«4 Book III: “Al that which chargeth nought to seye” Book III of the Troilus provides the climax, in every sense, of Troilus and Criseyde’s love ...»
Pandarus praises Criseyde’s “good name” and warns Troilus not to damage her reputation–“Requere naught that is ayeyns hyre name;/ For vertu streccheth naught hymself to shame” (1.902-3). apRoberts argues that incest is further incompatible with the “picture of Pandarus as a faithful though unsuccessful lover,” with “the celebration scene in Book III of the happiness Troilus experiences in his life with Criseyde,” with “the basis on which Pandarus believes Criseyde can be brought to love Troilus,” and, finally, with “the moral of the poem” (20Ultimately, apRoberts declares readings of the Troilus should always be compared with the Filostrato. While there are substantial changes made by Chaucer, all are done for the unity and coherence of the poem as a whole. Scholars who propose such prurient readings should first ask whether their interpretation accords with the poem’s unity; suggestions that Pandarus and Criseyde have incestuous relations fail this test.
T.A. Stroud considers the impulse to read incest between Pandarus and Criseyde “partly due to the nature of post-modernist criticism, especially that of Deconstructionists and their ilk, who hold inconsistencies, contradictions, and discontinuities enrich fictions by contributing to their aesthetic value” (Stroud 16). In his article, “The Palinode, the Narrator, and Pandarus’ Alleged Incest,” Stroud argues that more consideration should be given to other more narratively essential passages in the poem, especially the palinode incorporated into the closing of the poem (5.1814-34). The poem’s virtue lies in understanding cruxes essential to the poem’s narrative structure, including the palinode. Stroud, echoing apRoberts’ argument, believes the reading of incest in this scene simply destroys this narrative structure. Finding incest here contradicts centuries of readers who found Criseyde wicked for her betrayal of Troilus for Diomede, not for incestuous sex with her uncle. Donald Howard says of Criseyde, “She never does anything wrong until she has left Troy.”1 Stroud says further “these critics” who view incest are motivated by a “desire to join with the age in flaunting its rejection of Victorian prudery,” and that such thinking “comes quite naturally in this age (though athletes are somewhat exempt), but hardly passed for current in the Middle Ages” (21-22).
Stroud argues that no scenes before the alleged incest indicate that Pandarus desired sex with his niece. And, while Stroud acknowledges a possible reading of Pandarus’ voyeuristic excitement, assuming he never left the room during the consummation, this is hardly grounds to dismiss the “centuries-old impression” that Pandarus jokes with Criseyde in order to ask for forgiveness of his role in luring her to bed (23). If we read Criseyde’s earlier protests of vertue and reputation, it is difficult to comprehend her willingness to engage in casual sex with her uncle. Stroud suggests the humor of this scene was easily understood by Chaucer’s audience, who would have never heard a true tale of clear incest that did not also involve punishment, and audiences who followed for many centuries; however, our sex-obsessed culture, as in many other instances, has muddled the interpretations (24).
Richard W. Fehrenbacher contrasts both apRoberts’ and Stroud’s arguments in addressing the scene in his article, “‘Al that which chargeth naught to seye’: The Theme of Incest in Troilus and Criseyde.” Fehrenbacher points out that much of the recent scholarship, by critics such as C.
David Benson, Alan Gaylord, A.C. Spearing, and Barry Windeatt, refuses to answer definitively whether or not Criseyde and Pandarus engage in any sexual intimacy,2 instead remarking how these passages alert the reader to his/her responsibility in interpreting the text.3 Fehrenbacher cites Evan Carton’s article, “Complexity and Responsibility in Pandarus’ Bed and Chaucer’s Art,” which is perhaps is the catalyst for most recent scholarship regarding the ambiguous scene.
Fehrenbacher chooses to look further in claiming such ambiguities between Criseyde and Pandarus are evident throughout the poem, and, moreover, that a complete refusal to acknowledge the possibility of these incestuous tendencies “participates in not only the peremptory denial of incestuous desire found in patriarchal societies, but also in that denial’s concomitant invocation of the incest taboo as a foundational and untransgressible origin that underwrites that society’s oppressive ‘traffic of women’” (344).
Incest would certainly have been a taboo because of its damaging nature to a patriarchal society which depended on lineage, thus its importance in the alleged scene, and its significance to fourteenth-century England’s self-inscribed lineage to Troy. Both Augustine and Aquinas discuss the dangers of incest, even though early civilizations commonly practiced inter-family marriages, which leads to an inclusive society lacking diverse social bonds found in one man taking his wife from another family, thus linking each.4 Derrida cites Rouseau in suggesting, “Society, language, history, articulation, in a word supplementary, are born at the same time as the prohibition of incest.”5 Levi-Strauss goes further, however, in suggesting that as a society prohibits incests, they, in turn, permit the exchange of women.”6 Gower deals with incest in the Confessio Amantis, as do Arthur legends, specifically, of course, Malory’s Morte Darthur.
Even more obvious, the specific story of Troilus and Criseyde, as Fehrenbacher says, “is haunted by the Theban story” (352). Troy is already a place where women are traded with, of course, Helen, but also Priam’s sister Heroides, the Homerian Briseis, and others,. Even within the poem, Helen is a character; Troilus offers her, along with Polixene, and Cassandra, to Pandarus (4.1346); Criseyde is quickly deemed exchangeable by the citizens of Troy (4.193).
Pandarus’ role as a trafficker of women links him to the incest taboo, and it is accentuated by his patriarchal relationship with Criseyde, whose own father abandoned her. Pandarus’ incestuous links “haunt” his relationship with Criseyde up until the scene in question (358). In Book II, Pandarus has an incestuous vision, the rape of Philomela, before going to visit Criseyde with news of Troilus’ love. He intrudes upon Criseyde, who is herself reading of incest in the story of Thebes. But Pandarus’s responsive reference to Statius’ Thebaid, which Fehrenbacher calls “a purely military and thus masculine, matter” (364), deadens the incestuous nature of her reading, and, in fact, takes away Criseyde’s power to read altogether because she, as a woman, is unable to read or understand this masculine text.
Criseyde, though, seems apprehensive about Pandarus’ possible incestuous desires, even threatening to call to her ladies when Pandarus has her in the inner room of his house– “‘Lat me som wight calle!/ I! God forbede it sholde falle’” (3.760-61). With so many references to incest strewn throughout the poem, the infamous bed scene between Pandarus and Criseyde cannot, as is often done, be seen as what Fehrenbacher calls, an “anomalous textual hiccup” (367), but rather must be seen as the culmination of Pandarus’ conflicting role as trafficker of women and patriarchal figure.
Robert Levine (“Restraining Ambiguities in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde”) also addresses Pandarus and Criseyde’s alleged incest. Levine also cites Evan Carton’s article, and further mentions Dieter Mehl’s, “The Audience of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde,7 which echoes Carton, and the many other scholars mentioned above in interpreting the scene as a statement on reader responsibility. Levine points out some of the “absurd lengths to which some twentieth-century imaginations might carry those impulses” to read this scene, including Beryl Rowland’s theory of Pandarus as “bisexual pimp,” who, having voyeuristically watched the consummation, then has his way,8 or Haldeen Braddy, who argues that “deth”(3.1577) is a reference to orgasm.9 While Levine chooses not to see an overall theme of incest running throughout the poem, as Fehrenbacher does, he argues, in turn, for a rhetorical strategy by Chaucer, citing a lesson found in Ad Herenium: “It is of greater advantage to create a suspicion by paralepsis than to insist directly on a statement that is refutable.”10 Ultimately, arguments that view this scene as a rhetorical device, or as an incestuous act, are based on reactions Chaucer intended to evoke in constructing the scene.
Sarah Stanbury (“Voyeur and the Private Life in Troilus and Criseyde”) provides one more comment in the ongoing debate. She seems to agree with conservative scholars that the scene solicits reader interpretation, but more interestingly suggests that since we are prompted to interpret the scene, we, as readers or witnesses to both the consummation and alleged incest, become ourselves voyeurs, “catching ourselves imagining a scenario that would seem to be a projection of Pandarus’ erotic fantasy, unless, that is, we are willing to rewrite the monogamous ethics of courtly love to comfortably allow Pandarus’ brief incestuous liason with his niece” (155).
Few articles look past the consummation scene and alleged incest of Pandarus and Criseyde, but Gale Sigal does so in investigating Criseyde’s actions in Book III as an alba lady, in her chapter, “Benighted Love in Troy: Dawn and the Dual Negativity of Love.”11 She calls the parting scene in Book III, following Troilus and Criseyde’s night of consummation “a pivotal and central moment in the narrative” (191). The alba song, or aubade, of each lover is symmetrical, each containing three stanzas, the first from Criseyde, and the second from Troilus. Criseyde
addresses Troilus and then night, in her first aubade:
While scholars often puzzle over Criseyde’s fears despite Troilus’ worthiness as a suitor, Sigal argues these fears are logical and, specifically, that Criseyde’s fear of public exposure is typical of the alba. But Criseyde’s holding to secrecy, in fretting over and desperately trying to keep her affair with Troilus secret, actually leads to the demise of her situation because the Trojans, unaware of her having any but familial ties in the city, willingly trade her to the Greeks (193).
The second stanza, whose possible interpretations are discussed in Chapter 1 of this work, demonstrates Criseyde’s humility in her situation, equating herself to a larger society of “bestes” and “folk” who fear the coming of dawn. She further muses on a god who conceals lovers with the night, as a god who, as Sigal says, “contrasts markedly with the Christian God of light and revelation” (195). Dennis Cronan argues that Criseyde’s fear early in Book II, which establishes itself for the whole of the poem, is based on abandonment, the initial abandonment of her father and a threat of abandonment in Book II by Pandarus. But Sigal takes this idea further by suggesting Criseyde displays, in the last stanza of her alba song, the fear of abandonment by night as well. Each of these three abandoners, Calchas, Pandarus, and night itself, initially serve to protect Criseyde, but each seems to leave her in more dire and compromising situations. She asks God, “Thow rakle nyght! Ther God, maker of kynde........So faste ay to oure hemysperie bynde,/ That nevere more under the ground thow wynde!” (3.1437-40). She reveals her need, her desperation, for fixity in her world of shifting foundations. Thus, Criseyde, in the three stanzas of her dawn-song, shifts herself from happiness to fear, lamentation, and discontent.
Troilus’ aubade, which focuses on day, and not night or dawn, is separated by one stanza from the end of Criseyde’s, a separation which Sigal argues, “parallels, on the textual level, the
emotional disengagement from one another” (197). She continues:
Troilus and Criseyde’s individual, specifically focused songs reflect in which half
Echoing Sarah Stanbury’s work on spatial invasion, Sigal suggests Troilus’ seeming victimization by day, which invades and exposes his situation–“O cruel day, accusour of the joie...Acorsed be thi comyng into Troye” (3.1450, 3.1452). Ultimately, these aubades, Sigal proposes, “serve to highlight temperamental tendencies in their characters that, in the course of the poem, receive fuller development and that prefigure their separate, though intertwined fates” (192).
Sigal also picks up the argument made by Fredeneburg in a second chapter on the alba, “The Alba Lady, Sex Roles, and Social Roles: ‘Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?” Sigal views most scholars as categorizing the alba figure as the “passive, victimized female” (221). However, Sigal asserts, the alba gains power in love and loving–“Her dignity, her active role, and her poignant expressions of feeling are as unprecedented as they are persuasive” (221). Rather than reversing sexual roles, which Fradenburg’s article discusses, Sigal says alba lovers shed these conventional roles altogether (222). Sigal highlights an article by Robert Kaske, “The Aube in Chaucer’s Troilus,” which is credited with introducing the alba to scholarship on Chaucer’s Troilus.12 But Kaske wrongly assumes specified sex roles for albas, and his views have never been challenged, but rather accepted. Maureen Fries’ study, “The ‘Other’ Voice: Woman’s Song, Its Satire and Its Transcendence in Late Medieval British Literature,”13 continues the established sex-role (passive, desperate, and “impotent” [Sigal 225]) assuming the desire for privacy and presence of passivity in the female, as compared to the active and public responses of the male.
But Sigal argues, in a general statement that might easily be used to read Troilus and Criseyde’s own interpretation of their scenario, “Both lovers long to escape from the ‘world of male activity,’ which for them is synonymous with the despised authoritarian obstruction of their love, self-expression, and freedom” (226). Ultimately, Chaucer, as an alba poet, did not desire fixed roles for his lovers– even the notion of sex-role reversal, mentioned in Fradenburg and by Kaske and Fries, is fixed– but rather saw correctly the fluidity of the alba’s actions and that either the male or female could be passive or active.