Troilus and Cressida The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 11,110 words.)