What can you say about Troilus and Cressida? A lot, but does any of it make sense?

There is a popular conception of Shakespeare’s works that we teach our students; that is, Shakespeare is universal. Whether you were an educated lord or an illiterate groundling, everyone could go and enjoy a Shakespeare play. And that is one reason why, we say, Shakespeare is appreciated by thousands 400 years later, and why we continue to teach him in schools. But find me an English teacher brave enough to teach Troilus and Cressida (Troi)! Troi is considered, with reason, to be Shakespeare’s most elitist play: supported by the scholarly opinion that this play was never publicly performed in Shakespeare’s time. The theory is that it was performed for a private group of educated persons, probably Cambridge lawyers. Was he making amends for Dick’s quip in 2 Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (IV.ii)? Either way, the elitism of this play is held up by two pillars. Troi, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, relies on a Latinate vocabulary that only the educated at the time (and now?) would possess. Second, the audience must have some familiarity with Homer’s Iliad to fully appreciate this play. Both then and now, familiarity with Homer was not universal.

Personally I found Troi to be the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays that I have read thus far. The reason for this is not in its plot or characters, or even Shakespeare’s complex webs such as we find in Hamlet, but more due to the question of comedy. Is this play a comedy as so many claim? How far does the comedy go to mask the tragedy? Post-Hamlet, Shakespeare plays around with genre far more than has been seen both his plays and the plays of his contemporaries. Despite the tensions in genre that we find in plays like Twelfth Night, Measure For Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and the later Romances, nothing surpasses Troi in its ambiguity when it comes to genre. The compilers of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623 categorized the plays into the banners of Comedy, History, Tragedy – and even they couldn’t figure out where to stick Troilus and Cressida: it is noticeably absent from the Catalogue (Table of Contents.)

Like Antony and Cleopatra will do a few years later, Troi splits the focus between two plotlines: I will very quickly outline both. The titular plot – that of Troilus and Cressida – is based on the medieval story Troilus & Criseyde, made most popular by Chaucer: this is probably the source Shakespeare used. Troilus is a young Trojan prince. Cressida is the daughter of a Trojan priest who defects to the Greeks because he knows Troy will fall. Cressida remains in Troy but is viewed as a traitor. Troilus is madly in love with Cressida but she spurns his advances. We quickly learn that she is doing this because of the belief that men prefer women who play hard to get: she really does love him. Eventually (at the half-way point of this play) Troilus and Cressida meet, declare their love for each other and bind themselves together under the guidance of their go-between, Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle). Their quick meeting and hasty union are very reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus and Cressida too suffer their tragedy shortly following the union. In the scene following the lovers’ meeting and union, Cressida’s father, Calchas, urges the Greek leaders to get his daughter from Troy. He suggests an exchange of prisoners – Cressida for a Trojan prisoner captured by the Greeks. They agree, as do the Trojans and this goes forth. Troilus and Cressida have another Romeo and Juliet moment when they are in Cressida’s room saying their final farewells to each other. Cressida is taken by Diomed, the Greek solider, to her father. In a later scene Troilus spies on Cressida as Diomed comes to meet her. Diomed flirts with her and eventually Cressida gives in to his advances, to the great displeasure of Troilus. Cressida gives Diomed the very sleeve that Troilus had asked Cressida to keep as a token of his love. This further enrages the young prince. Later Troilus engages in two fights with Diomed – neither of them kills the other. In the last scene, Pandarus comes to give Troilus some news: Troilus strikes him and leaves: Pandarus alone remains on stage to give the epilogue.

The second plotline follows Homer’s Iliad. After a day of fighting, Hector proposes a challenge for the strongest Greek to fight him one-on-one to settle the ongoing war. Achilles has secluded himself and refuses to participate in the war – Shakespeare does not give the same reason for this act as Homer does at the start of the Iliad. The reason Shakespeare gives is that Achilles is in love with Cassandra – Priam’s daughter – who is in this version still in Troy, and mad. Meanwhile Ajax is mad at Achilles supposedly because Achilles inveigled Ajax’s fool, Thersites. Meanwhile, Ulysses and Nestor come up with a secret plan to goad on the argument between Ajax and Achilles in order to get Achilles back into the war. It works, sort of. Achilles is put off by the fact that the rest of the Greeks are praising Ajax’s strength over his and he urges a peaceful meeting between Hector and the Greeks. Ajax is chosen and goes to fight Hector, but Hector is hesitant to fight Ajax because Ajax is actually Hector’s first cousin, and thus part Trojan. They break off the fight and all meet peacefully. Hector and Achilles exchange some haughty words and the decision is that they will celebrate tonight and kill each other tomorrow. The next day the war resumes. Hector is the only one to suffer: he is confronted by Achilles and Achilles’ myrmidons kill him.

HECTOR

I am unarm’d; forego this vantage, Greek.

ACHILLES

Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.

HECTOR falls

So, Ilion, fall thou next! now, Troy, sink down!
Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain,
‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’ (V.viii)

Anyone familiar with the Iliad will notice the distinct shift in Achilles’ character: here he is far more a coward than in Homer’s text – this lack of heroism persists throughout. After Hector’s death, the Greeks prepare to advance and the Trojans prepare to stand their ground – as with Homer’s text the fall of Troy is implied.

You can probably tell at this point that the story is somewhat more complex than the more popular plays. Troi falls in with Antony and Cleopatra as well as some of the Histories for not having a unified story. But there is far more than the plot that makes this play so difficult to dissect.

The comedy seems to reside in the question of expectations. Everyone familiar with the Iliad knows that honour and glory is the driving force behind the action. Shakespeare, searching for the humanity in these near-mythic figures, plays with this question of honour and glory, with a comedic purpose. In Act II, scene ii Priam, Hector, Paris, and Troilus review the Greeks’ offer that if they return Helen to them, all will be forgiven and the war would end. Hector takes the side of “reason” and calls for an end to the bloodshed. Paris and Troilus take the opposing view:

HECTOR

Paris and Troilus, you have both said well,
And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy:
The reasons you allege do more conduce
To the hot passion of distemper’d blood
Than to make up a free determination
‘Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision. Nature craves
All dues be render’d to their owners: now,
What nearer debt in all humanity
Than wife is to the husband? If this law
Of nature be corrupted through affection,
And that great minds, of partial indulgence
To their benumbed wills, resist the same,
There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth; yet ne’ertheless,
My spritely brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still,
For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependance
Upon our joint and several dignities.

TROILUS

Why, there you touch’d the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us;
For, I presume, brave Hector would not lose
So rich advantage of a promised glory
As smiles upon the forehead of this action
For the wide world’s revenue. (II.ii)

They both agree that returning Helen is the “right” thing to do: Hector anachronistically points to Aristotelian morals to demonstrate his point. But they also both agree that glory and honour is more favourable than morals. Troilus’ final liens touch upon the crux of the conflict that is the Trojan War or any war in general: “Brave Hector would not lose/ so rich advantage of a promised glory…For the wide world’s revenue.” “Sure we can give Helen back,” Troilus seems to say, “If we want to be seen as women.” This piece of biting anti-war satire is wholly relevant today – the same rhetoric holding true in the early 21st century when the Western powers were thrown into an unfavourable war.

Tied to this is the issue of “womanishness”: seeing these epitomes of valour and glory – the great heroes of the Trojan War! – reduced to womanish acts can certainly give us – or at least an elitist 17th century audience – something to laugh. At one point or another, all the principal characters are referred to as women, meaning weak. The comedy or the satire, as with the scene quoted above, lies in the fact that the derogatory deeds that make these characters “womanish” are peaceful acts.

Troilus speaks these lines because he is too much in love to fight.

The Greeks are strong and skilful to their strength,
Fierce to their skill and to their fierceness valiant;
But I am weaker than a woman’s tear. (I.i)

Patroclus says to Achilles, when the latter refuses to fight:

To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you:
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man. (III.iii)

And in the same scene Achilles says:

I have a woman’s longing,
An appetite that I am sick withal,
To see great Hector in his weeds of peace. (III.iii)

This almost sexual depiction of Achilles (his woman’s longing to see Hector) is so grossly altered from the Achilles Homer paints that we cannot help but laugh. And upon reflection we discover that we are laughing at, or perhaps put off by, the idea that these brave heroes are discussing peace and cordiality – that they dare bring Aristotelian morals into the Trojan War! What does this say about us?

Before I further this trajectory, I want to make a brief foray into the subject of women, the actual women of this play, not the feminine qualities of the men. There are two major female characters – Helen of Troy, and Cressida – and two minor ones – Cassandra and Andromache. And while the men are bemoaning their womanish states, the women either have power in this play or long for it.

In the first scene, the bitter Troilus remarks, after hearing once more of Helen’s fairness:

Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair,
When with your blood you daily paint her thus. (I.i)

Troilus is here picking up a common conception: blame Helen. She is the cause of the Trojan War: she is the reason so many die. But this notion of Helen elevates her above all the supposedly superior men in this play, past manhood to a god-like status. She seems to command all around her, they do as she wishes. Only Hector in Act II, scene ii briefly suggests surrendering her.

Cressida is the most interesting of the four females. She is often overlooked in discussions of Shakespeare’s women. She does not manage to reach as high as Viola and Rosalind, despite that her wit is as sharp as Violas (she does not match Rosalind.) I think it is her inconstancy, particularly when she so blatantly betrays Troilus that turns us away from her. She is Desdemona if Desdemona was as Iago paints her. But she is a wit, and outwits all the men around her, until she finally succumbs to Diomed.

PANDARUS

Do you know a
man if you see him?

CRESSIDA

Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him.

PANDARUS

Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.

CRESSIDA

Then you say as I say; for, I am sure, he is not Hector.

PANDARUS

No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.

CRESSIDA

‘Tis just to each of them; he is himself.

PANDARUS

Himself! Alas, poor Troilus! I would he were.

CRESSIDA

So he is. (II.ii)

This banter continues for some time as Cressida parries Pandarus’ foolish remarks. When she is alone she is able to be a woman and admits her true feelings to us, but in the presence of men she must arm herself and prove (successfully) that she is stronger than they are.

ULYSSES

May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?

CRESSIDA

You may.

ULYSSES

I do desire it.

CRESSIDA

Why, beg, then.

ULYSSES

Why then for Venus’ sake, give me a kiss,
When Helen is a maid again, and his.

CRESSIDA

I am your debtor, claim it when ’tis due.

ULYSSES

Never’s my day, and then a kiss of you. (IV.v)

Here she is presented to the Greeks, and outwits them all, including Ulysses is Homer what Falstaff is to Shakespeare.

But then of course Cressida falls: she betrays her love and promise to Troilus and blames the act on the fact that she is a woman.

Helen surpasses the men by spurring on their sense of glory and honour: Cressida outwits them. The other two women derive their power through prophecy. The mad Cassandra raves about the destruction of Troy: she is dismissed for being mad. Andromache tells Hector she had a dream that he would die: she is dismissed for being a woman. As with all prophecies and curses in Shakespeare, the audience knows that what is said will come true, despite how much the characters may doubt it. “Beware the Ides of March” says the Soothsayer: we know then that Caesar will fall. The fact that these prophecies are given to the women furthers this play’s attempt to reverse the established notions of power that exists within the world of the Iliad.

With weak men and strong women we begin to say that Shakespeare has turned the battlefield of Troy into a topsy-turvy world in order to strike blows against the baser parts of humanity, but also to bring some comedy into what should be a tragic story. We might liken the nature of this play to Twelfth Night, composed immediately before or after Troi. Twelfth Night: where servants rise beyond their means, where stewards can dream of being counts, where a fool is a priest &c. Troi: where Achilles and Hector are cowards, where Cressida can outwit Ulysses, where the Aeneas and Diomed can praise each other and swear good fortune to the other &c. When we are dealing with a world flipped on its head, what happens to the Fool: the notorious outsider who is supposed to bring chaos into order? Feste remains on the side of light-heartedness but is he? Spurned by Malvolio in Act I, he successfully gets revenge the end of Act IV:

But do you remember? ‘Madam, why laugh you at such
a barren rascal? an you smile not, he’s gagged:’
and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. (V.i)

It is as if Feste were the mastermind behind everything that happened to Malvolio – despite the fact that we know otherwise. If this makes Feste seem to have a spark of maliciousness, we need only to turn to Thersites to see how malicious a fool can be.

Ten points for anyone who can place Thersities within Homer’s Iliad! He appears once, in Book II, accompanied by this description:

A man of many words, and those unseemly; a monger of sedition, a
railer against all who were in authority, who cared not what he
said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh. He was the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy- bandy-legged, lame of one
foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His
head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it. (Iliad Book II)

Shakespeare took this figure and, picking up on the line “who cared not what he said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh” he turned Thersites into his fool, maintaining his deformity and obscene nature. Thersites is the most bitter of Shakespeare’s fools, exceeding Barnadine in Measure For Measure. Interestingly, Homer does not give Thersities a father’s name that he ascribes to most of the characters. In Ancient Greece this meant that he was a commoner as opposed to a noble, but Shakespeare takes this piece of information and decides that Thersities is a Bastard. And so he joins the ranks of the Bastard Faulconbridge, the Bastard John, and the Bastard Edmund. He is probably closest to John, but he does possess Edmund’s nihilism. He is also like Faulconbridge of Act II in King John, the Bastard who urged the kings to war and scorned the peaceful arrangement made at the end of the act. For in a world where the heroes struggle towards peace in the face of their already prescribed polemic fate, Thersites must be the outsider who hates peace.

We first see Thersites in Act II, scene i:

AJAX

Thersites!

THERSITES

Agamemnon, how if he had boils? full, all over,
generally?

AJAX

Thersites!

THERSITES

And those boils did run? say so: did not the
general run then? were not that a botchy core?

AJAX

Dog!

THERSITES

Then would come some matter from him; I see none now.

AJAX

Thou bitch-wolf’s son, canst thou not hear?

Beating him

Feel, then.

THERSITES

The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
beef-witted lord!

AJAX

Speak then, thou vinewedst leaven, speak: I will
beat thee into handsomeness.

THERSITES

I shall sooner rail thee into wit and holiness: but,
I think, thy horse will sooner con an oration than
thou learn a prayer without book. Thou canst strike,
canst thou? a red murrain o’ thy jade’s tricks!

AJAX

Toadstool, learn me the proclamation. (II.i)

This is not Touchstone or Feste: this is not the Fool who makes us laugh. This is the bitter Fool who hates all those around him. Agamemnon is incompetent and a coward; Ajax is beef-witted. The comedy comes, as it is does with the Fools, in the fact that he is right. Bitter and obscene as he is, the Fool speaks the truth. We might see Thersities as representing us, the audience. He puts into words our thoughts as we read/watch this play. “No! This is not Agamemnon, this is not Ajax! This is not how the story is supposed to be!”

We encounter this again in the scene between Cressida and Diomed. Thersities spies on Troilus as Troilus spies on Cressida, placing himself in the same seat as us, the observers. His lines are such: “How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and
potato-finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!” and “Now the pledge; now, now, now!” (V.ii). Even as Cressida tries to fight against Diomed and reject him, we are meant to know that this is not how the story ends, and that she does indeed give in to Diomed. Thersites is there urging the “natural order” on, filling in for our expectations.

Thersites is the fool – albeit a bitter fool – and thus he must make us laugh, right? He does not do so through wordplay as other fools do (including a servant in this play), but through his insults. And who doesn’t love a barrage of Shakespearean insults?

ACHILLES

How now, thou core of envy!
Thou crusty batch of nature, what’s the news?

THERSITES

Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol
of idiot worshippers, here’s a letter for thee.

ACHILLES

From whence, fragment?

THERSITES

Why, thou full dish of fool, from Troy.

PATROCLUS

Who keeps the tent now?

THERSITES

The surgeon’s box, or the patient’s wound.

PATROCLUS

Well said, adversity! and what need these tricks?

THERSITES

Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.

PATROCLUS

Male varlet, you rogue! what’s that?

THERSITES

Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!

PATROCLUS

Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
thou to curse thus?

THERSITES

Do I curse thee?

PATROCLUS

Why no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
indistinguishable cur, no.

THERSITES

No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle
immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet
flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s
purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered
with such waterflies, diminutives of nature! (V.i)

Despite his position, Thersites is still a Greek and still a part of the war. So there are places where he is forced into the action of the play, and here he becomes as cowardice as those he accuses.

THERSITES

Hold thy whore, Grecian!–now for thy whore,
Trojan!–now the sleeve, now the sleeve!

Exeunt TROILUS and DIOMEDES, fighting

Enter HECTOR

HECTOR

What art thou, Greek? art thou for Hector’s match?
Art thou of blood and honour?

THERSITES

No, no, I am a rascal; a scurvy railing knave:
a very filthy rogue.

HECTOR

I do believe thee: live. (V.iv)

This is a far more classic form of fooling, designed to make us laugh in the midst of a series of more tragic scenes.

In a chaotic world, the fool, instead of brining chaos to order, urges order to chaos. He makes laugh through his obscenities – as Homer describes – but his bitterness helps us to bear in mind that we expect tragedy and the comedy of this play is out of place.

Forgive the jumbled nature of these analyses, but they are meant to show how difficult it is to piece this play together. The central conceit of everything presented here is expectations and what happens when they are shattered. We know that the characters cannot escape their fates – those that Homer and Chaucer prescribed for them – but they do try. Cressida tries to be faithful; Hector and Achilles try to be peaceful. And this attempt to rail against their “Creator” so to speak is both comedic and off-putting, and we must rely on Thersites to remind us of how things ought to be. For we do not like to have our assumptions disturbed, we do not want Achilles to be a coward. And we do not want Hector to relent in the face of the Greeks, despite the fact that he presents an excellent case for doing so. So we may laugh at the foolishness of the characters in this play, but we are laughing at peace and righteousness. And then we find, upon reflection that is indeed the satire that courses through this play – that when we stop to think, we are all as bitter as Thersites.

Copyright ©, 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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