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  • The Word of Apollo: Prophecy and Vatic Poetry in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida
  • Rachel Stenner

Content note: this article discusses rape and sexual violence.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382–86) revolves around the sexual conduct of women in a martial society, most significantly, for the narrative’s avenging Greeks, the conduct of Helen of Troy, whose “ravyssyng to wreken . . . / By Paris done, they wroughten al hir peyne.”1 One of the poem’s less prominent assessments of Helen and Paris is that of Oenone, the shepherdess of Ovid’s epistolary Heroides 5 (c. 25–16 BCE).2 The former lover of Paris, Oenone lost his affections to Helen following the contest of beauty between Venus, Juno, and Minerva. Early in Book I of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer places Oenone’s story in the mouth of Pandarus, who comically discusses the Ovidian source as if it were a physical letter received within the fiction of the romance. Pandarus describes the epistle that Oenone “Wrot in a compleynte of hir hevinesse,” asking Troilus if he has seen “the lettre that she wroot” (I.655–56). When Troilus answers that he has not seen it, Pandarus recites part of its closing section. Neatly dodging readerly expectation that he might set out the directly relevant backstory of Helen and Paris that the letter contains, he rather quotes Oenone’s account of Apollo:

“Phebus, that first fond art of medicyne,”Quod she, “and coude in every wightes careRemede and reed, by herbes he knew fyne,Yet to him-self his conning was ful bare;For love hadde him so bounden in a snare . . . ”

(I.659–63) [End Page 259]

This is an account of divine failure; Apollo, the inventor of medicine, fails to heal himself when smitten with love “for the daughter of the king Admete” (I.664). Pandarus cites Oenone in order to describe his own lovelorn state via hubristic analogy to Apollo. In the Heroides, however, Oenone explains in more detail that the deity, whom she describes as “the builder of Troy,” has bestowed on her the divine power of healing: “the secret of his gifts. Whatever herb potent for aid, whatever root that is useful to the healer grows in all the world, is mine.”3 Yet the “gift” of medicine comes at a price: Apollo has raped Oenone, obtaining “by violence, what others had struggled for in vain.”4 Chaucer’s evocation of Oenone raises several concerns of this article, which focuses on the ambivalent role of Apollo in Troilus and Criseyde and in William Shakespeare’s later theatrical reworking of the poem in Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601). In both texts, divine authority is simultaneously asserted and troubled. The reward offered by the god to lesser beings is problematically associated with sexual violence. Intertextual relations, which are in the Troilus texts closely linked with vatic poetry, demonstrate literature’s generative power but operate recursively: they reach into the literary past to turn predictions about literary futurity into meaning in the reader’s present.

In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer gives Apollo a structural and conceptual role that links the forces of prophecy and poetry as ambivalent and unstable sources of authority. In this work, as Jamie Fumo argues of his writings more broadly, Chaucer “focuses in Apollo a theoretical fascination with the deep construction . . . of authority.”5 He also highlights a central problem with Apolline authority: the deity’s association with sexual violence. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which engages Chaucer’s poem as its main source, is similarly fascinated with issues of literary authority and the threat of rape.6 Considering its response to Chaucer and other intertexts, critics have described the play as an “assemblage of the literary fragments of the Trojan war” that questions the significance and possibility of representation.7 James Simpson makes an assertive version of this argument, characterizing Troilus and Cressida as an instance of “pitiless aggression” that seeks to infect and deface Chaucer’s vision.8 Yet while critics have recognized Troilus and Criseyde as the “Chaucerian text most frequently perceptible in Shakespeare’s writings,” they have so far overlooked...