Update 6: Queen Helen or Prostitute Helen?

Now that I’ve posted a little bit about my weeks reading Shakespeare and Chaucer, I wanted to talk about a similarity in the two works that I found quite interesting. Characters in both Troilus and Criseyde and Troilus and Cressida frequently refer to Helen as “the Queen” or “Queen Helen.” In my initial readings of these texts I found it interesting and surprising that, in works that use Helen as a byword for inconstancy, she gets the benefit of her honorific. An article by Baswell and Taylor (“The Faire Queene Eleyne in Chaucer’s Troilus”), however, alerted me to the idea that calling Helen the Queen may not be beneficial towards her at all.

Baswell and Taylor point out two things about Chaucer’s word choice here. First, that “queene” (the Old English spelling Chaucer uses) is a homophone of another word (queyne) that means prostitute. So, by repeating the title “queene,” Chaucer is also linking Helen to one who sells their body, evoking a perspective of Helen as a sexualized object of trade between men. Moreover, though, calling Helen a prostitute gives her more agency but in a negative way – it implies that her own choices and actions led her to wilfully give her body to Paris, rather than the other option of him kidnapping her.

Another important point is that while people in Troy refer to Helen as the “queen,” she is not actually the queen in Troy. She is the Queen of Sparta, the place in Greece where she was married to Menelaus and has since left. Thus, calling Helen the “queen” reminds us of her former position in Sparta and identifies her with the Greeks, also reminding us of her perceived treachery in leaving her husband and remaining with Paris.

While Baswell and Taylor wrote their article in response to Chaucer’s narrative, I think its arguments hold strong to be applied to Shakespeare’s play as well. Characters in Troilus and Cressida constantly refer to Helen as the “queen” or the “fair queen,” especially Pandarus, who sings a sexual song about her using these terms. This song and scene involving Pandarus and Helen (III.i) further emphasizes the connection between the two hidden meanings of the word “queen” and the way that it actually invokes a negative perception of Helen.

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