Shakespeare's Troilus Versus Chaucer's Criseyde

September 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Shakespeare is a favorite topic of mine, and of many of our students. Recently, I read and discussed Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Though we didn’t have time to compare it to Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, I wanted to spend a few moments doing just that. Before I do, however, I will list a few of my lingering questions about Shakespeare’s play.

1] Based upon the title, I thought this play was about love, but where is the romance?

2] Why, after lamenting about the loss of order, does Ulysses allow Ajax to face Hector? If Ulysses is so concerned with the natural order of things, shouldn’t Achilles, the best Greek fighter, face Hector, the best Trojan fighter?

And 3] Why does Shakespeare end the play with Pandarus moaning about his own degradation? I thought this play was about the romance, not the middleman.

It would be safe to assume that a story titled Troilus and Cressida would mostly be about Troilus and Cressida. Yet, if you have read Shakespeare’s play, then you’d be surprised to find how little time is spent upon the love affair. In fact, Shakespeare’s Troilus laments about love for a few scenes, and only one scene involves the actual love affair. The play’s focal points involve talk of war, such as Ulysses’s long speech on order in Act III, and Achilles’s tragic slaying of Hector. The play questions what it means to be noble or heroic. Framed by an unjust war (stemming from a love affair), these characters face the very modern problem of living in a fallen society. Troilus and Cressida become lost in the societal conflicts at the play’s center. Love becomes a lens with which to judge the nobility of the characters. Often labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Troilus and Cressida offers difficult, but very worthwhile, questions.

Some differences between the two works are easy to note, such as the fact that Chaucer wrote a metered poem, whereas Shakespeare chose to write a play. Chaucer’s poem does focus on the lovers. Shakespeare’s play, on the other hand, spends much of the time on discussion of war. Shakespeare wrote long speeches for Ulysses, Hector, and even Nestor. They discuss war at length, introducing the idea of honor in a fallen state. After Criseyde has been sent to the Greek camp, Chaucer focuses on Troilus’s plans to wait for her each night. Shakespeare’s characters must decide whether or not to fight a dishonorable war.

I find the last lines of these two works very interesting. Chaucer ends his poem with Troilus’s death which grants a final release of Troilus’s damaged soul. In this poem, it is fitting that Troilus dies by the heroic sword of Achilles. Chaucer writes, “And having fallen to Achilles’ spear,/ His light soul rose and rapturously went/ Towards the concavity of the eighth sphere,/ Leaving conversely every element,/ And, as he passed, he saw with wonderment/ The wandering stars and heard their harmony,/ Whose sound is full of heavenly melody.// As he looked down, there came before his eyes/ This little spot of earth, that with the sea/ Lies all embraced, and found he could despise/ This wretched world, and hold it vanity,/ Measured against the full felicity/ That is in Heaven above” (273A)*. In other words, Troilus is released from his earthly cares and upon reflection he realizes that earthly life is a truly “wretched world.” There is a feeling of rejoice as he rises. Throughout the poem, Troilus is consistently loyal, honorable and (other than his inability to act on love unaided) he demonstrates virtue. Clearly, then, Troilus find peace, not in love, but in heaven.

On the other hand, Shakespeare gives the play’s final word to Pandarus, who appears to be the least honorable character in the play. In the last scene, he asks the audience to weep at “Pandar’s fall.” These ironic lines underscore the brutality and depravity of the previous scene in which Achilles and his men slaughter an unarmed Hector and then drag his brutalized body behind Achilles’s horse. Through Achilles’s actions, Shakespeare questions the often idyllic view of ancient myth. Pandar’s words, then, become doubly painful. Hector is the true hero, not Pandarus, but it is Pandarus who lives to beg for the audience’s sympathy. He also invites the audience to join him in this fallen future. In Shakespeare’s play, Hector, perhaps, comes closest to attaining nobility, but even he falls prey to tradition or pride or duty. In this play, the characters act as pawns, which makes Pandarus’s final words even more fitting. Troilus and Cressida is about the fallen state. The tangle of love affairs play off each other nicely to demonstrate the fallen state. Through these characters, we must ask: What is love? What is honor or nobility? And how do they display any signs of love?

Chaucer clearly elevates the idea of love from earthly to celestial. Though Troilus’s passion is true and he remains loyal to Cressida, he realizes the folly of this love as he leaves earth. Cressida, likewise, understands that earthly love will not save her soul. Chaucer’s Cressida is complicated. She sincerely loves Troilus, but is unable to stay with him. Her choice of a Greek lover seems more rational, more necessary, than Shakespeare’s. The reasons for this decision once again highlight the impossibility of earthly love. Furthermore, by forcing Cressida/Criseyde away from Troilus, both play and poem reflect how little choice women have in their lives. The one man she wants is the one man that she cannot have.

Shakespeare turns that idea of love on its head by the parallel stories of Helen and Paris, Troilus and Cressida. In the following passage, Shakespeare treats love (brotherly love, romantic love and patriotic love) with irony and sarcasm. (It is good to know that the Trojan war began because Paris stole Helen from King Menelaus.) During the play, Greece offers to trade a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. Hector accepts the trade, much to Troilus’s dissatisfaction. Then, Troilus laments to Paris (his brother, and also the cause of the war) the fact that Cressida must leave Troy. Troilus says, “I’ll bring her to the Grecian presently;/ And to his hand when I deliver her,/ Think it an altar, and thy brother Troilus/ A priest there offering to it his own heart.” Paris offers only this: “I know what ‘tis to love;/ And would, as I shall pity, I could help!” (128A)*. How ironic that the man who began this war by stealing Helen, could not find a solution to Troilus’s problem. He feels pity, but very little remorse. If Troilus’s love is true, Paris’s feels rather covetous, rash, impersonal and selfish. The play highlights the immorality of these actions purportedly based upon love.

There is so much more that I could say. Reading Chaucer’s Troilus in tandem with Shakespeare’s version enlightened great ideas of love, world, and honor. With wonderful skill and wit, these authors question nobility and virtue. Both pieces are worthy of much discussion, more than I have given them here. If you have a thought on these works, I invite you to post it below.

If you enjoy this topic, you may also enjoy this lecture on more of Shakespeare's play: Harvard lecture (~1.5 hours).

* All citations are from the Great Books of the Western World, volumes 19 (Chaucer) and 25 (Shakespeare), published 1990.

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Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

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Refractions, Ideas in Translation

March 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In a global society, we are bound to read many works in translation. Quality literature from around the world is being produced at an increasingly fast pace. In fact, it is impossible to keep up with the literature in one's primary language, let alone international texts. This proliferation of material presents an opportunity for anyone interested in translation. More than simply studying translations, students often find it a valuable exercise to attempt a translation. Experiments in translation can be extremely difficult, but also very rewarding.

Language is ever-evolving. As such, translations continue to change. Take, for example, Dante. He wrote The Divine Comedy in the 14th century. From the beginning, Dante's verse clearly demonstrated mastery, but for years, it was available in the original only. It was not until 1802 that the full text had been translated into English. Since then, it has been translated into English more times than any other language. In fact, since 1802, there are now more than 100 full translations (this does not include translated portions, which number too many to list). Translators such as W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Charles Eliot Norton (Great Books version), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have provided very different versions of the same primary text. Why are there so many versions? Should we be satisfied with any one of these translations, or attempt to read a number of them?

Unless one is a scholar, there is very little reason to read a number of translations of the same text. However, when selecting the text you want to read, you might browse a variety of them. You may find one that sounds better to you than the others, or that contains more helpful notes, for example. In other words, when reading classics, it is a good idea to know who the translator is and what type of style they use.

On the other hand, one reason to read a variety of texts is to demonstrate the ways in which language evolves. For example, terms that Longfellow used may carry very different connotations now. The word gay, for instance, has evolved into a variety of meanings which may complicate a contemporary translation, particularly for younger readers. Rhyme schemes, cultural norms and style will illustrate some very different tendencies.

Working in the 1980s, André Lefevere proposed the idea that translations should be viewed as “refractions”. By this, he meant that the translated texts have been (re)produced in a way that aligns with some sort of ideology. In the same way that classics have been rewritten for young children, for example, translators also rewrite texts in a way that ensures success. More importantly, this “refraction” then becomes the “norm” for people who are unfamiliar with the content. In other words, a one time reader of Dante's Divine Comedy will only have access to their version. This will be their “norm”. It would surprise most readers, however, to find that the translations differ radically not only in word choice, but in the eventual meanings as well. Some versions have more supplemental notes than text and other versions leave it to the reader to do the research. Using the term “norm” in this case feels very misleading, and would be better represented by the idea that the texts we read in translation are, in fact, “refracted”. Susan Bassnet explains how some translations of Dante's “Inferno” completely miss the mark, unbeknownst to the reader. She writes, “The problem they share, here, of course, is that these lines are deliberately written in a particular style and are consciously ambiguous in their structure. It is not only the character of Francesca that emerges from these lines, it is also an autobiographically framed moral statement about the role of the writer. This aspect of the text has disappeared. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the courtly love ideal and the medieval notion of sin and repentance have ceased to have meaning, except as intellectual curiosity itself” (73). In other words, as the culture evolved away from the ideals of courtly love, Dante's statements about authorial intention also lost importance and were, therefore, missed or avoided in translation altogether.

In other instances, Lefevere demonstrates that, at times, translators elect to leave out sections which will be unsuccessful to target audiences. He claims that the first translators of Bertolt Brecht intentionally missed the mark, but that introduction opened the door for following translators (213). Once Brecht's name gained popularity, translators had more room in which to push the envelope and add foreign elements back into the text. When dealing with a common name, the text gains a sort of authority. Familiarity simultaneously elevates a work. Older texts, then, have an even stronger authority. The names Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante or Homer carry a certain stigma or prestige that may allow a translator more leeway than in tackling contemporary literature. In addition, these texts discuss ideas of continued importance and relevance that they deserve the attention they receive. Translators struggle, then, to create a language that effectively communicates old ideas to the dominant power sources and ideologies.

Because culture continually evolves, these pieces of literature will also continue to evolve. It is worth noting, however, the structures at play in them may demonstrate more about our the target society than the original text. It is not merely about poetic diction or mimicking the original (which is extremely difficult in itself), but in presenting a successful text to a new, and probably unfamiliar, audience. In April, we will host a discussion about a handful of Chaucer translations. Though the Middle English is fairly readable, there are a wide-range of translations which offer a variety of readings. It is worth our while to understand the ideologies behind them.

To join in April's Quarterly Discussion or for more information, email

Bassnett, Susan and André Lefevere. Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1998.

Lefevere, André. “Mother Courage's Cucumbers.” The Translation Studies Reader, Third Edition, edited by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 2000, pp. 203-219.

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National Poetry Month

April 28, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Did you know that Poetry is listed as one of the Great Ideas in the Syntopicon? If you didn't you are not alone. However, the importance of this inclusion is often overlooked. Since it is National Poetry Month, now is the best time to better understand why poetry might be considered one of the “great ideas”. For me, poetry is an easy sell. It's like a puzzle that the reader can assemble and reassemble at will. It may continue to be a puzzle, and maybe the final piece remains missing or blurred. I do understand how annoying it can be when we do not understand something. Yet, I continue to be drawn into poems because of the universality of the emotions and ideas given through a unique voice, experience and vision.

Mortimer Adler links the poetic conversation back to Aristotle and Socrates. In the Syntopicon, Adler suggests that authors like Kant and Plato judge poetry by its contribution to knowledge. Poetry, without a doubt, creates connections that can lead to knowledge. Furthermore, Adler suggests that poets have an obligation to speak or find a truth. Poetry brings this about not through fact alone, but by imaginative associations. For Bacon, poetry leads the imagination of the reader through the imagination of the author. This is important because it is precisely this technique that defines the great ideas themselves. All of this learning, education and fact-finding is founded upon the idea that great ideas have traveled and changed throughout history, by a variety of peoples and cultures. These great writers transcribed their thoughts, experiences, facts and data into conversations. Poems, then, are simply structured rooms of play that allow one to learn, grow or understand through someone else's eyes and experience.

The following examples give just a taste of some poetic voices that we discuss.


“So, on you move/ Over the seas and mountains, over streams/ Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,/ Over the leafy tenements of birds,/ So moving that in all the ardor burns/ For generation and their kind's increase,/ Since you alone control the way things are./ Since without you no thing has ever come/ Into the radiant boundaries of light,/ Since without you nothing is ever glad,/ And nothing ever lovable, I need,/ I need you with me, goddess, in the poem/ I try to write here, on the Way Things Are.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are


"I and my company were old and slow/ When at the narrow passage we arrived/ Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,/ That man no farther onward should adventure./ On the right hand behind me left I Seville/ And on the other already had left Ceuta./ 'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand/ Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,/ To this so inconsiderable vigil/ Which is remaining of your senses still/ Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge, following the sun, of the unpeopled world./ Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;/ Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,/ But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'" - Dante Alighieri, "The Inferno"


“Our terrors and our darknesses of mind/ Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine's rays,/ Not by those shining arrows of the light,/ But by insight into nature, and a scheme/ Of systematic contemplation. So/ Our starting-point shall be this principle:/ Nothing at all is ever born from nothing/ By the god's will.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are


“What are the stars? There is the sun, the sun!/ And the most patient brilliance of the moon!/ And stars by the thousands!/ Point me out the way/ To any one particular beauteous star,/ And I will flit into it with my lyre,/ And make its silvery splendour pant with bliss./ I have heard the cloudy thunder: Where is power?/ Whose hand, whose essence, what divinity/ Makes this alarum in the elements,/ While I here idle listen on the shores/ In fearless yet in aching ignorance?/ O tell me, lonely Goddess, by thy harp,/ That waileth every morn and eventide,/ Tell me why thus I rave, about these groves!/ Mute thou remainest – Mute! Yet I can read/ A wonderous lesson in they silent face:/ Knowledge enormous makes a God of me./ Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,/ Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,/ Creations and destroyings, all at once/ Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,/ And deify me, as if some blithe wine/ Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,/ And so become immortal.” - John Keats, “Hyperion”


“Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,/ Let's choose executors and talk of wills: And yet not so, for what can we bequeath/ Save our deposed bodies to the ground?/ Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's,/ And nothing can we call our own but death/ And that small model of the barren earth/ Which serves as pste and cover to our bones./ For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;/ Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at last and with a little pin/ Bores through this castle wall, and farewell king!” - Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of King Richard II”


“And no rock/ If there were rock/ And also water/ And water/ A spring/ A pool among the rock/ If there were the sound of water only/ Not the cicada/ And dry grass singing/ But sound of water over a rock/ Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees/ Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/ But there is no water.” - T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”


“Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing/ countless little pellucid jellies/ in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains./ The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged./ The waves are running in verses this fine morning./ Please come flying.” - Elizabeth Bishop, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”


“proud flesh,/ as all flesh/ is proud of its wounds, wears them/ as honors given out after battle,/ small triumphs pinned to the chest - / And when two people have loved each other/ see how it is like a/ scar between their bodies,/ stronger, darker, and proud;/ how the black cord makes them a single fabric/ that nothing can tear or mend.” - Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us”

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