Troilus’s death-seeking: Chaucer vs. Boccaccio & Shakespeare

Widely celebrated as a courtly lover, Troilus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is also a figure of men’s death-seeking. Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida provide alternate perspectives on Troilus’s death-seeking. Both Boccaccio’s playful framing and Shakespeare’s brilliant vitriol are more humane than modern critical complacency about men’s deaths.

dead men on Tarawa beach

Chaucer’s Troilus repeatedly insists that if Criseyde doesn’t accept him as her lover, then he wants to die. Despite many pressing matters confronting him, such as the Greeks besieging his city of Troy, Troilus thought only of Criseyde:

Not an hour of the day passed that he did not say to himself a thousand times, “Lovely one whom I labor to serve as best I can, now I wish to God, Criseyde, you would pity me before I die. Alas, dear heart, my health and cheer and life are lost unless you pity me.” All other fears had fled from him, both of the siege and for his own safety, and no other desires bred in him but tender yearnings to that one goal, that she should have compassion on him and he might be her man for life; lo, in this stood his life and his cure from death! … very often he would lament thus with himself: … “Save me from death, for more than my life I will love you to the end. Cheer me with some friendly look, though you may never promise anything else.” [1]

Troilus’s friend Pandarus tried to help him with time-tested wisdom such as “a man often makes the rod with which he is beaten.” But Troilus didn’t want to be cured of his obsessive love for Criseyde:

your proverbs cannot help me, and you do not know any other cure for me; and I wish not to be cured, I wish to die.

Pandarus begged Criseyde to love Troilus. He depicted for her the alternate prospect of a double death:

Now, my niece, the king’s dear son, the good, the prudent, the valiant, the lusty, the generous, that mirror of well-doing, the noble Troilus, so loves you that unless you help him it will be his death. Lo, this is all! What more can I say? Do what you will, let him live or die; but if you let him die, I will die too. Here is my pledge that I am not lying; if I am, I should have to cut my throat with this knife! … that noble gentle knight, who asks for nothing but a friendly look from you, I see him slowly dying as he walks about, and making all haste to be slain, if fortune will only grant it.

Criseyde appreciated her power to kill the mighty warrior Troilus amid Troy’s battle with Greece:

She cast over in her mind his excellent prowess, his station, his renown, his wisdom, his form, and his nobility; but what most won her was that his distress was all for her, and she thought it would be a pity to slay such a one, if his intent were faithful.

Without complete control over Troilus’s sexuality (him being “faithful” to her), Criseyde apparently would willing to slay him.

Criseyde determined not only life and death for Troilus, but also his conditions of living. Troilus affirmed that his love for Criseyde gave her the right to have him killed for falling short of abasement in love servitude:

for the love of God, dear lady, as He has created me to serve you — by this I mean that he wills that you should be my guide, to let me live, if you will, or die — teach me how to deserve your thanks, so that through my ignorance I may do nothing to displease you. For surely I dare swear, joyous perfect woman, that all my life you shall find in me fidelity and devotion, and that I shall never break your command; and if I do, present or absent, for the love of God let me instantly be slain, if it should so please your womanhood!

The ideology of amour courtois condemned men to love servitude to women.  In love, men were women’s slaves and could suffer death at women’s whims.

Troilus’s death-accepting love for Criseyde led to Troilus’s death and the deaths of many other men. In response to Criseyde being delivered to the Greeks in exchange for a captive Trojan warrior, Troilus prayed to die:

Ah death, the ender of every grief, come now, since I have called you so often! For kindly is death when, often called, he comes and ends pain. Well I know that, while I lived in peace, I would have paid ransom before death should slay me; but now his coming is so sweet that there is nothing on earth I long after more. O death, please either quench with your cold stroke this heat of sorrow, or else drown me now in tears. You at all times slay so many in so many ways, unsummoned, against their will: do me this service at my prayer. Deliver the world now of the most woeful creature that ever was, for it is time that I die who am useless in the world!

Troilus regarded himself as useless because he wasn’t able to serve Criseyde. When he thought Criseyde had died, he prepared to commit suicide. But she wasn’t actually dead. When she was held in the Greek camp, Criseyde became the lover of her Greek guard Diomedes. When Triolus learned of Criseyde’s betrayal of him, he sought his own death:

henceforth as I can I will seek my own death upon the field, and I care not how soon be the day. But truly, Criseyde, sweet maiden, whom I have always loved with all my might, I have not deserved that you should do thus!

Triolus killed thousands of Greek men in battle before Achilles killed him. Chaucer’s courtly love tale Troilus and Criseyde is drenched in the bloody deaths of Triolus and many other men.

Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato frames men’s death-seeking as the error of valuing fictional constructs over real, living presence. In its preface, Filostrato tells of frequent courtly debate about what gives a young man greater pleasure:

  1. seeing his beloved lady,
  2. talking with others about his beloved lady, or
  3. thinking sweetly of his beloved lady.

Filostrato argued for the third option:

I affirmed that it was not the least part of the lover’s bliss to be able to make the beloved one kindly disposed according to the desire of him who was thinking about her and to render her kind and responsive in accordance with that desire — even though that might last only as long as the thought — which certainly could not happen when seeing her or talking to her. [2]

But then Filostrato’s beloved lady Filomena moved to another city. He lacked opportunity to see her. He realized his childish error. He realized that the “false flattery of my thoughts” was far less delightful than actually seeing Filomena.

In response to Filomena’s absence, Filostrato wished for death. To make clear his sorrow, he wrote in rhyme the story of how Troilo came to sorrow greatly at the absence of his beloved Criseida. That’s the same story as Chaucer’s Triolus and Criseyde. After telling that story, Filostrato warned young lovers to pray to Love:

that he kindly grant you the grace to love so wisely that in the end you will not die for an evil woman.

That advice at least shows some concern for men’s deaths. But with respect to his beloved Filomena, Filostrato instructed his book:

pray to her as much as you can that it may please her to return here now or to command my soul to take itself away from me because, wherever it must go from here, death is much better for me than such a life.

Even if Filomena wasn’t an evil woman, the frame suggests questioning whether Filostrato’s grief over Filomena’s absence justified him seeking death. His preference for death could easily arise from fiction of thought in her absence. An obvious alternative is to delight in what he can see in his real, present circumstances.

In his play Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare echoes Boccaccio’s concern for fictional error. Troilus, Ulysses, and Thersites secretly followed Diomedes and Cressida back to the Greek camp. There they spied Cressida amorously engaging with Diomedes. She gave him her sleeve to wear. Troilus then questioned reality:

But if I tell how these two did co-act,
Shall I not lie in publishing a truth?
Sith yet there is a credence in my heart,
An esperance so obstinately strong,
That doth invert the attest of eyes and ears,
As if those organs had deceptious functions,
Created only to calumniate.
Was Cressid here?

Ulysses affirmed that the Cressida they saw was no illusion. Troilus insisted that Cressida wasn’t there. He rationalized:

Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think, we had mothers; do not give advantage
To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme,
For depravation, to square the general sex
By Cressid’s rule: rather think this not Cressid.

That sort of argument has commonly prevailed throughout history to support gynocentrism and suppress men’s literature of sexed protest. Troilus declared that his sword would swirl like a hurricane striking about Diomedes’s body. Despite his attempted self-deception, his fiction about Cressida quickly dissipated:

O Cressid! O false Cressid! false, false, false!
Let all untruths stand by thy stained name,
And they’ll seem glorious.

Cressida’s falseness didn’t change Troilus’s direction of action. His actions continued in the direction of men’s deaths.

Shakespeare’s Thersites bitingly criticized the folly of men’s death-seeking and men’s violence against men. As Troilus and Diomedes fought on the field between the Greek and Trojan camps, Thersites looked on, cheering:

Hold thy whore, Grecian!—now for thy whore,
Trojan!—now the sleeve, now the sleeve! [4]

When Paris and Menelaus, the principles in the struggle for Helen, engaged in fighting, Thersites provided color commentary:

the cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now,
bull! now, dog! ‘Loo, Paris, ‘loo! now my double-
henned sparrow! ‘loo, Paris, ‘loo! The bull has the
game: ware horns, ho!

Thersites recognized that disputes about women had become bloody, violent play for fools:

Here is such patchery, such juggling and such
knavery! all the argument is a cuckold and a
whore; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions
and bleed to death upon. Now, the dry serpigo on
the subject! and war and lechery confound all!

Thersites prophetically condemned elite literary narrow-mindedness:

Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery; nothing
else holds fashion: a burning devil take them! [5]

The ideology of courtly love obscures lechery and promotes men’s deaths. Thersites saw the truth in the love story of Troilus and Criseyde.

Courtly love aligns with human social nature in supporting gynocentrism and devaluing men’s deaths.  In 1932, an influential scholarly expositor of courtly love declared:

courtly love itself, in spite of all its shabby origins and pedantic rules, is at bottom more agreeable to those elements in human, or at least in European, nature, which last longest, than the cynical Latin gallantries of Boccaccio [6]

Men’s lives and men’s deaths follow Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in sadly indicating the truth of that observation. Boccaccio, who was no cynic, in Il Filostrato indirectly urged men to love flesh-and-blood women. If Boccaccio is too sophisticated for modern English readers, they need only turn to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Just as Marcolf highlighted the folly of King Solomon, Shakespeare’s Thersites denounced Chaucer’s story of gynocentrism and misandry.[7]

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[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, Bk 1, ll. 456-69, 506, 535-9, verse in the modernized English prose from eChaucer & Gerard NeCastro, University of Maine at Machias. Here’s Benson’s draft interlinear translation of Bk. 1. The source Chaucer text is readily available. Subsequent quotes from Troilus and Criseyde are from (book.lines) 1.740-3; 1.756-8; 2.316-25, 331-5; 2.659-65; 3.1289-1302; 4.501-18; 5.1717-22. I have made a few minor changes in the translations for clarity. Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde in the 1380s.

Chaucer at the time of his composing Troilus and Criseyde was arguably “the greatest living interpreter in English of l‘amour courtois.” Lewis (1932) p. 28. John Gower in his first version of Confessio Amantis referred to Chaucer as “Venus’ ‘disciple’ and ‘poete’, with whose ‘ditees and songes glade … the lond fulfild is overal’.” Id.

[2] Giovanni Boccaccio, Il Filostrato, Proem, from Italian trans. apRoberts & Seldis (1986) p. 5. Griffin & Myrick (1929) provides an alternative translation. For “la cosa amata” apRoberts & Seldis (1986) has “the beloved object.” In context, “the beloved one” seems to me a better translation. I’ve used that above. Subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato are from id. Proem, p. 11, (part.strophe, page) 8.32, p. 413, and 9.7, p. 419. Boccaccio wrote Il Filostrato probably about 1335.

[3] William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene 2, ll. 3190-7, from Eric M. Johnson’s Open Source Shakespeare. Subsequently quotes from Troilus and Cressida (unless otherwise noted) are from id. (act.scene, lines) V.2, ll. 3203-7; V.2, ll. 3222-4; V.4, ll. 3435-6; V.7, ll. 3568-71; II.3, ll. 1284-8; V.2, ll. 3271-2. On textual complexities, Godshalk (1995). None of the quotes here depend significantly on textual differences. Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida probably in 1602.

[4] In Homer’s Iliad, II.211-77, Thersites bitterly blames King Agamemnon for the irrationality of the Greeks war against Troy. Thersites “says what everyone else is thinking.” Benardete (1991) pp. 100-1.

Marks (2005) argues that Thersites was a military commander, rather than a common soldier. Thersites’s conflict with Odysseus and Achilles thus represents elite competition of praise / blame rather than class conflict. The distinction between elite competition and class conflict can be misleading. Persons not part of particular elite groups by profession can nonetheless intervene in elite competition in ways that are not commonly possible. Marcolf in the conflict between Marcolf and King Solomon was no ordinary peasant. See Ziolkowski (2008).

Some evidence indicates that Thersites was regarded as a kinsman of Diomedes in the Aitolian royal house of ancient Greece. Marks (2005) p. 2, n. 3. In Shakespeare’s Triolus and Cressida, Diomedes before loving Cressida bitterly lamented the men’s deaths that resulted from the Greeks and Trojans fighting over Helen:

She’s bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer’d death.

IV.1, ll. 2271-8.

[5] “A burning devil take them” generally means “go to hell.” In the context of lechery, that particular phrase also suggests a male symptom of venereal disease manifest in the act of urinating.

[6] Lewis (1932) p. 43-4. The quotation above, from a highly rhetorical passage, literally ends with a question mark. The context makes clear that this is Lewis’s favored “natural conclusion.”

[7] Mann (2002) convincingly presents Chaucer’s work as gynocentric and misandristic:

he {Chaucer} crams in even more meaning, to the point where woman is at the centre instead of the periphery, where she becomes the norm against which all human behaviour is to be measured. … the Canterbury Tales, for all its rich variety of mode and genre, contains not a single example of the story-type that embodies its ideals in the central figure of a male hero. Instead, the tales that mediate serious ideals are focused on a series of women: Constance, Griselda, Prudence, Cecilia. The male hero enters only in the burlesque form of Sir Thopas, to be unceremoniously bundled out of the way in favour of the tale that celebrates the idealized wisdom of a woman, Chaucer’s tale of Melibee.

Id. pp. 2-3. Comparing Boccoccio’s Il Filostrato and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, apRoberts & Seldis (1986) declares:

Clearly Chaucer’s poem has a profundity of both thought and feeling which Boccaccio’s poem of course, never aimed at. … J.W. Mackail long ago made a very a very just assessment of the two works: “The Filostrato is lucidly told, gracefully constructed, charmingly written; but the poem that Chaucer made out of it is a consummate masterpiece. The Book of Troilus and Creseide is one of the few large perfect things in our literature.”

Id. Introduction, p. liii. That evaluation reflects a culture of relatively little concern about men’s lives. In considering Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Hume (2012) Ch. 7 focuses on the dangers of courtly love for women. Dangers to men and men’s deaths are taken for granted.

[image] Dead men; soldiers bodies on Tarawa Atoll after the U.S. invasion in November, 1943. The U.S. Marine Corps sustained 990 Marines men killed and a further 2,296 men wounded. The Japanese lost 4,713 men. U.S. Defense Visual Information Center photo HD-SN-99-03001, cropped. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


apRoberts, Robert P. and Anna Bruni Seldis, intro. and trans. with Italian text of Vincenzo Pernicone. 1986. Giovanni Boccaccio. Il filostrato. New York: Garland Pub.

Benardete, Seth. 1991. The rhetoric of morality and philosophy: Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Godshalk, William L. “The Texts of Troilus and Cressida.” Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 2.1-54.

Griffin, Nathaniel Edward, and Arthur Beckwith Myrick, trans. 1929. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Filostrato. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hume, Cathy. 2012. Chaucer and the cultures of love and marriage. Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Lewis, C.S. 1932. “What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato.” Essays and Studies 17: 56-75, reprinted in Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper, ed. 1969. Selected literary essays. London: Cambridge University Press.{page citation above is to reprint}

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer.

Marks, J. 2005. “The Ongoing Neikos: Thersites, Odysseus, and Achilleus.” American Journal of Philology. 126 (1): 1-31.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2008. Solomon and Marcolf. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

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