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Andrew James Johnston, Russell West-Pavlov, and Elisabeth Kempf, eds., Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare
by Rachel Stenner

Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare: Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida. Edited by Andrew James Johnston, Russell West-Pavlov, and Elisabeth Kempf. Manchester UP, 2016. viii + 208 pp. ISBN: 978-0709190226. $101.00 cloth.   


This volume marks a significant contribution to the ongoing scrutiny of the dynamic between Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. There is genuine insight in the view taken by the editors that the Troilus tradition is empowered by “its specific locus in the spaces between … the positions conventionally assigned to the medieval and the early modern” (8). Studying dominant examples of texts from that tradition is therefore an excellent approach to troubling the notion of periodization, and there are moments in this collection when illuminating readings of the texts are advanced. The book seeks to go significantly beyond this task, however, by interrogating the ideas of temporality upon which periodization rests through two specific routes: the relationship between the literary and the historical and the relationship between the literary and the emotions. Any one of these three enquiries—even focalized through the niche paring of two related texts by two authors—would productively fill a volume in ways that are critically current. Their yoking together here, though, does not have the elucidation it needs and, as a result, the combination threatens to obscure rather than clarify the enquiry.

This hindrance is partly owing to a straightforward proliferation of guiding topics and partly to the volume’s framing in the introduction, which sets out to establish a number of premises. First and foremost, the editors claim that that the partitioning of the Medieval and the Early Modern remains, despite New Historicism and Postmodernism, the “single ideologically most important period boundary in Western culture” (7-8). Second, they argue that affect transgresses boundaries that periodization establishes. Finally, they suggest that the Troilus and Criseyde / Cressida textual lineage is “the most spectacular example of a self-consciously literary tradition in English literary history” (7).

In considering alternatives to historical segmentation and sequentiality the introduction usefully surveys a number of revisionist historicisms, yet the rhetoric of the opening paragraphs (indeed the first lines) asserts the continued privileging of New Historicism as a critical paradigm. Early Modern studies truly do not now, as the introduction states, have “any privileged alternative” (1) to this practice but this is to be celebrated as provoking the kind of critical hybridity in which volumes such as this have their genesis. One such historiographic alternative to teleological historicism is queer history, and the introduction gleans from this approach the proposition that our relationship to the past—and implicitly the literary past—is governed by affect. The Troilus texts expose the centrality of affect within history and historiography, generating emotions including rage, the urge to deface, possessiveness and compassion. Affect is seen as a core element of the texts, of later writers’ responses to the texts, and critical readings of them. The fact that the Troilus and Cressida love story is a microcosmic segment of a wider historical narrative, through which the dilemmas and tensions of that narrative are focalized, means that emotions in the Troilus texts are distanced from the overarching historical narrative. Reading these texts through affect enables an idea of the aesthetic that is not subject to history to be modeled, engaged, and simultaneously queried. The emotions in Troilus texts are consequently proposed as a literary site where the “ideological underpinnings of periodization and temporality can be questioned and held in suspense aesthetically” (7).

Crucial, then, is the singularity of this textual tradition, assured both through and against its historicity. These texts are deemed to form a special case in which the Middle Ages battle with a classical heritage, and the Renaissance battles with the ancient past that it supposedly endorses, whilst also fighting the Medieval history against which it seeks to define itself. Surely, though, the Arthurian tradition is at least comparable in this respect. Though more diverse and fractured, this textual lineage with its many connections to Troy, Aeneas, and epic, is directly traceable through numerous Medieval iterations, including the The Canterbury Tales, and later The Faerie Queene.

There is another concern in the claim that the central love story operates through a cultural text that moves through time but is potentially outside of periodization and is capable of suspending ideology. The discussion of emotions in Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida, it is argued, enables ideology to be suspended through representation. This seems to suggest that, under usual circumstances, ideology would be most clearly operative within the texts, rather than within readers or traditions of reception and hermeneutics. Yet the volume is particularly interested in the ways that the Troilus tradition functions through and channels the affective responses of writer-readers, and as evidence for the latter the “overwhelmingly masculinist standpoint” (4) of critics is put forward as a dominant reading driven by affect. This is a critical standpoint that participates in patriarchal ideology. Moreover, affect is posited as suspending ideology within a textual tradition whose most prominent examples bestride what the volume itself presents as an acutely ideological history. The implication here is that reading these texts in this way is to resist the ideological freighting of historical division but the essays collectively suggest something quite different: the Troilus texts are in fact littered with ideological detritus.

The three best essays in the collection are exemplary and fascinating exercises in close reading that focus on particular topoi. Paul Strohm’s “The Space of Desire in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s Troy” draws out the importance of architectural spaces which are surveilled and occupied in various ways. For Strohm, the Troys of Chaucer’s poem and Shakespeare’s play are markedly London-like—Troynovaunt indeed. The buildings within the texts reflect Medieval and Early Modern developments in spatial technologies that in turn evince a growing awareness of and need for privacy. This is hindered by gossip and, especially for Chaucer’s protagonists, not just by the habituated and insidious presence of Pandarus but by the ever-present court or noble entourage, which is revealed in Strohm’s analysis to be a smothering rather than an enabling social configuration. Strohm particularly explores the significance of the garden and the bedchamber, both privileged spaces of private encounter.

Hester Lees-Jeffries contributes a strong essay on the figure of Hecuba, “What’s Hecuba to Him? Absence, Silence and Lament in Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida.” This discussion considers the affective consequences, particularly for Cressida, of Hecuba’s absence from Shakespeare’s play. As Priam’s wife and thus mother of many of the key Trojan warriors in the saga, including Hector, Paris, and, of course, Troilus, Hecuba might be expected to take the stage but, whilst she is often mentioned in Troilus and Cressida, she never appears. There is consequently a felt absence in the play’s emotional spectrum which Hecuba should fill because, although in classical tragedy her role is split between vengeance and lamentation, in either vein she is an archetype of mourning that legitimates excessive grief. As the locus of affect for characters, readers, and audiences she provides an authoritative expression of female suffering that Shakespeare’s play lacks. Lees-Jeffries connects this lack to the observation that Shakespeare denies the audience access to Cressida’s inner life because she has neither soliloquies nor confidante. Similarly, in the shift from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Criseyde’s much-admired wit and eloquence give way to Cressida’s silence. For Lees-Jeffries, Hecuba’s absence from the play contributes to that silencing by frustrating the possibility of Cressida’s legitimated and effective lamentation.

The emotions of the heroine, but this time in Chaucer, are also central to Stephanie Trigg’s fine essay, “‘Language in her eye’: the Expressive Face of Criseyde / Cressida.”  Trigg sees that the poem problematizes the act of looking by repeatedly inviting the reader to look intently at Criseyde’s face, exploring both her own gaze and the ways that others gaze at her. Through this the poem analyzes the ways that emotion is communicated by human facial features. Key to this discussion is the famous scene in the Temple of Athena where Troilus first sees his future lover; the rapid transition of expression across Criseyde’s face is read here as Chaucer’s attempt to escape the static quality of many Medieval images of feminine beauty.

Two essays are notable for their close attention to historicized understandings of emotion that enable the authors to find new insight from familiar material. In Russell West-Pavlov’s essay, “Remembering to Forget in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: Narrative Palimpsests and Moribund Epochalities,” the play’s attack on historical time is an attack on literary narratives. He uses the helpful phrase “laminated time” (81) to describe the play’s overlayering of temporalities, the war itself having its own temporality because conflict generates more conflict. Literary accounts of the war also trade on a rhetoric of crisis, and Shakespeare exposes the rhetoric by focusing on emulation. This form of imitation was specifically understood in the Early Modern period to be an aggressively competitive aristocratic habitus used to displace peers and subvert hierarchy. Shakespeare shows it to be a dysfunctional form of social affect that feeds a self-generative structure of competitive violence which is literary as well as social. The play re-enacts and scrutinizes the stories compulsively retold by the narrators of a mythic warrior class but corrodes their authority in each performance. This may feel like a familiar conclusion about the play but the consideration of emulation subtly nuances understanding of how its critique operates.

Verena Olejniczak Lobsien in “‘Stewed Phrase’ and the Impassioned Imagination in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida” attends to the play’s close attunement to contemporary psychology and faculty theory. She reads the characters’ oft-cited tendency for commonplaces and sententiousness as an engagement with Stoicism. Formulating Stoicism as a cultural technique for the management of emotion, she posits that it offered Shakespeare a therapeutic cognitive model for fashioning the passions.

There is much to be learned about the nature of textuality from the Troilus texts, as the essays by Andrew James Johnston, Wolfram R. Keller, David Wallace and James Simpson all demonstrate. Johnston’s interest is in “Gendered Books: Reading, Space and Intimacy in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.” This revisionary piece builds on Pandarus’s interruption of Criseyde reading a volume of Theban history in Book II to reverse previous interpretations which see her tied to a feminized romance and Pandarus to an epic militarism. Criseyde is in fact portrayed by Chaucer as an intellectual aristocratic widow holding court. She is a self-consciously public reader of classical literature, and the poem presents her as an active interpreter of the Theban history to which she will become tied through her connection to Diomedes, one of the fateful Epigoni. By contrast, Pandarus attempts to use literature for erotic ends. Through Criseyde and Pandarus’s different reading practices, Johnston’s superb essay identifies a tension in the poem between two notions of reading. It is at once an instrumentalist affective engagement designed to stimulate a response and a hermeneutic activity that provokes analysis.

A pair of juxtaposed essays by Wallace and Keller usefully reformulate intertextuality and authorship respectively as emotion. Keller’s dense piece, “Arrogant Authorial Performances: Criseyde to Cressida,” presents authorship as a form of arrogance. His discussion builds on the work of Patrick Cheney and will be of particular interest to Spenserians. For Cheney, Shakespeare’s “counter-authorship” (142) embeds his bid for literary fame deep into his texts in a blend of Chaucerian self-effacement and Spenserian self-crowning. Keller extends this argument to demonstrate how both Chaucer and Shakespeare create characterological models of poet-playwrights who test the idea of counter-authorship. In their texts, authorship is displaced, not onto the obvious candidates Pandarus, Ulysses, or Thersites, but onto Criseyde and Cressida. In the process, though, it is compromised by being associated with arrogance. Following this essay, Simpson’s closing piece, “‘The formless ruin of oblivion’: Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Literary Defacement,” acts as an authoritative concluding statement about the four characteristically hostile traditions of Troy: the epics of Homer and Virgil, Ovid’s Heroides, the Galfridian tradition, and the Medieval ephemera tradition that includes John Lydgate and William Caxton. Shakespeare works within the latter, which is pointedly hostile to Virgil and Homer. This is another essay which tends to a familiar conclusion—Shakespeare defaces the nobility of his textual predecessors—but its positioning of Shakespeare within the larger spectrum of Troy texts is invaluable.

These essays cover much critical ground but there is one significant omission: not one of them mentions William Kuskin’s Recursive Origins: Writing at the Transition to Modernity (2013). This is a book that not only challenges the narrative of rupture staged by the so-called Medieval / Early Modern “divide” but engages Troilus and Cressida specifically, and the Troy tradition more widely, in formulating a model of literary history in which reading and writing are recursive: they fold back upon themselves in regenerative, but involuted motion. Kuskin is a decidedly “felt absence” given that the present collection is motivated throughout by the fact that “forward movement through textual history is generated by a constant backwards gaze and a reworking of accounts of the past” (5). This may be an issue of space; some of the essays give the impression of needing more words to fully develop their ideas. That several of the most provocative conclusions arise from discussions of Cressida demonstrates one way in which the book retains its coherence through its textual focus, rather than through its complicating thematic lens. This project is ambitious but its coordinates do not fully align. That said, this collection is essential reading on the poem and the play and will be a useful resource for anyone working on the connections between Chaucer and Shakespeare, or for enquiries into Chaucer’s Early Modern reception. Spenserians will find useful analogies here for core Spenserian issues: his readings of Chaucer, his engagement of history, and his agon with his predecessors. And as research into Spenser and the emotions has yet to fully take flight, this book provides—as often happens in Early Modern studies—a route from the bard to the prince.


Rachel Stenner
University of Sheffield 


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Cite as:

Rachel Stenner, "Andrew James Johnston, Russell West-Pavlov, and Elisabeth Kempf, eds., Love, History and Emotion in Chaucer and Shakespeare," Spenser Review 46.1.9 (Spring-Summer 2016). Accessed June 22nd, 2018.
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