Wednesday, October 22, 2008
A significant part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s literary reputation rests on his powerful portrayal of the Middle Age society to which he was exposed all his life. These depictions are evident in his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales, wherein characters like the knight, the miller, the reeve, the summoner, the pardoner, the man of law, the wife of Bath, among others, actually populated the milieu in which The Canterbury Tales was produced. Such accurate social representations are present as well in his other works like the complex poem Troylus and Criseyde, which told an ill-fated love story in the midst of Trojan War.
As in my previous paper for this course, I would like to explore the possibility of gender subversion in one of the characters in the poem. In much the same way that the Wife of Bath, among other characters in The Canterbury Tales, is a gender dissident for her embodiment of the wild woman archetype, the character of Pandarus in Troylus and Criseyde may be read as gender subversive for his attraction toward the same sex while also harboring an incestuous desire over his niece. This bisexuality in Pandarus’ part defies the machismo prevailing during wartime periods, i.e. Trojan War, wherein male armies from both the Greek and the Trojan camps show virility in many aspects, from fighting for their cause to dealing with the opposite sex.
By definition, bisexuality means “the potential for sexual attraction to both men and women.” It has existed in many cultures across history, including Chaucer’s medieval Western Europe, where all sexually mature persons were believed to be “capable of having sex with both women and men.” Chaucer’s contemporary illustration of the ancient Greek tale’s original panderer had been informed by a Middle Age matter of concern. It is also worth mentioning that the romance’s milieu is ancient Greece, where “[h]omoeroticism was major feature in…art, poetry,…and same-sex relations were an accepted part” of adult males in their social construction as compulsory heterosexuals.
True, Pandarus and Troilus’ friendship is obviously homosocial; nonetheless, it may be interpreted that Pandarus loves Troylus beyond this homosocial bond—in fact, homosexually. While this homosocial bond does not intensify to the level of homosexual consummation due to the fact that Pandarus and Troylus never have sex, a strong male affection colors the intense friendship of Pandarus with Troylus.
In the poem, Pandarus engages in rigorous physical activities as he becomes a go-between for the lovers: he leaps, sweats, goes breathless, moves back and forth between the two. What motivates Pandarus to go at physical lengths in providing romantic liaisons for Troylus and Criseyde? The text is peppered with Pandarus’ desirous actions to help Troylus in his love for Criseyde, but the motivations behind those actions are unmentioned. His erotic energy may be explained as some means through which Pandarus consummates his very desires while Troylus does his own. How so? In Book I, lines 584-587, Pandarus declares, “yf evere love or trouthe/Hath ben, or is, bytwyxen the and me,/Ne do thou nevere such a cruelte/To hide fro thi frend so gret a care:”, an insight into his love-laden relationship with Troylus, one that is shown to be emotionally deep and open.
Pandarus speaks of his affections recurrently, albeit secretive by nature. In Book I, lines 667-69, Pandarus advises Troylus in romantic affairs despite himself, but remains mum about who his beloved is: “I love oone best, and that me smerteth sore,/And yet paraunter kan I rede the,/And not myself—repreve me no more!” Pandarus is in love, but is lovesick toward the object of this passion, but he reveals nothing regarding who the object is. This intriguingly repeats in Book II, lines 57-63:
That Pandarus, for al his wyse speche,
Felt ek his part of loves shotes kene,
That koude he nevere so wel [of lovyng] preche,
It made his hewe a-day ful ofte grene;
So shop it that hym felt that day a tene
In love, for which yn wo to bedde he went,
And made er it was day ful many a went.
When Troylus asks Pandarus of the latter’s sexual past in Book IV, lines 484-90, the sexuality of Pandarus remains obscure since Troylus returns to his own romantic woes and the question is left hanging. While Troylus must be thinking that Pandarus’ love is a woman, there is no informational guarantee that he is correct. The text then is open for the interpretation that Pandarus desires a person other than the conventional object: the opposite sex.
When Pandarus badgers Troylus into revealing the latter’s love, the former gives him an assurance that the Pandarus will not steal her away from the knight. In Book I, lines 715-21, Pandarus swears not to do so:
If God wole, thou art not agast of me,
Lest I wold of thi lady the bygyle;
Thow wost thiself whom that I love, parde,
As I best kan, gon sithen longe while;
And sithe thow woost I do it for no wyle,
And sithen I am he thou tristest most,
Tel me sumwhat, syn al my wo thow wost.
Pandarus reverberates that love whom Troylus supposedly knows, but keeps the person’s identity anyway. Furthermore, his promise not to usurp Troylus’ beloved may be interpreted that Pandarus’ interest does not lie on women.
Since meaning may likewise be created through gaps and silences, this then calls for interpretation of the identity of Pandarus’ object of desire. His speeches provide a hint, although the answers are not divulged by virtue of his overriding silences. However, by focusing his energies on Troylus’ romantic needs, Pandarus is not just diverting his attention from his own romantic predicaments but is actually realizing the most that his unspoken (therefore, unrequited) love can reach: loving the beloved sans the condition of asking to be loved in return. Troylus gets sexual gratification through Pandarus, who is rendered indispensible in the knight’s affection. The romance between Troylus and Criseyde is Pandarus’ substitute for the the love between Troylus and himself.
Apart from the speech and silences, Pandarus’ gaze manifests a desire for Troylus. This may be proven in the scenes wherein Pandarus tells how, when, and where Troylus must gaze. In Book II, lines 1014-17, Pandarus directs Troylus to attend to him more than to Criseyde when the knight passes by the widow’s window:
And thow shalt fynde us, yf I may, sittynge
At som wyndowe ynto the strete lokynge.
And yf the lyke, than maystow us saluwe,
And upon me make thi contenaunce;
Whereas Pandarus is only creating a scene wherein Troylus will gaze upon Criseyde, his direction of Troylus’ look implies that he attempts to make the knight yield to the power of Pandarus’ gaze. Pandarus provides for himself an opportunity to be the object of Troylus’ gaze in order to construct him as Troylus’ object of desire. When the scene is orchestrated, Troylus gazes not at Criseyde, but only at Pandarus, as proven in Book II, lines 1259-60: “And up his look debonairly he caste,/And bekked on Pandare, and forth [he] paste,” to which gaze Pandarus “felt iren hot,” Book II, line 1276. This reaction implies that his desire for Troylus has found an outlet through the construction of Troylus’ look, in the process supplementing him a degree of sexual satisfaction.
The aforementioned reveals that Pandarus’ dealing with Troylus is motivated by queer desire, but the uncle’s incestuous involvement with the widow Criseyde shifts Pandarus’ homosexual to bisexual desire. The “sorwful instrument” (Book I, line 10) that is Pandarus harbors a hidden desire for Criseyde, something “woful” (Book I, line 7) which he projects by helping out Troylus in his affair with Criseyde. What suppressed interest Pandarus has for Criseyde may be taken in the context of incestuous love, something that finds vicarious fulfillment when Pandarus resorts to voyeurism every time Troylus and Criseyde have sexual encounters.
The incest between Pandarus and his niece Criseyde recurs in the text albeit implicitly. In Book III, lines 1555-82, for instance, it is suggested that the two are sleeping together:
Pandare, amorwe which that comen was
Unto his niece and gan hire fayre grete,
Seyde, ‘Al this nyght so reynede it, allas,
That al my drede is that ye, nece swete,
Han litel layser had to s[l]epe and mete;
Al nyght,’ quod he, ‘hath reyn so do we wake
That som of us, I trowe, here hedes ake.’
And ner he come and seyde, ‘How stont it now,
This murye morwe?—nece, how kan ye fare?’
Criseyde answered, ‘Nevere the bet [for] yow,
Fox that ye ben, God yeve youre words whyte,
[O!] whoso seth yow, knoweth yow ful lite!’
With that she gan here face forto wrye
With the shete, and wax for shame al red;
And Pandarus gan under forto prye,
And seyde, ‘Nece, yf that I shal ben ded,
Have here a swerd a smyte of myn hed!’
With that his arm al sodeynly he thirste
Under here nekke, and at the laste here k[i]ste.
I passe al that which chargeth nought to seye.
What! Gof foryaf his deth, an[d] she also
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.
This passage may be read that Pandarus participates in an incestuous relationship with Criseyde. On the other hand, it may be that Pandarus seduces or rapes his niece. In either reading, Pandarus’ incestuous desire for Criseyde is made evident, and the consummation of such a desire goes beyond the vicarious sexual gratification he gets from contributing to the romantic liaisons between Troylus and Criseyde.
The openness of Troylus and Criseyde has made possible a gendered reading of the bisexual character that Pandarus is. His character may be interpreted as having a desire for both male and female, as represented by the knight Troylus and by his niece Criseyde. His doting actions toward his friend suggest that the homosocial bond he feels for Troylus may have crossed the line in such a way that these physical actions may be read as his vicarious erotic satisfaction for his desire over the knight. Likewise, what Pandarus speaks of and what he does not make for an insight into his personal desires. Since textual silences paradoxically speak, Pandarus’ silence in certain highlights invites the reading audience to construct his beloved’s and, eventually, his own identity. Also, his queer gaze satisfies his sexual longing for Troylus by way of orchestrating a scene fashioned for his own pleasurable sake. Meanwhile, this queerness becomes more pronounced as bisexual by category as his dealing with his niece opens for an incestuous interpretation of the text, ultimately bringing to fore that Pandarus is attracted to the same and the opposite sex.
The bisexuality of Pandarus dismantles gender conventions as they are constructed in the modern context. It may actually be interpreted as a subversion of both the ancient martial virility and of medieval heterosexual conventions.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Coghill, Nevill, tr. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin, 1952.
__________. Troylus and Criseyde. Mills, Maldwyn, ed. London: J.M. Dent, 2000.
Hogan, Steve and Lee Hudson. Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.
Minor, Cesario, Jr. “Gender Relations in Canterbury Tales,” 2008.