Study Guide

Troilus and Cressida

by William Shakespeare

Troilus and Cressida Essay - The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida

The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida


The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida

David Hillman, Tavistock Centre, London

Ignorance in physiologicis—that damned 'idealism.'

Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo1

1. The Matter of Troy

Why did Shakespeare write Troilus and Cressida? Why, that is, did he turn his attention to a story that was so overdetermined as to have become, by the end of the sixteenth century, little more than a compilation of clichés? The Trojan story was enormously popular during the decades preceding composition of the play, and the most obvious motive suggested by this popularity is the play's commercial potential (written by an already-famous playwright, reworking material that was all the rage in contemporary London). While this motive is called into question by the Epistle attached to the play's Quarto in the second state,3 the pervasiveness and mass appeal of the matter of Troy was, I believe, nevertheless a decisive factor in Shakespeare's choice of this subject. For in placing these endlessly reiterated, rhetoricized, and textualized heroes onstage, he could not help but embody them;4 and the limning of these "unbodied figure[s]" (1.3.16) in flesh and blood presented a perfect opportunity to wrestle with the issue that, I will argue, lies at the very heart of the play: the relation between language and the body out of which it emanates. Both within the play and in the cultural milieu that produced it, Troilus and Cressida enacts a restoration of words, and of the ideals created out of them, to their sources inside the body.

The play thrusts both its protagonists and the audience back into the body, recorporealizing the epic of the Trojan War. The story's unparalleled canonicity created heroes of a deeply textual nature, protagonists who by Shakespeare's time had become little more than, in Rosalie Colie's words, "rhetorical and proverbial figure[s]."5 The play's "dependence on a prodigious literary and rhetorical legacy" entangles it (as most critics of the play agree) with issues of citationality and originality.6 When Shakespeare turns to the legend, he places the relationship between origins and citations at the core of his play. He does this by reintroducing, as it were, the substance or "matter" of the body to the "Matter of Troy." Indeed, the very word matter, often associated in Shakespeare with the interior of the body, recurs no fewer than twenty-four times in the play.7 The missing "matter" that Shakespeare reintroduces into the story is that of the truth of the body, which has been displaced over countless reiterations by something like pure citationality. "[T]ir'd with iteration" (3.2.174), the heroes' identities have become ever further removed from their material sources: the pun on tir'd (attired/tired) implies the increasing distance from the body, as if each retelling adds a layer of covering—a cover story—to the protagonists' flesh, with the overdetermined citationality that constitutes the "starv'd . . . subject" (1.1.93) of Troy rendering it disembodied, "pale and bloodless" (1.3.134). ("Troy" apostrophizes Spenser's Paridell, "[thou] art now nought, but an idle name."8). By the time Shakespeare comes to write the play, these post-Homeric heroes have all become "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart" (5.3.108).

Troilus and Cressida has often been described as being "consciously philosophical," as coming "closer than any other of the plays to being a philosophical debate."9 There is little physical action in the play; mostly there are rhetorical arguments about degree, about honor, about time and value. Yet the play is compulsively body-bound; from start to finish, its language is replete with imagery of the body's interior, the ebb and flow of its humors looking out at every joint and motive of the text. There is, I think, a powerful connection between the play's intellectuality and its unyielding corporeality, a link that can perhaps be best elucidated by glancing briefly at what Friedrich Nietzsche says about the relations between philosophy and physiology. Entrails, for Nietzsche, are inherently anti-idealizing, undercutting metaphysics and transcendent aspirations of any kind: going into the body lies at the opposite pole from going beyond it. As Eric Blondel writes, "it is in order to contrast an abominable truth to the surface of the ideal that Nietzsche speaks of entrails."10 Idealization usually involves a turning away from or repression of the messy truth of the body—toward what Agamemnon calls, in Troilus and Cressida, "that unbodied figure of the thought" (1.3.16)—or, alternatively, a conception of the body as a perfect, finished surface.11 But while the exterior of the body is easy enough to idealize, its interior has a rather more offensive, unsavory reality, as Nietzsche repeatedly points out: "What offends aesthetic meaning in inner man—beneath the skin:...

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2. The Satirist and the Cannibal

The ending of the Trojan legend, we might here recall, is inseparably linked to the idea of full intestines—to the Trojan horse, that is, with its bellyful of silent Greek warriors—a proverbial symbol of guile throughout the English Renaissance.24 Writers of the period persistently figured the potential for deceit as a potential gap between words and the bodies out of which they emerge. A story particularly popular in early modern England was Lucian's version of the tale of Momus and Hephaestus. In Hermotimus, or Concerning the Sects—a satire of all manner of philosophical schools and pretensions—Lucian relates the story of how Momus, mocker of the gods, judged a competition among Athena, Poseidon, and Hephaestus. To settle a quarrel among the three gods over which of them was the best artist, Momus is appointed to judge their creations; Athena designs a house, Poseidon a bull, Hephaestus a man. "What faults he found in the other two," writes Lucian, "we need not say, but his criticism of the man and his reproof of the craftsman, Hephaestus, was this: he had not made windows in his chest which could be opened to let everyone see his desires and thoughts, and if he were lying or telling the truth."25

Lucian—"the Merry Greek," as he was known to sixteenth-century Englishmen26—was a philosopher whose caustic, disillusioned perspectivism may well have influenced Troilus and Cressida directly (the epithet "merry Greek" is used twice in the play27; Shakespeare's comic satire shares with him a disenchantment with ideals, a deeply relativist attitude to questions of value, and a level of scoffing unparalleled elsewhere in the canon. But my interest here lies less in Lucian's influence on Shakespeare than in the way Momus's tale succinctly highlights a tendency that is central to satire in general and to Troilus and Cressida in particular. Momus's criticism of Hephaestus's man exemplifies a desire shared, in one form or another, by many skeptics and satirists: the desire to puncture pretense by revealing the body's innards. This skeptical impulse often takes the form of a desire to see into, or to open up, the body of the other. Troilus and Cressida partakes of this satirical tradition of figuring the puncturing of deceit and delusion as a puncturing of the body. The skepticism evinced by the play is itself described within the play in just such terms: "[D]oubt," says Hector, "is call'd / The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches / To th'bottom of the worst" (2.2.15-17).28

Such a penetrative impulse stems from an imagination of the interior of the body as capable of concealing an ulterior truth, a fantasy of the possibility of absolute knowledge of the other.29 In "The Inside and the Outside," Jean Starobinski discusses the origins of such a corporeal schema in its archetypal form. Turning back to Homer's Iliad—"one of the first poetic documents in which the censure of duplicity is given full and emphatic voice"—Starobinski quotes Achilles's rebuke to Agamemnon ("For hateful in my eyes, even as the gates of Hades, is that man that hideth one thing in his heart and sayeth another") and comments: "the doubling, the splitting which causes one thing to be hidden and another said . . . takes on spatial dimensions: what goes unsaid is actively hidden in the heart, the space of the inside—the interior of the body is that place in which the cunning man dissimulates what he doesn't say."30 The Iliad is, to be sure, a particularly effective place to look for such corporeal dimensions, as the exegeses of Bruno Snell and R. B. Onians have made abundantly clear: "emotional thoughts, 'cares', were living creatures troubling the organs in one's chest," writes Onians in elucidating the inseparability of body, mind, and soul in Homer.31 But the bodily schema Starobinski points to has been too tenacious over the centuries to be dismissed either as a manifestation of primitive or archaic thought or as merely a convenient metaphor.32

The explicitly somaticized nature of the urge to puncture deceit and delusion was never more evident than during the English satire-vogue of the final decade of the sixteenth century, a vogue to which Troilus and Cressida was Shakespeare's main contribution.33 "The Satyre should be like the Porcupine, / That shoots sharp quils out in each angry line, / And wounds the blushing cheeke," wrote Joseph Hall; and John Marston described the "firking satirist" as "draw[ing] the core forth of imposthum'd sin."34 The strong corporealization of the satiric impulse owes much to the materialistic habits of early modern thought (and to the centrality of the practice of anatomy in particular); throughout this period, whether the trope is one of injury, anatomical dissection, or medical purgation, both the penetrative drive and the target of this drive—the bodily interior of the satirized object—are practically explicit.35

"The Gods had their Momus, Homer his Zoilus, Achilles his Thirsites" writes the melancholy anatomist Robert Burton in his discussion of satirists and calumniators, adding that the "bitter jest . . . pierceth deeper then any losse, danger, bodily paine, or injury whatsoever."36Troilus and Cressida's chief satirist, "rank Thersites," pierces each and every one of the play's protagonists with his "mastic jaws" (1.3.73). As this last phrase indicates, the penetrative drive of satire can appear at the same time as an impulse to devour the object under attack—it often manifests itself in a specifically oral form of aggression; as Mary Claire Randolph writes, "Renaissance satirists frequently picture themselves as . . . sinking their pointed teeth deep in some sinner's vitals."37 This idea of oral sadism is a recurrent theme of satirists; it is often figured as a compulsion to bite. Marston, for example, writes that "Unless the Destin's adamantine band / Should tie my teeth, I cannot choose, but bite"; and Burton, quoting Castiglione, says of satirists that "they cannot speake, but they must bite."38 To say that the aggressive impulse of "byting" satire is predominantly oral is to approach redundancy (as Milton points out in dismissing Joseph Hall's "toothlesse Satyres": it is "as much as if he had said toothlesse teeth.")39 But there is in satire, over and above this oral aggression, an urge to devour—an urge, moreover, specifically directed at the human body. The satirist typically fantasizes not only penetrating the other's body but devouring it, as if entering this body is a concomitant of being inhabited by it. The derivation of the word satire—from the Latin satura, meaning "full, satiated"—points to this cannibalistic drive; as Walter Benjamin writes, in his essay on Karl Kraus: "The satirist is the figure in whom the cannibal was received into civilization." And, he adds, "the proposal to eat people has become an essential constituent of his [the satirist's] inspiration."40 The projective mechanism of satire, in this view, makes it both embody and thematize a cannibalistic urge, an urge epitomized by the delicious ending of one of the earliest Menippean satires, Petronius's Satyricon, where the rich Eumolpus bequeaths his wealth to his friends "on one condition, that they cut my body in pieces and eat it up in sight of the crowd."41

The misanthropic cannibalism of satire is glimpsed in Troilus and Cressida's relentless use of imagery related to food, eating, and digestion.42 And while this alimentary obsession has often been noticed, a distinct pattern emerges when we examine its figurative trajectory through the course of the play.43 The outline is one of more or less linear progression, from the early talk of culinary preliminaries ("[T]he grinding . . . the bolting . . . the leavening . . . the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating of the oven, and the baking" [1.1.18-24]; "the spice and salt that season a man . . . a minced man; and then to be baked with no date in the pie" [1.2.259-62]; the "bast[ing]" in one's "own seam" or grease [2.3.186]) and of "tarry[ing]," "starv'd" (1.1.15, 93), before the meal; followed by the promises of "tast[ing]" on the "fin'st palate" (1.3.337-38, 389), the readiness of the "stomach" (2.1.127), the "raging appetites" (2.2.182), and the preparation of "my cheese, my digestion" (2.3.44); then the "imaginary relish" (3.2.17) leading up to the meal itself, associated as it is with sexual consummation ("Love's thricerepurèd nectar" [3.2.20]); and thence to the "full[ness]" (4.4.3; 4.5.271; 5.1.9) and "belching" (5.5.23) of engorgement, of having "o'er-eaten" (5.2.159)—and the ensuing nausea, associated with the "spoils" (4.5.62), the rancid leftovers, the "lees and dregs" (4.1.63), the "orts [i.e., refuse] . . . / The fragments, scraps, the bits, and greasy relics" (5.2.157-58). In view of this, it would not be going too far to call Troilus and Cressida a bulimic play, one that evokes in its audience (as has often been noted in a general way) a reaction akin to the figurative nausea of the imagistic trajectory delineated...

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3. Cannibalism and Silence

Let him who has something to say come
forward and be silent!

Karl Kraus, "In these Great times"65

For all its grand rhetoric—or perhaps, more accurately, as a necessary concomitant to this rhetoric—Troilus and Cressida reveals an extreme distrust of (not to say disgust with) language. If the play leaves one with a sensation of satiety with words, it is likely that this sensation was one that Shakespeare, in coming to write the play, was himself unable to avoid. Many writers of the period comment on this dilemma, several of them using a specifically oral metaphor: George Whetstone declares that "the inconstancie of...

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