Women in Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s Works


The Book of Duchess’ is considered the first narrative poem by Chaucer. It is accepted to be a poem, memorizing the death of John of Grunt’s wife Blanche. The poet tells the story about Ceyx and Alcyone at the beginning. Then the poem moves on to one of the poet’s strange dreams. The poet presents two woman characters in his poem. At first, comes Alcyone then the knight’s lover. Troilus and Cressida is a tragic play written by Shakespeare that can be regarded as more difficult and unpleasant; it ends with the tragedy of the Trojans. The central attention of the play is the tragic love story of Troilus in the background of the Trojan War.

The play is conceived to be one of his major problem plays. The play is not written in a conventional manner; the play ends with the death of Hector, the great leader of the Trojans, and the tragedy of the central character Troilus also takes place towards the end of the play.

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The two main women characters in the play are Cressida and Helen. Helen bewitched everyone with her charming beauty. She is the same beauty who attracted Paris, the son of King Priam, which ultimately leads to the great Trojan War. Helen does not feel any prick of consciousness when she deserts her husband Menelaus, who was then out of the station. Troilus, the Trojan prince, falls in love with Cressida, the daughter of Calchas- a priest.

Troilus lost his interest in the war he devoted completely to Cressida and they got moral support from her uncle Pandarus. Later on, when the Trojan War proceeds, Cressida is exchanged to the Greek army for a Trojan prisoner. She flirts with Diomedes and offers her love when she reaches the Greek camp, without being aware that Troilus is watching it secretly.

In the poem, the Book of Duchess’, the poet, in his dream, meets with a black knight who is tormented with fear. The poet asks him about the reason for his sufferings. The knight pathetically narrates the story of his wife. The knight in the poet’s dream describes her name as “good, fair White” (948). The knight sees her as a queen. He fails to save the game against misfortune.

The first part of the poem represents the sufferings of Alcyone. Introducing the female character Alcyone, the poet tries to give a vivid picture to the readers. He says “To telle hir hertely sorwful lyf / That hadde, alas! this noble wyf / For him she loved alderbest /Anon she sente bothe eest and west/ To seke him, but they founde nought”.(85-89) Chaucer draws the picture of Alcyone with some noble qualities. But the women characters in Shakespeare’s, ‘Troilus and Cressida’ do not possess such qualities; instead, they cheat their men. Helen betrays her husband by eloping with Paris and Cressida by flirting with Diomedes. Chaucer presents his female characters as virtuous persons.

Both Alcyone and the knight’s wife are powerful characters having some serious responsibilities in their life. Very often Chaucer takes bold attempts to present his female characters with soul in the advancement of patriarchal society. Generally, Shakespeare’s female characters are bold and have a self-identity. But in his ‘Troilus and Cressida’, the female characters have been presented with a negative image. Chaucer gives a mysterious background to both of his female characters in ‘The Book of the Duchess’. The serpentine beauty of the knight’s lover has been revealed before the readers. It is clear that both female characters in the poem have a kind of psychological domination over their male partners.

This psychological domination is also found in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ where Troilus is unable to retaliate for Cressida’s cheating and becomes a fool of himself. he regards himself as “weaker than a woman’s tear / Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance,/ Less valiant than the virgin in the night,/ And skilless as unpractis’d infancy.” (Troilus and Cressida ACT I. SCENE 1, Lines 9-12). Menelaus, Helen’s husband, also is in the same condition for many years, though he wins at last.

The knight in Chaucer’s dream says that his wife is an enchantress. The knight himself admits that the lady has some divine qualities. He praises that she has a pure way of looking like a goddess. When looking into her eyes, the knight feels that her eyes reveal the truth, and all of her ill wills are gone. Comparing to his poem, ‘Canterbury tales’, the poet follows a different approach when describing the female characters of his poem, “The Book of the Duchess’. Here the poet has avoided the satirical tone. In the concluding part of the poem, the knight expresses his love and gratitude towards his beloved, his passion and intensity of his love also are visible in the following lines, when he says: “Though I had had al the beauty…. Wolde ever, without dredge/ wolde ever, without drede”(lines:1056 -1074).

He adds that it is not worthwhile even though he has the beauty of Alcibiades, the worthiness of Alexander, the rich man in Babilon, all the courage of Hector,(The Trojan hero killed by Achilles ), or the wisdom of Minerva. This reveals that Chaucer framed woman characters in his poem ‘The Book of the Duchess’ more worth full and divine. The women characters in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ have been given greater importance and Helen has attributed a superficial quality than others. But in the case of Cressida, she is no better than Helen and can aptly be compared to a coquettish whore.

Chaucer gives a different status to women that differentiate the concepts about a woman which already exist in 13th and 14th century England. Through the character of the knight’s lover poet remembers the transience of earthly life. These two writings resemble when it pictures women having a psychological dominance over men.

In the poem, the knight is really attracted to the beauty of his beloved and is tended to lead a submissive life with her. The real state of the knight is expressed when Christian Cotroneo rightly remarks,” making his lady the sun of his existence, the Knight is appropriately blind to his fellow inhabitants. In his darkened mood, he can see no life without love. This sentiment is the sincere extension of how the mourner applied his courtship of the White Lady” (The Book of the Duchess: An Elegy for the Living?- Christian Cotroneo 1997) He cuts his all relations with the existing world and leads a secluded life.

Here in the play also Troilus is incapable of revenging against Cressida even though she deceives him by flirting with Diomendesand he himself comments that” this is Diomed’s Cressida”. (ACT V. SCENE 2). Menelaus proves to be a foolish character by bringing back Helen to Greece. In other words, the male characters face the problem to understand their partners fully. The women characters in both the writings have a separate entity from the existing world. A kind of mysterious element is found out in the women characters of the poem.


To conclude it is clear that the women characters in the play possess a negative image in their life by deceiving their men. But the women in the poem are an expectation and they are the symbols of ideal women representing true love, sincerity, passion, and loyalty to their husbands; that is why the knight in the poem wanders with deep pain over the death of his beloved. The love relationship in the play becomes insincere and it finally leads to revenge and war. The female characters in both works stand aloof to the existing social customs of the time.

Available at

Troilus and Cressida ACT I. SCENE 1, Lines 9-12). Web.

Troilus and Cressida, ACT V. SCENE 2. Web.

“The Book of the Duchess”, Chaucer Middle-english hypertext with glossary, edited by Librarius. Web.

The Book of the Duchess: An Elegy for the Living? – Christian Cotroneo 1997.

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Premium Papers. "Women in Shakespeare's and Chaucer's Works." September 25, 2021. https://premium-papers.com/women-in-shakespeares-and-chaucers-works/.