romance, but a structural one.


The importance of the meaning of dreams is illustrated by Troilus in his visit to Cassandra, the seer who translates the meaning of his vision. The dreams that are initially had by Criseyde, and then Troilus, indicate a change in emotion that will soon come in to play in the following text. The first dream is Criseyde’s, and is of a large white eagle that flies down to her. It painlessly takes her heart from her chest and replaces it with it’s own. This is representative of the introduction of Troilus in to her life, and the affair they will start that will commit their hearts to each other. The eagle was traditionally a symbol of war in medieval literature, and in representing Troilus, this vision displays his strength an Criseyde’s submission to his love. The second dream is Troilus’, and occurs after Criseyde has left for the Greek camp. It is of a boar embracing Criseyde. The boar is representative of her new lover, Diomedes, and is also traditionally a beast of war. It also bears connotations of masculinity and strength. Both dreams are forewarnings of what is to come, therefore it is important to notice the dreams in Chaucer’s works; the subconscious world mirrors largely reality.


Traditional gender norms are not completely subverted in Chaucer’s romance, yet they differ subtly. To begin with, masculinity, chivalry and physical appearance was extremely important in a man to display his role as a warrior and ability to protect their kin. It is therefore significant that Troilus is described as a warrior, but not an overtly masculine one. This questions his suitability for Criseyde from the beginning. It is perhaps not noticeable until compared to the description of Diomedes in Book V, which is one of brute strength and physical dominance. Emotions aside, Diomedes is logically the better choice of lover for Criseyde, based on his virtues of chivalry. Criseyde is arguably a more complex character. She is eventually submissive to Troilus’ advances, but only after Pandarus threatens to kill himself if she does not accept. Before this, the reader witnesses an inner dialogue that was unusual for female characters. As a widow, Criseyde contemplates her loss of freedom that will occur with entering a love affair, and is reluctant to throw it away for a man. She can also not be wholly blamed for her betrayal of Troilus. In previous versions of the text, Criseyde and her entire gender are accused of treachery and promiscuity. Instead, the narrator suggests subtly that Criseyde had no choice in Diomede due to her gender that left her vulnerable to attack, malice, and rape.

A Code Of Chivalry

A medieval chivalric code alters slightly from the modern definition of courtesy. Chivalry was a strict code for warriors that involved courage and ability on the battlefield, courtesy in love, and an element of ‘troth’. Definition of ‘troth’ alter throughout medieval literature, however it can be most simply described as an absolute code of honor. Whilst there are implications of the Trojan War, the romance is set almost wholly away from the battlefield. It therefore becomes difficult to judge Troilus on his chivalry as a warrior, as it is never witnessed. He does follow conventions of courtly love, yet is not initially honourable. He and Pandarus manipulate Criseyde, and he spies on her eating dinner at Pandarus’ house before meeting her. Yet, this fulfils the criteria of courtly love, if not the code of chivalry. Troilus can perhaps be seen as chivalric in his honour at letting Criseyde go, without threatening to kidnap her and elope. He is chivalrous in his defeat, allowing himself to fall down the wheel of fortune without a fight. He does however, end Book V in not honour, but spite, as he laughs down at himself dying, and all those he once loved in misery.

The Stars and the Gods

As previously stated, Fortune and human choice dictate much of the action in Troilus and Criseyde. Yet there is a third, astrological influence that would have been recognised by a medieval audience. The Ptomelaic structure that medieval astrology followed was based on eight spheres, with each sphere equating to a planet’s orbit. Depending on where the planets are situated was seen as influential on earthly events. For example, at the beginning of each book, the narrator dedicates verses to a Proem towards a certain God or Goddess, for example Venus, to help the characters in the romance. Another example is the window scene where Criseyde first laid her eyes upon Troilus. Whilst it can be seen as chance, or Pandarus’ encouragement that Criseyde is at the window when he rides past, the planets also play a part. Chaucer writes that Venus is ‘wel’ arayed’, meaning that it is situated in the right place as the Goddess of love for their affair to blossom. Therefore, whilst the Gods may not have as much obvious influence as human intervention or fortune, there still have an influence and part to play in the romance.

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