The Implications of Narrative Omission in Troilus and Criseyde and The Merchant’s Tale

In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the two most elusive characters are Pandarus and Criseyde whose motives are carefully disguised. Some scholars refer to Pandarus as “shifty” (Delahoyde 353) and Criseyde as “coy, sly, deceitful” (Robertson 271), but perhaps more interesting is their relationship together. Chaucer insinuates Pandarus and Criseyde’s interaction is inappropriate, but does not assuage the reader’s concerns for or against the idea of incest between the two; he revels in the ambiguity of the text. He states, “I passé al that which chargeth noght to seye,” leaving the reader to develop his or her own notions (Chaucer, Troilus three 1576). Similarly, in The Merchant’s Tale, the narrator utters, “How that he wroghte I darn at to yow telle” (1963). Both omissions imply sexual inappropriateness, but Chaucer chooses ambiguity over clarity.

In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the two most elusive characters are Pandarus and Criseyde whose motives are carefully disguised.  Some scholars refer to Pandarus as “shifty” (Delahoyde 353) and Criseyde as “coy, sly, deceitful” (Robertson 271), but perhaps more interesting is their relationship together.  Chaucer insinuates Pandarus and Criseyde’s interaction is inappropriate, but does not assuage the reader’s concerns for or against the idea of incest between the two; he revels in the ambiguity of the text.  He states, “I passé al that which chargeth noght to seye,” leaving the reader to develop his or her own notions (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1576).  Similarly, in The Merchant’s Tale, the narrator utters, “How that he wroghte I darn at to yow telle” (1963).  Both omissions imply sexual inappropriateness, but Chaucer chooses ambiguity over clarity.  Through this technique, the reader actively participates in the text, generating meaning to fill the void the narrator creates.          

Chaucer makes it clear, Pandarus is Criseyde’s uncle and the “presumed guardian of her virtue” since her father abandoned Troy, but fails to explain their unsettling interactions (Warren 5).  Not only does he lie to her, but also becomes her pimp for the eager Troilus.  Pandarus feels it necessary to defend himself from this notion by exclaiming, “And also think wel that this is no gaude;/ For me were leere thow and I and he/ Were Hanged, than I shoulde ben his baude,” but his actions are contradictory (Chaucer, Troilus 2 351-3).  He pledges to help Troilus win Criseyde and states, “And so we may ben gladed alle thre” (Chaucer, Troilus 1 994).  He refers to not only Troilus and Criseyde as glad because of their union, but also includes himself.  He does not distinguish himself as having separate and unique joy from the two lovers.  He infers their happiness will all be the same, that of lover’s contentment. 

Further, when Pandarus “come unto his neces place” (Chaucer, Troilus 2 78) she tells him that she has dreamt of him “This nyght thrie” (Troilus Book II 89).  Chaucer inserts insight of the two’s relationship in their first interaction.  Pandarus’s penetration in Criseyde’s subconscious is troubling and not the only occurrence between the two.  Later, Pandarus provocatively “in hire bosom the letter down he thraste” portraying another instance of intimate familiarity not common among relatives (Chaucer, Troilus 2 1155).  Pandarus gives Criseyde Troilus’s love letter not by handing it to her, but by aggressively shoving it down her bosom.  Also, the usage of the violent “down he thraste” sounds carnal adding a sexual aspect to the otherwise nonsexual.  Richard W. Fehrenbacher comments,

I would argue that the ambiguity critics see in Pandarus and Criseyde’s relationship in this passage is in fact more widespread—that throughout the text, and especially in Pandarus’s oddly over familiar behavior in book 2, their relationship is troubled by a scarcely concealed incestuous desire (344).  

Pandarus and Criseyde’s relationship is intriguing and implies sexuality, either through desire or action.  Chaucer allows the reader to choose. 

The intimate actions portrayed by Pandarus and Criseyde are those of lovers. Pandarus whispers “softe he swor hire in hire ere” (Chaucer Troilus 3 566) just as Criseyde whispers “she to hym gan to rowne” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 568).  They share intimate secrets and exchange them in hushed tones in the ears of one another.  Pandarus and Criseyde share an intimate and secretive relationship, almost lover-esque, which confuses the reader and allows incestuous ideals.  Chaucer is coy with his references, which all could be diversely read and interpreted.  

Despite numerous viewpoints regarding the lack of sexuality in Pandarus and Criseyde’s relationship, Pandarus does take an ardent interest in his niece’s love life.  Pandarus initiates the sexual actions between the Troilus and Criseyde by telling Criseyde “But liggeth stille, and taketh hym right here” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 948), by undressing Troilus “And of he rente al to his bare sherte” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1099), and even turning out the light “This light, nor I, ne serven here of nought” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1136).  In fact, Chaucer does not inform the reader Pandarus leaves the room which leads Norton to include a footnote explaining, “Chaucer doesn’t say that Pandarus left the room, but his return in line 1555 below implies it” (Chaucer, Troilus p 187).  Pandarus stages Criseyde’s sexual relationship with Troilus and takes a keen interest in the two’s sexual affair. 

After her night with Troilus, Pandarus comes into Criseyde’s room while she is still in bed to discuss her activities.  Pandarus puts Criseyde in a potentially reputation ruining situation for the second time in two days. Pandarus admits Criseyde’s vulnerability the previous night when he cautions, “They myghte demen thing they nevere er  thoughte” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 763-4).  He now comes to her room when she has not dressed, sits on her bed which neither admits is peculiar.  Pandarus comes into Criseyde’s room, “gan under for to prie” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1571) and “With that his arm al sodeynly he thriste/ Under hire nekke, and at the laste hire kyste” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1574, 5).  At the end of this passage, the narrator does inform “Pandarus hath fully his entente” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1582).  The narrator gives no explanation for this troubling line occurring after the sexual implications just before.  

After Pandarus’s abrupt kiss, the reader expects Chaucer to explain their relationship.  Chaucer does not affirm or deny any assumptions.  He only omits by saying,

I passé al that which chargeth noght to seye.

What! Gof foryaf his deth, and she al so

Foryaf, and with here uncle gan to pleye,

For other cause was ther noon than so.

But of this thing right to the effect to go:

Whan tyme was, hom til here hous she wente,

And Pandarus hath fully his entente.

(Chaucer, Troilus 3 1576-82)

The kiss followed by the exclusion of further explication implies Pandarus and Criseyde have inappropriate relations, but Chaucer only insinuates.  How inappropriate these relations are he never discloses.  If Pandarus and Criseyde were indulging in an incestuous relationship, they would need tact and secrecy.  After all, incest in the medieval ages resulted in the penalty of death (Hawkes 99).  The theme of incest was taboo but not uncommon in medieval literature, Elizabeth Archibald comments, “The main use of the incest motif in medieval literature is a huge topic” (2).  Troilus and Criseyde makes two references to the incestuous Oedipus, “Through Edippus his sone, and al that dede…” (Chaucer, Troilus 2 102) and “But ende I wol, as Edippe, in darknesse” (Chaucer, Troilus 4 300).  While the text does not mention the incestuous story of Oedipus, Chaucer’s mention of this text would make him aware of the implications the name carries. 

Chaucer does not examine any incestuous affairs in his text, not Oedipus’s past and certainly not Pandarus and Criseyde’s alleged love.  Louise Fradenburg asserts that Chaucer’s omission, “might be read, but I would argue could never definitively be read, as Pandarus’s incestuous dalliance with Criseyde” (101).  Another critic, Evan Carton similarly admits, “No amount of receptivity to its sexual suggestiveness will give us the incest, but any amount should make us reexamine interpretations of the poem that can only survive by flatly rejecting such a possibility” (58).  Chaucer chooses when he wants to elaborate and when the reader must work towards his or her own meaning. 

Similarly, Chaucer uses narrative exclusion in The Merchant’s Tale:

Anon he preyed hir strepen hir al naked.

He would of hir, he seyde, han som plesaunce,

And seyde hir clothes dide him encombraunce,

And she obeyth, be hir lief or looth.

But lest that precious folk be with me wrooth,

How that he wroghte I darn at to yow telle,

(1958-63)

Just as Pandarus and Criseyde embark in a sexual action (pulling Criseyde’s covers away and kissing her) before the narrator’s secrecy, Chaucer informs the reader that January strips May naked.  In both The Merchant’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer had already been detailed about sexuality up to this point.  In The Merchant’s Tale, “Thus laboureth he til that the day gan dawe” (1842), Chaucer makes the characters sexual actions clear.  Troilus and Criseyde explicitly details the sex scene with the two main characters (3 1191-1316).  Chaucer’s secrecy serves a purpose in both instances 

In The Merchant’s Tale, the narrator tells the reader that January is older than May by forty two years, January being sixty and May eighteen.  Gloria Cigman remarks, “the names January and May are no more than a witty allegorical device to portray a marital mismatch between an old man at one end of the life-cycle and a young girl at the other” (138).  The age difference between the two is parodied throughout the tale.  Justinius, a friend of January, refers to his wish to marry a young bride as “folye” (1655) and further remarks, “That, er ye have your right of holy chirche,/ Ye may repente of wedded mannes lyf” (1662,3).  In the middle ages, the average marriage age for men was late twenties and January surpasses this “average” age by at least thirty years (Karras 121).  Chaucer’s time would have viewed January’s marrying the “fresshe May” as odd if not inappropriate as the tale suggests (Merchant 1859).  January could be May’s grandfather.  Through significant age difference, the marriage is given an inappropriate and even perverted tone.  Thus, when the narrator excludes what January does to May, Chaucer is only emphasizing that what follows is inappropriate and even unpleasant; Chaucer does not want to offend “precious folk” who may be reading this tale. 

In a similar way, Chaucer creates an inappropriate sexual atmosphere for Pandarus and his niece Criseyde.  Just as Chaucer ridicules January’s thoughts on marriage and his need to be united with the young May, Chaucer also creates a sexual dialogue between Pandarus and Criseyde, both tales leading to narrator exclusion.  January is old enough to be May’s grandfather, but Pandarus is related to Criseyde and within the tabooed seven degrees of relationship (Karras 61).  Chaucer seems to understand the gravity (possible death) of his implications; incest is where Chaucer draws the line.  Both texts are mildly ambiguous.

The sexual ambiguity is given a different visage when the two stories are compared.  Chaucer explicates some of January’s sexuality with May, but Pandarus and Criseyde’s relationship is left to speculation.  Chaucer makes numerous sexual references between his Pandarus and Criseyde, knowing a sexual liaison between the two would be incest.  When Criseyde is in his house in the bed Troilus just left, Pandarus abruptly pulls the covers off and kisses her.  As noted previously, there are additional troubling issues surrounding Pandarus and Criseyde’s dialogue.  When they are alone together, Pandarus is either physically invading Criseyde’s space or convincing her to love Troilus.  Thus, when Pandarus is around, Criseyde is always in an awkward situation, either mentally or physically.  The narrator’s exclusion illustrates the climax of these inappropriate positions.  Through the previous night and the next morning, Pandarus’s idea “And so we may ben gladed alle thre” is fulfilled from the incest standpoint (Chaucer, Troilus 1 994).

Troilus and Criseyde is a text of ambiguity and therefore creates many possible explanations for Pandarus and Criseyde’s actions.  Tison Pugh notes, “The reader who sees incest between Pandarus and Criseyde, can do so precisely because the text refuses to forbid such a reading” (6).  The narrator’s “I passé al that which chargeth noght to seye” (Chaucer, Troilus 3 1576), when compared to a similar instance in The Merchant’s Tale’s “How that he wroghte I darn at to yow telle” (1963) implies sexuality and therefore inappropriate.  Chaucer presents an ambiguous reader-created text which allows multiple conclusions to be drawn and argued, but no true answer exists, only strong suggestion.

Works Cited

Archibald, Elizabeth. Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.

Carton, Evan. “Complicity and Responsibility in Pandarus’ Bed and Chaucer’s Art.” PMLA 94 (1979): 47-61.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Merchant’s Tale. The Canterbury Tales. ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson. New York: Norton, 2005. 186-211.

—. Troilus and Criseyde. ed. Stephen A. Barney. New York: Norton, 2006.

Cigman, Gloria. “The Season in Late Medieval Literature: Mutability and Metaphors of Good and Evil.” Etudes Anglaises 51.2 (1998 Apr-June): 131-42.

Delahoyde, Michael. “’Heryng th’Effect’ of the Names in Troilus and Criseyde.” Chaucer Review 34.4 (2000): 351-71.

Fehrenbacher, Richard W. “’Al that which chargeth noght to seye’: The Theme of Incest in Troilus and Criseyde.” Exemplaria 9.2 (1997): 341-69.

Fradenburg, Louise O. “`Our owen wo to drynke’: Loss, Gender, and Chivalry in Troilus and Criseyde.” ed Shoaf, 88-106.

Hawkes, Gail. Sex & Pleasure in Western Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2004.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Pugh, Tison. “Queer Pandarus? Silence and sexual ambiguity in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.” Philological Quarterly 80.1 (Wntr 2001): 17-36.

Robertson, D.W. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. New York: Princeton, 1962.

Warren, Victoria. “(Mis)Reading the “Text” of Criseyde: Context and Identity in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.” The Chaucer Review 36.1 (2001): 1-15.

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