TO GO OR NOT TO GO?
Plots of stories and dramas often centre on love rivalries, involving three or four people.
In Giovanni Boccaccio’s Filostrato (14th century), set in the time of the mythical Trojan war, the main characters, Troiolo and Criseida fall in love, have a relationship, but keep it secret. Unfortunately for them, a personnel exchange is arranged, whereby Criseida is obliged to leave Troy and go over to the other side (the Greek camp), to be with her renegade father. Then she is wooed by Diomede, and she accepts him in the place of her former lover. Troiolo is left to bewail his fate.
When the lovers first hear about their impending separation, Troiolo proposes to Criseida that they steal away from Troy while they have the chance:
andiamcene in un’altra regione….
e’ son di qui remote
genti che volentieri ci vedranno….
Fuggiamci, dunque occultamente.
[Part 4, from stanzas 144f, Mondadori edition, Milan, 1990]
“Let us betake ourselves to another region….There are, remote from here, peoples who will receive us gladly…Wherefore let us make our flight secretly.”
[Translation by Griffin N and Myrick A, Cambridge, Ontario, 1999 – available online.]
In reply, Criseida gives reasons for not taking flight, namely, the adverse consequences for the Trojans’ war against the Greeks (in which Troilus himself plays a great part), and for their own reputations, and indeed for the quality of their relationship. She promises, instead, to return to Troy ten days after her enforced departure to the Greek camp. (In the event she does not.)
Filostrato is the main source of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In it, Chaucer’s Troilus makes the same proposal (about leaving together) to his Criseyde. Troilus assures her that, between them, they do have enough wealth to live on. He adds:
And hardily, ne dredeth no poverte,
For I have kyn and fremdes elleswhere
That, though we comen in our bare sherte,
Us sholde neyther lakken gold ne gere
But we been honoured while we dwelt there,
And go we anon; for as in myn entente,
This is the beste, if that ye wole assente.
[Book 4, lines 1520ff, Riverside Chaucer, 1987]
And you need have no fear of taking hurt
Through poverty, for I have friends elsewhere,
And kindred; though you came in your bare shirt,
You would not lack for gold and things to wear;
We should be honured if we settled there.
Let us go now, for it is plain to me
This is the best, if you will but agree.
[N Coghill’s translation, Penguin, 1971]
Criseyde gives reasons similar to those of Boccaccio’s Criseida, and also swears to return to Troy after ten days. (She does not.)
Now, some of Chaucer’s works are sources for some of those by William Shakespeare. Chaucer’s Troilus is the principal source for the love plot in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In brief, the story is speeded up; the personality of Cressida suffers in the process. But Cressida should be seen in context, i.e. as a victim of male oppression; and the reader (or spectator) of the play should ask how many choices she actually has.
I’d like to move on to a very different play, namely, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It has often been said that the plots of the Dream are devised by Shakespeare himself and are not derived from other writers. True, there is a love rivalry plot, to do with Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Lysander. But as I have said at the beginning, this topic is very common. Here, the conflicts are resolved, with a happy ending. In Act 1 Scene 1, Hermia and Lysander are presented with a difficulty – the impending marriage of Hermia, against her will, to Demetrius (her father’s choice). (Patriarchy!) As in Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s Troilus stories, the man suggests to the woman that they take flight, at an early opportunity. Lysander says, reassuringly:
I have a widow aunt, a dowager,
Of great revenue; and she hath no child.
From Athens is her house remote seven leagues;
And she respects me as her only son….
If thou lovest me, then
Steal forth thy father’s house tomorrow night,
And in the wood….
There will I stay for thee.
[Act 1 Scene 1, lines 156ff, Penguin edition, 1967]
Could these lines have been inspired by Shakespeare’s reading of Chaucer?