Two of the greatest masters of British literature, Shakespeare and Chaucer, tended to look to the classics when searching for inspiration. A lesser-known example of this lies in an ancient tale from Greece about two star-crossed lovers. There are many variations on the names of these lovers, but for the purpose of solidarity, they shall henceforth be referred to as “Troilus and Criseyde” for Chaucer and “Troilus and Cressida” for Shakespeare. Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” offers up a classic tale of love that is doomed, whereas Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” is not only tragic but also biting in its judgment and representation of characters. This difference may be due to the differences in time periods for the two authors, or their own personal dispositions, but there can be no denying the many deviations from Chaucer’s work that Shakespeare employs. Shakespeare’s work, by making the characters and situations more relatable, builds upon Chaucer’s original work, rather than improving it or shattering it.
In Chaucer’s tale, Cressida is in Troy with her father, a Trojan soothsayer who switched sides when he had a vision of Troy losing. Troilus is a Trojan prince who doesn’t believe in love until he happens upon Criseyde and – surprise, surprise – falls in love. Pandarus helps the two together, only to have Cressida’s father set up an exchange with the Greeks wherein Criseyde is traded for a Trojan prisoner. Criseyde then chooses another lover, Diomedes, after she realizes how hopeless the situation is. Troilus later dies in battle, but he is happy as he ascends to the “eighth circle,” some sort of allusion to Heaven, supposedly.
Shakespeare’s version has Pandarus and Troilus acting skeevier and Cressida acting sluttier, at least on the surface. The morning after the first and only romantic encounter between Troilus and Cressida in Shakespeare’s version has the characters being so much cruder than in Chaucer’s. As Hyder E. Rollins writes in his The Troilus-Cressida Story from Chaucer to Shakespeare essay, “the details are so coarsened that one thinks only of the animal nature of their love” (384). The emphasis is on their nighttime activities, rather than their supposed love. The ending, also, is focused on the death of a lesser character, not Troilus, so there is not the same impact. There is no heavenly ascension, just Achilles dying and the lovers being parted. Sadness ensues.
The characters themselves are quite altered between the two versions, particularly noticeable in the three main characters, Pandarus, Troilus, and Cressida/Criseyde. In Chaucer, each is seen as a complicated individual in a situation that they cannot quite control. Pandarus, for instance is a well-meaning (enough) uncle who tries to give happiness to his niece and to the young Trojan prince. Criseyde and Troilus are simply smitten with each other, innocently enough, until they are ripped apart by circumstance. But Shakespeare takes these somewhat idealized...