Fortune In Troilus And Cressida Essay Research

Fortune In Troilus And Cressida Essay, Research Paper

Lady Fortune: Friend or Foe? The face of Fortune in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.

Lady Fortune and her wheel are two of the most enduring symbols in mankind’s history. Witness the popular game show, Wheel of Fortune. While it may seem silly, it proves that something of this concept has stayed with in our psyche, even today. The question of fortune is paramount is Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer gives the reader characters with completely conflicting ideas of Lady Fortune and her affect on their lives. By examining Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, the reader can hope to find an answer for these differing views on fortune. Firstly, Boethius’s influence on Chaucer and the persona of Fortune that he presents must be examined. Once this is established as a benchmark, the reader can fully understand the misconceptions Troilus has regarding fortune. Troilus clings, as Boethius does in his Consolation of Philosophy, to the memory of his faithful service to Fortune. Finally, the character of Pandarus must be addressed. He, of all Chaucer’s characters, has a firm grip on the reality of the Lady Fortune and her ever-changing nature. In fact, a close examination of the text of Troilus and Criseyde will show that Chaucer gives Pandarus a very similar role to that of Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius’s work deals with the universal experience of suffering. He finds himself imprisoned and under threat of execution. As Boethius begins to expound his sorrows and blame “fickle Fortune” (p. 35), he finds himself comforted by none other than Lady Philosophy. Their discussion is presented at length for the reader to pass judgment on. The section particularly confronting Boethius’s misconceptions of Fortune and is of interest to this argument is found mainly in Book II. Lady Philosophy points out to Boethius exactly what the root of his problem is at the beginning of this section. “You are wasting away in pining and longing for your former good fortune,” she tells him (p.54). This is because he has forgotten the true nature of Fortune. Once he comes to an understanding of Fortune and how she works as an instrument of God, he will be healed of his sickness of depression.

Boethius then moves the conversation to a face to face discussion with Fortune. B.L. Jefferson, in his book Chaucer and the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, claims that “Boethius was the first to visualize Fortune in this most personal way” (p. 49). Boethius’s discussion about fortune makes three different points. Firstly, that change is the very nature of Fortune. This mutability is pointed out by Lady Philosophy, “Change is her normal behavior, her true nature…You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess,” she tells Boethius (Consolation, p. 55). No man can stop her wheel from turning; it goes against Fortune’s very nature to do so. She can turn her face away from a man as quickly as she turns it to him. Jefferson characterizes the argument in this way, “Absolutely without sympathy, [Fortune] cares no more for one man than another” (50).

Next comes the defense of Fortune by herself. Her argument is simple: I have only taken back what was mine in the first place. “Inconstancy is my very essence,” she says, “it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require” (Consolation, p. 57). Boethius has no grounds for his complaints because everything he has ever had was given to him by Fortune. If she decides to take it back, it is her prerogative. This should not send him to the pits of despair. “Indeed, my very mutability gives you just cause to hope for better things,” Fortune tells Boethius (58). Just as the wheel has borne him down, so can it bear him back up to better things.

Lastly, Lady Philosophy instructs Boethius in Fortune’s deeper significance, as a servant of God. Jefferson again, “Of a connection with Providence, Fortune herself does not seem to be aware, for she works blindly and wantonly. But behind her and governing her, is the all-wise Providence. Through the adversities of Fortune, Providence creates in men what we now call character…. In Fortune [Boethius] saw the instrument of God” (50). This made what Boethius was doing a very serious matter. It was all very nice to talk about the whims of fortune, but to tie it logically and directly to the providence of God was a completely different matter.

Boethius’s Influence on Chaucer

It is from these points of argument with Fortune that we can see how Boethius influenced Chaucer, especially in Troilus and Criseyde. Most of the literature on Troilus seems to support this claim as well. “The Boethian theme of Fortune dominates Troilus and Criseyde, and Chaucer even incorporates direct borrowings from the Consolation of Philosophy,” says Martin Camargo (214). Jefferson says that the Consolation had more influence on Troilus than on any other long poem of Chaucer’s (120). It seems, however, that Chaucer did not just use Boethius randomly in this text. He very carefully dealt with the same fundamental issues of Fortune and God’s providence that Boethius did in his Consolation.

That is why Pandarus sounds just like Lady Philosophy when he speaks to Troilus in Book 1:

“Than blaestow Fortune

For thow art wroth; ye now at erst I see.

Woost thow nat wel that Fortune is comune

To everi manere wight in som degree?

And yet thow hast this comfort, lo, parde,

That, as hire joies moten overgon,

So mote hir sorwes passen everecho.

For if hire whiel stynte any thyng to torne,

Than cessed she Fortune anon to be.

Now, sith hire whiel by no may sojourne,

What woostow if hire mutabilite

Right as thyselven list wol don by the,

Or that she be naught fer fro thyn helpynge?

Paraunter thow hast cause for to synge” (I.841-54).

The same points of argument are reiterated here in Chaucer’s own words. Pandarus is saying the exact same things as Lady Philosophy’s argument. Fortune is the same to every man. The joys she brings may pass away, but so will the sorrows. Her wheel cannot stop. She would cease to be fortune. The reader can see the direct correlation between Boethius’s work and Pandarus’s words.

Fortune in Troilus and Criseyde

Chaucer gives Pandarus a clear understanding of Lady Fortune. It is his character who leads Troilus and instructs him, as Lady Fortune did Boethius. Camargo insists that it was important for Chaucer that his readers see the correlation between the opening of the Consolation and the opening of Troilus and Criseyde. “Because it was important to Chaucer that his readers recognize the analogies between Troilus and Boethius and Pandarus and Philosophy from the outset, he took special pains in Book I to recall the Consolation’s vivid opening scene” (Camargo, p. 215). Just as Lady Philosophy found Boethius under the sway of the muses, so Chaucer begins this scene with Troilus singing alone in his room. He also comes to him and upbraids him for his confusion about Fortune as noted in the passage from Book I cited above. However, Pandarus is truly an opportunist when it comes to Fortune. He tells Troilus and Criseyde to take the opportunity presented to them by this love. “By turning Lady Philosophy’s lesson into a veiled carpe diem, Pandarus demonstrates his enthusiastic acceptance of the transitory gifts of Fortune,” Joseph Salemi writes. Pandarus encourages Troilus by saying that Fortune must be smiling on him, and tells Criseyde that this is an “good aventure” (II.288).

In Book IV, Pandarus again counsels Troilus on Fortune. However, now Fortune has turned her face away from Troilus. He says:

“Who woulde have wende that in so litel a throwe

Fortune oure joie wold han overthrowe?

For in this world ther is no creature,

As to my dom, that ever saugh ruyne

Straunger than this, thorough cas or aventure.

But who may al eschue, or al devyne?

Swich is this world! Forthi I thus diffyne:

Ne trust no wight to fynden in Fortune

Ay propertee; hire yiftes ben comune” (IV.384-92).

He grasps that the very nature of Fortune is to take what she has given. No one can understand her fickle nature, except to know that she changes. Pandarus goes on to tell Troilus that he should seek a new love. Surely Fortune will smile on him in the form of a new ladylove! This is truly a Boethian philosophy. As Fortune spins her wheel, eventually the wheel will bring prosperity again (Consolation, II. Pr 1).

Troilus has a completely different view regarding Fortune. He is much more like Boethius. “He [Troilus] and Pandarus represent two equally distorted views of Fortune: that of the opportunist and the fatalist,” says Joseph Salemi (219). Jefferson also agrees that Troilus is “the kind of fatalist that Boethius was in the Consolation…in the role which he assumes for himself in contrast to his consoler, Dame Philosophy, the man who cries out against Fortune, who cannot reconcile to his misfortunes” (123). So Chaucer has cast his Troilus in the role of Boethius. Troilus’s question at the beginning of his song in Book I does indeed echo that of Boethius:

“If no love is, O good, what fele I so?

And if love is, what thing and which is he?

If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?

If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me,

When every torment and adversite

That cometh of hym may to me savory thinke,

For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drink” (I, 400-06).

He is questioning the very nature of Fortune and the events surrounding him. Boethius, while recounting his downfall to Lady Philosophy, asks her “where evil comes from if there is a god, and where good comes from if there isn’t” (Consolation, I, Pr. 4).

The problem is that just as Boethius is wrong regarding Fortune, so is Troilus. Take Troilus’s lament in Book IV as a clear example of this misconception regarding Fortune and as a prime example of his fatalism:

“Fortune, allas the while!

What have I don? What have I thus agylt?

How myghtestow for routh me bygile?

Is ther no grace, and shal I thus be spilt?

Shal thus Criseyde awy, for that thow wilt?

Allas, how maistow in thyn herte fynde

To ben to me thus cruwel and unkynde?” (IV, 260-266).

When he continues, the true nature of his distress is revealed. “Have I the nought honoured al my lyve,/As thow wel woost, above the goddes alle?” (267-68). Troilus has devoted himself to the service of Fortune, but like Boethius, can not yet grasp her true nature. Chaucer uses this misconception to make even clearer that the true nature of Fortune is constant change. Troilus’s fatalism and misinterpretation of the favors of Fortune show up in sharp contrast to the opportunism and understanding of Pandarus.

Troilus reacts with even greater fervor in Book IV when he thinks Criseyde has died. “O cruel Jove and thow, Fortune adverse,” he cries (IV, 1192). Salemi says that “Troilus’s frantic despair is a text book example, according to Boethian principles, of how not to react to adverse Fortune” (218). Troilus has just told the reader he had served Fortune all his life. How can he ask Fortune to be something she is not? By calling her “adverse” Troilus clearly shows once again his misunderstanding. Fortune is neither adverse or good. She merely spins her wheel. As Pandarus points out, joy will surely come again if you just wait for her wheel to turn again.

Where does Criseyde fall in all of this? Is she representative of Fortune in Chaucer’s work? Salemi seems to think there are grounds for such an association, although he admits it would be difficult to maintain. He says that Pandarus’s role “as an advisor who tells Troilus about how to deal with a certain woman reinforces the suggested affinity of Criseyde with Fortune” (214). The narrator also makes the association of Criseyde with Fortune in the Prologue to Book IV. The narrator tells the reader that Fortune “From Troilus she gan hire brighte face…And on hire whiel she sette up Diomede” (IV, 8, 10). What Fortune has done is exactly what Criseyde will do. While this is a plausible argument on the surface, Criseyde does not seem so much to serve as Fortune but to understand her better than most. She has a firm grasp on the inconstancy of Fortune. Indeed, when Chaucer introduces her, the reader is struck by the fact that she does not blame Fortune for her sorrows. She is widowed, abandoned by her father and has had to throw herself at the feet of another in order to save herself. Even in the end, she merely bewails “the bitterness of worldly joys” (Jefferson, 126). She knows they can not bring happiness. And what is billed as her faithlessness to Troilus in Book V merely shows the acceptance of the hand she has been dealt by Fortune. The narrator says in Book V,

“Retornying in hire soule ay up and down

The wordes of this sodeyn Diomede,

His grete estat, and perel of the town,

And that she was allone and hadde nede

Of frendes help; and thus bygan to brede

The cause whi, the sothe for to tell,

That she took fully purpos for to dwelle” (V, 1023-29)

While it may have been Fortune’s doing that Criseyde is apart from Troilus, she understands at once the gravity of the situation she is in and takes steps to rectify it. This shows that she understand that the world is inconstant.

The theme of Fortune in Troilus and Criseyde springs right from the pages of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. This text obviously influenced Chaucer greatly. He drew from it frequently, almost casting his characters in Troilus and Criseyde into the roles in the Consolation of Philosophy. The result is powerful and moving for the reader. Chaucer’s audience could work through the same issues presented in the Consolation and see how the are dealt with in a classic story. And even today, modern readers can draw the same conclusions from this timeless tale of love and fortune.


Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. V.E. Watts. Penguin Classics. New York: Penguin Books. 1969.

Camargo, Martin. “The Consolation of Pandarus.” Chaucer Review Vol. 25 No. 3 (1991) P. 214-28.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Ed. Larry Benson The Riverside Chaucer.. Boston: The Houghton Mifflin Company. 1987. P. 471-585.

Jefferson, B.J. Chaucer and the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius. New York: Haskell House. 1965.

Salemi, Joseph S. “Playful Fortune and Chaucer’s Criseyde.” Chaucer Review Vol. 13 No. 3 (1979). P. 285-307




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