“Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark, what discord follows!”

Troilus and Cressida

Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


I’d like to continue our examination of Act One with this, from Harold Bloom:

Troilus&Cressida_440x175“Some critics have traced the origins of Troilus and Cressida to the Poet’s War fought between Ben Jonson on the one side and John Marston, Thomas Dekker, and perhaps Shakespeare on the other. Russell Fraser compared the ‘prologue armed’ of Troilus and Cressida to the armed prologue – clearly resembling burly Ben himself (infamous for killing a fellow actor in a duel) – who begins Jonson’s Poetaster (1601), an attack upon rival poet-playwrights. Shakespeare, mocking both Jonson and Chapman, may have commenced lightheartedly, intending an anti-Poetaster, stageworthy and brisk. But once started, this anti-tragedy, anti-comedy, anti-history ran away with its dramatist, and it is difficult to deny that a purely personal bitterness energizes the play. Perhaps we are back in the story of the Sonnets, as many have suggested, and Cressida is yet another version of the Dark Lady, like the mocking Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost. War and lust, variations upon the one madness, alike are derided in the play, but the derision provoked by battle is wholehearted, and the rancor and anguish of the erotic life is represented with a far more equivocal response.

Troilus and Cressida, though a rigorously unified work for the stage, nevertheless is two plays. One is the tragicomedy of the death of Hector, murdered by the cowardly Achilles and his thugs. The other is the ‘betrayal’ of Troilus by Cressida, who gives herself to Diomedes, when she is compelled to leave Troy and enter the camp of the Greeks. Shakespeare so estranges the audience from Hector and to some degree from Troilus that we are not much moved by the slaughter of Hector and only a little by the jealousy of Troilus. About the only true pathos the play could evoke would be if Shakespeare had altered either of the last appearances of Thersites and allowed him to be slain by Hector, or by Priam’s bastard son, Margarelon. But quite wonderfully, Thersites survives both challenges.

Hector:  What art thou, Greek? Art thou for Hector’s match? Art thou of blood and honor?

Thersites:  No, no: I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave: a very filthy rogue.

Hector:  I do believe thee: live.

(V, iv. 26-30)

That is not really up to Thersites’ standard, but this is:

Margarelon:  Turn, slave and fight.

Thersites: What art thou?

Margarelon: A bastard son of Priam’s.

Thersites: I am a bastard, too, I love bastards. I am a bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valour, in everything illegitimate. One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard? Take heed: the quarrel’s most ominous to us – if the son of a whore fight for a whore, he tempts judgment. Farewell, bastard.

Margarelon: The devil take thee, coward.

I do not think that anyone could grow fond of Thersites, but we need him while we watch or read this play; he is its appropriate chorus. His slave status has not yet gained him support from our current Marxist and cultural materialist critics, but that may because he is too foul-mouthed for professors, and besides his satire against lust is as politically incorrect as his animus against war is surpassingly correct. He belongs to the bottom layer of Shakespeare’s cosmos, with companions in Parolles, Autolycus, Barnardine, and Pistol, among others. Presumably Thersites, like other slaves, has been dragged off to the Trojan War against his will, but his invective would be the same were he anywhere in the isles of Greece. His scabrous scoldings have a particular force at Troy, where, as he says, ‘All the argument is a whore and a cuckold.’

It is important to recognize that Thersites, despite his scurrility, is pragmatically almost a normative moralist; his complaints against war and lechery depend upon our sense of some residual values in peace and in loyal love. To that degree, he is an authentic negative moralist, unlike Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well, or such varied figures as Lucio, Pompey, and Barnardine in Measure for Measure. Anne Barton argues strongly that Thersites sees his reductiveness – his negative view of everyone – as being endemic to the human condition, and not just as being appropriate for the thuggish Greek and Trojan heroes. Perhaps, but the dramatic effect seems otherwise; as both Shakespeare and Thersites portray them, the Homeric heroes are particularly egregious rascals. Barton usefully cites Euripides’ Orestes as parallel to Shakespeare’s play, but we have no evidence that Shakespeare knew the Orestes, in any form.

Euripides is also both less genial than Shakespeare and less savage; nearly everyone in Troilus and Cressida is at best a fool, so we should be surprised to be moved by the jealous sufferings of Troilus, and yet somehow we are. Shakespeare’s largeness of temperament, his grand generosity of spirit, allows Troilus to become a figure of some limited pathos, and even a consciousness stunningly divided against itself.

And yet Shakespeare’s art of characterization withdraws from itself from Troilus and Cressida, even in the roles of Troilus, Cressida, Hector, and Ulysses. The interiorization of the self had given us Faulconbridge in King John; Richard II; Juliet, the Nurse, and Mercutio; Bottom, Portia, Shylock, and Antonio; Falstaff, Hal, and Hotspur; Brutus and Cassius; Rosalind; Hamlet, Malvolio and Feste. There are no such inwardnesses in the problematic comedies of Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. The abyss of the deep self returns in Iago and Othello, Lear, the Fool, Edmund, and Edgar; and Macbeth. Before the forging of Iago, Shakespeare pauses in his journey to the interior, and in the three ‘dark’ comedies of 1601-4 gives us neither accessible psychological depths nor Marlovian-Jonsonian caricatures and ideograms. Troilus and Thersites; Helena and Parolles; Isabella, Angelo Duke Vincentio, and Barnardine – all of these abound in psychic complexities, but they keep themselves opaque from us, and Shakespeare will not tell us who and what they truly are.

Perhaps he himself, in that mood, did not care to know, or perhaps, for subtly dramatic purposes, he preferred that we should not know. One of the many consequences of this momentary turn away from the revelation of character is a certain lessening of character: we are invited, almost compelled, to care less for those figures than we care for Rosalind or for Feste. A more peculiar consequence is rhetorical: several speeches in each of these ‘dark comedies’ become much finer poetry when ripped from context. Ulysses on the idea of order at Troy, or on the transitoriness of reputation, gives one effect within the play and quite another outside it, rather like the difference between Duke Vincentio’s ‘Be absolute for death’ advice, when heard in or out of context. A scurvy politician, Ulysses seems eloquent beyond the play but only grandiose within its confines, while the Duke’s sonorous vocables can persuade us in isolation but are exposed as inane and vacuous when they ring forth in the equivocal world of Measure for Measure.

Thersites, Parolles, and Barnardine are the grand exceptions: they so sublimely are at one with the contexts of their plays that they lose by citation. Coleridge, in expected distaste for Thersites, rather neatly dubbed him ‘the Caliban of demagogic life,’ and like Caliban, Thersites seems only half-human (whereas the uncanny Fool of King Lear seems scarcely human at all). What is least human about Thersites seems Shakespeare’s ironic warning to us: the reductive tendency burns everything away, as it will, far more destructively, in the pyromaniac play-director, Iago. Graham Bradshaw calls Thersites ‘terminally reductive, sclerotically dogmatic.’ ‘Dogmatic,’ from so evenhanded a critic, seems to me unfair: Thersites is an obsessed monomaniac, but he is also as outraged as he is outrageous. If you divide your time serving as Fool between Achilles and Ajax, between a vicious thug and a stupid one, you hardly can be reductive enough, particularly if your dramatic function is to be the chorus. Bradshaw also terms Thersites a nihilist, but the foul mouthed Fool seems to me the only character in the play who truly has an outraged sense of intrinsic value. Nor is it fair to characterize poor Thersites as one of Alfred Adler’s Inferiority Complexes (Bradshaw again). There is a weird self-reflective aspect to Thersites’ highly conscious rankness, but it is difficult for us to receive, because of Thersites’ otherness, his nonhuman aspect. If one can say to oneself, ‘How now, Thersites! What, lost in the labyrinth of thy fury?,’ then one is not quite lost. Thersites is by no means pleased to be the savage utterer of hateful truths, and I do not think Shakespeare wants us to take Thersites as other than a sufferer. If we can trust anyone in the play, then it must be Thersites, deranged as doubtless he is. But who else in the play is not both a self-deceiver and a deceiver of others? I have remarked upon the psychic opacities of Troilus and Cressida, and such blocked inwardness is most salient in Thersites.

As much as Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida is a play that defeats any wholly coherent interpretation, a defeat perhaps intended by Shakespeare himself, who more even than in Hamlet allowed himself to build his drama upon antithetical strains that could not accommodate each other. Since there is no Hamlet in these plays, no consciousness comprehensive enough to contain a wilderness of anomalies, we cannot altogether make sense either of Troilus or Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure. Troilus struggles with JBbkTroilusP2contraries that defy his intellect, but at least he somewhat engages our sympathies – unlike Vincentio, who is profoundly antipathetic in his moralizings. Troilus is fatuous, self-pitying, in love with love rather than with Cressida, and fiercely confused, but he remains rather more likable than Hector, his strenuously heroic brother, who alienates us by inconsistency, cupidity, and self-satisfaction. It isn’t very useful to see Shakespeare’s purposes as satiric, or even parodic in this play. He seems at moments to be mocking his rivals George Chapman and Ben Jonson, but he is not writing an anti-chivalric romance, as some critics have said. The matter of Troy does not matter to him, and while he quarries Chaucer, he deliberately distances himself from the amiable, even affectionate sophistication of Chaucer’s great treatment of the same story.

There is a bitterness, somehow both personal and impersonal, in Shakespeare’s version of this essentially medieval tale (of which Homer knew nothing). Thersites, Caliban of demagogic life, might have prompted Shakespeare himself to Prospero’s gloomy final acceptance of Caliban: ‘this thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine.’ Troilus is to love what Hector is to war, Ulysses to statecraft,  Achilles to agonistic supremacy: they are all imposters, bad actors. For brainlessness, Agamemnon, Nestor, and Ajax are nicely matched, while Cressida is as much the Trojan strumpet as Helen is the Spartan whore. This is all a little too strong for satire, even too extreme for parody. The tonalities of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida are not good-natured; no one smiles indulgently at the acts and torments, the posturings and speeches of this rabblement. Pandarus, racked by venereal infection, is the counteremblem to Thersites: do we prefer the whinings of the bawd to the rantings of Thersites’ invectorium?”

(I do want to point out that Bloom goes to say that “The pleasures of Troilus and Cressida, though peculiar, are profuse. Shakespeare’s exuberance of invention is manifest at every point.”)


And I’d like to start sharing some of Harold Goddard’s take on the play.  I’m not a big fan of his reading of Hamlet (which is why I largely ignored him), but on T&C…I think he has a LOT of interest to say.

“How could Shakespeare produce one of the most unblushing glorifications of war ever written and then face right about and utter an equally extreme denunciation of it? How could he write Henry V, in other words, and then, within a year or two [MY NOTE:  Startling to think about!], Troilus and Cressida? There is a ‘poser’ for those who adopt the conventional view of Henry V and assume that it is a glorification of Henry and his imperialistic conquests.  If it isn’t, no such problem exists, for in that case Shakespeare is simply saying right out in Troilus and Cressida the same thing he said under cover in Henry V.

It is not Shakespeare’s habit to speak right out. Usually he follows precisely Emily Dickinson’s injunction:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant.

Was there any reason why in this particular case he should have abandoned his general practice. There was, and a very plausible one. Henry V was written for popular consumption in a popular theater. Troilus and Cressida bears all the marks of having been written for a very different type of audience. The author of the preface to the Second Quarto indeed says the play was ‘never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar…[nor] sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude,’ which at the very least implies that the play was not produced on the popular stage, as indeed it seldom has been even to our day. It is too weighted with long speeches and philosophical thought to have any general appeal. For whom then was it written? Mr. Peter Alexander has ventured the suggestion that it may have been designed for an audience of barristers at one of the Inns of Court. This assumption, in addition to resolving the paradox mentioned, would go far toward explaining a number of the play’s peculiar features.

To begin with what is least important: if the country boy from Stratford, who according to one tradition began his dramatic career by holding horses outside a London theater and whom a university playwright had attacked as an ‘upstart crow,’ had an opportunity to present one of his plays before a select group of university men, could he have failed, for all his modesty, to feel the irony of the occasion and would he not have been more than human if he had indulged in a bit of innocent revenge? Twitted perhaps with having ‘small Latin and less Greek,’ how could he resist the chance to reveal to these learned clerks and wits an acquaintance with Latin quite as thorough as their own? The extraordinary Latinisms with which the style of Troilus and Cressida is freighted [MY NOTE: Via George Chapman?] are unique among his plays and in some instances approach pedantry or burlesque according as they are taken seriously or not, though they never perhaps quite cross the line. The long formal debates which the play contains, and its extended aphoristic and philosophical disquisitions, would also be exactly the thing to please a group of lawyers or legal students.

So likewise would be the irreverent handling of Homer and Chaucer, which, as Mr. Alexander says, ‘is not to be explained away as merely the medieval attitude to the classical story.’ ‘That the creator of a Prince Henry and a Hotspur,’ says Boas, ‘should bring on the stage in travestied form the glorious paragons of antiquity, an Achilles and an Ajax, is at first sight one of the most startling phenomena in all literature.’ Yet not quite so startling if Shakespeare had already had his tongue partly in his cheek when he created Hotspur and Henry.  [MY NOTE:  As you might recall, I was largely with Goddard in his take on Henry V and his belief that Henry was, in Shakespeare’s eyes, no hero.]  When, in the play, Ulysses tells how Patroclus – with Achilles for audience on the bed holding his sides for laughter – mimics the Greek chiefs, Agamemnon, Nestor, and the rest, and when Ulysses complains that all their mighty exploits serve only

As stuff for these two to make paradoxes,

he echoes exactly the complaint of those who object to Shakespeare’s desecration of Homer and Chaucer. But such ‘debunking,’ as we say today, of the heroic and romantic is just what would have flattered a group of young wits and worldlings. For them, the more cynicism the better. Bernard Shaw once described that his Man and Superman was written for a pit of intellectual kings. Whether kings or knaves, Shakespeare apparently wrote his Troilus and Cressida for a pit of intellectuals. If, then, the superficial taste of his audience happened to coincide with a deep and serious disillusionment on his own part with popular ideas of the heroic and romantic (as plays like Henry V and All’s Well That Ends Well go far to show that it did), the occasion must have offered an irresistible temptation to unburden himself of his innermost convictions, to let himself go, so to speak. If so, the result might well have been what we find in Troilus and Cressida. ‘Would you see Shakespeare’s mind unfettered,’ said Goethe, ‘read Troilus and Cressida, where he treats the materials of the Iliad after his own fashion.’ Unfettered: it is precisely the right word.

It is a mark of an artist that he enjoys conforming to the fetters of his art. Shakespeare seems to have recognized instinctively that it was his function as dramatist to represent, not to recommend or condemn, his characters, except to the extent of interesting it. Such comments on his plays as he allowed himself he kept subtle or indirect, burying them often in other plays. Yet occasionally even Shakespeare may have been tempted to speak more openly. He obviously did so in Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens, and to a lesser degree in Measure for Measure. They are his only plays that by any stretch of the adjective might be called didactic.

Paradoxically, it is the most scurrilous figure in the play, the most nearly sewer-mouthed character he ever created, Thersites, who seems at times to be the author’s mouthpiece, acting as a sort of chorus and commentator on the action and the other dramatic persons. troiluscressida1In spite of his evil disposition, vile language, and general nastiness, he utters no small amount of truth – negative truth. A man lost to all decency has no motive for concealment. Thersites delights in dragging everything, himself included, in the mud. A few rare men are above disguise. He is below it. ‘Lechery, lechery, ‘ he cries, ‘still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them!…war and lechery confound all!’ Here the statement of the fact must be sharply distinguished from the attitude toward the fact. Shakespeare’s special audience, if had one, probably on the whole accepted Thersites’ summary of the sins of the world and his attitude toward them (as they did in another vein the attitude of Pandarus). But Shakespeare, unless he had ceased to be himself, must have discriminated. He obviously recognized the facts, but there is nothing to indicate that h e took any satisfaction in them as Thersites so plainly does. No one with justice ever accused Shakespeare of being a cynic. He understood sneering, but where does he himself sneer? Those who hold that he does here must certainly bear the burden of proof. His sweetness of temper in the Comedies is proverbial. Hence in part perhaps the annihilating power of this play. A man who habitually refrains from profanity can get a tremendous effect from a single stroke of it. But that does not make him a profane man. Neither does the scoffing in Troilus and Cressida make Shakespeare a scoffer. It is, in any strict sense of the term, the most intellectual play he ever wrote. But he is a poet, and even in this play his critical powers cannot suppress his imagination. Thersites often expresses the author’s thought, but never his spirit. Other characters come far closer to doing that. One in particular, a seemingly very minor one, is enough to save the play, for all the cynical things that are in it, from the charge of cynicism.

‘Shakespeare’s state of mind when he wrote Troilus and Cressida,’ said a young woman who had just put the play down after her first reading of it, ‘must have been something like Cassandra’s.’ That strikes me as the best brief comment I have ever heard or read about this play. It could not be better said. The works sounds like the utterance of a man who envisages the end of the world, or, at any rate, the end of humanity. Mankind in the verge of racial suicide because of its sins of violence and lust; that is the picture it paints. Some have even conjectured that Shakespeare himself at this time came close to the precipice. It is an unnecessary assumption. But at least it shows a perception of the abyss that separates those who sneer at the sins of the world from those who fall sick because of them.

As this concern over the sickness of the world suggests, Troilus and Cressida was evidently a part of the same creative way that produced Hamlet. It would be illuminating to know the exact chronological relationship of the two plays. Troilus is generally held to be the earlier [MY NOTE:  Not exactly], but we do not know just when the poet may have begun work on Hamlet. Whatever their order, the plays are in a sense intellectual twins, or, better, the lesser a sort of intellectual satellite to the greater. The leading characters of Troilus can be conceived of with equal ease as the elements or the fragments of the Prince of Denmark. (Even an element or a fragment of Hamlet surpasses an ordinary man.)  Hector, for instance, is Hamlet’s modesty and nobility combined with his inability to live up to his convictions; Troilus is his alternating female fineness and savage masculine fury; Achilles his brooding and inaction transformed in the end to their opposite; Ulysses is his intellect and craft; Thersites his contempt and incredible coarseness; Pandarus his wit and scorn of innocence. All this cannot be coincidence. But whether what we have here is some of the stuff out of which Hamlet was made, or a part of what was left over in the process of his creation, is not certain.

To anyone who has not followed the development of Shakespeare’s mind, Troilus and Cressida is two plays in one. There is the love story of Troilus and Cressida, with Pandarus as go-between; and there is the story of the siege of Troy, with Achilles and Hector and Agamemnon and the rest the center of interest. And the two stories are only loosely interwoven. To take the play so is to miss its main point. As Thersites’ words on war and lechery suggest, so close to each other are the  two themes that they are really one. What the author is saying is that the problem of lust and the problem of violence, and so of war, are the same problem seen from different angles.

Shakespeare had grasped this fact from the beginning, but his interest in it was increasing. In Hamlet (to trace a few of the footsteps of the interest backward), the sensuality of the court at Elsinore is the indispensible soil for the germination of violence. In Romeo and Juliet, those two sensualists, Mercutio and the Nurse, are the positive and negative instigators of the blood that stains the love and brings the tragedy of that play. But, still earlier, Shakespeare had written two poems the theme of each of which is precisely the relation of violence and lust: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Thirty stands of the latter are given to a passage wherein the heroine, seeking to assuage her grief and sense of outrage by the sight of others’ woe, stands in front of a canvas depicting the Greeks before Troy. In the story of their siege, and of the City’s fall, she beholds the image of her own desecration by Tarquin’s lust. Indeed she traces the Trojan War itself back to the same passion:

Thy heart of lust, fond Paris, did incur

This load of wrath that burning Troy doth bear.

For aught we know, this may have been the seed from which germinated Shakespeare’s profound insight into the connection between lust and war. At any rate those thirty stanzas are plainly the embryo of Troilus and Cressida.

The Iliad itself is an epic whose central, and whose initial, situation stresses the affinity or identity of lust and war, giving the impression at times of being little more than the record of the plundering expeditions and exploits of early tribes. But then again – as when the Trojan elders, beholding Helen, exclaim, ‘Little blame that, for such a woman, Greeks and Trojans should long undergo hard things; for to look on her is like looking at a goddess – it rises into a sublime myth of the relation of valor to beauty, a myth that, long after literal warfare is wiped out, will remain an undimmed metaphor of life. It suited Shakespeare’s purpose in Troilus and Cressida to stress the earthy aspects of his Greek-Trojan material, perhaps because they fitted so perfectly his growing perception that commotion in the outer world is frequently a projection of commotion within, and war, civil war especially, the best of all possible metaphors for the divided, or, as we say, the neurotic man:

Kingdom’d Achilles in commotion rages

And batters down himself.

Lust is the most fiery, the most devastating, the most deadly of the passions. War is the most fiery, the most devastating, the most deadly of worldly phenomena. What if the two engender each other in endless succession? Homer was interested in this question but formulated it in theological rather than psychological terms. Shakespeare explores the idea in this play.

The appalling power with which metaphors of sexual lust illuminate the nature of war, and vice versa, proves that they are based on millennia of human experience. The poets of all times have used these figures. To conquer and loot a country is to rape it; to violate a woman is to conquer her by force and plunder her of her treasure. The violence that attends sex when it is unmitigated by love, and the sexual excesses that have attended war and been its aftermath, are the psychological and historical demonstrations of the consanguinity of the two. (On an attenuated and ‘respectable’ scale, the same thing can be seen in what happens after a big football victory – or defeat.) The end of both military and sexual fury, this play says over and over, is self-annihilation. Ulysses expresses this idea, as it touches war, in his unforgettable picture of a world ruled by brute force impelled by primitive instinct.

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 every thing 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.

A universal wolf that finally eats up itself! such is the nature of force; and the nemesis of strength, to put it more abstractly, is a kind of self-cannibalism. Except for its final figure, Ulysses’ speech, as befits him, is grave, almost ponderous. Thersites, in a very different mood, says exactly the same thing of lust that Ulysses says of force. ‘What’s become of the wrenching rogues?’ he asks, referring of course to Troilus and Cressida. ‘I think they have swallowed one another. I would laugh at that miracle; yet, in a sort, lechery eats itself.’ ‘Two curs shall tame each other,’ says Nestor of Ajax and Achilles (which will remind readers of The Brothers Karamazov of Ivan’s terrible ‘Let the two reptiles devour each other’). ‘He that is proud eats up himself.’ ‘Whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.’ The play abounds in these variations on the metaphor, and in it conspicuously begin those multitudinous references to the lower animals that crowd Shakespeare’s tragedies from now on, culminating in King Lear and Timon of Athens. Human passions are like wild animals that tear and eat each other, Shakespeare declares, with the added characteristic that they finally devour themselves. Because in later plays, notably King Lear, he studies this cannibalistic aspect of all passion, we need not here collect the passes in them of which those of Ulysses on force and Thersites on lust are the prototypes.

Does some problem of the passions in his own life account for the terrible sincerity and intensity with which Shakespeare stresses and reiterates this theme? The Sonnets, especially those to the Dark Lady, have been held to point in that direction, as has the character of Cressida, and, in calmer retrospect, that of Cleopatra.

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

The accent of such lines, and others like them, has been thought hard to account for in terms of purely vicarious experience.

A deluge of ink has descended over the Sonnets, until they are hardly visible. Here is not the place to ask who Mr. W.H. was, or who the Dark Lady. Identifications of them are of only archeological or at least biographical interest. That there was a ‘real’ Mr. W.H. and a ‘real’ Dark Lady I am as little inclined to doubt as that there was a ‘real’ Beatrice in Dante’s life. But these persons may have resembled what they gave birth to about as much as an acorn resembles an oak. Of how little account they are to us! ‘The soul knows no persons.’ So, while their originals remain unknown, Shakespeare, though few seem to notice, tells us precisely who they were – poetically. Which is all that matters.

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,

Which like two spirits do suggest me still:

The better angel is a man right fair,

The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.

An angel and an evil spirit, Shakespeare says. Why not accept the statement literally? ‘Thou art the better part of me.’ Why not take him at his word? Certainly the plays have afforded ground enough for Shakespeare’s belief that man is two men in one, or better, a man and a woman. Surely the Young Man is Shakespeare’s spirituality [MY NOTE:  OK, Godard may be going off the rails a bit here], the Dark Woman his sensuality. The woman attempts to seduce the man – his earthy to betray his heavenly nature. All other interpretations – however true – are incidental and insignificant compared with these.

To win me soon to hell, my female evil

Tempeth my better angel from my side,

And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,

Wooing his purity with her foul pride.

And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend

Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;

But being both from me, both to each friend,

I guess one angel is another’s hell.

  Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt

  That my bad angel fire my good one out.

We read this, and think Shakespeare meant it ‘in a certain sense’ – that it is all just a manner of speaking. Whereas he meant exactly what he said. Poets always do. If only we can find out what is they have said!

Now Troilus and Cressida – the love story especially, but the war story too – is this sonnet writ large. It need not trouble us that the plot does not exactly parallel that of the Sonnets, nor that all the women in the play are not sensual, nor all the men spiritual. Symbolically, as in the Sonnets with the Platonic tradition behind them, it is proper that a man should represent the celestial, a woman the earthy or sensual principle. But actually both principles are present in both sexes, in the hermaphroditic man. Troilus recognizes this intuitively, and, when the full truth dawns over him near the end, calls the two natures of troi5the woman he loves his own Cressid and Diomedes’ Cressid. Cressida recognizes it too, also by intuition, and at the close of the scene in the orchard (III, ii), where for a moment she is covered with confusion by a sense of her unworthiness of Troilus’ love, she gives us a glimpse of the ingenuous girl, Troilus’ Cressid, who is being buried alive under the worldly witty woman, Pandarus’ Cressid. (Here perhaps lies Shakespeare’s deepest indebtedness to Chaucer.) It is one of those momentary contradictions of themselves in which so many of Shakespeare’s characters indulge and which make them complex living beings – a flash of pure sunlight emerging from dark clouds, only to be swallowed up greedily the next instant by still darker and more ominous ones:

Cressida: I am asham’d. O heavens! what have I done?

               For this time will I take my leave, my lord.

Troilus:  Your leave, sweet Cressid?

Pandarus:  Leave! an you take leave till to-morrow morning, —

Cressida:  Pray you, content you.

Troilus:  What offends you, lady?

Cressida: Sir, mine own company.

Troilus: You cannot shun yourself.

Cressida: Let me go and try:

(If only she had obeyed that impulse!)

I have a kind of self resides with you.

But an unkind self, that itself will leave,

To be another’s fool. I would be gone!

Where is my wit? I speak I know not what.

Troilus: Well know they what they speak that speak so wisely.

troilus act one part twoA momentary return of her girlhood! How fatal Troilus’ slip in choosing such a moment for even the faintest suggestion of praise or flattery. As if at a cue, his Cressid vanishes and the self-poised Pandarus’ Cressid takes her place:

Perchance my lord, I show more craft than love,

And fell so roundly to a large confession,

To angle for your thoughts. But you are wise,

Or else you love not, for to be wise and love

Exceeds man’s might; that dwells with gods above.

Later, suffering awakens Troilus to this dichotomy in Cressid’s nature, in the scene near Calchas’ tent in the last act, when he and Ulysses, eavesdropped on by Thersites, themselves eavesdrop on the love-making of Cressida and Diomedes (who had immediately begun to lay siege to her, it will be remembered, after she was sent, in an exchange of prisoners, to the Greek camp). Sensuality wooed by Brutality, the scene might be called, Woman wooed by War. Incapable of believing the testimony of his senses, Troilus cries, when the lovers go out:

Troilus:  Was Cressid here?

Ulysses:  I cannot conjure, Trojan.

Troilus:  She was not, sure.

Ulysses:  Most sure she was.

Troilus: Why, my negation hath no taste of madness.

Ulysses: Nor mine, milord. Cressid was here but now.

And we think of Hamlet and Ophelia, as Troilus continues:


Let it not be believ’d for womanhood!

Think, we had mothers; do not give advantage

To stubborn critics, apt, without a theme,

For depravation, to square the general sex

By Cressid’s rule: rather think this not Cressid.


What hath she done, prince that can soil our mothers?


Nothing at all, unless that this were she.

(And Thersites, behind, whispers to himself: ‘Will he swagger himself out on’s own eyes?”)


This she? no, this is Diomed’s Cressida.

If beauty have a soul, this is not she.

If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimony,

If sanctimony be the god’s delight,

If there be rule in unity itself,

This is not she. O madness of discourse,

That cause sets up with and against itself,

Bi-fold authority, where reason can revolt

Without perdition, and loss assume all reason

Without revolt: this is, and is not, Cressid.

Within my soul there doth conduce a flight

Of this strange nature, that a thing inseparate

Divides more wider than the sky and earth,

And yet the spacious breadth of this division

Admits no orifex for a point as subtle

As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter.

Troilus-2-361x541Historical critics complain of those who ‘modernize’ Shakespeare. They had better complain of Shakespeare for modernizing himself, as lines like the preceding, especially those I have [put in bold[, show. In them the classical, and medieval, doctrine of the angelic and diabolic presiders over the destiny of man, and contemporary ideas of the dual character of the unconscious, clasp hands over the centuries. Shakespeare stands between, and combines the virtues of their respective religious and psychological emphases.

The scene we have been speaking of ends –

In characters as red as Mars his heart

Inflam’d with Venus

— by Troilus being drawn through Cressid’s sin into a maelstrom of hate, a distracted and hyperbolic dedication of himself to the death of Diomedes.

And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend

Suspect I may, yet not directly tell.

If there is doubt in Shakespeare’s, there is no doubt in Troilus’ case. The bad angel of Cressida’s sensuality has ‘fired out’ the good angel of Troilus’ poetry, and, from now on, his mood is exactly that rash fury that characterizes Hamlet at the end. Indeed, Thersites, adding, as chorus his epilogue to the scene on which he has doubly eavesdropped, gives us a clear prophecy (unless it is a reminiscence) [MY FEELING!], of Hamlet in the play scene, as he ties together in words the two main themes that Troilus has just tied in act: ‘Would I could meet that rogue Diamede! I would croak like a raven.’ The very raven that bellowed for revenge just as Hamlet’s mousetrap began to spring! And it just here that Thersites puts in his ‘Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them!’”

“And now, with this orientation, let us run swiftly through the action of the play.

After opening scene in which we are introduced to Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus, we pass over to the Greek camp and hear the Hellenic chieftains debating why, after seven years’ siege, Troy still stands. Agamemnon and Nestor attribute the failure to the gods, who send adversity to men to winnow out the heroes from the weaklings, storms to test seamanship. But Ulysses has a less divine explanation. It is all because we Greeks have quarreled among ourselves, he says. We have failed to observe proper precedence and subordination, proper ‘degree’ as he calls it.

The long and imposing speech in which Ulysses expounds his ideas on order and priority has been widely admired.

Troy, yet upon his basis, had been down,
And the great Hector’s sword had lack’d a master,
But for these instances.
The specialty of rule hath been neglected:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: 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 fixure! 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 primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, 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 every thing 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. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general’s disdain’d
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 stands, not in her strength.

It is a powerful defense of the feudal idea, and above anything else in Shakespeare it is the stock-in-trade of those who would prove that he was a Tory in temperament and politics. Like everything Ulysses says, it indubitably contains much wisdom, the ‘universal wolf’ passage, for instance, which, a hundred things show, must have come from close to Shakespeare’s heart. But it is altogether too easy to pass from such things — as it is from the great speech on the ingratitude of time, with its

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,

— to the inference that Ulysses was continuously Shakespeare’s mouthpiece in the play. On the contrary, shocking as it will sound to some, he turns out, under analysis, to be more nearly its villain, and the speech on the degree, partly in itself but much more in its context, another devastating piece of Shakespearean irony.

Up to a certain point anyone must agree with Ulysses in a general way. Law is indispensable, order — short of the millennium, a sine qua non of civilization. Despotism and anarchy, as the History Plays demonstrate, are extremes that meet, but, if it comes to the hard choice, who can doubt that despotism is the better of the two, and, for ruler, even a Richard III preferable to a Jack Cade? But Ulysses means much more than this. His analogy for the social and political order he approves is the solar system with everybody in his appointed place and proper orbit from the center out:

The primogenitive and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels.

The Divine Right of the Status Quo it might be called — the dream of every autocrat since time began, as certainly as its opposite, anarchy, has been his nightmare. Totalitarianism is the fashionable word for it at the moment. What Ulysses does not see, or at any rate does not see fit to admit, is that the extreme he defends is as far from freedom — or nearly so — as the one he quite rightly denounces. To suggest that one of the world’s supreme lovers of freedom and individuality is an apologist for any such static system is too preposterous for words. Far from defending it, he is riddling it with holes.

to begin with, down even to such a detail as the touch about the beehive, the doctrine is identical with that of that ineffable hypocrite and militarist, the Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V, enough in itself to damn it forever.

In the next place, as he works into his theme, Ulysses as good as admits that this ‘order,’ which in theory is so divine, easily degenerates, as in this present predicament of the Greeks, from its centripetal perfection to a centrifugal fever of envy, wherein every inferior is jealous of his superior until the whole body politic is infected:

The general’s disdain’d

By him one step below, he by the next,

That next by him beneath,

and so on. Clearly ‘degree’ is not quite so ideal as it appeared.

But most important of all, the grave tone and great length of Ulysses’ speech (over a h undred lines interrupted by just four from Nestor and Agamemnon) of themselves put it under grave suspicion for wisdom in Shakespeare is not in the habit of incarnating herself in long moral harangues or weighty philosophical disquisitions, and those who indulge in them in his plays can, nine times out of ten, be counted on to contradict them in action — if not within about one minute after the speech is over, then in the next scene, or at latest the next act. The King’s speech on equality in All’s Well That Ends Well — as radical in sentiment as Ulysses’ on order is reactionary — is a good example. Having proved, with an eloquence worthy of a French Revolutionist or the author of ‘a man’s a man for a’ that,’ that birth and place as such are nothing, the King turns instantly to invoke the power of his place to compel Bertram to marry against his wishes. So here with Ulysses. Having proved that any violation of ‘degree’ involves the danger of anarchy, that at that peril everybody must be kept in his place, he proceeds forthwith to hatch a plot for pulling Achilles out of his place —


The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns

The sinew and the forehand of our host.

While he was theorizing on degree, Ulysses deprecated disdain and envy. But now listen to him!

What glory our Achilles shares from  Hector

Were he not proud, we all should share with him,

But he already is too insolent.

Ulysses has forgotten his major premise. A few moments ago he was saying,

And therefore is the glorious planet Sol

In mobile eminence enthron’d and spher’d

Amidst the other.

Now he declares,

   we were better patch in Afric sun

Than in the pride and salt scorn of his eyes.

The sun, as metaphor, betrays Ulysses as badly as it does Henry V. The sun is a symbol of the truth. Only those as sincere as the sun should dare employ it as a figure.

I have a young conception in my brain,

Ulysses cries, when the idea first dawns on him of having Ajax chosen by lottery instead of Achilles — to whom as chief Greek hero the honor belongs — to meet Hector in single combat. The gusto of the line shows Ulysses’ love of craft and plotting. (And it is dull ear that does not catch in it a premonition of a more famous intriguer: ‘I have ‘t! It is engener’d!’) But imagine a believer in degree resorting to a lottery! No wonder it is to be a ‘loaded’ lottery.


No, make a lottery;

And, by device, let blockish Ajax draw

The sort to fight with Hector,

and in an ecstasy of delight, as his ‘young conception’ begins to form itself in his mind, he concludes:

But, hit or miss,

Our project’s life this shape of sense assumes:

Ajax emply’d plucks down Achilles’ plumes.

So much, in practice, for keeping everybody in his place. And the ‘venerable Nestor’ whose ‘experienc’d tongue’ had power according to Ulysses to ‘knit all the Greekish ears’ to it, and who at the beginning of the scene uttered such godlike words about adversity, now, at the end of it, concurs in Ulysses’ scheme in these choice terms:

Two curs shall tame each other; pride alone

Must tarre the mastiffs on, as ’twere their bone.

Thersites, as usual, supplies the most pertinent comment when he remarks, not on this but another occasion: ‘A plague of opinion! a man may wear it on both sides, like a leather jerkin.’ If that was not Shakespeare’s ‘opinion’ too, nothing between the covers of his work is. The combination of psychological insight, cold malice, and artistic gusto with which Ulysses set out to stir up trouble puts him in a totally different, and lower, camp from perpetrators of crimes of passion, reminding us, in retrospect, of Pandulph in his

Methinks I see this hurly all on foot:

     …’Tis wonderful

What may be wrought out of their discontent.

and, in prospect of Iago, with his

So will I turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all.

This is what I meant by suggesting that Ulysses may be the villain of the piece. As a deranger of degree and formenter of the very anarchy he pretends to hate, he turns out to be an advance agent of his own Universal Wolf. Could irony go further?

How too well his wiles succeed, the event makes clear…”


So…thoughts so far?


Our next reading:  Troilus and Cressida, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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6 Responses to “Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark, what discord follows!”

  1. GGG says:

    Cressida in Act 1,part 2, seemed so “familiar”–like so many of the witty, engaging, spirited heroines we have met so far. Yet she meets a bad end.

    Reading the post and the scene yet to come with Troilus and Ulysses discussing Cressida, I couldn’t help thinking that this play presages Othello, too, with the angelic Desdemona who is in fact, pretty angelic, not a Dark Lady like Cressida seems to become. (Even though Desdemona meets a bad end too.)

    Seems like Cressida would be ample fodder for a feminist interpretation, especially given the passage (line 254) “Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend mine honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you, to defend all these; and at these wards I lie, at a thousand watches.”

  2. GGG says:

    I meant to add–I found this a very evocative summing up of the vulnerability of women in society, then and now.

    Of course, if you are Shakespeare, it could also be presaging the transformation to a “Dark Lady”–intimating that she is duplicitous?

  3. Mahood says:

    ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ … I always loved that line by Emily Dickinson.

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