Game of love: chess and agency in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde AND She will suffer no grates: spatial tensions in Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Michelle E. Danner (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Michelle Dowd

Abstract: Chaucerian women have long been the subject of scholarly fascination. However, while some of Chaucer’s principle women have been the subject of a wide variety of scholarly perspectives, others have received less consideration, being locked into the same examinations of certain themes and critical viewpoints. Chaucer’s tragic romantic heroine, Criseyde, is rarely considered in terms of agency and influence. Her literary reputation as the epitome of bad lovers cripples her potential as an active figure in charge of her own fate. However, when examined outside of generic expectations, Criseyde’s situation and the reasoning behind her maneuvers and decisions becomes clearer, and, thus, she may be viewed as less culpable. The game of chess, with its emphasis on learnable skills and effective strategy, illuminates more of the nuance that Chaucer included Criseyde’s action in the tragic poem. When read through the lens of chess strategy—where chess represents not only romantic courtship but more importantly violent war—Criseyde’s trajectory can be better understood as active and invested in her own survival and, more importantly, devoted to a cause entirely different than love. Criseyde is then freed from the negative stereotypes of women’s agency achieved only through their duplicitous cunning. Chess, as a game accessible to both men and women, thus presents a new avenue then for examining agency in medieval women, both in literature and in medieval culture and society. AND Modern readers occasionally find it difficult to accept that the ending of Margaret Cavendish’s drama, The Convent of Pleasure, is indeed a “happy” one. The female-only convent that Lady Happy operated throughout the play is suddenly dissolved, given to a nearby fool, and the fates of the convent’s residents are left entirely unknown. Most disturbingly, Lady Happy, who was vocal and passionate throughout the play, turns suddenly quiet and stilted upon marriage. This sudden return to patriarchy and the heteronormative status-quo can seem understandably shocking or upsetting to modern readers. What seems to have not been noted, however, is that Cavendish leaves numerous hints to this exact return to patriarchal ideals. Lady Happy’s convent exists as both a private convent and a domestic household; early modern English societies had specific expectations about both of those social spaces, and resistance to those expectations could lead to intense personal and communal anxieties. Such tensions threaten personal livelihood and social stability and therefore must be resolved by the end of the play to prevent upheaval and ultimately chaos. Cavendish can only restore order by returning all of the spaces involved to the status-quo. To do so, she must convert the Convent into an acceptable domestic household, subject to patriarchal norms through the introduction of masculine performance.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2016
Chaucer, Chess, Margaret Cavendish, Spatial Tension, The Convent of Pleasure, Troilus and Criseyde
Chaucer, Geoffrey, $d -1400. $t Troilus and Criseyde
Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish, $c Duchess of, $d 1624?-1674. $t Convent of pleasure
Women in literature
Chess in literature
Patriarchy in literature

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