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Yoshiyuki Nakao, The Structure of Chaucer’s Ambiguity
by Helen Barr

Nakao, Yoshiyuki. The Structure of Chaucer’s Ambiguity, Studies in English Medieval Language and Literature. Vol 36. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2013. 309 pp. ISBN: 978-3631624388. $71.00 cloth. 

The Structure of Chaucer’s Ambiguity is a meticulously detailed examination of the conditions that create ambiguous meaning in Troilus and Criseyde. Nakao proposes what he terms the “double prism structure” to account for how “ambiguity is likely to arise” (24). The double prism structure models the textual interaction between the first prism (Chaucer’s perception of phenomena in his world) and the second prism (Chaucer’s aural audiences, scribes, modern editors, and contemporary readers). There are five elements to this double prism: a phenomenon, the writer’s view of it, his means of expressing it, the reader’s reconstruction, and the reader’s interpretation of the evidence. When it is impossible for a reader to arrive at a single interpretation, the result is ambiguity. The socio-cultural worlds inhabited by the author and the reader are navigated through three domains: textual; interpersonal, and linguistic. Nakao further subdivides these domains. The textual comprises meta-text, intertextuality, macro-textual structure (theme, characterization, plot), speech presentation, and discourse structure. The interpersonal comprises speakers’ intentions and modality. The linguistic domain includes  syntax, lexis, and voice. Through this exhaustive analysis of textual possibilities, Nakao seeks to bridge two critical perspectives in accounts of Chaucer’s ambiguity that he argues have previously been kept separate: authorial intention and reader response.

This is an ambitious goal; one that requires a vast scope of enquiry within which to conduct linguistic examination of a most detailed and technical nature. To explain the existence of Chaucer’s contradictory responses to phenomena in his own socio-cultural world, Nakao describes tensions between sacred and secular, seriousness and playfulness, and modes of thinking (including allegory). These tensions affect how Chaucer views his characters and cloud his moral judgement. Contemporary conditions that restrict “freedom of speech” (as Nakao terms it, 39) impel Chaucer to use ambiguous expressions and equivocations. For Chaucer critics attuned to recent cultural and historicist scholarship, Nakao’s account, though clear, is functional. The scope of his remarks precludes nuanced discussion of precise contextual determinants and contemporary situations. Freedom of expression, for instance, goes unreferenced to any particular conditions; the same applies to discussion of religious beliefs and their relationship to ideas of secular love.

The double-prism structure makes good sense on a theoretical plane (and I can see why Nakao proposes it), but fully to account for the writer’s relationship to his “phenomenon” in the first prism requires a different kind of scholarship from the linguistic analysis that is the main focus of this book. The first three chapters provide a frame for the detailed linguistic work that follows. Nakao uses insights and methodology from a great number of linguistic disciplines. Sperber and Wilson’s work on inference underpins the study. Nakao builds on it with investigation that accommodates manuscript variation, discourse analysis, Jakobsonian structuralism, intertextuality, speech act theory, historical linguistics, syntactical theory, and metrical analysis. The result is to tease out from Chaucer’s expression a wealth of ambiguity which leaves readers with intractable problems of interpretation. Whether from the examination of textual variation between extant manuscripts, or slippage between free and direct discourses, or the fulfilment of felicity conditions, Nakao uncovers extraordinary depths in the richness of Chaucer’s expression.

He is, however, in my view, rather less persuasive in examining slippery lexis from the point of view of prototype theory in chapter 12. Discussion of the connotations of “gentil” and “kynde” are not well served by comparisons to differences between swallows, chickens and penguins. Here, Nakao reaches for one linguistic category of analysis too many. And a reader may feel that overall this exhaustive range of enquiry comes at a cost. Fully to leave no stone unturned, Nakao returns frequently to passages of text already examined to show how ambiguity is created through a variety of linguistic conditions. While this thoroughness is commendable, Nakao’s insistent re-statement of his forensic examination (along with some awkwardness of expression) sits a little uneasily with the delicate slipperiness of the textuality he unweaves.

That said, the frequency of the return, and the re-interpretation from different perspectives, is a textual characteristic of Troilus and Criseyde itself. Nakao shows us this especially clearly in his discussion of the position of Criseyde between the first and second prisms. Throughout, Nakao’s study is especially insightful in its demonstration of how Chaucer’s choices of expression shift his own quandaries about Criseyde onto his future readers. Analysis of textual variation between pronouns in Book 5.1240-1 shows that scribes were unsure about who is kissing whom and in whose arms. Editors and translators replicate that indecision; a textual uncertainty that is compounded by indeterminacy of clausal cohesion and perspectives of narrative voice (60-5). Textual variants, intertextuality and polysemy all come into play in Nakao’s analysis of Book 3.918-24; this, the stanza that appears to account for Criseyde’s decision to accept Troilus’s suit. As Nakao observes, this is Chaucer’s addition to Filostrato. Scribes were uncertain as to whether “syn she did al for goode” (924) should be taken as a noun (sin) or a preposition “for.” The chime triggers the availability of both senses. Nakao demonstrates the range of connotation that lurks in the crucial word “pitous.” The surrounding diction of “grace” and “good” triggers suggestions of Christian devotion while “prive place” and sexual puns on “place” and “grace” (vagina and grass/pubic hair) have connotations of fabliau adultery (Nakao provides a revealing quotation from The Merchant’s Tale, E.1995-2006 to support this assertion). With all of these factors in play, how is the reader to evaluate Criseyde’s response? Is she acting virtuously, or pragmatically? As Nakao shows when he returns to the analysis of this passage in Chapter 7, reaction is made more complicated by the slippage between the narrator’s point of view and Criseyde’s free indirect speech (6-7). 

Nakao’s grammatical analysis of the semantic possibilities of diction is especially persuasive; for instance, the use of “fals.” Nakao charts the distribution of “fals” depending on whether Chaucer uses it attributively or predicatively. Overwhelmingly (and distinctively), Chaucer frames Criseyde as “fals” attributively. This contrasts both to the predicative use of “fals” with reference to other characters and situations and to the classification of “false Cresseid” in Henryson and Shakespeare, where the predicate creates an essentially and permanently treacherous character (218). The outcome in Troilus is different: Chaucer sits on the fence. Criseyde may be false in her behaviour but she may not be false as a person. This leaves the reader to assess whether this is an epistemological difference that can be sustained, and if so, whether Criseyde’s betrayal is one of circumstance and situation, a temporary lapse of character, something attributed to her by someone else, or something in between them all.

Criseyde functions as a test case for Chaucer’s ambiguity. Nakao opens his study with problem of interpreting “gilteles” in Book 5.1084-5. The difficulty of arriving at a stable sense of what Criseyde is saying arises partly from the clash of sacred and secular diction in the work and how those in the first and second prisms draw inferences about the suitability of the range of connotations in lexis that may be understood in both secular and religious senses. The lines also pose problem of address: do we take Criseyde’s statement to be addressed to Troilus and/or to the wider audience? Is the statement entirely in Criseyde’s own voice? Textual cohesion is jerky: “gilteles” is embedded in sub-clauses. Most importantly, perhaps, and this is where Nakao’s analysis is at its most revealing, clear sense is cloaked in modality. In returning once again to this passage in Chapter 10, Nakao analyses how interpretation of “gilteles” is tempered by the phrase “I woot wel” in the same line (170-83). He poses a question: why does Chaucer choose “woot” rather than “leve” or “gesse”? Through quantitative and qualitative analysis of the occurrence of these verbs, Nakao argues that the sense of “woot” is the most indeterminate of the three. It can be used to express knowledge, it can be used modally to express degrees of certainty, or it can be used phatically or performatively, or even as a metrical filler (168). Chaucer’s choice of this verb rather than “leve” or “gesse” together with all the other linguistic factors that contribute to the indeterminacy of the utterance, creates the conditions in which ambiguity for the reader is likely to arise. What happens is that the reader (the second prism) is left in a position where they have to make a judgement about the semantic and grammatical status of “woot,” which in turn triggers an evaluation of Criseyde’s character and her motives. Chaucer’s preference for “woot” transfers his own hazy evaluation onto the response of the reader, leaving them to make a decision.

The discussion of “woot” forms part of Nakao’s extended treatment of modality. In Chapter 10, he charts the historical movement in modal verbs from their root senses to more epistemic usage. He argues that for Chaucer modals were poised somewhere between objective and subjective functions. Readers in the second prism have to decide what semantic weight to afford them. Are we to interpret “trewely” as propositional or epistemic? Nakao’s quantitative evidence shows that “trewely” is used in relation to Criseyde far more frequently than to any other character. In contrast to Troilus, where the modifier habitually expresses certainty, used in proximity to Criseyde, and together with other linguistic conditions, “trewely” triggers epistemic doubt, and hence an invitation to readers to evaluate Crisyede’s conduct. From a similar perspective, the phrase “as [third person pronoun] that” is especially associated with Criseyde. Chaucer uses “as she that” eleven times in Troilus, and very scarcely in any other work. Every instance in Troilus refers to Crisyede. Three available senses are possible: “like one who,” “in the role of,” and “since” (186-17). The phrase occurs when Criseyde is under acute psychological or social pressure at crucial and transitional moments in the story. Given the indeterminacy of the phrase, at each instance the reader is left to decide whether to interpret the phrase as a simile (sense 1), as an example of socially conditioned behaviour (sense 2), or as a factual statement of causality (sense 3). As it is impossible to detach those senses from one another in any one instance, over the course of the text no stability of interpretation is provided. The reader’s response to the author’s provision of the phrase will depend on their sympathy or their skepticism towards Crisyede’s behaviour, and on the socio-cultural codes that condition their response. What occurs in the second prism replicates the conditions of Chaucer in the first.

Culturally reductive though the double prism model can be, Nakao uses it to provide revealing insights about the treatment of Criseyde between her authors and readers. While the book ranges much more broadly, this is where the study is at its most impressive. As a linguistic guide to “slydyng” Crisyede, Nakao’s study is a rich resource for readers who want to understand how Chaucer’s textual expression creates the moral, philosophical, and psychological quandary of his most unknowable character. The Structure of Chaucer’s Ambiguity helps to explain why Chaucer’s poetry produces a Criseyde that is so enduringly inexplicable.

Helen Barr
Lady Margaret Hall



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Cite as:

Helen Barr, "Yoshiyuki Nakao, The Structure of Chaucer’s Ambiguity," Spenser Review 45.2.45 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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