(Shakespearean Criticism)

Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and Cressida is regarded by many critics as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," principally because the major characters, such as the two lovers, are ambiguous, while characters like Pandarus and Thersites are positively unpleasant. Further, the ending to the play is irresolute, and the genre—whether tragedy or comedy—is difficult to establish. Rosalie L. Colie (1974) asserts that in Troilus and Cressida, "Shakespeare has attacked literature itself at its very source, turning upside down the Homeric values" by turning the myth into a satire.

Cressida's behavior and whether or not she is a sympathetic character have long been subject to debate. Arnold Stein (1969) suggests that her infidelity to Troilus results from her shallowness coupled with a lack of appreciation for past ties. On the other hand, Grant L. Voth and Oliver H. Evans (1975) describe Cressida as a realist who behaves in the only way she can when confronted by a corrupt society where, as Gayle Greene (1980) observes, both women and men are treated as pawns in a mercenary and relativistic wartime environment.

Conversely, while Troilus has in the past been regarded sympathetically as the betrayed, idealistic lover, René Girard (1985) dismisses him as "a remarkable example of bad faith" who feels betrayed by Cressida only after "he has pushed [her] into the arms of Diomed." Similarly, Stephen L. Lynch (1986) condemns Troilus for his egotism and "lack of self-knowledge."

Closely connected with the behavior of the two lovers is the theme of desire, which becomes problematic in its own right under the influence of the war being waged between Troy and Greece. As Carol Cook (1986) observes, the war intensifies desire through the objectification of women. Both sides, for instance, desire Helen of Troy—who has become their excuse for battle. Meanwhile, Cressida is desirable as an exchangeable commodity from one camp (that of the Trojan Troilus) to the other (the Greek Diomed and her deserting father, Calchas).

Inevitably within the setting of this problematical play, male and female characterization and desire become inextricable from and corrupted by the violence of war. Emil Roy (1973) and Lorraine Helms (1989) depict a feminine Troy under threat of "penetration" from a masculine Greece. Like Helms, Marianne Novy (1984) observes that, as a result of the war, love is replaced by lust, and men on both sides of the conflict seek to avoid "womanish" behavior and to prove their prowess violently whether it be on the battlefield or in their treatment and attitude toward women. Interestingly several critics, such as Eric S. Mallin (1990), have speculated that the clearly misogynistic tone of the play reflects the English people's anxieties about their future in light of their aging and childless queen, Elizabeth I. In connection with this, Mallin and other critics also focus on the homoerotic aspects of the play, where men like Achilles value the love of fellow warriors over that of women.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Arnold Stein (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Troilus and Cressida: The Disjunctive Imagination," in ELH, Vol. 36, No. 1, March, 1969, pp. 145-67.

[In the essay below, Stein examines Shakespeare's use of dramatic imagination in Troilus and Cressida, and places the play within the genre of tragedy, calling it 'our most helpful definition of the play. "]

The dramatic experience we get from Troilus and Cressida is hard to place in relation to our memory of the experience we get from other plays. I am thinking in particular of the unsparing consistency of this play, of its texture, of its dark side without depth or vehemence, of the general destruction that does not find significant victims. The play has about it the quality of a nightmare we have somehow got used to, because it was translated long ago into the familiar and the everyday.

We must make, as with any play, an effort to learn the particular language, and no matter how much is new, we may ordinarily count on the effective presence of the familiar and conventional; no poet invents a whole human history, as if his lovers and chivalric heroes were the first of their kind, existing apart from all human and literary experience. By Shakespeare's time the story of Troilus and Cressida had become little more than another famous example of bad human dealing, of betrayal in love. The audience would have been prepared to see a famous case of infidelity and would have quickly recognized that the background, in spite of its romantic antiquity and epic reputation, was no world of heroic struggle but a messy wrangle made of the same immemorial stuff as other human wrangles less honored in history. What they could not have been prepared to see, perhaps even less than a modern audience, was the scope of Shakespeare's plan, or the intensity and consistency of its execution. Materials that might have been merely good for laughs, ending in a raucous debunking, are carried too far and in certain ways too deep to be regulated by the ordinary conventions of comedy. Therefore, though we cannot avoid beginning with the anticipations of Shakespeare's audience, these anticipations will not tell us enough. They certainly will not give us any master cue to the genre of the play, which would provide our most important orientation.

A major method of this play is to draw certain themes back and forth between the two opposing camps. A minimal list would include these themes: war, honor, love, unity and division. The themes cross over and make combinations with each other. One could, for instance, describe the main conflict as a war of love, with Helen as motivating cause. But that war of love is inseparable from the cause of honor. Inside the main conflict are smaller and varied wars of love. Unity and division (personal as well as public) are the camp followers on both sides. And wherever we look away from the main theme we may see further combination, as those produced from love and time or from honor and time. Furthermore, these themes not only cross back and forth between the two camps, they join and confuse the two camps. Achilles has a Trojan sweetheart; Helen and Cressida are beloved on both sides; Hector and Ajax are relatives; the Greeks are rational and divided, while the Trojans are united in spite of reason.

All of these themes, whatever their degree of abstraction, also include what the characters think, feel, and imagine as they contribute their human response to the shaping of themes. In this play, however, the imagining is not intensely individual, as it is for instance in Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet. Nor is the nature of imagination itself a prominent theme, as it is in Hamlet and, to a lesser degree, in Antony and Cleopatra. Nevertheless, this play does exhibit, both by individual example and by general method, some distinctive uses of dramatic imagination. It is upon these that I propose to center my study.

We begin with two scenes in Troy, which are followed by two scenes in the Greek camp. That basic pattern will also, by way of variation, bring a Greek to Troy and Trojans to the Greeks. Cressida's bedroom, Achilles' tent, or Calchas' tent will furnish places that have a kind of extraterritorial status for special dramatic tensions. The first voice we hear is that of the nominal hero, Troilus. He is "complaining" in a language made familiar by Elizabethan poetry. An audience that knows in advance what to think of Troilus will find that language predictable and hardly to be believed in the terms offered.

Why should I war without the walls of Troy,
That find such cruel battle here within?
Each Trojan that is master of his heart,
Let him to field. Troilus, alas, hath none!

Then Troilus goes on to describe himself further: he is no match for the skill and valor of the Greeks, for he is weaker than a woman's tear,

Less valiant than the virgin in the night,
And skill-less as unpracticed infancy.

Given the conventions, it may be plausible for the lover to compare himself to a baby or to a timid girl in the dark; but it is also risky, and this is Troilus revealing himself before a knowing audience which has its preconceived notions of Troilus' infantile innocence, and is likely to greet with a smirk that reference to the valor of the virgin in the dark. There in a moment is a Troilus which the drama will never quite discard or outgrow. Shakespeare's emphasis and choice are clear and deliberate. Troilus will not graduate, like Romeo, from affected romantic to true romantic to tragic lover. Nor will he be converted, like Benedick, to an honorable folly of love.

Pandarus plays his obvious game of egging Troilus on. He works at it like a job, and is efficient. But as the play develops, it creates a superior efficiency and Pandarus becomes unemployed; Cressida will prove herself more efficient, and in less time will egg on Diomed and herself, by herself. Pandarus is funny; like Patroclus and Thersites he is a cynical clown. But Pandarus has a smaller and more specialized role: he is a clown whose one theme is love, which he thoroughly discredits, by name, action, and the flourishes of personality and speech. Later Shakespeare will let him develop a further specialization as he exhibits a pious sentimentality in the performance of his self-appointed office as vicar of the god of love. In the first scene the cynicism is already apparent and sets a tone that only a heroic love could ever escape from. (Enobarbus is as funny and cynical about Antony and Cleopatra and the follies of passion, but he never undermines the possibility of love; in fact, he provides a useful counter-voice without which what is triumphant in that love could not so believably prove itself.) Pandarus makes wonderful fun of the lover's need for patience, but when he is through with his joke on the process of preparing and enjoying love's cake, whatever dignity there was in the old ideal of patience has been demolished.

The view of love that has been asserting itself is one that later scenes will confirm; for in this play, unlike Antony and Cleopatra, it is the counter-voice which is triumphant and proves itself at the expense of love. Troilus reading out his role from the appointed texts of love is always a little off key, a little wrong in emphasis—and not with the forgivable silliness of the young Romeo. There is a kind of strain in Troilus' language and imagery which is not the product of excessive feeling over an ill-defined object; his language takes a turn toward violence that seems more literal and specific than fanciful and vague. We may not be able to diagnose what is wrong, but we are troubled when the lover declares that the beautiful attributes of his mistress are poured into "the open ulcer of my heart," or when he compares Pandarus' praise of Cressida to laying "in very gash that love hath given me / The knife that made it."

The scene reaches its climax with Troilus' passionate declamation:

Peace, you ungracious clamors! Peace, rude sounds!
Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.
I cannot fight upon this argument. . . .
Tell me, Apollo, 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 called the wild and wandering flood,
Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar
Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark.

Here we have our first direct pronouncement on the theme of imagination. Subject and object, cause and effect are joined in a cynical image: Helen's beauty is proved by men's cosmetic blood. Troilus rejects the big war of love as insufficient; he cannot believe in it. Then he produces a personal effort at imagination as he seeks, with a brief gesture toward Apollo, a knowledge of "What Cressid is, what Pandar, and what we." It is predictable that she be a pearl residing in India, the imagined home of riches. But the romantic excess of the image goes wrong; it is too self-conscious; even worse, it discredits its own integrity by making Pandar the ship, and by naming so definitely the goal: "Her bed is India." It is entirely proper to quote Romeo, for Troilus is trying to play Romeo's role. When Juliet asks how Romeo has found his way to her balcony, he replies:

By Love, that first did prompt me to inquire;
He lent me counsel and I lent him eyes.
I am no pilot; yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash'd with the farthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.

After the climax of the scene we have the conclusion; it is logical and in tone: it is anti-climax, a reversal of Troilus' complaints and declamation. The reversal is frivolous, and strengthens an impression the audience can hardly have missed: that neither Troilus nor the whole business can be taken seriously in the terms directly offered by the scene. There is "good sport out of town today," says Aeneas; Troilus expresses a token reluctance, and then he is off "to the sport abroad." We are not left with much belief in the upward course of events.

The second scene, played by Cressida and Pandar, completes our introduction to the love affair. In a long line of Shakespearean witty heroines Cressida is the only one whose wit shows a pronouncedly unrefined texture. The scene establishes her as the reluctant lady of romance, but the reluctance is merely fashionable, an old style brought up to date. The love between them is hardly ever presented without a quality of strained excess on Troilus' part. He seems overrefined, as from an effort to spiritualize the sensual, and he exhibits both the strain and a certain loss of distinctness. There seems to be some imminent threat that the spiritual will become sensualized. Cressida is presented differently, not by strain and excess but by defect. On this last I must keep something back for later discussion, but the immediate point should be clear. She is underrefined. The delicate shadows of immemorial feminine modesty and reserve are too plainly in her control, or at least partial control, as a tactic in the war of love. We miss the gradations of shadow that Shakespeare has taught us to expect in his heroines. Besides, we notice a kind of gross directness barely disguised. She has a trick, which might have provided Freud with useful examples, of slyly provoking immodest jokes at which then she can be embarrassed. Something in the climate of the play has aged both lovers, not as persons but as lovers, and before their time as it were. They begin older than Romeo and Juliet, and, arrested as they are, they have no hope of growing significantly older; they are even further from Antony and Cleopatra than they are from Romeo and Juliet.

These comments have already gone beyond the compass of the scene. Perhaps it will be useful to take one further step now and mention the parting of Troilus and Cressida, which occurs after the consummation of their love, at the moment when she is to leave for the Greek camp. Shakespeare could hardly scant a scene like this, and though strain and excess make their uncomfortable presence felt, in addition to the intrusive presence of irony, there are also moments of lyric feeling, chiefly provided by Troilus. These moments are not wholly clear and unmixed with anything else, but they are the best moments of their kind in the play and gain some unexpected power from that distinction. The "great truth" of Troilus' feeling may not, as he proclaims, "catch mere simplicity." There is—to apply two extrinsic standards—a quality in his concern that Romeo would not have known how to feel and that Antony would have brushed aside as ignoble. But truth there is, and simplicity, which we can neither wholly accept nor deny. We are not moved to any warm identification with Troilus, or with the truth of his feelings, which have the additional handicap of their object, but neither are we allowed to ignore or reject his own belief in his feelings.

The interview between Cressida and Pandar completes our introduction to the love affair, but the scene goes beyond the normal scope of an introduction. We advance to a still further stage when Pandar leaves and Cressida feels free to express herself more directly than ever again in the play. Her soliloquy is a strikingly candid statement concerning herself:

Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing.
Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.

What she says here and in the lines that follow suddenly points beyond the immediate theme of love's conflict and touches on further issues. We are not yet ready, however, to see these matters from an adequate perspective. We need to know more, and we begin to do so in the third scene.

The Greek leaders are introduced. The dominant figure is Ulysses, who talks magnificently. Agammemnon and Nestor serve chiefly to set the stage for his brilliant oration. Ulysses is the warrior of the mind, of the "still and mental parts / That do contrive how many hands shall strike." His plans command respect, and he is the spokesman for both immediate tactics and long-range strategy. The trouble is that nothing seems to work. He analyzes the causes of political division with a comprehensiveness which has been so much admired that it has been thought the central statement of the play, or at least Shakespeare's expressing his own deeply felt thought. But if the speech on degree is a central statement, why does it fall so flat as a dramatic issue, an episode of noble eloquence left high and dry, the action of talk? I have some suggestions to offer, and these concern the speaker's own relations with a dramatic issue. Most of the problems I am engaging center on Ulysses, and we shall return to the questions raised by this speech.

With the entrance of Aeneas bearing Hector's challenge we have the big war and the war of love brought together. After the strained romantic love of Troilus, and the calculating love of Cressida, and the speechmaking of Agammemnon and Nestor praising frustration as the proving ground of men's souls, and after Ulysses in praise of degree and wisdom, here comes the old-fashioned love hand-in-hand with honor and chivalry, as unself-conscious as if it had never left the center of the stage. It is a striking entrance, remarkably out of tone and character, whatever the rights of chivalric love to claim a place in this story.

Hector, in view of Trojans and of Greeks,
Shall make it good, or do his best to do it,
He hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did compass in his arms.

Everyone takes the challenge seriously and literally. Agammemnon, if he were humoring a madman, might reply as he does:

This shall be told our lovers, Lord Aeneas.
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!

The literal can produce its own jokes, and Nestor is as effective in making the wars of love preposterous as Helen or Cressida:

Tell him of Nestor, one that was a man
When Hector's grandsire sucked. He is old now,
But if there be not in our Grecian host
One noble man that hath one spark of fire,
To answer for his love, tell him from me
I'll hide my silver beard in a gold beaver,
And in my vantbrace put this withered brawn,
And meeting him will tell him that my lady
Was fairer than his grandam, and as chaste
As may be in the world.

Let us take inventory. Troilus moons about his feelings in a way that exhibits what is artificial and passé in the old-fashioned love; Cressida completes the demonstration. Then the Greek leaders meet in high council. Among them there is no lack of reference to noble principle. Their unsuccess is flattered as the kind of trial by which true merit is given opportunity to distinguish itself. Ulysses goes further, though with the ostensible purpose of advancing a practical plan: failure is analyzed in terms of the hierarchical principle, which is the key to order in all human affairs as in the universe. This principle has been neglected by the Greeks, and a special case is the lack of respect due the rational soul of man. There is a notable absence from their discussion of the formal purpose of the war, Helen, symbol of beauty, love, and honor. The principles brought out for display, however noble, seem to have their real reference to the problem of winning the war, and to nothing else. An odd and ironic disproportion appears between the eloquence, including Ulysses' grand statement, and what in effect they are talking about. Not that they need to debate, as the Trojans do, the symbol of Helen; but they do need some stable reference to keep this high talk, this philosophical calling of heaven and earth to witness, from going out of balance and drifting off detached. What Ulysses produces is a poem, or rather, a poetical oration; it exhibits Ulysses' power and, even more, it exhibits itself. Unless we choose to think Shakespeare himself carried away by his own eloquence, then we must admit the possibility that the dramatic effect of disproportion and detachment has something to do with Shakespeare's imaginative concept of the dramatic form. That the effect is deliberate seems apparent from the new disproportion now introduced, the love-theme, advanced by Aeneas in his Trojan ceremony of language and taken up by these former political philosophers as if they had never deviated from their conscientious duty as true soldiers of love. That Ulysses will turn the occasion to practical plan does not alter what has happened on the stage before our eyes and astonished ears. Within the variety and shrewd juxtapositions of the scene we have a third view of love and the war of love; its artificiality confirms and completes what we have seen in the two previous views. Individual love has been presented as false in individual ways, but now we have a public imagination of love that exhibits public agreement as profound mockery. The play has created a world in which the license of a Thersites cannot be revoked.

The Trojans also hold a formal council. Both the oratory and the discussion of philosophical principle are far simpler than among the Greeks. The Trojan council consists of a debate, but it is a family affair and rather tame, even though it involves the question of Helen, considered both as the practical subject of war and the symbol of honor. The Greek speeches are wonderfully noble, and dramatically irrelevant. That is, no significant action develops from them, and their dramatic significance cannot escape the shadow of this negative fact. The Trojan speeches are lighter in weight, and yet, ironically, they lie at the center of a dramatic action. For instance, the skeptical challenge by Troilus—"What's aught but as 'tis valued?"—is a declaration of total freedom for the imagination, and the play will provide a personal answer for Troilus. But Hector provides a general answer now, one which illuminates the whole issue of the individual and the public wars of love:

But value dwells not in particular will.
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein 'tis precious of itself
As in the prizer. Tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god.
And the will dotes that is attributive
To what infectiously itself affects,
Without some image of the affected merit.

That speech goes to the heart of the matter in a way that none of the Greek eloquence does. But it is an illumination that sets itself up against the whole world of the play, and it is doomed to be neglected.

There also is a philosophical contrast in the council; for in spite of the Greek superiority in power of thought and expression—a very great superiority—the Trojans do keep the immediate issue and its meaning in focus. Why are they fighting? Is their cause right? What does Helen really mean? No doubt we are to infer that the Greeks, divided though they are, never need to raise these questions: they raise only bigger and smaller questions. They are thoughtful men who take their mental operations most seriously. But when they have finished analyzing and philosophizing, when they have finished conceiving their practical strategy and have beautifully set it in motion, nothing happens according to plan, or in any way resembles the language they use or the ideas they deploy. Indirectly they experience what the Trojans demonstrate directly. Hector, the only man of sense in the Trojan debate, lightly gives up the argument he has won, surrenders both reason and the "truth" of his opinion, to side with the "spritely brethren" and to accept "the life of our design"—the feelings engendered by an unexamined idea of honor. Hector gives up reason with a gay flourish; the Greeks must watch unreason, without their leave, accomplish their task for them.

Ajax is imagined into a person of "value" by a crafty idolatry of "particular will," as the Greek leaders in a queasy comic scene praise him into the stature of Achilles. The hulking simpleton Ajax, athlete and ass, becomes a synthetic symbol of honor and dignity, as Ulysses, philosopher of order and degree, applies his craft to manipulating the system of which he is the eloquent spokesman. And then we are finally permitted a full view of Helen (III, i). To show her off properly she is accompanied by Paris and Pandar. "This love will undo us all," she says. "O Cupid, Cupid, Cupid!" And Paris: "Love, love, nothing but love." He has not gone to the war today: "I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would not have it so." We are left with no middle ground upon which the imagination may feel some pull and counter pull. We see instead an absolute gap between the emptiness of Helen the person and the attributes she has demonstrably acquired as a symbol. She represents no open question that real forces and persons can be imagined as engaged to refute or uphold. The "image" of Antony, Cleopatra's "dream," "nobleness of life"—these are such questions, and the dramatic answers do not strip them naked. But Helen is a mere casus belli, an arrested symbol that the war has outgrown. Even our laughter, as our dramatic interest, is directed at the utter disproportion, at the gap, at the disjunction between what she is and what she means. We may argue that drama should not do this, that it violates its own nature; but we are not likely to think that Shakespeare has blundered into his method by a failure to master the dramatic materials.

The climactic scene in the play is the one in which Troilus overhears Cressida and Diomed. Before coming to this, however, we need to consider that brilliant scene written, directed, and performed by Ulysses as he practices on Achilles the art he has demonstrated on Ajax. Instead of composing a false image of vanity, his purpose now is to discompose a real pride. He offers a variation on the theme that "value dwells not in particular will" but must be "precious of itself." It can be precious, Ulysses begins, only by the confirmation of the will, but not one's own will: no man feels what he owns

but by reflection,
As when his virtues shining upon others
Heat them, and they retort that heat again
To the first giver.

Achilles is not surprised by the idea; he is no Ajax and has picked up something of Greek school talk. He knows an example:

For speculation turns not to itself
Till it hath traveled and is mirrored there
Where it may see itself.

But he is not prepared for the degree to which the instance will be generalized, "That no man is the lord of anything . . . Till he communicate his parts to others,"

Nor doth he of himself know them for aught
Till he behold them formed in the applause
Where they're extended.

Then the generalization becomes particular again: Ajax has become the man of the hour, "by reflection."

These attitudes toward "reflection," traditionally associated with concepts of honor and glory, are extended by Ulysses to reality itself. Reality is considered as a kind of public imagination, the value that the "particular will" holds by the approval of the general will. The principle that gives license to this concept is not the hierarchical principle of Ulysses' previous oration. Rather, in Ulysses' exposition the reality of all human values is anchored in the flux of time:

For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigor of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.

What are we to make of the speech, taken by itself the most brilliant poetry in the play? It stands in direct opposition to the hierarchical harmony held out as a model for human emulation, the observance of order and degree as a means of achieving individual and social correspondence with universal reality. Instead we are offered a reality in which time is the dominating partner, and the only kind of order that may be achieved is a dynamic and precarious balance, the result of continuous individual effort. We are not required to judge these competitive views philosophically; the competition is dramatic. And here the results are plain: these two orations stare at each other in futile opposition and cancel each other out. Neither has positive dramatic resonance, though each has a measure of negative resonance which is the result of a striking disproportion that makes nothing happen, that turns dramatic interest to the excess itself and to the gap between what is said and what happens. The speech disturbs Achilles, though not in the controlled way Ulysses intends. The philosopher of order attempts to fight fire with fire and to promote the further disorder of Achilles as a means of reachieving proper degree and unity. But he fails, and both of his orated positions reveal themselves as inoperative. Only the negative side has dramatic relevance—that is, the violation of order and the rejection of the power of time cause things to happen. Achilles in his rage will outface "calumniating time" and will prefer the dishonoring of Hector to the honor of Achilles. The dramatic answer to Ulysses' two philosophical orations will be an orgy that brings about the final collapse of all order.

The scene which draws most complex materials together is in outline deceptively simple. Troilus, accompanied by Ulysses and Thersites, overhears Cressida and Diomed act out a sordid piece of courtship. The terms of the encounter are unmistakable, even if Thersites were not present to provide a reliable blow-by-blow account. It is a relentlessly realistic skirmish in the war of love; Troilus, endowed as he is with great resources of illusion, puts up a little struggle, but even he must surrender. Diomed is a simple dramatic tool, the soldier-lover who is blunt and direct at both occupations. He is complicated only by the minor irony of his harsh condemnation of Helen. Dramatically Diomed serves Cressida; that is, we are interested in what he says only as it affects her. Though he dominates her, she dominates the scene between them—partly by her seductive skill (used both on him and her), and partly by the minor conflict within her, but even more because she is one necessary center of our dramatic interest. We witness the action from the outer scene, and most of the conflict is provided by the conscious presence of Troilus. The dramatic axis of the scene, then, runs between him and Cressida. Troilus is a silent, invisible presence in the inner scene. Cressida is conscious of him, and Diomed's appetite is whetted both by the reflection in Cressida's mind and by his own direct interest in the identity of his rival. At the same time Troilus, in the outer scene, visibly participates in the whole process.

In the outer scene the occasion of Ulysses' presence must be thought one of the more challenging problems of the play—unless we are willing to be satisfied by the simple dramatic casuistry that nominates him as Troilus' guide to Calchas' tent. It would be most wasteful on Shakespeare's part, having so richly endowed Ulysses, to treat him now as a mere dramatic bankrupt, someone to point out a place or make up a stage quorum. The first step in considering why the play should require the presence of Ulysses is to examine his relationship with Cressida. Let us begin by turning to an aspect of her character which has not yet been brought forward for discussion.

Cressida responds to the sense of time in a particular way. Of the sleeve she says to Diomed, "Twas one's that loved me better than you will. / But now you have it, take it." She can work petty variations, but this is the basic theme that denotes her. The particular quality of her shallowness is that she is an ephemeral creature of the present with no intensity of attachment to the present. Underneath the show she is passive: "But now you have it, take it." She cannot imagine the past; it is not present. And what gives the present most claim is that she can imagine it as part of the future. The eye that persuades her heart to direct her mind is an eye that looks forward, not back. To have been better loved in the past exerts less claim on her feelings than to be worse loved in the future.

What is now explicit in this peremptory display of Cressida's nature received some earlier expression, but for the most part Shakespeare has chosen to present Cressida by dramatizing her reserve—not only the reserve she manipulates as a love tactic, but the reserve that prevents her from ever saying or doing what might register the feeling of her full presence. We become cumulatively aware of an unpleasant surface and no revelation of inner feeling. Helen is exposed in an instant, but Cressida is not exposed until now, though a concealment so prolonged, and the audience's familiarity with this plot, no doubt create the anticipation of an exposure. Shakespeare has, however, carefully placed two emphatic statements that concern her. Shortly before the present scene, and directly after the leavetaking in Troy, we have Ulysses' harsh but limited definition: "There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip." More important is Cressida's own revelation in the soliloquy which ends the second scene of the play:

Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing.
Things won are done, joy's soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows naught that knows not this—
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.

The immediate impression is that the speech amounts to no more than the pedantic boasting about technique by "one of the daughters of the game." The soliloquy ends a scene and ends it smartly but is irrelevant to any action concerning Cressida until four acts later. She does not, of course, "hold off much longer. Insofar as the speech reflects character it is transparent and single in effect—though one statement, "joy's soul lies in the doing," is less clear than at first it appears to be. But the speech does not merely express character; it is relevant to theme and promotes effects that are neither transparent nor single. Cressida leaves the stage for a considerable period, but what she has just said carries over indirectly into the very next scene.

There is an immediate connection that may be made between Cressida's account of the petty stratagems of love and the grand council of the Greek leaders. Agammemnon and Nestor present a masculine doctrine which translates Cressida's private and wholly personal position into positive, strenuous, and public terms. The chief ambiguity in her speech is that "joy's soul lies in the doing" can hardly mean in the doing now; it means enjoying the feminine power of holding off, because "Things won are done," because "Men prize the thing ungained more than it is." That is her contribution to the theme of imagination and value. For her it is the effort that gives value; what is precious is what the masculine "particular will," unsatisfied, imagines. Part of the ambiguity lies in the fact that by her terms the joy of "doing" is future for men and exists in their anticipation, but for Cressida the "doing" is a kind of present manipulation of the future. Agammemnon cites experience to prove that no human enterprise proceeds exactly according to the imagined plan "That gave 't surmised shape." Joy's soul, in his doctrine, lies in the trial, in the proving of distinction by perseverance against difficulties. Follow her speech with his, as the play does with no interruption, and the private feminine wile, the soft pleasure in personal power, may seem translated into a rationalized public principle to guide hard men in hard endeavor.

The lofty scope of Ulysses' oration on order and degree may seem to transcend the issue, but there is a connection. Degree is not just a philosophical paradigm, but is also basic to practical action: it "is the ladder to all high designs." Furthermore, degree has its personal and private import for Ulysses. Within the social and individual economy the highest rank, and therefore the true priority of power, belongs to the "still and mental parts." The intellectual energy of the central exposition conceals the point toward which he is driving, and besides he introduces a deliberately diverting local digression of some sixty lines—the disgraceful clowning of Patroclus to entertain Achilles—before he brings the point home. Joy's soul for Ulysses lies in the exercise of the higher faculties: in "policy," "wisdom," "prescience," in "the still and mental parts" that plan, measure, direct, in the "fineness" of soul that by "reason" guides the execution. If we regard the speech on degree as preliminary to the real point, the definition of the true priority of mental power, then we may substitute one word for all the expressions of the highest human degree: the word is Ulysses.

The point is left inconclusive. A trumpet sounds and Aeneas enters. It is not only the immediate point which is inconclusive. Infinitely more subtle and varied than Cressida, Ulysses nevertheless resembles her as he plays the bigger game, the public one for public stakes. Agammemnon's rationalization is ascetic and impersonal, intended to encourage, but plainly motivated by the need to explain away disappointment, past, present, and still probably to come. Ulysses, though on a grander scale and more indirectly, is like Cressida in being personal, at the disguised center of his speech. Though he analyzes the past and its consequences, his real orientation is toward the future. He too is a manipulator whose fullest enjoyment and self-expression lie in the process of controlling others. We see no more of his real person and feelings than we do of Cressida's, for he too is dramatized by reserve, and realizes himself only through his effect on others, and through speeches that detach themselves from the dramatic action with marvelous disproportion. Once, perhaps, he speaks his own feelings in his proper person when he harshly characterizes Cressida, whom he instinctively dislikes. We are not surprised at that. A great manipulator is duty-bound to despise a petty one. Ulysses suggests that everyone kiss Cressida, and then insultingly excepts himself. It is a minor action, entirely successful as a dramatic episode. It may also remind us how much of Ulysses' own commitment is to the future and how little we see him engaged in any present action. He is not passive toward the present, at least not as Cressida is, but his own joy also lies "in the doing." Like hers, it is an ambiguous "doing" which is to affect the present actions of others. The "soul" of his "doing" is mental, and lies in planning and management, and in the anticipations of executive joy. He has one eye on time-present, but the eye that directs his heart and mind is fixed on time-future.

This attitude is explicit in his most brilliant manipulation, the great speech on time to Achilles. The manipulation being more direct, the personal presence of the speaker is now not merely disguised but suppressed. The dramatic emphasis falls not on the person but on the role he plays—that of the master of subtle policy, which fails, that of the master of eloquent, incisive speech that seems more real than himself but is as impotent as himself. The apostle of order exploits division within Achilles and worries him about the way the present depends on the future. Then Ulysses witnesses the division within Cressida and the division within Troilus. He does not manage that scene; in fact, his role is astonishingly reticent, as if out of character. But the scene is real, though, unmanaged and unrehearsed.

It is an impromptu low scene which distantly resembles the high scene Ulysses acted out with Achilles. Between Cressida and Diomed we have an action dominated by a realistic psychology; every pretence at imaginative gesture or speech is utterly transparent, and we see the literal translation at once. In Troilus' part of the scene the gross realities war with an imagination of the past which he is reluctant to surrender. But the eloquent, sharp-witted Ulysses has little to say, is remarkably slow of understanding, is almost passive.

May worthy Troilus be half attached
With that which here his passion doth express?

It is as if the dramatist were playing his own joke and manipulating Ulysses.

Not that Ulysses could have wanted to miss the scene. He wants to know everything. He is the spokesman for intelligence and policy, for "the providence that's in a watchful state"; he is the high-priest of "a mystery" which uncovers thoughts "in their dumb cradles," a mystery in the soul of state,

Which hath an operation more divine
Than breath or pen can give expressure to.

It is in such exalted language that he informs Achilles of the plain fact that everything is known concerning his love affair with Polyxena, the sister of Hector. So there is also that personal motivation for Ulysses' not wanting to scant any minor duties of the high mystery he represents.

But still there is an extraordinary excess in the intelligence he garners from the present scene, and the terms are intended to affront him, and for more reasons than his native dislike of Cressida. What he learns he can make no use of, and the ironies which are released, and which he deserves, point at his helplessness and mock his wisdom. The grand manipulator watches the petty manipulator and has almost nothing to say. But events will prove articulate. The casual conjunction of appetite between Cressida and Diomed has more influence on events than the power and skill of Ulysses' masterful policy. Achilles, like Cressida, has his oath too, and his love for Polyxena overrides all of Ulysses' dazzling argument on time, fame, and honor. But the raging spirit of the next day's battle is now being kindled, and Troilus will fight to avenge his worthless loss with bitter personal feeling. Helen is no less worthless, but as a symbol she can support some public illusion and a certain decency of manners. On the next day, now taking shape, everything falls apart. Patroclus will be slain, and Achilles' ambiguous affection for his tent companion will ignore both Ulysses' arguments and his own love for Polyxena. At the darkest moment for the Greeks, enter Ulysses:

Oh, courage, courage, Princes! Great Achilles
Is arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance.

Ajax hath lost a friend,
And foams at mouth, and he is armed, and at it,
Roaring for Troilus.

To the audience the scene may look like chaos dominated by the universal wolf of appetite, but Nestor has a different interpretation: 'So, so, we draw together."

There is, then, no lack of reason why the play should want Ulysses present at the courtship of Cressida and Diomed. If he is uncomfortable and not his usual self at a real scene exhibiting division, we may draw our conclusions from his unwilling testimony, acted out negatively by suppression, by what he does not say. We may well think him manipulated, forced into a role that sums up his part in the play while exemplifying a major method of the play.

Troilus' overheightened responses fulfil his own dramatic destiny; he does gain something unexpected, however, by the dramatic pairing of his excesses and the superficial, inadequate response of Ulysses. They are related in their helplessness, Ulysses the clear-eyed appraiser of reality and Troilus the infatuated self-deceiver who believed in the simplicity of truth and now suffers a compulsive disunity. Troilus advances his own bitter theory of reality. It is a stand-off, a declared war within the "bifold authority" of reason. (Ulysses exemplifies an undeclared war.) We are certainly not required to judge Troilus' argument by and for itself. It is a dramatic statement like the philosophical arguments of Ulysses, though more personal and anguished. What Troilus speaks is a kind of "madness of discourse," but his bewilderment at least is genuine, the bewilderment of simultaneous involvement and detachment. His remarks, it may be worth noting, are final; neither experience nor expression will deepen. What he is feeling is that "insurrection" in "the state of man" which is a passing stage in the careers of Brutus, Angelo, and Leontes, but the beginning of tragic experience for Othello and for Macbeth. Though Troilus may not engage our sympathies by the display of his unreserved feelings, in a drama that specializes in reserve the moment is at least unique. Besides, he experiences his bewilderment through the intensity of his involvement, while his casual associate, Ulysses, always detached, experiences, or admits, nothing. Up to a point Troilus enjoys a conventional, positive dramatization; he gets what he has coming to him through circumstances in which he has actively participated. Hector is the only other candidate for direct dramatic experience, but at the end he too registers nothing and is only an example, though what he represents is at least brought into direct focus. His last act is to pursue a richly armed Greek and then to philosophize over the body: "Most putrified core, so fair without." But Hector is no guide to our dramatic experience; nor is Troilus, for he is not able to center the action and it shifts beyond him. Yet Troilus provides us with an invaluable means of seeing the elusive Ulysses and what he represents in the play.

Troilus and Cressida puzzles because, for one thing, an esthetic fact hard to circumvent, it repels. It does so not merely by theme, or detail, or texture; many plays, which perennially invite, explore the dark side of human affairs with greater vehemence and depth. The difficulty seems lodged in the dramatic plan, which is remarkably sustained and consistent.

Inner division, disunity within the person and within society, is a major theme of Shakespeare's plays. In the great tragedies the sense of division is a source of powerful energy, by which principal characters are driven and against which they struggle. Distressing emotions are part of the order, but they...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Gayle Greene (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Cressida: 'A Kind of Self'," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 133-49.

[In the essay that follows, Greene argues that Cressida, by basing her identity on male desires and definitions, becomes "the sum total of 'opinions' of men whose opinions are in themselves societally determined, and she is thus only a representative of her world. "]

"Let it not be believ'd for womanhood!"

That human nature is not "natural," but is, rather, shaped by social...

(The entire section is 17172 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

René Girard (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Methuen, 1985, pp. 188-209.

[In the following essay, Girard examines the presence of mimetic desire in Troilus and Cressida and states that the purpose of the play is "to show that lechery and war are one. "]

In Act IV, Scene ii, Troilus and Cressida are getting up after their first and only night together. More than ever, Cressida speaks the language of love. She has not changed, or, if she has, the change goes in the direction of more love, not less....

(The entire section is 28616 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Marianne Novy (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Violence, Love, and Gender in Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida" in Love 's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare, The University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 110-22.

[Below, Novy suggests that the apparently comedic, love-centered world of Troilus and Cressida is in fact lust-centered, and that it ultimately resembles a tragedy in its violent focus on war and the male characters' brutal rejection of "womanish" ways.]

.. . In Troilus and Cressida, the private world of the lovers contrasts with the military world less than usual in Shakespeare because both are...

(The entire section is 25875 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Adelman, Janet. ""Is Thy Union Here?': Union and Its Discontents in Broil's and Cressida and Othello" In Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest, pp. 38-75. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Analyzes Troilus's desire for Cressida, and finds that "Cressida becomes a whore to keep him pure."

Burns, M. M. "Troil's and Cressida: The Worst of Both Worlds." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews. Vol. XIII, edited by J. Leeds Barroll III, pp. 105-30. New York: Burt Franklin Co., 1980.

Contends that Troilus and Cressida is a play in which...

(The entire section is 507 words.)