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 and in trite forms. In other words, rant and cant, of all kinds, 'in love as much as in polities', were highly suspect:
I see not one of these petty-ballad-makers, or prentisedogrell tymers, that doth not bumbast his labors with high swelling and heaven-disimbowelling wordes … It is natural, simple, and vnaffected speach that I love. (Montaigne, The Essayes, trans. Florio, 1603…)
The style-consciousness of the educated Elizabethan is well exemplified in Hamlet. He is a connoisseur of drama, delighting, though not uncritically, in an impromptu recitation. He is quick to detect the courtly cant of 'this waterfly' Osric, and, in a noteworthy passage, the wouldbe tragic rant of his rival Laertes:
O! treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Depriv'd thee of. Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.
Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.
(Hamlet, V. i. 253-61)
These histrionics at the grave-side of Ophelia create a sense of distrust, alienating sympathy where sympathy is in some part due. Though Laertes has some affection for his sister and some cause to hate her persecutor, neither is great enough to make his demand to be buried alive convincing. He is not fully sincere. He is emotional rather than passionate, so that his extravagant language, coupled with his theatrical leap into the grave, antagonizes the audience as much as it does Hamlet:
What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them
Like wonder-wounded hearers?
Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.
(V. i. 261-4, 284-91)
Troilns and Cressida, near neighbour in time to Hamlet, was written probably about 1601-2 and in print in 1609. It is at least equally alert to rant and cant, a fact which will seem the more appropriate if, as has been suggested, it was written for the educated, style-conscious audience of the Inns of Court. The publisher of the first quarto, who definitely aims at the intellectual lite, boosts it as the wittiest of Shakespeare's comedies, comparing it favourably with the best of Terence and Plautus. And if, in view of the catastrophes of Act V, it is difficult to follow him the whole way, the first four acts are, undeniably, 'passing full of the palme comicall'. The extremes of style, ranging from the grand verse and Latinate idiom of Agamemnon, Nestor and Ulysses to the colloquial and often bawdy prose of Cressida, Pandarus and Thersites, are easily noticed. But it requires a Hamlet or an Inns of Court man to tell us whether the former is as comic as the latter and whether the constant inflation and deflation should dispose us to react to the play as to Oh, What a Lovely War. Most difficult to gauge is the effect intended by some of the 'serious' verse, which is suspect as rant or cant not so much because it is ridiculous in itself as because it adorns a story unlike that of Henry V—a story of a futile war 'in a bad cause' (II. ii. 117). Again the rhetoric is sometimes like Laertes's in that it creates distrust and alienates sympathy; but we are not always sure whether, with his, it should be jeered unceremoniously out of court. Nevertheless, there are obviously laughable instances, as, for example, the inflated description of Helen, 'the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, love's indivisible soul' (III. i. 33-4), which is given by Paris's page immediately before she is seen on stage, for the first and last time, as a remarkably silly woman: 'Let thy song be love; this love will undo us all. O Cupid, Cupid, Cupid! ' (110-11) This suggests that, however rich in jokes appropriate only to the educated, Troilus and Cressida also relates to popular and ordinary comedy. Its effects are, in fact, found elsewhere in Elizabethan drama, and Shakespeare himself also here both builds on his earlier and anticipates his later practice. With these popular practices it is perhaps best to begin.
If the attack on the 'high swelling' and 'affected' was led by the educated, it was probably followed up by the uneducated: the witty asides of common men, Dick and Smith, puncture the theatrical pomposity, and hence the pretensions, of 'We John Cade, so termed of our supposed father' (2 Henry VI, IV. ii. 33). Besides, the most obvious form the attack takes, which is parody, was not, to judge by its prevalence in comedy, caviar to the general. The 'huff-snuff of Huanebango in The Old Wives' Tale is laughable, even if its particular targets, Stanyhurst and Harvey, are not distinctly recognized. The cant of knight-errantry with which Puntarvolo woos his wife in Everyman Out of his Humour is a popular Elizabethan joke. It recurs in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (c. 1609), which also parodies the rant of The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587), by then old-fashioned.
Rant and cant, throughout Shakespeare's career and whatever his audience, serve the purposes of his comedy and satire. The parodies of antiquated dramatic bombast in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Henry V substantiate criticism through laughter. Bottom in 'reles' vein', though innocently funny, also exposes his own vanity and folly. Pistol, with the same vices in more objectionable form, exposes his character as chief of the 'three swashers' who follow the warrior king to France through such fake 'Senecan' verbosity as
'Solus' egregious dog? O viper vile!
The 'solus' in thy most mervailous face;
The 'solus' in thy teeth, and in thy throat,
And in thy hateful lungs, yea, in thy maw,
And, which is worse, within thy nasty mouth!
I do retort the 'solus' in thy bowels.
(Henry V, II. i. 48-53)
The joke at the expense of absurd characters is sometimes amplified by mimicry. 'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!' (The Merchant of Venice, II. viii. 15): Solanio ridicules Shylock's excesses by an imitation so accurate that, though its effect is similar, it is hardly to be classed as parody.
These ranters anticipate Ajax, most foolish of the many fools in Troilus and Cressida:
Agamemnon: Give with thy trumpet a loud note
Thou dreadful Ajax, that the appalled air
May pierce the head of the great combatant
And hale him hither.
Ajax: Thou trumpet, there's my purse.
Now thy lungs, and split thy brazen pipe;
Blow, villain, till thy sphered bias cheek
Outswell the choller of puffed Aquilon.
Come, stretch thy chest, and let thy eyes spout
(IV. v. 3-10)
Agamemnon's praise of this 'dreadful' Greek champion is obviously as ironic here as it has been earlier (II. iii. 147-9), and, to match it, his order is intentionally inflated. Ajax, vain and stupid enough to miss the mockery, answers in kind: in the only book-length study of the play's style [Karen Schmidt di Simoni, Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," (I960)], his rant is justly compared to Pistol's. It is the more absurd in its context, for, as the deflator Ulysses remarks, 'No trumpet answers' (12). There is a long pause, filled with the frivolous arrival of Cressida, before Hector, delayed by her departure from Troy, arrives to keep his appointment with Ajax. A further anti-climax follows, for their duel rapidly dissolves into friendly back-slapping: 'the issue is embracemenf (148). So passes, as part of a great comic scene, Ajax's brief and only moment of verbal glory. For usually he is inarticulate, capable of little more than vituperative exclamations (as in II. i), of crude threats provoking his friends to mocking asides (II. iii. 200 f.), and of the meaningless 'Hum!' and 'Ha!', so brilliantly mimicked by Thersites when he 'puts on the presence' of this 'languageless … monster', who 'raves in saying nothing' (III. iii. 247 f.).
The intelligent, by contrast with the fools, make rant, with mimicry or parody, weapons of mockery. Falstaff in 'King Cambyses' vein' is much less innocent than Bottom in reles', for he is also guying King Henry's vein (7 Henry IV, II. iv. 382). In impudence and lse-majest he anticipates those more dangerous rebels against authority and order, Achilles and Patroclus. Ulysses alerts the Greek leaders to the dangers of faction by means of an uncomfortably vivid description of Achilles 'mocking our designs', applauding the 'ridiculous and awkward action' with which Patroclus 'pageants us':
Sometime, great Agamemnon,
Thy topless deputation he puts on,
And, like a strutting player whose conceit
Lies in his hamstring, and doth think it rich
To hear the wooden dialogue and sound
'Twixt his stretched footing and the scaffoldage,
Such to-be-pitied and o'er-wrested seeming
He acts thy greatness in; and, when he speaks,
'Tis like a chime a-mending; with terms
Which, from the tongue of roaring Typhon
Would seem hyperboles. At this fusty stuff,
The large Achilles, on his pressed bed lolling,
From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause,
Cries 'Excellent! 'tis Agamemnon right!
Now play me Nestor: hem, and stroke thy beard,
As he being dressed to some oration.'
(I. iii. 151-66)
Once roused, Achilles can also behave 'like a strutting player' himself. Reducing Hector's challenge to 'trash', he seems on the verge of pageanting its chivalric terms (II. i. 120-5). More distinctly, in his message to Ajax, he out-tongues 'roaring Typhon' in an attempt to discredit the persons and manners he despises:
Tell him I humbly desire the valiant Ajax to invite the most valorous Hector to come unarmed to my tent, and to procure safe-conduct for his person of the magnanimous and most illustrious six-or-seven-times-honoured captain-general of the Grecian army. Agamemnon et cetera. (III. iii. 272-7)
Nevertheless, being less clever, witty and good-natured than Falstaff, Achilles succeeds chiefly in discrediting himself as a sarcastic and therefore unreliable commentator. His own crude mimicry of the high style, with Patroclus's 'fusty stuff, resembles its extreme opposite, the low railing of Thersites, in one respect: most of the mud slung bespatters the slinger. His travesty of Agamemnon as a futile hyperbolist is to be classed with Iago's equally despicable one of the eloquent and just Othello, who has, supposedly, vociferated in favour of the wrong officer,
with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff d with epithets of war.
(Othello, I. i. 13-14)
This is not to deny that Achilles and Iago do damage. Unfortunately, everything, including the noble dignity of Agamemnon's and Othello's utterance, is grist to the mill of these cynics.
The grist in Agamemnon's case is that, especially in the council scene, that is, when a state of emergency is under discussion, he speaks too nobly:
Why then, you princes,
Do you with cheeks abashed behold our works,
And call them shames, which are indeed nought
But the protractive trials of great Jove
To find persistive constancy in men?
(I. iii. 17-21)
The same is true of his senior councillor Nestor, who always tends, in any case, to echo the voice of the last speaker:
With due observance of thy godlike seat,
Great Agamemnon, Nestor shall apply
Thy latest words. In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men, etc.
(I. iii. 31-3)
Robert Kimbrough's objection [in his Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' and its Setting, 1964] that Agamemnon's speech is 'aloof, learned' is acceptable, but in adding that it 'signifies very little' he goes too far for some readers. The speech, arguing cogently that true virtue does not blench at misfortune, is by no means all sound and fury. The speaker urges his philosophy, as G. Wilson Knight points out [in The Wheel of Fire, 1959], 'with warmth and feeling', and this more moderate and sympathetic judge is surely right to stop criticism short with the observation that Agamemnon betrays a 'somewhat impractical mind'. Again, Nestor's speech, though in the nature of an elaboration of Agamemnon's and learnedly adorned with allusions to Boreas, Thetis, Perseus and Neptune, is far from senseless, so that it is not really satisfactory to sum up the scene at this stage in the words 'All is rant so far—but rant majestically phrased'. These speeches can perfectly well be read as samples of Elizabethan Word-Power inspired by moral feeling, amiss only in that they are ill-adjusted to the military situation seven years after the beginning of the siege of Troy. Perhaps they reflect something of the war's protraction, and, in view of the whole action of the play, Agamemnon and Nestor are certainly right to stress chance rather than man's initiative as the operating power in human affairs. In view of the military situation, however, the scene is certainly subject to criticism, even to ridicule, as too slow-moving. Even Ulysses cannot immediately quicken its tempo. Indeed, he chooses, probably deliberately, to slacken its pace yet further, with those sixteen turgid lines of compliments which form the only sound basis for Achilles's jeer: after the ceremonies of
Thou great commander, nerve and bone of
Heart of our numbers, soul and only spirit
(I. iii. 54-6)
and so on, we are inclined to anticipate the arch-enemy's 'et cetera'. Ulysses then ventures upon his famous oration on order in the commonwealth, and so gradually brings the Greek leaders down to matters nearer home than 'great Jove'. Ulysses's 'degree' speech, which is too well known to quote, has itself recently evoked such differences of opinion that one wonders whether, for example, Karen Schmidt di Simoni [Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida'. Eine Sprachlichstilistische Untersuchung, 1960], admiring its virtuosity and brilliance as a speech of state, and Brian Vickers [The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose, 1968], denigrating it as 'portentously diffuse', have been reading the same text. The disagreement, which matches the current one on the whole issue of Word-Power and fluency, can probably not be settled—or could only be settled with the assistance of an original member of that hypothetical Inns of Court audience. Recognizing such commonplaces in Ulysses's political idiom as bees, planets, diseases and storms, he might be more prone than the ill-educated to think the speech platitudinous, which is the first step towards classing it as political cant comparable with today's 'nerve centres' and 'grass roots'. On the other hand, why should he not relish a genuine rhetorical urgency in the manner in which the speaker adapts commonplace ideas so long-windedly expounded by one of his predecessors? Compare the Archbishop of Canterbury's argument for division of labour in the commonwealth—
for so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds;
Which pillage they with merry march bring
To the tent-royal of their emperor.
(Henry V, I. ii. 187-96)—
with Ulysses's pointed rhetorical question:
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected?
(I. iii. 81-3)
Furthermore the message is not unimportant, for Agamemnon needs to be reminded that he is not 'like the hive': this is a way of warning him that his leadership, unlike Henry V's, is ineffective. Nor is it to the point to contrast Ulysses's 'degree' speech with the later speech in which he urges Achilles to take Time by the forelock (III. iii. 145-89). In each case he argues ad hominem. Ironically, he succeeds in neither: Agamemnon does not become a strong leader, and Achilles's 'drowsy blood' is aroused, in the end, not by speeches but by the slaughter of Parrochas and the Myrmidons (V. v. 32-3). Ironies, however, do not turn speeches into speechifying. The dying John of Gaunt's advice to Richard II is not the less eloquent in that it passes unheeded.
The difficulty in knowing whether to take the various moral, political and military speeches as genuine or as phony oratory is only a little less great on the Trojan side. Even Hector, next to Ulysses the most persuasive speaker in the play, is suspect on one occasion. His argument, deduced from the 'moral laws of nature and of nations', for the return of Helen is as pressing and as little inclined to rant or cant as Ulysses's 'Time' speech. Yet it must seem hollow in view of the 'roisting challenge' which he has already sent to the Greeks, and, more particularly, in view of his immediate volte-face:
Is this in way of truth. Yet, ne'ertheless,
My sprightly brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still;
For 'tis a cause that hath no mean dependence
Upon our joint and several dignities.
(II. ii. 188-93)
Such undermining makes utterances, sound in themselves, seem like rant. The effect is comic and deflationary, because Hector produces an anti-climax, speaking and acting against the noble convictions he has nobly expressed. His words cannot be taken seriously in context. Solemn as they are, they have no resonance within the play. Hector never speaks again with quite the same moral fervour. For he has voluntarily joined his irrational younger brothers, condoning Troilus's youthful storming about the worthless Helen:
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.
(II. ii. 199-202)
His case is, in its way, pathetic. For just how strongly, in his heart, this greatest of the Trojans resists flamboyance of speech, is shown by his regret when Achilles momentarily goads him into it:
For I'll not kill thee there, nor there, nor there;
But, by the forge that stithied Mars his helm,
I'll kill thee everywhere, yea, o'er
and o'er. You wisest Grecians, pardon me this brag:
His insolence draws folly from my lips;
But I'll endeavour deeds to match these words.
(IV. v. 254-9)
Fortunately, the play gives Hector a second chance on a lower moral plane. For if he has repudiated those 'moral laws' in which as a good Aristotelian he believes, he is at least allowed to act in accordance with the chivalric standards on which his self-respect as a gentleman depends. This knight errant has, however, his tongue in his cheek when he phrases his 'roisting challenge' to the Greeks.
Hector's challenge, delivered by Aeneas, provides the play's most notable example of the distrust created even by the suspicion of rant. Agamemnon's suspicions resemble Olivia's when she is assailed by Viola's rehearsed speech on her 'Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty' (Twelfth Night, I. v. 174-5):
Aeneas: Which is that god in office, guiding
Which is the high and mighty Agamemnon?
Agamemnon: This Trojan scorns us, or the men
Are ceremonious courtiers.
(I. iii. 231-4)
Here, it seems, is 'the tongue of roaring Typhon': Aeneas, without quite being 'saucy', is play-acting in the Achilles-Patroclus vein to which Agamemnon has at last been alerted. Agamemnon has his usual difficulty in tuning in to the immediate occasion. But once he has done so, he good-naturedly weighs in in the required idiom. This idiom, a popular laugh-raiser, is, simply, the rant and cant of knight-errantry. For, even when allowance is made for the influence of Shakespeare's medieval sources (Chaucer, Lydgate, Caxton), he can hardly have intended this otherwise than as comic rant and cant:
Aeneas: If there be one among the fair'st of
That holds his honour higher than his ease,
That seeks his praise more than he fears his
That knows his valour and knows not his fear,
That loves his mistress more than in confession
With truant vows to her own lips he loves,
And dare avow her beauty and her worth
In other arms than hers—to him this challenge!
Agamemnon: This shall be told our lovers, Lord
If none of them have soul in such a kind,
We left them all at home. But we are soldiers;
And may that soldier a mere recreant prove,
That means not, hath not, or is not in love!
(I. iii. 265-72, 284-8)
Ulysses caps it with a wry 'Amen'.
The 'ceremonious courtiers' of Troilus and Cressida are sometimes suspected of using meaningless cant terms which, in serious contexts, are perfectly acceptable, if common, social coinage. One such term is the complimentary 'sweet'. Gertrude shows decorum and delicacy when she calls Ophelia 'sweet maid', as does Horatio when he calls Hamlet 'sweet prince' (Hamlet, V. i. 252; V. ii. 359). On the other hand, the affected Armado makes it silly by overuse throughout Love's Labour's Lost, especially in his mincing talk with the courtiers he is unsuccessfully aping (V. ii). Pandarus does exactly the same in his inane boudoir-style conversation with Helen: 'Sweet queen, sweet queen; that's a sweet queen, i' faith … What says my sweet queen, my very very sweet queen?' (III. i. 71, 79-80). Again, when Thersites debases this term he makes Hector sound insincere and Menelaus sordid:
Hector: Good night, sweet Menelaus.
Thersites: Sweet draught: sweet quoth 'a! sweet
sink, sweet sewer.
(V. i. 73-5)
Pandarus and Thersites both, in their different ways, do damage to words, along with the things words signify. These two not only lack dignity in themselves but destroy dignity in others: this is also part of their function in the main love story.
The love story of Troilus and Cressida relates more particularly to Shakespeare's idiom in his romantic comedies. In these his problem is to retain sympathy for the woeful lovers and belief in their sincerity, without inducing so deep an involvement that laughter and happiness are altogether banished from the auditorium. Here the rant and cant of love serve constantly and successfully to preserve the comic tone in serious—or what could be serious—moments of passion:
Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love:
And thou, thrice-crowned queen of night, survey
With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above,
Thy huntress' name, that my full life doth sway.
(As You Like It, III. ii. 1-4)
Orlando, like Shakespeare's other young men in love, unwittingly strikes conventional attitudes. And, though his attitudinizing creates no distrust so disturbing as Laertes's, it too is subject to ridicule. The audience cannot but share in the amused mockery, the slight disillusion, at 'that fancy-monger', who 'abuses our young plants with carving "Rosalind" on their barks; hangs odes upon hawthorns, and elegies on brambles; all, forsooth, deifying the name of Rosalind' (III. ii. 358-61).
The hero of Troilus and Cressida is, at the outset, a similar comic hyperbolist and deifier of his mistress. The 'dexteritie, and power of witte' admired by the publisher of the first quarto are never more apparent than in the opening scene, a comic come-down after the 'Prologue armed', with the love-sick Troilus discovered unarming:
Why should I war without the walls of Troy
That find such cruel battle here within?
(I. i. 1-2)
'Cruel battle', an Ovidian-Petrarchan cliché, immediately marks out another Elizabethan 'fancy-monger'. It is only the first of a series of cant terms and stock hyperboles of love, all of which are rendered more absurd by the tetchy Pandarus's puncturing, down-to-earth comments in prose. Troilus's invocations to the gods are high-wrought poeticisms:
O gods, how do you plague me!
(I. i. 96)
Tell me, Apollo, for thy Daphne's love.
(I. i. 100)
Love as a sea voyage (I. i. 51-3), as madness (53), as disease (55), as a wound (64), is familiar from the pages of that old Elizabethan favourite Tottel's Miscellany, whence Troilus could also have filched the phrase 'doubtful hope' (106). Pandarus's detailing of Cressida's 'eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice' (56), of which Troilus complains, followed by his own attempt to find ideal terms of comparison (57-61), is reminiscent of an Elizabethan catalogue of beauties, such as Spenser's Amoretti, no. 6. Pandarus's prosaic comparisons—'An her hair were not somewhat darker than Helen's', etc.—are obviously not good enough for a hyperbolist such as Troilus, who objects to such things as Cressida's beauty or Priam's greatness being weighed in 'a scale/Of common ounces' (II. ii. 27-8). So one of Shakespeare's favourite jokes occurs here in the extravagant eulogy of Cressida's hand:
O, that her hand,
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach, to whose soft
The cygnet's down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the plam of ploughman.
(I. i. 57-61)
Orlando swears 'by the white hand of Rosalind' (As You Like It, III. ii. 390-1). But it is Berowne who best exposes, by forswearing:
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise,
Three-pil'd hyperboles, spruce affectation,
[Love's Labour's Lost, V. ii. 407-8)
to which he adds, with significant jocularity:
and I here protest,
By this white glove,—how white the hand, God
Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express'd
In russet yeas and honest kersey noes.
Troilus has not, however, yet reached the russet and kersey stage, and, left alone by Pandarus, is freer to soliloquize in the old vein. His final extravaganza (I. i. 97-102) has been correctly defined as in the Elizabethan sonnet style. To Karen Schmidt di Simoni's comments it need only be added that the merchandise image, with Cressida as 'pearl' and Troilus as 'merchant', is no exception. Its associations are not, as sometimes supposed, mercenary. They are as traditionally lover-like and romantic as those of Spenser's 'Ye tradefull Merchants' (Amoretti, no. 15). It is not Troilus, but Pandarus, who is to talk of 'a bargain made' (III. ii. 96).
Though Troilus in the council scene is recognizably the same hyperbolist, with Helen taking Cressida's place as his 'pearl' (II. ii. 81), his language as lover undergoes a change when he is at last brought together with Cressida. Pandarus's chatter introduces a dumb-struck Troilus. 'You have bereft me of all words, lady' (III. ii. 53) is a phrase borrowed from Bassanio, who so receives Portia's declaration of love (The Merchant of Venice, III. ii. 176). And in both cases Shakespeare's psychology is sound. It is not merely that the moment of victory is overwhelming, or that effusiveness would be tasteless, but, as Pandarus says, 'Words pay no debts, give her deeds' (III. ii. 54). Successful lovers hardly need words, much less rant and cant. But Troilus goes further in his first dialogue with Cressida, which is, significantly, a dialogue in prose. 'Few words to fair faith' (III. ii. 94): so anxious is he to establish himself as the epitome of the 'plain and true' lover, that he damns as monstrous the usual lover's vows, with all their ludicrous rant and cant:
Troilus: … in all Cupid's pageant there is
presented no monster.
Cressida: Nor nothing monstrous neither?
Troilus: Nothing but our undertakings, when we
vow to weep seas, live in fire, eat rocks, tame
(III. ii. 73-7)
It is typical of Cressida's comparative shallowness as a lover that she should almost immediately mistake Troilus's silence, which lasts while she 'blabs' of her feelings:
See, see, your silence
Cunning in dumbness, from my weakness draws
My very soul of counsel.
(III. ii. 131-3)
She thinks that she has put herself in the power of this silent man. But there is nothing cunning in Troilus's dumbness. He is known to Ulysses, through Aeneas, as
Not yet mature, yet matchless-firm of word;
Speaking in deeds and deedless in his tongue.
(IV. v. 97-8)
Superficially this Troilus appears a very different person from the Troilus who, on occasions when there are no deeds to speak with, will rant and storm. In the parting scenes, he still manifests his 'plain and true' character, though with an increasing verbosity. True, his reaction to the news that Cressida must leave Troy is, especially when contrasted with her hysterical rant, notably restrained:
Is it so concluded?
How my achievements mock me!
I will go meet them.
(IV. ii. 66, 69-70)
Yet it is interesting to observe how, carried away by his fixed idea of truth, he actually lands himself in the logical and verbal untruth characteristic of rant:
Troilus: Hear me, my love: be thou but true of
Cressida: I true! how now! what wicked deem is
Troilus: Nay, we must use expostulation kindly,
For it is parting from us.
I speak not 'be thou true', as fearing thee,
But 'be thou true' say I, to fashion in
My sequent protestation.
(IV. iv. 58-62, 65-6)
In other words, 'be thou true' is merely a rhetorical flourish meant to introduce Troilus's plan to make Cressida 'nightly visitation' in the Greek camp; and again, when he repeats it, to introduce a vivid contrast between his simple self and certain crafty 'others':
I cannot sing,
Nor heel the high lavolt, nor sweeten talk,
Nor play at subtle games—fair virtues all,
To which the Grecians are most prompt and
Whiles others fish with craft for great opinion,
I with great truth catch mere simplicity;
Whilst some with cunning gild their copper
With truth and plainness I do wear mine bare.
(IV. iv. 85-8, 103-6)
This eloquent and persuasive talk in favour of 'mere simplicity' has its own literary history. Though it would be unfair to term it a kind of cantless cant, or to summon 'honest Iago' in evidence, this is certainly a highly sophisticated way of projecting sincerity. Sidney is its expert, differentiating the inarticulate Astrophil, who 'never dranke of Aganippe well', from the fluent hyperbolists, who are by implication less sincere. (Astrophil and Stella, no. 74). Shakespeare himself repudiates the 'strained touches rhetoric can lend' in favour of 'true plain words by thy true-telling friend' (Sonnet, no. 82). He makes Henry V's wooing sound the more genuine in that this uncourtly but well-meaning soldier professes to have 'no cunning in protestation' (Henry V, V. ii. 147). By contrast Bertram, as vociferous as he is dishonourable, earns his rebuke from Diana:
Tis not the many oaths that makes the truth,
But the plain single vow that is vow'd true.
(All's Well that Ends Well, IV. ii. 21-2)
In his portrait of Troilus 'plain and true' Shakespeare has not, therefore, departed from recognizable Elizabethan love conventions. He has them much in mind. Indeed, with careful deliberation, he incorporates both his lovers into the rhetoric of love poetry in the splendid troth-plighting episode, where, time suspended, they make themselves 'the bases of automatic similes':
True swains in love shall in the world to come
Approve their truths by Troilus. When their
Full of protest, of oath, and big compare,
Want similes, truth tired with iteration—
'As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as earth to th' centre'—
Yet, after all comparisons of truth,
As truth's authentic author to be cited,
'As true as Troilus' shall crown up the verse
And sanctify the numbers.
(III. ii. 172-82)
'Full of protest, of oath, and big compare': the words bring a distinct reminder of the comic cant of fancymongers. In this scene Pandaras, too, preserves the comic tone amidst the splendour, as with a heavy bump he brings the transcendental lovers down to the here and now:
Pandaras: Say 'amen'.
Pandarus: Amen. Whereupon I will show you a
chamber with a bed.
(III. ii. 203-7)
'O withered truth' (V. ii. 47): Cressida's destruction of Troilus's ideal, banishing the spirit of comedy, also transforms his idiom again. The process begins in the scene of his disillusion, where Ulysses and Thersites watch him, as he watches her, flirting with Diomedes outside the tent of the traitor Calchas. This is peculiarly tense because what would be a full spate of rant is choked back by the situation and the onlookers:
Troilus: O plague and madness!
Ulysses: You are moved, prince; let us depart, I
Lest your displeasure should enlarge itself
To wrathful terms. This place is dangerous;
The time right deadly; I beseech you, go.
Troilus: Behold, I pray you!
Ulysses: Nay, good my lord, go off;
You flow to great distraction; come, my lord.
Troilus: I pray you, stay; by hell and all hell's
I will not speak a word.
(V. ii. 36-42, 44-5)
It is slow to break free even when Cressida and Diomedes have departed. For, at first, Troilus's tirade on Cressida's unfaithfulness is blocked by Thersites's sneer:
Troilus: Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think we had mothers…
Ulysses: What hath she done, prince, that can
soil our mothers?
Troilus: Nothing at all, unless that this were she.
Thersites: Will a' swagger himself out on's own
(V. ii. 129-30, 134-6)
With Thersites replacing Pandarus as unofficial commentator on the progress of Troilus's love affair, the tone inevitably becomes more critical. Through his eyes the hero is seen as a swaggerer or blusterer, who refuses to believe the evidence of his senses.
The transformation of Troilus's idiom is complete when he enunciates a hatred of Diomedes equal to his love for Cressida:
Not the dreadful spout
Which shipmen do the nutricano call,
Constringed in a mass by the almighty sun,
Shall dizzy with more clamour Neptune's ear
In his descent, than shall my prompted sword
Falling on Diomed.
(V. ii. 171-6)
Henceforward he is nothing but a passionate and terrible ranter who continues to provoke disgust, alarm or dismay. 'Fie, savage, fie!' is the chivalrous Hector's reaction to his furious speech:
The venomed vengeance ride upon our swords, Spur them to ruthful work, rein them from ruth.
(V. iii. 47-8)
'My lord, you do discomfort all the host' is Aeneas's apt rebuke on hearing him agonize over Hector's death:
Frown on, you heavens, effect your rage with
Sit, gods, upon your thrones and smite at Troy!
(V. x. 7-8)
These notions are so exaggerated as to be misleading, and Troilus has therefore to re-explain his outlook in terms of vengeance:
You vile abominable tents
Thus proudly pight upon our Phrygian plains,
Let Titan rise as early as he dare,
I'll through and through you.
(V. x. 23-6)
And, finally, Pandarus is left smarting under Troilus's whiplash:
Hence, broker lackey! ignomy and shame
Pursue thy life, and live aye with thy name!
(V. x. 33-4)
Cressida's language, which contains far less rant and cant than Troilus's, is relevant here mainly as an offset to his. For, except in the troth-plighting, in a speech the exact rhetorical counterpart of his (III. ii. 182-95), she is practically never pitched in his key. In the first place her natural medium is lively, colloquial prose, so that there could hardly be a greater contrast between her entre in the second scene and her lover's in the first. Thus, unlike Troilus, she plays Hamlet to Pandarus's Polonius, being wittier than both in, for example, the handling of comparison:
Pandarus: Troilus is the better man of the two.
Cressida: O Jupiter! there's no comparison.
Pandarus: What, not between Troilus and
Hector? Do you know a man if you see him?
Cressida: Ay, if I ever saw him before and
Pandarus: Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.
Cressida: Then you say as I say; for I am sure
he is not Hector.
(I. ii. 59-66)
(Compare the ensuing exchange on the complexions of Troilus and Paris, 92 f.) In this long dialogue, Cressida's language is a means not of expressing but of disguising feeling. That she does, after all, love Troilus is not revealed till Pandarus has left:
But more in Troilus thousandfold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar's praise may be.
Yet hold I off: women are angels, wooing;
Things won are done—joy's soul lies in the
That she beloved knows nought that knows not
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
'Achievement is command; ungained, beseech.'
(I. ii. 285-94)
There is a violent jolt in this shift to stiff couplets, which, however, still serve to maintain both the contrast with Troilus's fluent blank verse and the reserve Cressida intends. Reserve is too polite a word. Cressida's feminine technique of keeping a man on the boil by being hard to win is worthy of nothing superior to the third book of Ars Amatoria, and her devotion to it is shown by her remorseful repetition, much later, of the 'Yet hold I off motif:
You men will never tarry.
O foolish Cressid! I might have still held off,
And then you would have tarried.
(IV. ii. 15-18)
Again, her glib generalizations, those 'maxims out of love', are a habit not to be discarded even in the moment of near commitment: 'They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able' etc. (III. ii. 83-4). Worst of all, those wooden couplets return to inhibit the expression of passion in her very last utterance:
Troilus, farewell! One eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! this fault in us I find,
The error of our eye directs our mind:
What error leads must err—O, then conclude
Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude.
(V. ii. 107-12)
Thersites's instantaneous parody—
A proof of strength she could not publish more,
Unless she said 'My mind is now turned whore.'
(V. ii. 113-14)—
underlines the passionless platitudinousness of this manner of speaking.
Cressida lacks heart. At her first meeting with Troilus, she veers between 'holding off and 'blabbing'. Aposiopesis is the natural rhetorical result of the fear of speaking out operating upon the pressure to do so:
Troilus: O Cressida, how often have I wished
Cressida: Wished, my lord? The gods grant—O,
Troilus: What should they grant? What makes
this pretty abruption?
(III. ii. 60-5)
Immediately after the daring of a moment's surrender, when Cressida speaks out plain and true—
Boldness comes to me now and brings me heart:
Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day
For many weary months
another 'pretty abruption' signals renewed quailing:
Troilus: Why was my Cressid then so hard to
Cressida: Hard to seem won; but I was won, my
With the first glance that ever—pardon me.
There follows intense regret—'Why have I blabbed?' (123)—with constant correction, modification or negation of what she says:
In faith, I lie!…
… Stop my mouth.
My lord, I do beseech you, pardon me.
'Twas not my purpose thus to beg a kiss.
(120, 132, 135-6)
She even corrects the whole of her 'large confession', with the suggestion that it was not 'love' but 'craft'; that is, it was a trick to angle for Troilus's thoughts (152-54). Very different is Troilus's own form of rhetorical correction (epanorthosis), which is, naturally, a form of hyperbole:
And when fair Cressid comes into my
So, traitor! 'When she comes!'—When is she
(I. i. 32-3)
Cressida becomes a ranter, temporarily, at precisely the moment when Troilus is most restrained. When the news that she must leave Troy comes, she embarks on a routine of lamentation, invoking the gods, refusing to go, weeping, sobbing, threatening to tear her hair and scratch her cheeks (IV. ii. 84 f.). Her re-entry, after a short interval, shows her to be as great a sensualist in grief as Troilus is in love. Compare his anticipation of love—
Th' imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense, etc.
(III. ii. 18-19)—
with her response to Pandarus's plea for moderation:
Why tell you me of moderation?
The grief is fine, full, perfect, that I taste,
And violenteth in a sense as strong
As that which causeth it. How can I moderate it?
If I could temporise with my affection,
Or brew it to a weak and colder palate,
The like allayment could I give my grief.
(IV. iv. 2-8)
Both employ to good effect the play's predominant metaphor of tasting. Both experience emotion as sensation, and therefore both transmute emotion into terms of sensation. Cressida's grief is, literally, sensational. And if this is psychologically convincing, it is also dramatically necessary. Cressida's immoderate expression of grief prepares for and emphasizes the depravity in her immediate desertion of Troilus. After this no one takes what she says seriously:
O, these encounterers, so glib of tongue.
(IV. ii. 58)
And let your mind be coupled with your words.
(V. ii. 16)
Words, words, mere words; no matter from the
(V. iii. 108)
Men as different as Ulysses, Diomedes and Troilus are agreed in the final verdict on Cressida's 'words'.
'Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail' (V. x. 44): Pandarus's curtain speech, a comment on his own failure, also serves to dismiss the passionate rhetoric of love which Troilus has wasted upon so worthless a 'pearl' as Cressida. The passionate rhetoric of hate which has displaced it renders him no less sympathetic a character than he was before. Yet, ceasing to be a comic hero, Troilus has not become a tragic one. His exit leaves us aghast, 'Like wonder-wounded hearers', grateful even for such emotional refuge as the amiable but unedifying Pandaras is able to offer.
R.A. Foakes (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare and Satirical Comedy," in Shakespeare, the Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to Celebration, University Press of Virginia, 1971, pp. 7-62.
[In the excerpt below, Foakes examines the presence of satire in Troilus and Cressida and analyzes the "three strands which interweave to create the pattern and tonality of the play": war, love, and humor.]
Plays which balance on the knife-edge of satire are especially liable to thematic and tonal misreadings, but attention to the dramatic shape and context of Troilus and Cressida confirms the view of the commentator in the quarto that it is 'passing full of the palm comical'. It is to simplify too crudely to suppose that Shakespeare wrote this play directly within a convention of 'comical satire' as established by Jonson, but it does seem clear that he learned much from Jonson and Marston, using techniques they had developed in a rich and subtle expansion of the satirical mode. So Shakespeare plays his own variations on the satirical figures invented by Jonson: Asper, the just man, truly evaluating men and their actions, becomes Ulysses, but with the difference that he has a place in the action, and his assertion of authority as a wise man is undermined continually by the expediency of his actions; Carlo Buffone is translated into Thersites; and the pretender to virtue, Macilente, who is contaminated by his own envy, and so becomes something of a malcontent, may be detected in Achilles, and perhaps, more comically treated, in Ajax. The new techniques of Marston are also exploited in Troilus and Cressida. The whole play carries an element of general parody in relation to the grand Homeric legend of the Trojan war, as the heroes of that are displayed in the fumbling and insecure postures of Shakespeare's characters. Like Marston in Antonio and Mellida, Shakespeare also here establishes and exploits a dislocation of character from role, and a discontinuity between speech and action in, for example, the presentation of Ajax, or of Troilus, whose grand rhetoric as lover is comically exploded by the matter-of-fact practicality of Pandaras—he wishes, so to speak, to play Romeo, but neither his character nor the action sustain him in this role, and the effect is satiric.
By such means Shakespeare maintains throughout the play a note of satiric detachment; no character is allowed to win sufficient prominence or sympathy to dominate the stage, and the whole action is built up by ironic juxta-positioning and comic counterpointing, and punctuated by the satiric commentary of Thersites. In concentrating on the structure and tonality of the play in what follows, I shall comment only indirectly on some important aspects of its themes and ideas, which have been much discussed in a general way; I mean, for example, that clash of values which may be seen thematically as a conflict between politics, represented by the Greeks, and ethics, represented by the Trojans, and which is developed more subtly in terms of clashes within the Greek position between the grand theories enunciated by Ulysses and others, and the cheap tricks tried out on Achilles. Within the Trojan position too there is a clash between ideals of heroism and honour, and the practical application of these in action. I shall also say little about the important contrasts between perspectives of time in the play—the contrast between that sense of the immediate compulsions of practical life—as these demand fighting, or the sudden return of Cressida to the Greeks in the shadow of the comment by Paris, 'There is no help; the bitter disposition of the time will have it so' (IV.i.50)—and that eternity to which Cressida appeals in swearing to be true:
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallow'd cities up…
This concern with time is especially important in Troilus and Cressida because so many of the characters have an existence independent of the play, as their names evoke the heroic values associated with the Iliad, and the legend of Troy as this has filtered through the imagination of Europe. Shakespeare consciously plays off Pandaras, Troilus and Cressida against our knowledge of what their names stand for in III.ii, when they join together to cry, in Pandar's words, 'let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between Pandars' (III.ii.198); but the legend carries through to us also the idea of Helen as the most beautiful woman in the world, of Hector and Achilles as great heroes, and so on. The action of the play is measured in part against this larger consciousness possessed by the audience.
Within the action there are three strands which interweave to create the pattern and tonality of the play, and which culminate in what is perhaps the most curious feature of Troilus and Cressida, its three endings. These strands are set off against one another, and contain within themselves discontinuities and sardonic juxtapositions which affect sooner or later the stance taken by each of the main characters. The first and perhaps most obvious strand is the heroic, for the prologue promises a play about war, whatever the title suggests. He comes on stage 'suited In like condition as our argument', which is to say in armour, to inform us that the play begins in the middle of 'these broils' of the siege of Troy:
Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are:
Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war.
In this war action, or rather heroic action, for no battle takes place until the last act, Hector comes nearest to being the model for a tragic hero. He comes near enough for our discomfort, but there is a final discontinuity or incongruity between character and role in the presentation of him. He is praised on all sides for his virtue and nobility, from the moment when he is seen returning from the battlefield in I.ii; and this nobility is seen in action when he brings the single combat with Ajax to an end to praise his adversary, and when later he has Achilles at his mercy and lets him go (V.vi). This is the Hector described by Nestor:
And I have seen thee,
As hot as Perseus, spur thy Phrygian steed,
Despising many forfeits and subduements,
When thou hast hung thy advanced sword
Not letting it decline on the declin'd,
That I have said to some my standers-by
'Lo, Jupiter is yonder, dealing life!'
This chivalric Hector, a godlike figure, deals life rather than death even on the battlefield. The image is not sustained, however, throughout the play; it 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. Knowing it is wrong for the Trojans to keep the stolen Helen, he yet proposes to retain her:
For 'tis a cause that hath no mean dependence
Upon our joint and several dignities.
He has indeed already at this point sent his challenge to the Greeks, claiming:
He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did couple in his arms,
so that the outcome of the debate among the Trojan princes is in a sense already settled. Hector agrees with Troilus in effect that Helen is 'a theme of honour and renown', but it is both a comic and harsh irony in the play that Hector alone fights for his mistress. Helen is seen holding back Paris from the battle, as Troilus appears in I. i rendered unable to fight because of the 'cruel battle' Cressida has brought about in his heart, and Achilles denies even Hector's appeal to him to engage in battle in order to keep a pledge made to his mistress Polyxena (V.i.40). The direct influence these themes of honour and renown have is to keep men from heroic activity, except in so far as Diomedes may be said to fight for Cressida when he wears her sleeve on his helm, but by that time (V.iv) she has become a theme of spite and revenge, not honour. Hector, by contrast, who challenges the Greeks in praise of Andromache, and fights with Ajax on her account, and who is the only figure in the play shown with a faithful wife, rejects her advice at the end, and goes to battle when she would have him stay. His heroic stance here, when he refuses to behave like Troilus and Achilles, and allow himself to be distracted from fighting by a woman, is undercut by our sense of his lack of wisdom in ignoring Andromache's prophetic powers. In his final weariness, he finds strength to hunt down a Greek merely to win a 'sumptuous armour':
Wilt thou not, beast, abide?
Why then, fly on, I'll hunt thee for thy hide.
Here Hector repudiates all that Nestor found in him, and in pursuit of 'honour' becomes a hunter after his kill, a mere butcher, and no better than the myrmidons of Achilles, who hunt him in turn.
It is hardly necessary to emphasize that Achilles, who, unlike the Homeric figure, has his followers slaughter the unarmed Hector, is still further from the idea of a hero. This is brought out in the confrontation of Achilles and Ulysses in III.iii, where Ulysses appeals to him to return to the battlefield and fight. The appeal is couched in terms Ulysses thinks Achilles will understand:
Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow
Where one but goes abreast. Keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue; if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter'd tide they all rush by,
And leave you hindmost.
Here the reasons Ulysses the politician gives for Achilles to fight reduce the idea of martial glory to joining the rat-race, or keeping abreast of fashion: 'The present eye praises the present object'. In this view ideals and principles go by the board, and honour is tied to 'emulation', or being competitive. Achilles is prompted by Ulysses to think, like Hector, of his reputation, but in a more narrow way:
I see my reputation is at stake,
My fame is shrewdly gor'd.
In any case, neither 'honour', nor 'reputation', nor even a direct rebuke from Hector:
I pray you, let us see you in the field;
We have had pelting wars since you refus'd
The Grecians' cause,
brings Achilles to the field. His oath to his mistress Polyxena is more important to him than all these:
honour or go or stay,
My major vow lies here.
It takes the death of Patroclus, his 'masculine whore', if we can believe Thersites' description, to arouse him finally, and in Achilles there is no sense even of the possible grandeur of Hector. Indeed, he may be seen in a different relation to Jonson's humour figures from that suggested earlier, not as a distant relation of Macilente, but as standing to Asper-Ulysses like one of Jonson's humour characters; Ulysses endeavours to bring Achilles out of his humour of surly pride, and only succeeds in bringing Ajax into the same condition:
They set me up, in policy, that mongrel cur,
Ajax, against that dog of as bad a kind,
Achilles; and now is the cur Ajax prouder
than the cur Achilles, and will not arm
Troilus, the third possible hero, fights or refuses to fight according to his mood. Like Achilles, he has no loyalties larger than those to his mistress, and reduces the war to personal terms. When he sees Cressida in the arms of Diomedes, his reaction is characteristic—he will hate Diomedes, and pursue him on the battlefield, without regard to anything else:
As much as I do Cressid love,
So much by weight hate I her Diomed.
That sleeve is mine that he'll bear on his helm;
Were it a casque compos'd by Vulcan's skill,
My sword should bite it.
At the end, too, he thinks only of personal revenge for the death of Hector, transferring his hate to Achilles:
And, thou great-siz'd coward,
No space of earth shall sunder our two hates.
I'll haunt thee like a wicked conscience still.
The chivalric ideals Hector seems to stand for crumble into nothing in the violence of battle. The conduct of all three characters, Hector, Achilles and Troilus, is framed by two perspectives on honour or reputation. One is that of Ulysses, the apparent Asper-figure, whose wisdom is seen in fact to be confined within the limits of the practical politician, and revealed as in its way petty. In his advice to Achilles he urges:
let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating Time.
If this were true, there would be little point in bothering about 'honour' at all, or anything touching upon an idea of 'virtue', unless they brought immediate returns in the form of 'remuneration'. To Troilus, by contrast, Helen
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.
This is Troilus speaking in the full flow of his romantic ardour in the first part of the play, and thinking of fame as possibly enshrining his reputation in perpetuity; but, having this sense of 'renown', he throws it away in the reckless pursuit of revenge, first upon Diomedes, and then upon Achilles, losing sight of honour and magnanimity. Ulysses debases values and ideals for the immediate political gains he hopes to make, and Troilus sacrifices them in a personal vendetta.
A second strand in the action is that indicated by the play's title, and has to do with love. Troilus appears in the opening scene as a courtly lover absorbed in the war within his heart rather than the Trojan war; Helen may be a theme of 'honour and renown' to him, but Cressida is not, as she prompts him to disarm rather than inspiring him to noble deeds:
Call here my varlet; I'll unarm again
This opening line follows on a prologue promising a play about war, and already begins to suggest the degree to which Troilus's 'love' is in fact a passion, comparable in its romantic exaggeration and rejection of reason with his devotion to 'honour' in the Trojan council scene later. He confesses as much when he says to Pandarus:
I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid's love.
In this scene Troilus recalls Antonio in Marston's Antonio and Mellida, in that he seems set on acting out the role of romantic lover, and reminds himself of the proper mental attitude when his attention wanders for a moment:
At Priam's royal table do I sit,
And when fair Cressid comes into my
So, traitor!—'When she comes!'—When is she
A discontinuity is set up between the hyperboles of Troilus and the actual state of affairs; he cries out:
Tell me, Appollo, for thy Daphne's love
What Cressid is, what Pandar, and what we?
Her bed is India, there she lies, a pearl;
Between our Ilium and where she resides
Let it be call'd the wild and wand'ring flood;
Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar
Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark.
Here Troilus is, so to speak, writing his own speeches, and expanding his images as he talks, 'Let it be called … '; he does not do it very well, for the idea of a merchant buying a pearl, though it represents what in fact he is doing, contradicts the posture of romantic ardour. In any case, it is placed by its contrast with the language of Pandaras, and his image of manipulating the affair of Troilus and Cressida as if he were making a cake. The stance of Troilus contrasts also with the bawdy and flippancy of Cressida in I.ii, where she jests about him, with her 'What sneaking fellow comes yonder?', and calls Pandaras what in fact he is, a bawd (I.ii.273). Troilus's speeches do not issue in action, but leave him, like Antonio, prostrate, and when he goes off eventually at the end of I.i to fight, it is not for love of Cressida, or for loyalty to Troy, but only because Aeneas sufficiently distracts his attention from Cressida to draw him to the 'good sport' on the field of battle.
The romantic ardours of Troilus and his pose as lover bear little relation to what he really intends to do, namely to seduce Cressida. Both the passion and the intention are real and convincing, but we are aware, as Troilus is not, of the disconnection between them, which satirically places him, and makes him at times a comic figure. Cressida's love for him is just as 'real', and convincing, as it is expressed in her rhyming soliloquy at the end of I.ii; here the couplets following on a scene in prose, and the stance of Cressida confiding in the audience, are reminiscent of Beatrice bursting into quatrains when she confesses to the audience her love for Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, III.i, or Helena confirming her determination to win Bertram at the end of the opening scene in All's Well that Ends Well. Here she drops her flippancy to be earnest for a moment:
more in Troilus thousandfold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar's praise may be.
Yet hold I off.
In the context of this, her flippancy and wit in conversing with Pandaras 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.
One model Troilus and Cressida have for their 'love' is shown in III.i, the only scene in which Helen appears, jesting, as Cressida had done, with Pandaras, and preventing Paris from fighting, 'I would fain have arm'd today, but my Nell would not have it so' (III.i. 128). The dialogue here conveys a heavy sensual atmosphere. Pandaras enters to ask Paris to make excuses on behalf of Troilus, who will be supping with Cressida, not at court, and he at first mistakes the witty Servant's description of Helen as 'the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, love's invisible soul' (III.i.30) for a comment on Cressida. Helen teases him, caresses him, distracts him from his business by continual interruptions, enforcing perhaps the quibble on 'quean' in his words as he tries to disengage himself, 'Sweet queen, sweet queen, there's a sweet queen i'faith.… What says my sweet queen, my very very sweet queen?', and so on. She presumably returns to the embraces of Paris as they make him sing his song, 'Love, love, nothing but love … '; but the love in this scene is nothing more than 'hot blood, hot thoughts, and hot deeds', in the words of Pandarus, echoing Paris (III.i.125). The scene is gay and amusing, but the court of Troy is transmuted through this dialogue into a kind of high-class brothel, and love becomes another word for lechery.
This has an important bearing on what immediately follows, the coming together of Troilus and Cressida, brought to bed by Pandarus in III.ii to swear eternal loyalty and truth to one another, when on one level they are acting out another brothel scene. Their passion is real enough, conveyed in Troilus's hyperboles, and in Cressida's image of her loss of control:
I love you now, but till now not so much
But I might master it. In faith, I lie.
My thoughts were like unbridled children, grown
Too headstrong for their mother.
However, they do not realize how easily that love may become merely 'hot deeds'. The night over, Cressida is forced to go to the Greek camp in exchange for Antenor, and notoriously allows herself to be kissed by all the Greek warriors after Agamemnon has saluted her in this way; only Ulysses remains aloof, and provides a savage comment:
Fie, fie upon her!
There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
O, these encounterers, so glib of tongue,
That gives accosting welcome ere it comes,
And wide unclasp the table of their thoughts
To every ticklish reader! Set them down
For sluttish spoils of opportunity
And daughters of the game.
This is not a sudden transformation in her; from the beginning her language has been 'wanton', and Troilus has made her wanton in act. What she becomes is a reflection upon him as much as upon her, and reveals the distance between his 'honour' and 'love' as expressed in his romantic hyperboles, and a proper sense of values. In spite of the fine language, his love is on one level mere lechery; he has made Cressida his mistress, and if he could do it, why should not others? As for her, she follows the fashion of Helen and Paris, or Polyxena and Achilles, but especially that of Helen, with whom she is linked in III.i as 'the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty', and whose example she emulates, in adapting herself to her 'captor', Diomedes, as Helen has adapted herself to Paris. It is fitting that Troilus's love turns to spite against Diomedes, for the 'truth' he urges on Cressida before they part in IV.iv was no part of the initial seduction or compact with her.
A third strand in the action consists of the satiric and comic elements, focused primarily in the trick practised on 'blockish Ajax' in II.iii, and in the activities of Pandaras and Thersites. The sense in which Pandaras remains a detached observer and intriguer, contriving to bring Troilus and Cressida together as much for his pleasure as theirs, acting as voyeur and bawd, is important for establishing a critical perspective on this affair of 'love'. Thersites, who combines something of the malice of Macilente and the scurrility of Carlo Buffone, provides a sardonic chorus, which carries some weight, 'all the argument is a whore and a cuckold' (II.iii.68). Again, his comments accentuate the critical detachment with which the central figures are displayed. Pandaras seems to have little idea of love except in terms of sex, 'hot thoughts and hot deeds' ; and Thersites hardly conceives the possibility of love or loyalty, or heroism, so that neither of them can be trusted as a commentator, for their perspectives are evidently too limited. They command a degree of assent since what they say is in part borne out by the undercurrent of self-exposure in the presentation of the main participants in the play's action.
This undercurrent emerges in moments of splendid comedy, as, for instance, notably in the Greek council scene. There the great generals reveal themselves as wordy politicians grinding out parliamentary platitudes, and after their grand statements concerning the 'specialty of rule', they notoriously resort to a cheap trick to bring the sulking Achilles back on to the battlefield. Their rhetoric is exploded nicely on the arrival of Aeneas, bringing Hector's challenge from Troy. For all the talk of 'degree' in the council has turned on the proposition that Agamemnon,
Thou great commander, nerve and bone of
Heart of our numbers, soul and only spirit
In whom the tempers and the minds of all
Should be shut up,
ought to be obeyed, in effect, as king; moreover, the language of Nestor and Ulysses suggests that the stature and regality of Agamemnon are self-evident, for they address him continually as 'Great Agamemnon', and Nestor humbles himself in his opening words:
With due observance of thy godlike seat,
Great Agamemnon, Nestor shall apply
Thy latest words.
Whether 'seat' here means literally 'throne', or figuratively 'authority', makes little difference to the comic effect of the entry of Aeneas, who is either unable or unwilling to recognize this 'god in office':
A stranger to those most imperial looks
Know them from eyes of other mortals?
I ask that I might waken reverence,
And bid the cheek be ready with a blush
Modest as morning when she coldly eyes
The youthful Phoebus.
Which is that god in office, guiding men?
Which is the high and mighty Agamemnon?
The words and actions of Achilles, Patroclus and Ajax are at times close enough to the parodies of them by Thersites to speak home to us, and Ajax is made a general comic butt in his readiness to accept all praise. On the Trojan side, the affair of Troilus is kept at a level of witty detachment not only in the perspective Pandaras provides of it, but also in the self-exposure of Troilus, for the distance between his idealization of love and the reality of lust is made amusing as well as poignant. At the very moment when they are about to come together, he is borne off in imagination:
I stalk about her door,
Like a strange soul upon the Stygian banks
Staying for wattage. O, be thou my Charon,
And give me swift transportance to those fields
Where I may wallow in the lily...
(The entire section is 34564 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 6087 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 18212 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 9478 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 706 words.)