I’ve always found Troilus and Cressida a difficult play. The characters all seem jaded, cynical, opportunistic, stuffily sanctimonious, lecherous or simply underhanded. Some are merely unpleasant, others are despicable, reprehensible. All seem self-serving, more concerned with their own gains and goals than that of the greater war around them.
It’s difficult to understand why it was listed as a “comedy” (although oddly placed in the folio, between the histories and tragedies).
Even Harold Bloom calls it “difficult” and “elitist” (although he later qualifies it as Shakespeare’s “most sophisticated” and “intellectualized” play). And Joyce Carol Oates called it, “…that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.”
UK reviewer, Charles Spencer, wrote of a 2008 production,
This is surely the bleakest, nastiest and most nihilistic of all Shakespeare’s plays… The whole drama is obsessed with disease and bad faith. The cynicism, and sense of exhausted contempt, undoubtedly makes the play seem extremely modern. It also makes it hard to sit through, and a relief to escape from.
There is no real honour among warriors as we see in Shakespeare’s history plays (Hector’s single moment of gallantry, allowing the exhausted Achilles to live, is marred by his immediate desire to kill a different, unknown Greek solider, solely for his shining armour).
There’s no redemption, either, just self-serving action, personal agendas, vengeance, adolescent lust, scheming, cynicism and politics. There seems no remorse, no guilt, no shame like you might find in Hamlet or Macbeth.* Hector, when he tells Troilus,
There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)
suggests that laws, not conscience, not guilt, are all that controls humanity. This is the opposite of the message in Shakespeare’s other plays, which almost always explore the effect of shame and conscience on the protagonists and their actions.
The limitations and obsessions of humanity define the real tragedy of this play and perhaps of any play, but only in Troilus and Cressida does Shakespeare refuse to lift man’s spirit above them.
Human relations get reduced to business transactions. Pandarus convinces Troilus to bed Cressida for his own voyeuristic needs, then with little more than a shrug, hands her over to the Greeks in exchange for a minor prisoner of war. Cressida swears undying love to Troilus before being taken away, but in the Greek camp, she is calculating and teasing about which of her captors she will bed:
I’ll make my match to live,
The kiss you take is better than you give;
It breaks the lovesick Troilus’ heart when he secretly sees Cressida stroking Diomedes’ cheek, and his love turns to anger and disgust. Meanwhile the slave Thersites, the play’s fool, wryly remarks,
How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and
potato-finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!
Thersites, dislikeable, embittered, and sarcastic, is no comic clown. No happy words of bright, chattering wisdom come from him, no sparkling insights open the audience to subtler meanings. He turns on Ajax, his master, early in the play, proclaiming:
I would thou didst itch from head to foot and I had
the scratching of thee; I would make thee the
loathsomest scab in Greece. When thou art forth in
the incursions, thou strikest as slow as another.
When Achilles reproves him, Thersites turns on him and replies,
E’en so; a great deal of your wit, too, lies in your
sinews, or else there be liars. Hector have a great
catch, if he knock out either of your brains: a’
were as good crack a fusty nut with no kernel.
Ajax, , tired of the japes, gives Thersites to Achilles’ service. Thersites then calls Achilles the “idol of idiot worshippers.” I like that turn of phrase.
Thersites has an acid tongue. Patroclus has too, but only when bickering with Thersites, calling him, “thou damnable box of envy,” and “you ruinous butt, you whoreson indistinguishable cur.” Patroclus’ death in a skirmish will be the reason the prissy Achilles finally screws up enough interest to get off his backside and back into the fight.
There’s not much action, either, to counterbalance the speeches, until the very end. It gets dry, at times. The a fight at the end, between Hector and Achilles, ends badly for the audience because both great heroes turn out to be cads, although in different ways.
The great heroes of Homer’s epic about the Trojan War are there: Achilles, Hector, Priam, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Ajax, Diomedes, Nestor, Ulysses, Menelaus… and none of them, perhaps except briefly, fit the heroic model in Homer.
We all know the story of the Trojan Wars from Homer’s Iliad: how the Trojans kidnapped the beautiful Helen and stole her away to their walled city, and the Greeks massed an army and besieged the city for many years before conquering it.**
Shakespeare turns Helen into an adulteress; her infidelity is cause for several bawdy jokes in the play – like when her husband, King Menelaus opines how he misses Helen, “I had good argument for kissing once.” Patroclus turns and snidely replies,
But that’s no argument for kissing now;
For this popp’d Paris in his hardiment,
And parted thus you and your argument.
Ajax is portrayed as a “mindless jock” (as Norrie Epstein labels him), Achilles as a thug (who kills the unarmed Hector who had not long before spared Achilles), Nestor becomes an aged windbag, and Ulysses is the defender of a cause no one else believes, or want to believe in.
When Ulysses stuffily pontificates on the necessity of order in the world:
Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!
It rings hollow, bombastic, like a man suffering to defend a cause he’s bound to by duty, rather than one he champions for honour, faith or reason. Very conservative, if one reads today’s politics into it.
No one carries greatness on their shoulders. Thersites sums up the entire adventure thus:
Here is such patchery, such juggling and such
knavery! all the argument is a cuckold and a
whore; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions
and bleed to death upon. Now, the dry serpigo on
the subject! and war and lechery confound all!
Helen, while the point of all this turmoil, has only a minor role in the play, with no great monologues to remember her by. She’s almost reduced to a caricature.
Shakespeare doesn’t take us to the end of the war. Instead, he gives us a small slice of it, already seven years into it, at the stage when everyone is weary and the passions for honour and restoration long since evaporated. All of the soldiers are bored, both sides. Trojans talk about giving Helen back, just to get on with things. But they’ve all been at it so long, nobody knows how to change course.
There are some interesting moments of philosophizing, such as when a discussion between Hector and Troilus over the worth of Helen to the Trojans becomes a debate over the meaning over value itself. Hector responds:
…value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer: ’tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god
And the will dotes that is attributive
To what infectiously itself affects,
Without some image of the affected merit.
Troilus turns his abstraction back to Helen, and concludes:
The issue of your proper wisdoms rate,
And do a deed that fortune never did,
Beggar the estimation which you prized
Richer than sea and land? O, theft most base,
That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep!
But, thieves, unworthy of a thing so stol’n,
That in their country did them that disgrace,
We fear to warrant in our native place!
The play is not without wisdom. Just rather thin on humanity.
And yet… it’s got that element of bawdiness, a kind-of-tongue-in-cheek sexuality, like Falstaff gone bad, freed from his leash.
Then there’s that sense that it’s a dark satire on politics, Shakespeare offering us a muted commentary on politics, war, honour which may have resonances – lost to modern readers – in late Elizabethan politics and society. But, since we’re not in on the joke, all we get is the sense of decay, immorality and weariness.
Which perhaps is the message we ought to take away: we’re the Trojans, besieged, weary of all that lathering palaver, the hand-wringing angst, the sanctimoniously puffed up anger, the incessant negativity, the constant, futile little nagging attacks… and that just outside the walls of town hall, the Greeks are building a wooden horse. Or is there such a “Trojan horse” already in our midst?
* Guilt and shame are, as Robert Levine writes in “The Power of Persuasion,” more powerful at controlling antisocial behaviour than rules, laws or punishments. That’s the main reason I published names of people charged with crimes when I was editor of the paper: the social stigma was more effective at deterrence than any fine or jail term handed out. “What makes the conscience so powerful,” writes Levine, “is that it’s not only judge and jury, but also the means – guilt and shame – for enforcing its decisions.”
** History, written by the victors, proclaims the Greeks bold and brash for winning the war after a decade of desultory battles and most posturing – through cunning and treachery, rather than honourable battle. They snuck into the city, hidden inside a gift (the iconic “Trojan Horse” which was not actually Trojan but Greek), using deception to get past the gates. The term “Trojan horse” has come down in history to mean “a person or thing intended secretly to undermine or bring about the downfall of an enemy or opponent” and “someone or something that seems good or helpful to a person or organization but whose real purpose is to harm or destroy them.” Had they lost, history would have painted the Greeks’ trickery in a far more unfavourable light.