Troilus And Cressida (Vol. 27)
TROILUS AND CRESSIDA
For further information on the critical and stage history of Troilus and Cress ida, see SC, Volumes 3 and 18.
Troilus and Cressida has traditionally been considered one of Shakespeare's most problematic works. Its ambiguous nature has been apparent ever since its earliest publication, when it was designated as a history on the Quarto title-page, a comedy in the Quarto epistle, and a tragedy in the Folio. In recent decades the question of genre has continued to exercise commentators, with many scholars asserting that the play is best viewed as a satire. Troilus and Cressida has, moreover, been recognized as perhaps Shakespeare's most intellectually rigorous drama—a work constantly engaged in the task of reassessing traditional concepts and values. Consequently, modern criticism has tended to focus on the play's unique use of language, especially as a means of portraying character.
Contemporary scholars maintain that Shakespeare primarily uses two forms of language in Troilus and Cressida: the language of love and the language of war. In particular, critics have commented on the discrepancy between the emotions that the title characters feel for each other and their failure to communicate them. Lawrence D. Green (1984), for example, has noted that "Troilus tries consciously to maintain the stance of one smitten with noble love, but the stance is not in accord with his actions or the cruder attitude that emerges in his less conscious moments." Similarly, R. A. Foakes (1971) has pointed out that Cressida's "flippancy and wit in conversing with Pandarus are a means of defence against his pressure on her to yield to Troilus; and yet at the same time her readiness to engage in bawdy talk shows her familiarity in word and thought, if not in deed, with what he would bring her to do." Commentators have shown that the language of war, by contrast, possesses a much more formal tone, especially as demonstrated in both the Greek and Trojan council scenes. In examining the Greek discussions of strategy, Reuben A. Brower (1971) observed a pronounced display of pompous language, and characterized Agamemnon's opening speech as "the speech of a super-epic hero, whose 'promis'd largeness' of vocabulary and awkward Latinity are a smoke screen for an absence of thought." Brower additionally noted that other members of the Greek council are equally bombastic: "Ulysses speaks within the heroic tone, using proper forms of address and high-sounding epithets," and Nestor, "in pomp of rhythm and in epic dilations." Similarly, the Trojans, while devoting more attention to love and honor in their deliberations, are also preoccupied with achieving rhetorical effects. Robert Ornstein (1960) has called the debate between Troilus and Hector "purely theoretical, a courtly charade that ends with Hector's announcement that he has sent his personal challenge to the Greeks." Patricia Thomson (1969) has observed that Troilus speaks with command and determination when addressing his brothers, quite unlike his naive diction when talking to Cressida. The critic further notes that "though Troilus in the council scene is recognizably the same hyperbolist, … his language as lover undergoes a change when he is at last brought together with Cressida."
One of the most fertile areas of critical debate in recent decades has been the presentation of character in Troilus and Cressida. In speaking of Cressida, Arlene N. Oker-lund (1980) has observed that "until well into the twentieth century, something of a consensus of interpretation existed … Cressida was a prostitute deserving only scorn for the evils she perpetrated… , Troilus was a naive, but honorable young knight abused by that disreputable, fickle woman." Recently, however, commentators have begun to reassess these opinions. Critics now tend to defend Cressida as a sexual pawn in the mercenary world of the play, who can only find self-worth through the praises of men. Additionally, while Cressida's declaration, "Yet hold I off … Men prize the thing ungain'd more than it is" [I.ii.289], has traditionally been noted as proof of her sexual prowess, Howard C. Adams (1991) has recently maintained that Cressida's statement "is much more likely an echo of the kind of advice mothers used to, and perhaps still do, give to their virgin daughters." Scholars have also altered their opinions of Troilus. Previously portrayed as the victim of the story, it has recently been suggested that he is not innocent of Cressida's actions, but equally to blame. Commentators find him immature in regarding Cressida as a conquest, and fault him for quickly flinging aside the appearance of a courtly lover once he consummates his desire for her. John Bayley (1976) has observed that "the truth of Troilus's love is that it consists only in moments: the moment when he is giddy with desire and 'expectation whirls him round'; the moment when he sees Cressida together with Diomedes." Similarly, Hector has also experienced a reversal in reputation. Formerly the symbol of the supreme tragic hero, many critics now contend that his chivalric ideals were falsely rooted in his pride. While appearing to uphold all of the values of personal honor, Foakes has asserted that Hector's chivalric image "is tarnished in the Trojan council scene, where Hector's idea of honour is seen to dwell in fame and reputation rather than in morality."
Critics have varied widely in their assessment of the play as a whole, and many have remarked on its discontinuous and indeterminate character. David Horowitz (1965) has argued that Troilus and Cressida "presents us with a world in which there is an unbridgeable gap between fact and value, between actual human behaviour and the principles that men take to be binding upon their actions." Others have praised the drama for its experimental and seemingly modern treatment of a well-known story. Barbara Everett (1972), for example, has remarked that "what is peculiar about Troilus and Cressida is the degree to which the expressive self-containment of the old stories has been replaced by this activity of a quasi-modern 'consciousness.'" Despite its troubling aspects, most critics agree with the conclusion drawn by Brower, who stated that "although on a first reading Troilus and Cressida may seem more like an explosion than a unified expression, re-reading and reflection show that the explosion is not chaos, but a poetic drama of astonishing coherence and power."
Patricia Thomson (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Rant and Cant in Troilus and Cressida," in Essays and Studies, n.s. Vol. 22, 1969, pp. 33-56.
[In the following essay, Thomson studies the expressive rhetoric used in Troilus and Cressida.]
Questioning the Duke of Edinburgh's faith in 'Word-Power', an anonymous writer has recently asked: 'is not our own society, at least, one in which fluency remains a somewhat suspect achievement, in love as much as in politics?' Society under Elizabeth I, with rhetoric a recognized study in grammar school and university, was very much less sceptical. The modern reader may therefore sometimes, unhistorically, suspect a Word-Power in which Shakespeare believed. Henry V, for instance, exemplifies in council and in war the true eloquence of a leader whose thoughts and actions always match his words and whose 'sweet and honey'd sentences' are justly appraised as virtuous adjuncts of the royal character (Henry V, I. i. 50): on a priori grounds, if none other, an Elizabethan would probably resist L. C. Knights's opinion [in his Shakespeare: the Histories, 1962] that the speech before Harfleur is 'rhetorical in the bad sense'. Passionate rhetoric at passionate moments, Shakespeare's forte, holds its own throughout the Renaissance. What its study did make educated men of his time aware of was passionate rhetoric in excess of its occasion...
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Robert Ornstein (essay date 1960)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare," in The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, 1960. Reprint by University of Wisconsin Press, 1965, pp. 222-76.
[In the following excerpt, Ornstein discusses the significance of honor and chivalry in Troilus and Cressida.]
After the melancholy deeps of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure seem strange interludes of mockery and denigration, retreats from the tragedy of evil to the comedy of vice. They are problems if not problem plays, "un-Shakespearean" in temper and viewpoint, ambiguous in characterization. They seem to turn ideals of chivalry, justice, and mercy seamy side out. The lecher leers over the virgin's shoulder; the romantic idealist falls in love with a whore; one touch of nature in the loins makes the whole world kin. But they are not so much comical satires as dialectical dramas in the manner of Byron's Conspiracy; like Chapman's play they approach the issues of tragedy ironically and analytically, and thus engage the intellect more than the imagination. If by comparison to the Iliad and the medieval gestes of Troy, Troilus seems a mockery of heroism, it is not contemptuous of the virtues which men sacrifice at the altar of war. Behind the joke of Achilles' cowardice and Pandarus' aching bones lies a serious study of man's aspiration towards the ideal in love and...
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Myth And Tragedy
Douglas Cole (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "Myth and Anti-Myth: The Case of Troilus and Cressida," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 76-84.
[In the following essay, Cole examines Shakespeare's subversive treatment of mythic figures in Troilus and Cressida, asserting that "Shakespeare exposes the tendency of men to idealize their errors of judgment and their self-serving passions under the guise of heroic or chivalric myth."]
Though The Gods have little enough to do with the events of this play, I begin nonetheless with an invocation: to Ishtar, Babylonian goddess of love and war—whose worship involved ritual prostitution, and to whom Solomon (for all his wisdom) built a temple. Ishtar, even though Shakespeare could not know her, hovers as reigning goddess over the fields and chambers of Troy. Helen is her priestess, and Pandarus her prophet. Thersites plays the role of archetypal Adversary: "Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them!" (V. ii. 190-92).
Goddess or devil (as she had been for Marlowe's Faustus), Helen does take them. This "mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, love's invisible soul" (III. i. 31-32), becomes, in young Troilus' eager imagination, "a theme of honor and renown, / A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds … " (II. ii. 199-200), "a pearl...
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Carolyn Asp (essay date 1977)
SOURCE: "In Defense of Cressida," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXIV, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 406-17.
[In the following essay, Asp contends that Cressida's self-worth originates from the observations of others, emphasizing that her "identity and value are defined by the varying perceptions by which she is judged."]
Most critical opinion concerning Cressida leans toward an interpretation of her character as either shallow or calculating, or both. Certainly the text of the play itself hinders us from viewing her as the idealized queen of courtly love, the image of her that Troilus has fashioned for himself. Yet neither will it allow us to dismiss her as Ulysses describes her, merely "a daughter of the game." She is the major, although not the only, character who embodies the play's central metaphysical question: is value a quality intrinsic in the object or is it a variable, fluctuating with subjective appreciations and perspectives? Cressida's particular embodiment of the question can most effectively be analyzed by relating her to the philosophical and speculative issues raised by Ulysses in several of his speeches.
Ulysses's speech on degree (I,iii,75-137) ostensibly describes a cosmological, social, and psychological system in which value is determined by a fixed position in that system. This position is relative to that of...
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Bayley, John. "Uses in Shakespeare." In his The Uses of Division: Unity and Disharmony in Literature, pp. 185-210. New York: Viking Press, 1976.
Explores Shakespeare's use of satirical and rhetorical language in Troilus and Cressida.
Bednarz, James P. "Shakespeare's Purge of Jonson: The Literary Context of Troilus and Cressida." In Shakespeare Studies: Vol. XXI, edited by Leeds Barrali, pp. 175-212. London: Associated University Presses, 1993.
Examines the relationship between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and its effect on Troilus and Cressida, stating that "Shakespeare embeds his literary criticism of Jonson's poetics in Troilus and Cressida within a dramatic structure in which it constitutes a secondary semiotic system of contextual reference."
Brower, Reuben A. "The Pensive Man: Troilus and Cressida." In his Hero & Saint: Shakespeare and the Graeco-Roman Heroic Tradition, pp. 239-76. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Examines Shakespeare's use of metaphor and vocabulary in Troilus and Cressida, particularly "language that projects character while unfolding the poetic and dramatic design of the play as a whole."
Charnes, Linda. "'So Unsecret to Ourselves': Notorious Identity and the Material Subject in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida." Shakespeare Quarterly 40, No. 4...
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