“Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are;/Now good or bad, ‘tis but the chance of war.”

Troilus and Cressida

Act One, Part One

By Dennis Abrams




PRIAM, King of Troy

Priam’s sons: Hector, Deiphobus, Helenus (a priest), Paris, Troilus and Margareton (a bastard)

Cassandra, Priam’s daughter, a prophetess

Andromache, Hector’s wife

Aeneas and Antenor, Trojan commanders

Pandarus, a lord

Cressida, Pandarus’s niece

Calchas, Cressida’s father (who has defected to the Greeks)

Alexander, Cressida’s servant


Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greeks

Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother

Helen, Menelaus’s wife (now living with Paris)

Greek commanders: Nestor, Ulysses, Achilles, Diomedes, Ajax

Patroclus Achilles’ “companion”

Thersites, an ill-tempered wit

A Servant attending on Diomedes


Though definitely written after 1598, Troilus and Cressida resists more accurate dating: on the basis of internal style, 1601-2 seems most likely.


Obviously, Chaucer’s great poem, Troilus and Crisedye (1385-87) is the most direct source – it’s not unlikely that Shakespeare recalled it from memory – but there are numerous others that influence the play: Robert Henryson’s fifteenth-century Testament of Cresseid,  Chapman’s Homer (1598), and William Caxton’s Recuyell of the Histories of Troy (1475).


Perplexingly, two slightly variant quarto texts – Qa and Qb – were published in 1609.  Despite copyright snags, it was squeezed into the 1623 Folio in a version that was probably based on a revised quarto text, including a Prologue that was otherwise not present.

Indeed, mystery hangs over the early years of the play, mainly because it was published in quarto in 1609 with TWO sets of front matter – one claiming that the play had never been “stal’d with the stage,” while the other insisted that it had been performed at the Globe by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s regular troupe. Although it seems likely that the play had not been performed at the time of its composition, some scholars believe that the play was in fact written for performance at an Inns of Court (law school), as with The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night – though neither of these plays shows much sign of being customized for a legal audience.  (I can post more information about the play’s early publishing history if you’re interested – just let me know.)

370px-William_Shakespeare_Troilus_and_Cressida_title_pageAct One:  Now in its seventh year, the Trojan War is locked in stalemate. Inside Troy itself, however, Troilus is more concerned with courting Cressida via her uncle Pandarus. Although Cressida affects disdain, it is just a ploy, and she is already in love with him. In the Greek’s camp, meanwhile, their commander Agamemnon bemoans the war’s lack of progress. Ulysses blames it on a breakdown in control, intimating that their finest warrior, the arrogant Achilles, is undermining Agamemnon’s authority. When the Trojan warrior Aeneas arrives with a message from Hector challenge any of the Greek warriors to single combat (in a challenge clearly meant for Achilles), Ulysses and Nestor decide to humble Achilles by choosing the doltish Ajax instead.


The story of the Trojan War is one of the best-known and most defining legends of Western literature, canonized in the Iliad, the great Greek epic credited to Homer and written down sometime during the eighth century BC. Poem and poet alike were regarded with supreme reverence by the ancient Greeks, and the tale of Troy, along with the flamboyant style of its telling, came down to Virgil, who then took it as the basis for his founding Roman epic, the Aeneid, composed some eight hundred years later. It was another century and a half before the works of Homer made it into English, via the poet George Chapman – in a masterly (if somewhat ornate) translation that took him eighteen years to complete.

By the early seventeenth century, when Shakespeare was in his late thirties, reworkings of the Troy story had begun to pile up. In addition to Chapman’s Homer, the first chunk of which had been published in 1598, there had been several plays on the subject as well as a number of poems – all of which makes it difficult at best to precisely pin down what the playwright drew upon when composing Troilus and Cressida.  His title, obviously, points to one major source, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1385-87), an elegant and poignant version of a fragment from the tale also related by Boccaccio, but it seems likely that Shakespeare also knew the story from the very first book printed in English, William Caxton’s Recuyell [Anthology] of the Historyes of Troye (1471-76), as well as John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1412-21). These last provided him with a narrative that simply doesn’t appear in Homer – the tale of the lovers Troilus and Cressida, whose tragic separation over the battle lines at Troy provides an eloquent inset to the nine-year war for the city.

Troilus and Cressida - reviewBut in Shakespeare’s hand the story is not, as we might expect, not all that noble.  Troilus enters the play almost literally incapacitated by love, unable to fight or even sleep. Where Rosalind in As You Like It openly and winningly admits that she is “fathom deep” in love, Troilus describes despairingly to his go-between Pandarus how it is his “hopes” that lie drowned;”

    I tell thee I am mad

In Cressid’s love; thou answer’st ‘She is fair,’

Pourest in the open ulcer of my heart

Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice;

Handlest in thy discourse, O, that her hand,

In whose comparison all whites are ink

Writing their own reproach, to whose soft seizure

The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense

Hard as the palm of ploughman. This thou tell’st me –

As true thou tell’st me – when I say I love her.

But saying thus, instead of oil and balm

Thou lay’st in every gash that love hath given me

The knife that made it.

Love in THIS play is abject and painful – in the first of the play’s many haunting images of disease, Troilus describes how his heart is made such an “open ulcer” by love that even Pandarus’s description of Cressida’s beauty (especially her white hands, softer even than the “cygnet’s down) is a “knife” that wounds him. In Troilus’s eyes there is nothing liberating, much less pleasurable, about passion: it is nothing but illness and injury, aptly enough given that the cause for which the Greeks and Trojans have fought so long is the retrieval of Helen, wife of the Spartan king, who has been abdicated by the Trojan prince Paris.

Pandarus’s advice is merely to “tarry,” and as the play develops it becomes apparent why Troilus is being left to wait – because of Cressida’s not altogether unreasonable conviction that only by waiting to men learn the value of what they are after. “Women are angels, wooing,” she pointedly observes,

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.

Perhaps she is right: surrounded by men (interestingly, Shakespeare never puts her on stage with the play’s few other female characters), Cressida is all too aware that she must retain her value in the sexual marketplace. That those same men, having “gained” Helen and thus triggered the Trojan War, are now debating whether the queen is “worth what she doth cost,” as Hector so sourly puts it (2.2.50), only makes Cressida’s position all the more fragile.


From Tanner:

troilusandcressida“The play starts, rather unusually, with an ‘armed Prologue.’ His last words are distinctly casual, nonchalant to the point of indifference:

Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are;

Now good or bad, ‘tis but the chance of war.

In a way, this sets the tone of the play. In the first Act, Pandarus and Cressida are discussing whether or not Troilus has a ‘brown’ – dark – complexion:

Pandarus: Faith, to say truth, brown and not brown.

Cressida: To say the truth, true and not true.

What it is to ‘say the truth,’ and whether it is still possible, become matters of some moment. We seem to be tending, sliding towards a situation, a world, in which things are indifferently ‘good or bad,’ ‘true and not true.’ When Cressida asks Pandarus if Helenus can fight, his answer perfectly expresses this mood. ‘No. Yes, he’ll fight indifferent well.’ A positive compounded with a negative producing – indifference. Good, bad; true, not true; yes, no. ‘Tis but the chance of war.

The first seen in the Greek camp opens with Agamemnon summarizing and describing the current state of the army:

     Checks and disasters

Grow in the veins of actions reared,

As knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,

Infects the sound pine and diverts his grain

Tortive and errant from his course of growth.

I will simply note that ‘knots’ is a word which occurs quite frequently – things, people, are constantly being blocked from following what might seem their natural course, but ‘tortive and errant’ – twisted and wandering in wrong directions – is a phrase that might fairly be said to apply to the whole play. When, shortly after his ‘Degree’ speech, Ulysses depicts the chaos that follows ‘when the plants/In evil mixture to disorder wander,’ he says that the resultant ‘commotion’ serves to ‘deracinate/the unity and married calm of states/Quite from their fixture’. Troilus thinks that ‘Never did young man fancy/With so eternal and so fixed a soul’ (V, ii, 163). But there is no ‘married calm’ in the vortex, or wasteland, stemming from Helen’s ‘soilure,’ and nothing is ‘fixed’ any more in this world. At the very start of the play we hear this. ‘Hector, whose patience/Is as a virtue fixed, today was moved.’ Even Hector. All are ‘deracinated’ in one way or another – Cressida most visibly, as she is brutally shifted from the Trojan to the Greek camp; but Hector as notably, as he suddenly shifts from one side to the other in the vital debate concerning the keeping or giving up of Helen. Too much of the movement (and thinking and feeling) in this play is ‘tortive and errant.’

To return to Agamemnon’s opening speech. He says that things have gone wrong (‘bias and thwart’) since the start of the siege, but that we should regard all these failures as:

But the protractive trials of great Jove

To find persistive constancy in men…

Here indeed is a question raised by the play – is it possible to find any ‘persistive constancy’ in men? A constancy that would help to create and ensure stability and continuity – ‘unity and married calm’ – both in individual relationships and the state? It is not to be found in this play, in which there is more discontinuity and instability of character than anywhere else in Shakespeare. Inconstancy is the norm. The one character who shows ‘persistive constancy’ is Thersites, and it is the constancy of virulent and scabrous negation. Agamemnon likens true constancy to a fine, rare metal. You will not find it if you leave it to Fortune – Fortune, he says, conflates and confounds all values. You need – it is an unusual personification – Distinction.

Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan,

Puffing at all, winnows the light away,

And what hath mass or matter by itself

Lies rich in virtue and unmingled.

Winnowing and straining or distilling are processes referred to more than once, and are connected to one of the great motivating questions of the play. If, in the name of ‘Distinction,’ all the ‘light’ stuff, the chaff, the rubbish, is blown and winnowed away, will you be left with something solid and of unquestionable value – ‘rich in virtue and unmingled?’ The question applies particularly to people, and one of the disquieting or dismaying – or displeasing – features of this play is the sense one has at the end of the main characters having been winnowed away to nothingness, as though none of them had the requisite ‘mass or matter’ to persist as on-goingly authentic, reliable human beings throughout the wasting and debilitating travails of the war. Thersites and Pandarus alone retain their original shape, remain what they were – ‘unmingled,’ perhaps, but hardly ‘rich in virtue.’

Distinction – ‘distinguishableness,’ if I may gloss with an ugly but useful word – is visibly, audibly being lost. In his ‘Degree’ speech, Ulysses maintains:

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy.

In the Quarto ‘meets’ reads as ‘melts’ (to be a crucial word in Antony and Cleopatra) – I have no wish, and certainly no competence, to adjudicate between the readings. Indeed, ideally one would hear both words, for there is a sense in this play in which ‘meeting’ in oppugnancy becomes tantamount to ‘melting’ – it becomes hard to tell one thing from the other. Ulysses continues his vision of a world bereft of degree:

Force should be right, or rather right and wrong –

Between whose endless jar justice resides –

Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then everything include itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite,

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey

And last eat up himself.

Right and wrong and justice should lose their names (‘Now good or bad, ‘tis but the chance of war’), and everything be resolved, dissolved (melted) into the single matter of force, power, will, and self-devouring appetite.”


From Marjorie Garber:

“The Trojan heroes are depicted as romantic idealists, putting their faith in the imagination and in outmoded codes like chivalry – codes that the new, fallen world (the world of money, mercenaries, and Myrmidons) will neither justify nor support. The Trojans are emotional, excessive, ruled by passion, dominated by the fact that they have seized Helen and must defend her. Pandarus embodies the residue of these qualities without the moral or ethical theory to sustain them; he is, increasingly, a voice for erotic opportunism, and by the close he has devolved into the patron of ‘traders in the flesh’ and ‘[b]rethren and sisters of the hold-door trade.’ The Greeks, on the other hand, appear to be rationalists, or to think of themselves, at least, in that light. Half of them are ‘brains,’ like Ulysses, who believes in policy and pragmatism, in high-sounding words, and in tricking people for political gain. The other half are brawn, like the ‘beef-witted’ Ajax, and even Achilles, sullen, sulking gladiators – fighters who refuse to fight out of misplaced pride. Their version of the voyeuristic Pandarus is the scurrilous and foul-mouthed Thersites, who functions like an allowed fool in the Greek camp, giving voice to what the Greeks already think and fear. What has happened to heroic civilization? To the possibility for epic fulfillment and national pride?

Troilus and Cressida begins with a Prologue, played by an actor dressed in armor, ready for battle and speaking in a language of high seriousness:

In Troy there lies the scene. From isles of Greece

The princes orgulous, their high blood chafed,

Have to the port of Athens sent their ships,

Fraught with the ministers and instruments

Of cruel war…

The word ‘orgulous,’ which means ‘proud,’ appears in Shakespeare only in this passage, underscoring the formality of the moment, all too soon to be replaced by casual disarray. The task of the Prologue is to tell the whole story of the Trojan War in a few lines, and he succeeds remarkably well: ‘[T]heir vow is made/To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures/The ravished Helen, Menelaus’ queen,/With wanton Paris sleeps – and that’s the quarrel.’ Like other Shakespearean Prologues, notably in Henry V, this speaker urges the audience to see what cannot be put on any stage, and to take part in the excitement of the moment:

Now expectation, tickling skittish spirits

On one and other side, Trojan and Greek,

Sets all on hazard. And hither am I come,

A Prologue armed – but not in confidence

Of author’s pen or actor’s voice, but suited

In like conditions as our argument –

To tell you, fair beholders, that our play

Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,

Beginning in the middle, starting thence away

To what may be digested in a play.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0168e700078c970c-600wiFollowing the example of the Iliad, Troilus and Cressida will begin in medias res, in the middle of things. Here the ‘things’ are not warlike, as we might expect, but languid and romantic. The ‘Prologue armed’ has no sooner finished his lines than Troilus and Pandarus enter upon the stage, and Troilus delivers his first line to the audience: ‘Call here my varlet. I’ll unarm again.’ He will unarm, instead of arm for battle. And the cause is familiar – the civil war inside him, provoked by love:

Why should I war without the walls of Troy

That find such cruel battle here within?

This language of arming and unarming, artfully established from the very beginning of the play, will continue throughout, and will provide the underlying design of a plot that mingles love and war with tragic results for both. In his love-play with Helen, Paris, who has, significantly, stayed behind to dally rather than going into the field, invites her to greet the returning warriors:

     Sweet Helen, I must woo you

To help unarm our Hector. His stubborn buckles,

With these your white enchanting fingers touched,

Shall more obey than to the edge of steel

Or force of Greekish sinews. You shall do more

Than all the island kings: disarm great Hector.

In the fourth act, Hector appears armed for battle, intending to meet the Greek champion in a single combat, but declines to fight Ajax because they are cousins – as Aeneas notes, Ajax is a ‘blended knight, half Trojan and half Greek’ – and he would not wish to spill a drop of Trojan blood. Instead Hector accepts an invitation from Ajax to visit the ‘Grecian tents,’ and Diomedes seconds the invitation, saying that ‘great Achilles/Doth long to see unarmed the valiant Hector.’

Like so much of the language in the play, this apparently straightforward statement is both double-edged and fateful. In the final battle in act 5, scene 9, Achilles, enraged at the slaying of his beloved Patroclus, comes upon Hector, disarmed from a day of battle, and – rather than fighting him one-on-one – surrounds him with his mercenary Myrmidons. ‘I am unarmed,’ says Hector. ‘Forgo this vantage, Greek.’ But Achilles gives the command to strike, and then ties the body of the slain Trojan hero ignominiously to his horse’s tail, to drag him along the field. ‘My half-supped sword, that frankly would have fed,/Pleased with this dainty bait, thus goes to bed,’ he says. Even this coy language, as Achilles sheathes his weapon, distinguishes him from the blunt nobility of Hector, who moments before had declared merely, ‘Rest, sword: thou hast thy fill of blood and death.’ The plot of ‘unarming,’ predicted by the language of Troilus (‘I’ll unarm’) and of Paris (‘unarm our Hector’), thus comes to its inevitable end with the death of Hector, this play’s one unambiguous old-style hero, a champion of the same mettle as old Hamlet, and with the same penchant for single combat as Tybalt and Hotspur, though without their splenetic temper. Hector dies, as he has lived, for glory, and love of country. Significantly, in the last scenes he is in pursuit of a mysterious figure described in the stage directions as ‘one in armour,’ a Greek whose costume represents the honorable spoils of war:


Stand, stand, thou Greek! Thou art a goodly mark.

No? Wilt thou not? I like thy armour well.

I’ll frush it and unlock the rives all,

But I’ll be master of it.

Tellingly, Hector’s two scenes with the ‘one in armour’ are intercut with brief episodes that display Achilles’ unsportsmanlike conduct on the battlefield, instructing the Myrmidons to surround Hector and kill him in ‘fellest manner,’ and the cowardice of Thersites. Historians of ancient warfare and of sword-fighting point out that prizes like the ‘goodly armour,’ taken on the battlefield, are signs of the victor’s heroism. But the encounter with the ‘one in armour,’ who never speaks, and who is the proximate cause of Hector’s own death, ahs always seemed to me to carry another, more uncanny resonance, as if Hector were coming face-to-face with Death itself – and with his own mortality: ‘Most putrefied core [i.e., corpse], so fair without/Thy goodly armour thus has cost thy life.’

Troilus and Cressida thus traces the ambit from the ‘Prologue armed’ to the ‘one in armour,’ enclosing within itself another story, the story of the unarming and disarming of heroes. The Prologue, a common soldier, has spoken of his battle gear as ‘suited/In like conditions as our argument,’ with the word ‘argument’ connoting both a plot and a quarrel. But we will hear the same word in the voice of the cynical Greek Thersites, who sums up the stakes of the conflict, unforgettably, in a single line: ‘All the argument is a whore and a cuckold.’ To him this is the true, unvarnished story of the Trojan War. Helen is the whore; Menelaus is the cuckold. But if this is the ‘argument’ of the war, what is the ‘argument’ of the play? Are these terms equally applicable to Cressida and Troilus, the first of whom betrays the second with Diomedes? The play is well designed both to provide a set of ideals and worldviews in conflict, and to show the way they are undercut by their own excess.

Not surprisingly, this play of resounding speeches and epic heroes has generated a quest for Shakespeare’s own ‘philosophy.’ Such quests are always doomed to failure, because dramatic structure allows for many characters to express diametrically opposed opinions without a conducting authorial voice. Compelling ideas about humanity, mortality, and society are as likely to be found in the lines assigned to clowns or nameless ‘gentlemen’ as in those assigned to certifiable ‘tragic heroes.’ In Troilus and Cressida Ulysses speaks, in a passage that has become a famous set piece, about the role of hierarchy and ‘degree.’ This classic statement of what has been called, by Arthur O. Lovejoy and others, the ‘great chain of being’ describes a worldview in which the universe was imagined as an ordered cosmos, hierarchically linked to systems above and below, and regulated by a benevolent providence. Although Lovejoy suggested that this conception of the world was one that ‘most educated men were to accept without question,’ it is clear from Shakespeare’s plays, and indeed from Ulysses’ speech and its aftermath, that such a view was both contestable and contested. Nonetheless, and especially when taken out of context and presented as ‘Shakespeare’s’ idea rather than Ulysses’, this passage has been widely admired. As we will see shortly, it is not entirely clear that even Ulysses subscribes to it, however eloquent his public thoughts on the question.

file.ashxhe setting is a council meeting of Greek leaders, gathered outside Agamemnon’s tent early in the play, the third scene of the first act, to discuss the problem of winning the war against the Trojans. Why have they not succeeded? Indeed, why have they been waiting outside the gates of Troy for seven years, making no progress? Agamemnon suggests that the gods are merely testing them:

     Why then, you princes,

Do you with cheeks abashed behold our works,

And call them shames, which are indeed naught else

But the protractive trials of great Jove

To find persistive constancy in men?

Old Nestor has a different view. The issue is not one of suffering patiently, but of action: ‘In the reproof of chance/Lies the true proof of men’ This is a time for boldness (the ‘tiger’ rather than the ‘herd.’) The greater the challenge, the more glorious the victory. Ulysses, graciously acknowledging the stature of both previous speakers (‘Agamemnon…nerve and bone of Greed/Heart of our numbers’; ‘venerable Nestor, hatched in silver’, responds:

Degree being vizarded,

Th’unworthiest shows as fairly in the masque

[                        ].

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre

Observe degree, priority, and place,

Infixture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order.


     But when the planets

In evil mixture to disorder wander,

What plagues and what portents, what mutiny?

What raging of the sea, shaking of earth?

Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors

Divert and crack, rend and deracinate

The unity and married calm of states

Quite from their fixture. O when degree is shaked,

Which is the ladder to all high designs,

Then enterprise is sick. How could communities,

Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenity and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,

But by degree stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores

And make a sop of all this solid globe;

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead.

Force should be right – or rather, right and wrong,

Between whose endless jar justice resides,

Should lose their names, and so should justice too,

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up himself…

This magnificent and stirring speech, masterful in its periods, and in its emphasis, traces the consequences of loss of ‘degree,’ which will ‘make a sop of all this solid globe,’ rendering the continents and the seas indistinguishable. Here, as in all plays written after the move to the Globe theater, ‘this…globe’ is also a gesture at the playhouse and the playgoers. To ‘make a sop’ of the Globe is to reduce the audience to tears. Moral and ethical qualities will ‘lose their names’ and become, like the material earth and sea, impossible to tell apart. As a result – this seems a very familiar set of claims – instead of reason, order, and justice, the world will be governed by power, will, and appetite, and the result will be chaos and cultural cannibalism. The ‘neglection of degree’ produces inevitable, and disastrous, results:

     The general’s disdained

By him one step below; he, by the next;

That next, by him beneath. So every step,

Exampled by the first pace that is sick

Of his superior, grows to an envious fever

Of pale and bloodless emulation.

And ‘tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,

Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length:

Troy in our weakness lives, not in her strength.

It is indeed a ‘tale of length,’ but is rhetorical power is undeniable, and the effect on Ulysses’ hearers immediate. In brief capitulatory phrases, Nestor and Agamemnon concede the truth of his analysis and turn to him for guidance:


Most wisely hath Ulysses here discovered

The fever whereof all our power is sick.


The nature of the sickness found, Ulysses,

What is the remedy?

And yet Ulysses’ plea for order is itself disorderly. His doctrine of ‘degree’ leads him, as the audience will shortly see, to propose a clever scheme to further unsettle ‘degree.’ He suggests that the Greeks offer as their champion, to fight the Trojan hero Hector in single combat, not Achilles, their best and most celebrated warrior, but Ajax, the ‘beef-witted Ajax,’ earlier described as a hodge-podge of qualities, ‘as valiant as the lion, churlish as the bear, slow as the elephant – a man into whom nature hath so crowded humours that his valour is crushed into folly, his folly farced with discretion.’

202216_1234516_400x313The celebrated speech on ‘degree,’ in other words, is not Shakespeare’s philosophy, nor even really Ulysses’ philosophy, but rather a convincing piece of rhetoric that is presented as a truism until, almost immediately in this play, particular events begin to qualify or undermine it. The notion of a hierarchal plan that belongs to God and depends upon the reinforcement of the prevailing social order is attractive absolutist politics, not only in the early seventeenth century but also in all other eras seeking validation for existing power structures or cultural logics. The renewed popularity of this view in both England and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s (the time of Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being and E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture) speaks both to the intellectual interest of the question and also to its perceived historical urgency. But Ulysses, were he an interview subject rather than a fictional character, would almost surely concede that his resounding speech is political rhetoric and ideology, not disinterested truth.

I stress this point because it has become so common to quote ‘Shakespeare’ out of context, whether in political speeches, journalists’ columns, or religious sermons, in support of the quoter’s own observations of beliefs. What I call ‘Bartlett’s Familiar Shakespeare,’ taking phrases and passage as if they were evidence of Shakespeare’s own opinions rather than those of his characters, reaches an almost comical nadir when a hypocrite like Iago is quoted on the importance of ‘[g]ood name in man and woman’ or the voice of a blowhard like Polonius, urging his son, ‘This above all – to thine own self be true,’ is thought to be expressing Shakespeare’s profound belief.

What is Ulysses’ most telling evidence for this disrespect of authority and ‘degree?’ The bad behavior of ‘[t]he great Achilles, whom opinion crowns/The sinew and the forehand of our host,’ but who is, Ulysses claims, so puffed by his own ‘airy fame’ that he ‘[g]rows dainty of his worth’ and spends his time lolling upon ‘a lazy bed’ in his tent with his best friend and lover Patroclus, instead of on the battlefield. The scene reported by Ulysses is another classic Shakespearean ‘unscene,’ brought to vivid life, dialogue and all, by an onstage reporter. We have only Ulysses’ word for the truth of the scene he describes, and yet the episode, with its sexy and disrespectful playacting, is so vibrant and convincing, ‘scurrile jests’ and all, that it is almost as if we have seen it. What Ulysses describes, with such convincing rhetorical specificity, is in fact a play acted offstage – a play in which Patroclus plays the parts of all the Greek generals, while ‘[t]he large Achilles, on his pressed bed lolling,/From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause.’ The lineup is in fact another version of the identity parade in act I, scene 2, where Pandarus and Cressida watch the Trojan heroes pass over the stage, and an anticipation of the ‘kissing scene’ in act 4, scene 6, in which Ulysses and Troilus secretly observe Cressida’s overfamiliar reception by the same Greek generals here impersonated by Patroclus.

Ulysses’ account of Patroclus performing for Achilles, at once mocking, dismissive, and indignant, gives a good sense of the theatrical practice of the time. Some of his phrases, like ‘strutting player,’ will reappear in other Shakespeare plays, while the archly clever use of ‘topless’ here to describe Agamemnon would, almost inevitably, call to mind Marlowe’s famous invocation of Helen in Doctor Faustus, ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’ Here is Ulysses:

   [W]ith ridiculous and awkward action

Which, slander, he ‘imitation’ calls,

He 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

‘Twist his stretched footing and the scaffoldage,

Such to-be pitied and o’er-rested seeming

He acts thy greatness in…


     At this fusty stuff

The large Achilles…


Cries ‘Excellent! ‘Tis Agamemnon just.

Now play me Nestor, hem and stroke thy beard,

As he being dressed to some oration.


    Now play him me, Patroclus,

Arming to answer in a night alarm.’

And then, forsooth, the faint defects of age

Must be the scene of mirth: to cough and spit,

And with a palsy, fumbling on his gorget,

Shake in and out of the rivet. And at this sport

Sir Valour dies, cries, ‘O, enough Patroclus!

Or give me ribs of steel. I shall split all

In pleasure of my spleen.’….

The quotations here, the mockery of a pompous Agamemnon and a senescent Nestor (contrasted with the admiring description of ‘venerable Nestor, hatched in silver,’ offered in his own voice), allow Ulysses both the position of innocent and virtuous bystander and the covert pleasure of discomfiting his onstage audience But the principal effect of this enormously entertaining scene is to allow Ulysses, as we have said, to put forward a course of action diametrically opposed – at least in the short run – to the idea of order and hierarchy. To foil the rebellious Achilles, and to outfox the Trojans, he proposes that Ajax, rather than Achilles, be sent forth as the Greek champion.

7693-splash-721618Divert and crack, rend and deracinate. Troilus and Cressida is a good place to look for the unsettling of apparently unsettled certainties like rank and social class. It should not surprise us to find, only a few scenes after Ulysses’ resounding speech on ‘degree,’ that this speech, the exposition of a familiar and prominent worldview, is now being ruthlessly parodied by the even more cynical character Thersites, encouraged by Ajax to offer his own criticism of the Greek leadership. Nestor reports that, following the bad example of Achilles and Patroclus, ‘in the imitation of these twain…many are infect.’ He continues:

Ajax is grown self-willed and bears his head

In such a rein, in full as proud a place

As broad Achilles, keeps his tent like him,

Makes factious feasts, rails on our state of war

Bold as an oracle, and sets Thersites,

A slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint,

To match us in comparisons with dirt,

To weaken and discredit our exposure.

Thersites, described in the list of dramatis personae added by the eighteenth-century editor Nicholas Rowe as ‘a deformed and scurrilous Greek,’ has his own diagnosis in the Greek camp: ‘Agamemnon commands Achilles, Achilles is my lord, I am Patroclus’ knower, and Patroclus is a fool.’ Achilles, predictably, is amused by this, and asks for an explanation:


Agamemnon is a fool to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded of Agamemnon; Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool; and Patroclus is a fool positive.

Patroclus:  Why am I a fool?

Thersites:  Make that demand to the Creator. It suffices me thou art.


So much for order, hierarchy, and the ‘great chain of being.’ Similar Shakespearean parodies can be found in, among other places, As You Like It (Touchstone’s ‘seven degrees of the lie,’ a comic send-up of Jaques’ ‘seven ages’); 1 Henry IV (Prince Hal’s comic replay of Hotspur’s conversation with his wife); and Love’s Labour’s Lost (Costard’s carnal wooing of Jaquenetta, in marked contrast to the language of Don Armado and the noble sonneteers).  The carnivalesque undercutting of perceived pomposity in high places makes for wonderful theater as well as terrific political and cultural counterpoint.”


It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that when reading and thinking about Ulysses, that in Homer, he’s portrayed as a wily politician and trickster…


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning — more introductory material for Act One

Enjoy your weekend.

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