Troilus and Cressida

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Shakespeare, William. The History of Troilus and Cressida. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 751-839). (May still need to update from Riverside edition.)

Prologue.

The prologue reminds us of the great Homeric backdrop to the play, and in the end, the Homeric version seems to win out since Ulysses’ cunning fails to draw Achilles into the battle; it’s the death of Patroclus that accomplishes this in Act 5, Scene 5-6.

Act 1, Scene 1.

It’s seven years into the war, and Troilus is out of accord with the War’s imperatives; he sounds like a Petrarchan sonnet, with his sighing extremes—as in “I find no peace, but have no arms for war.”  By the end of the play he will be furious at Diomedes, disillusionment over Cressida having given him his cause.  But by then, Achilles has killed Hector and the Trojans are doomed.  Pandarus is eager to spur Troilus on.

At 109, we hear that Paris has been slightly wounded by Menelaus.  The play constantly undercuts the heroic version of the “great cause” that animates both Greeks and Trojans; it seems as if the play sides with Thersites, who puts it all down to stupidity and lechery and contemptible male pride.  Love and war are intertwined, to the honor of neither.

Act 1, Scene 2.

Cressida’s servant tells her that Hector is ashamed of himself since Ajax gave him a good blow or two.  Hector is spurred on by his shame to challenge any Greek to maintain his lady’s as good as Andromache.  At line 136, Pandarus pursues his private interest of bringing Troilus and Cressida together.  The girl seems worldly enough in her answers, at least until she meets Troilus later on.  From lines 177 onwards, there follows a pageant of Trojans—Aeneas, Hector, and others.  Cressida claims to opine that Troilus is “a sneaking fellow.”  Well, as she explains to us, at least, she must maintain her chastity.  And at 282ff, she gives the real reason for her supposed standoffishness: she fears she will be lightly prized once she is no longer chaste.  This is true, of course, but it doesn’t equate with wide-eyed innocence; she does not (to borrow a line from Polonius in Hamlet) “speak like a green girl.”

Act 1, Scene 3.

Agamemnon is trying to explain why seven years have passed with no victory; the joint argument from the King and Nestor is “trust us—this is policy beyond your devising.”  Ulysses then tells everyone to listen to him, and Agamemnon says that given the source, they fully expect to hear wise counsel, and not the sort of nonsense Thersites spews out.  Ulysses says at 109ff, “Take but degree away,” and the world will “turn wolf universally.”  Respect for rank is at low ebb, thanks to Achilles’ prideful refusal to do his part for the Greeks.  (In The Iliad, the reason given is that Agamemnon arrogantly asserted his supremacy by demanding as his share of the spoils Achilles’ favorite concubine, Briseis.)  Achilles and Patroclus mock Agamemnon, and this has spurred on Ajax (who is none too bright) to mock the King, too, and to make Thersites his agent for this purpose.  Ajax’s posturing, especially, is said to appeal to those who value nothing but stupid, brute force rather than shrewd policy.  Well, it’s hard to see how Agamemnon’s “policy” amounts to much more than incompetence. 

Aeneas visits Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge.  The Greeks consider Troy’s men ceremonious courtiers rather than blunt fighters.  This is in line with traditional portrayals of the Trojans as indulgent, over-civilized, proponents of the “luxurious state” later found so blameworthy by that Athenian lover of all things Spartan, Plato.  Aeneas answers chivalrously that the Trojans are civil in time of peace, but deadly in war.  Agamemnon’s reply shows how inextricable love and war are in this play: all soldiers, he insists, are lovers or plan to be.  But Ulysses has a scheme going to take down Achilles a few pegs—Hector’s challenge is obviously aimed at Achilles, but Ulysses wants to arrange for Ajax to “happen” to win a lottery for the honor, thereby upstaging his rival attention-seeker Achilles.

Act 2, Scene 1.

Thersites and Ajax relate to each other in an interesting way; the first act went far towards undercutting the heroes’ insistence on honor.  Throughout the play, Thersites will rail at the biggest targets for their lechery, double-dealing, and stupidity, pride and enviousness, and he will become the target for their sexually charged taunts of cowardice, effeminacy, and so forth (some of which he will heap right back on none other than Patroclus, of course).  Thersites sees Ajax as nothing more than a blunt instrument for those who actually wield power; in a phrase, he is “Mars his idiot.”  At line 92 and elsewhere, Thersites attacks the principle of rank; he doesn’t believe those who stand upon it are worthy of it.  “I serve thee not,” he says to Ajax, who proceeds to beat him.  Achilles is much more “civilized” in his dealings with Ajax, but nonetheless Thersites lumps him together with Ajax, and prefers Hector; Thersites has more regard for Ulysses and Nestor, and prefers the company of the intelligent.  Agamemnon he despises.

Act 2, Scene 2.

Priam finds that his sons Helenus Hector would gladly agree to hand over Helen to the Greeks, restoring her to Menelaus of Sparta and thereby saving a lot of bloodshed on both sides.  Troilus (along with Paris) insists that the Trojans should be willing to fight over trifles if occasion bids them do it,  but Hector doesn’t agree, and he points out to his youngest brother that value is not the province of lone individuals, but the province of whole hosts.  The Riverside notes mention that neither side has any claim to absolute righteousness in its quest: Paris went to Greece to make away with Helen because Priam’s sister Hesione had been absconded with by Hercules and given to Ajax’s father Telamon, so it won’t do, really, to claim that “the Trojans started the trouble.”  Troilus maintains chivalric idealism at this point in the play, and his naïve idealism bids him recommend that the Trojans hold on to Helen at all costs.  Hector, who has been doing the actual fighting, thinks otherwise.  Nonetheless, his current challenge owes more to personal shame, most likely, than statecraft.  War, in Shakespeare’s representation of it, is a great distorter of motives and words, and it often sunders words from deeds.  Cassandra breaks in around line 97 and aligns herself with those who want to return Helen, knowing as she does that Troy is doomed.  Around 118ff, Troilus and Paris show some contempt for “reality-based” decision-making.  Nearly every Trojan soldier, he says, will defend the beautiful Helen, and will fight to the death for this icon and enabler of masculine valor and display.  Around line 156, Hector makes the strongest case in favor of recognizing brute reality, but then around 189, he comes around to Troilus’ cause: their ” joint and several dignities” demand that they hang on to their stolen woman.  She is a “theme of honor and renown.”

Act 2, Scene 3.

Thersites’ railing and the warriors’ stupidity and pretense need each other.  Thus Patroclus’ entreaty at line 23, “Good Thersites, come in and rail,” and Achilles calls him “my cheese, my digestion.”  Ajax is said to be upset at this point in part because Achilles has weaned his fool from him.  Well, the cynical clown has found his proper object, and they have found the object of their scorn, too.  He wishes venereal disease on the lot of these fools, all of them guilty of “warring for plackets” rather than the high honor they claim to uphold.  This satirical connection between war and promiscuous, unworthy sexual pursuits is common in literature and film: consider, to give just one instance, Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, where that theme is managed hilariously: General Jack D. Ripper launches World War III because he’s been having some kind of problem like erectile dysfunction, which he calls “loss of essence.”  (And of course there’s the good Nazi Party expatriate Doctor himself, with his “strange love” of atomic destruction.)  Thersites finds that the war between Greek and Trojan is no better than a self-perpetuating, bloody pageant of lunatics and fools, begun by an act of whoredom and perpetuated by lust for wicked women and illusory honor.  He suggests that the very walls of Troy would crumble to dust before the likes of Agamemnon or Ajax will ever batter them down.  That turns out to be a false supposition, but it’s easy to see why he makes it in this seventh year of hostilities.  His speeches also suggest that he’s aware of the intractable problem confronting anyone (especially men) who opposes a violent mass confrontation: charges of cowardice, effeminacy, carping, and treachery are bound to fly at their heads.  Thersites’ attitude towards this kind of hypermasculine vitriol is “bring it on”; it’s the very stuff he feeds upon and turns to satirical account.  But for all his railing and undermining, the war will continue to bleed both sides for quite some time: fools learn not by instruction but rather (if at all) by bitter experience; for Thersites, the result is “good copy” and a pageant not to be missed.

Act 3, Scene 1.

Agamemnon and his subordinates butter up Ajax as a spur to Achilles’ pride—they need him back in the battle.

Act 3, Scene 2.

Troilus is here in a state of agonized expectation, and he fears the loss of self-identity that occurs when a person falls in love.  He attributes the same sort of confounding or loss of identity with the shock of great hosts in battle.  When Cressida is brought in by Pandar, she seems genuinely shy at first, and Troilus seems genuinely almost bereft of words, just as he says.  But soon the two (after a few long kisses) will recover their eloquence, and in this scene they go on to make extreme claims about how their faith (or lack thereof) will prove a byword for all others.  As John Donne would say, “beg from above, a pattern of our love.”  Pandarus pledges his own good name.  Cressida now realizes she has talked a great deal, perhaps said too much.  She has admitted to loving Troilus at first sight and has engaged in comically Petrarchan absolute declarations of fidelity.  Behind this whole dialogue—especially Cressida’s part of it—is the understanding that love is a kind of game, a power exchange in which “secrecy” is to some extent necessary.  Self-revelation generates intimacy, but it also breeds contempt and disloyalty.  As an old professor of mine would say, “idealizing eroticism” is necessary, but also inherently risky because it relies on the perpetuation of illusions.

Act 3, Scene 3.

Calchas calls in a favor for his old defection from the Trojans to the Greeks, and the favor consists in the Greeks giving up Cressida to Diomedes in exchange for the captive Trojan Prince Antenor.  Agamemnon agrees readily.  Ulysses counsels the King to ignore Achilles for a while, and treat him with indifference.  Achilles is easily gulled by this act, and worries that Ajax is stealing his thunder with present deeds of valor.  Ulysses points out to Achilles that “emulation hath a thousand sons” all at the ready to tread their father down in the dust the moment he slows down or strays from the path of heroic example.  “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” says Ulysses: a desire for novelty, and a propensity to forget the past.  When Achilles pleads private reasons, Ulysses points out that everybody knows about his Trojan girlfriend Polyxena anyhow.  Well, Achilles says he’d like to gaze upon Hector in his own tent.  Thersites comes onto the scene and mocks the pride of Ajax, who has been peacocking around like Hercules in anticipation of his battle with Hector, disdaining speech and all manner of rank below his own godlike status.  (This issue of rank and reputation links the present scene with the previous one.)  Ulysses’ advice is that military renown is never entirely lost; one can always create it from scratch by performing worthy new actions in the public eye.

Act 4, Scene 1.

Cressida will indeed be turned over to Diomedes and the Greeks, with whom Calchas resides.  Paris points out that the “bitter disposition of the time” demands this arrangement.  (Diomedes doesn’t have a kind word to say about Helen, the object of the war from the outset.)

Act 4, Scenes 2-4.

In the aftermath of their love scene, Cressida re-experiences some of her prior fear in that Troilus and she must now part with the coming on of day; he has obtained his prize, she thinks, and so now he’s off to other things.  But both soon find out that they are to be parted much more permanently than this brief “cursing of the dawn” scene suggests.  Pandarus fears that Troilus will go mad, and Cressida protests she won’t go.  But Troilus dutifully turns her over for exchange nonetheless, demanding several times that she remain faithful and promising to make his way across the Greek lines to visit her.  Diomedes makes no promises and indeed treats the whole notion of female honor with scorn.  He will use Cressida as he sees fit.  All await the great event of Hector and Ajax’s single combat.

Act 4, Scene 5.

Cressida is welcomed into the Greek camp with many kisses, and Ulysses condemns her as a flirt who is all too well suited to the times: an opportunist.  Hector and Ajax fight, but Hector decides that since they are cousins, the battle should end happily with an embrace.  Hector is invited to the Greek camp to see Agamemnon and Achilles.  During the brief truce, the men all treat one another with the greatest civility, but this is soon shattered when Achilles gazes long upon Hector’s body, and declares that he is just trying to determine where exactly he will strike him the mortal blow.

Act 5, Scene 1.

Thersites again rails at Achilles and calls Patroclus a male “varlot” or whore.  Achilles, given a letter from Hecuba reminding him of a promise to Polyxena, for which vow he will yet again fail to take the field for the Greeks.  Thersites mocks the absent Diomedes and Menelaus, the latter for being cuckolded by Helen, of course.

Act 5, Scene 2.

Troilus (dogged by Thersites and accompanied by Ulysses) can hardly restrain himself when he sees Cressida (at first reluctant) hand over the sleeve Troilus had given her, and promise to meet him.  To herself she pleads the error of the eye, and faults her sex in general rather than herself individually.  What Ulysses had said about the general public with regard to martial reputation, it seems, applies equally well to the realm of love: only the present counts.  At 146, the embittered Troilus says that “this is, and is not, Cressid.”

Act 5, Scene 3.

Hector, declaring that honor is more precious even than life, will not be persuaded by Cassandra, Priam, or Andromache.  Troilus will fight, too, in spite of his youth—he will have his revenge on Diomedes.  Pandarus, sick with some venereal disease, gives Troilus a fair-sounding letter from Cressida, but of course Troilus no longer believes such pledges of fidelity.

Act 5, Scene 4.

Thersites just wants to watch the whole pageant of foolery, and hopes to see Diomedes stripped of his newly won sleeve.  Ajax, we hear, is refusing to fight, presumably in imitation of Achilles, and the Greek camp is overtaken by an anarchic mood.  Diomedes and Ajax fight, and then a comic scene ensues in which Hector threatens Thersites, who escapes by dint of cowardice. 

Act 5, Scenes 5-6.

Diomedes sends Troilus’ horse back to Cressida as a trophy.  Patroclus (who in The Iliad puts on Achilles’ armor) is killed by Hector, and Agamemnon is in dismay at the state of affairs: Hector is like Mars himself, slaying Greeks left and right.  Troilus has infuriated Ajax by killing a friend of his, and he and Ajax (along with Diomedes) fight inconclusively.  Now comes the much-awaited match between Achilles and Hector, and the former bows out, pleading rustiness.

Act 5, Scene 7.

Thersites mocks Menelaus’ battle with Paris, but when the bastard Margarelon challenges him, again Thersites, reveling in his own similar status, escapes injury.

Act 5, Scene 8.

Achilles makes his Myrmidons hack to death the unarmed Hector, and then making them tie the corpse to the tail of his horse.  Unable to defeat the chivalrous Trojan in a fair fight, he does not hesitate to claim new glory by means of an outrageously cowardly act.

Act 5, Scenes 9-10.

Troilus, still spoiling for a fight, counsels a move back towards Troy.  The sick Pandarus, struck on the pate by Troilus, retreats.  Chivalry is undone; the Trojans have lost their greatest champion, and Troilus, although he’s found his cause to fight, is deeply embittered.  For the moment, the knavery of the false warrior Achilles trumps all.  In conclusion, while it might be thought that Shakespeare’s version of the Trojan War is the exact opposite of Homer’s account in The Iliad, that would be an exaggeration since Homer is by no means unwilling to present the occasional pettiness of men such as Agamemnon and Achilles.  The ancient author gives us not so much propaganda as a complex presentation of a complex event (mythical or otherwise); Shakespeare’s account distinguishes itself in its thoroughgoing and successful attempt to weld the least attractive elements of both war and erotic pursuit, thereby undermining the heroic status of the great events behind the story of Troilus and Cressida.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake