A long, long time ago I read both Chaucer’s narrative poem and Shakespeare’s play of Troilus and Cressida and now I remember very little of either; but my remaining impression is that they were ambiguous about Cressida’s betrayal of Troilus, portraying it as a pragmatic decision. Robert Henryson’s poem from the 15th century claims to be no less judgemental than his predecessor Chaucer:
When I recollect your fall, I want to weep.//And yet whatever men may think or say/Contemptuously about our quick compliance/I will excuse to what extent I may/Your womanhood, wisdom and loveliness/Which the whim of fortune put to such distress – /No guilt for it to be attributed/To you, bad-mouthed by noxious gossip.
and Seamus Heaney in his Introduction to his translation takes Henryson at his word, refering to ‘a moral understanding reluctant to moralise’. Not my reaction, I must say. The entire poem is essentially a failure to come to terms with Cressida’s betrayal, inflicting punishment on her. SPOILERS Diomede, the man for whom she betrayed Troilus, abandons her after he’s had his fill, and she becomes a prostitute in the army camp. Eventually she goes back to her father, where she spends her days in religious devotion. However, after one day finally giving vent to her anger at Venus and Cupid, the gods punish her with leprosy and the once beautiful Cressida is hideously disfigured by the disease. One day, Troilus rides through her leper colony and fails to recognise Cressida but throws generous alms to her out of great pity. She asks who that great knight was (having likewise failed to recognise him), and on being told it was Troilus, is overcome with grief and dies.
Henryson’s moral? Now, worthy women, in this short narration/Made in your honour and for your instruction,/For charity, I urge you and I caution:/Do not pollute your love with false deception.
Women, we have been warned.
Note: the quotes above are in Heaney’s modern English translation, but the Faber edition includes a full text of the original Scots, on facing pages.
Robert Henryson, The Testament of Cresseid & Seven Moral Fables translated by Seamus Heaney (Faber, 2009).
This title is #31 on my Classics Club reading list, which can be found here.