The tragic love affair of Troilus and Cressida has been recounted and portrayed in the works of two of the most renowned writers in the history of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1385) and William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (1602). Both Chaucer and Shakespeare endeavored to depict the ill-fated narrative of the affair of Troilus and Cressida that occurs within the much larger in scale and scope narrative of the Trojan War and how the development of the grander narrative ultimately severs the burgeoning romance.
This essay will demonstrate how Troilus undergoes the same expedited poignant sequence of emotions in both works – very similar to what we know today as the Kübler-Ross model – when he fully realizes that Cressida left him for good after the separation was forced on them unwillingly as part of the epochal events of the Trojan War.
The Kübler-Ross model – or as it is more commonly known, the five stages of grief – was first presented in the book On Death and Dying by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. The model describes a succession of emotions that people endure when they face a significant personal loss in the following order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Of course, neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare were familiar with this modern psychological model; yet, fascinatingly, both their portrayals of Troilus’s emotional struggle consist of a very similar array of emotions even if they do not perfectly correlate with the Kübler-Ross model, as it will be now illustrated.
The two different characters of Troilus by Shakespeare and Chaucer experience severe emotional plight and thereupon similar first reaction – denial – after they face the loss of their subject of love. Shakespeare’s Troilus agonizingly witnesses with his own eyes Cressida and Diomedes’s budding affair in which she hands Diomedes the same sleeve that Troilus gave her; Chaucer’s Troilus receives a short and very unpromising letter from Criseyde and then sees the brooch that he gave her on another man.
The denial of Shakespeare’s Troilus is extremely overt: he first completely denies that Cressida was actually there (V.ii.127-9) and then he ravingly claims that “this is Diomed’s Cressida” (V.ii.140) and not the one whom he knows. It is important to mention that Cressida may indeed act and behave differently with Diomedes than she is with Troilus, but this would be an understandable and justifiable disposition with regard to the complex situation she is in; as other commentators have noted, Troilus and Diomedes project different images to which Cressida must adjust accordingly – after all, she is indeed in a hostile environment (Asp, 1997).
Compared to Shakespeare’s Troilus, the denial of Chaucer’s Troilus is less apparent and is expressed indirectly by the narrator, who states that Troilus could not believe that Criseyde “ne wolde him holden that she highte” (Coghill, stanza 234 / original, line 1636), which makes sense since his ordeal is far less manifestly harrowing than it is in Shakespeare’s play.
Even though in both texts there is a clear indication of Troilus’s initial denial, Shakespeare strongly emphasizes his dire mental state and portrays him as almost losing his mind due to the traumatic experience of observing Cressida with Diomedes, while Chaucer’s characterization is more empathetic and less deranged.
In the two texts, Troilus exhibits obvious signs of anger and intention to act violently; yet, neither Shakespeare nor Chaucer direct this rage toward Cressida but toward her new lover, Diomedes.
Shakespeare’s Troilus explicitly describes toward whom his fury is aimed when he declares that “as much as [he does] Cressid love / So much by weight hate[s] [he] her Diomed” (V.ii.170-1); and then, in no less than eight consecutive lines, he heatedly details how he wishes and intends to kill Diomedes (V.ii.172-9).
Even though Chaucer’s Troilus is not as descriptive with his ire, his anger is nonetheless evident and similarly addressed toward Diomedes and not Criseyde. He irately demands from God that he “may meten with this Diomede” so he could make “his sydes blede,” and then he again turns to God and almost desperately asks him why he will deny him “vengeaunce of this vyce” (244 / 1702-8). It is important to stress that violence, or the threat of violence, is not an unusual measure in such a brutal setting as the Trojan War; however, interestingly, Shakespeare and Chaucer do not point Troilus’s vehement anger toward Cressida, who actually commits the betrayal at least partially, but toward Diomedes who might not even be aware of Troilus’s grievances.
Bargaining and Depression
The Kübler-Ross model’s stage of bargaining appears to be missing from the alternating turbulence of emotions of Troilus in the two texts, and in each one, Troilus promptly jumps from violent anger to expressing his depression in two different forms.
Shakespeare’s Troilus seems to almost completely break down when he dejectedly cries, “O Cressid! O false Cressid! false, false, false!” after which even Ulysses tells him that he needs to “contain” himself (V.ii.181-4) – an attestation to the profound despondent state of Troilus.
The depression of Chaucer’s Troilus is also quite distinct, yet it is evinced differently: not by some sort of breakdown as in Shakespeare’s play, but by suicidal contemplations. He professes to Pandarus that his “owene deeth in armes wol [he] seche,” and then he also adds in despair that he does “recche not how sone be the day” (246 / 1718-9) – caustic admissions that he lost his will to live.
Troilus, in both texts, thus reaches and displays deep levels of depression in distinct forms: in Shakespeare’s play, it feels as if he is on the verge of a mental collapse, whereas in Chaucer’s text, he begins to reveal suicidal thoughts.
The final stage of the Kübler-Ross model is acceptance, at which Troilus ultimately arrives in the two works, and in each one, he expresses it concisely to a non-present figure of Cressida.
In Shakespeare’s text, after Aeneas informs Troilus that he needs to return back to Troy, Troilus finally acknowledges that he will not see Cressida anymore, and he bids her imaginary image, “Farewell, revolted fair,” as his last valediction (V.ii.189).
Chaucer’s Troilus also demonstrates his eventual acknowledgment of the parting by telling the absent Criseyde that what she “thus doon” to him, he has “it nought deserved” (246 / 1722). Therefore, Shakespeare and Chaucer allow Troilus to reach some sort of sad pithy acceptance before the end and finalize a parallel series of emotions in the same manner.
The Trojan War Context
Shakespeare and Chaucer meticulously portray Troilus’s personal experience and glum emotional reaction to his crisis with Cressida, and subsequently, they raise again the general historical context that leads to it.
In Shakespeare’s play, this is the Trojan hero Aeneas who enters the scene and brings to mind again the consequential setting of the Trojan War to which the affair of Troilus and Cressida is evidently subjected; Aeneas does not need to say much, but he merely relays that Hector prepares for the battle back in Troy and that Troilus hence needs to return as well (V.ii.185-7).
In Chaucer’s text, it is the narrator who coldly reminds the audience that Troilus’s personal struggle is utterly insignificant compared to the grander events that transpire; the narrator proclaims that despite the great sorrow of Troilus, he “mot wepe in cares colde,” and then sharply adding that “[s]wich is this world” (250 / 1746-7).
Ultimately, Shakespeare and Chaucer elucidate that personal affairs and emotions are completely subordinated to the supreme historical narrative of the Trojan War, by which all events are inescapably dictated.
Chaucer and Shakespeare have adapted the story of Troilus and Cressida uniquely to their respective works, and in spite of the acute differences between the texts, Troilus’s emotional reaction to the understanding that his love affair with Cressida is over is portrayed similarly as a series of parallel feelings and emotions. While the Kübler-Ross model was conceived in the 20th century, somehow, the two authors have both infused Troilus with most of the model’s emotional alterations compressedly – perhaps another proof of their sharp perception and ingenious ability to imitate the human condition.
Chaucer and Shakespeare realized that the events of the Trojan War are inevitable, and the fate of anybody caught in between is foredoomed. Yet, although the affair of Troilus and Cressida is utterly insignificant with respect to the epic narrative of the Trojan War, they still attempt to convey this story in the most genuine and meaningful manner, including the deepest emotions of an abandoned lover.
Asp, Carolyn. 1977. “In Defense of Cressida.” Studies in Philology 74.4: 416-417.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. 1971. Troilus and Criseyde, tr. Nevill Coghill. Penguin Classics.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. 1969. On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families.