“What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?”

Troilus and Cressida

Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


play_mast_TCAct Two:  Ajax questions Thersites about what is going on, but is answered with insults. Achilles arrives (with his friend/lover Patroclus) and tells Ajax about Hector’s challenge, but Achilles response is merely feigned indifference. Back inside Troy, King Priam and his sons are angrily debating whether they should return Helen to the Greeks and end the war.  Hector argues that she is not worth fighting for, but Troilus defends her.  Just then, Cassandra bursts in raving and predicting the destruction of Troy unless Helen is given up. Paris attempts to justify his original abduction of her, and the brothers are temporarily reconciled – and so the war goes on.


From Bloom:

“The pleasures of Troilus and Cressida, though peculiar, are profuse: Shakespeare’s exuberance of invention is manifest at every point. Troilus himself may well be the play’s least interesting character. At the start, he is lovesick – that is to say, so consumed by his lust for Cressida that we cannot distinguish him from it. Coleridge, in his poorest comments upon Shakespeare, asked us to believe in Troilus’s moral superiority to Cressida. Shakespeare shows such a judgment to be an absurdity. Cressida, in the vernacular, whether then or now, is for Troilus pragmatically what she is for Diomedes: a delicious dish. Anne Barton is finely precise upon this: ‘Cressida is regarded by her lover principally as matter for ingestion.’ Troilus, a vain and spoiled Trojan princeling, permits himself a certain idealizing as a lover, and Coleridge yields to it, even invoking the notion of ‘moral energy, whereas Coleridge allows himself to say that Cressida sinks into infamy.

Whatever the social distance between the lovers, Troilus nevertheless does not, for a moment, in this play, consider the possibility of a marriage to Cressida, or even a permanent liaison. His jealousy – far more, of course, than that of Othello, or of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, prophesies the Proustian comedy of Swann’s possessive desire for Odette and Marcel’s for Albertine. Thersites and to some degree Ulysses see it as comic, but Troilus is hardly capable of saying, with Swann, ‘To think that I went through al this for a woman who did not suit me, who was not even my style!’ Cressida suits Troilus very well, she is his style, and the style of Diomedes. She is no better than Troilus, and why should she be? Shakespeare slyly revises Chaucer’s Criseyde, in a manner splendidly noted by E. Talbot Donaldson in The Swan at the Well (1985), his study of Shakespeare’s relation to his most authentic precursor. Chaucer’s narrator in Troilus and Cressida is madly in love with Criseyde, as Donaldson remarks, whereas Chaucer himself, though charmed with the lady, has a few amiable reservations. But then, his Criseyde is considerably more reluctant to take Troilus for a lover than Shakespeare’s Cressida is.

Both heroines – Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s – are socially isolated, with only Uncle Pandarus, eager pimp, as an adviser. Though Shakespeare’s beauty is delightfully more forward, I agree with Donaldson that the two much maligned characters both enjoy the affectionate admiration of their poets – lustful admiration really, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet Shakespeare necessarily is far more savage: if normative standards could apply to anyone in this play (and they can’t), then Cressida is a whore, but who isn’t, in Troilus and Cressida? Troilus, a callow self-deceiver, may not be a male whore like Achilles’ beloved Patroclus, but he is military honor’s whore, and masculine self-centeredness’s whore, self-bought and self-sold. He wants only one thing from Cressida, and he wants it exclusively, and that essentially is his idea of chivalric love. When he loses Cressida to circumstances, he makes no effort to oppose those circumstances. He argues, and fights, to keep Helen for his brother Paris, but he clearly regards Cressida as being inferior to Helen, because possessing Helen brings more glory to Troy than holding on to Cressida can secure.”


And to continue from Tanner:

“Hector makes a comparable point [regarding the erasing of ethical categories with the loss 541145_10150776925461941_45079136940_9430467_1269829814_nof ‘degree’] in the Trojan camp when he answers the impetuous arguments offered by Troilus and Paris for continuing the war:

The reasons you allege do more conduce

To the hot passion of distempered blood

Than to make up a free determination

‘Twist right and wrong; for pleasure and revenge

Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice

Of any true decision.

In the atmosphere of this war, it no longer seems possible to make a true decision – ‘a free determination’ – between right and wrong. And if this ‘distinction’ is gone, then clearly all distinctions are at risk.

Of course, differences remain. The Trojans – Hector certainly – seem to retain a vestige of the old heroic code and traces and shreds of a chivalric ideal; they are more courtly and courteous than their adversaries. As Thersites says – ‘the Grecians begin to proclaim barbarism, and policy grows into an ill opinion.’ (V, iv, 16-18). When Achilles calls on his gang of Myrmidons to fall on the unarmed Hector, we witness the ultimate debasement, or rather abandonment, of any and every code of conduct – martial or otherwise. Achilles’ relish in the foulness of his act is sickening:

Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set,

How ugly night comes breathing at his heels.

Even with the vail and dark’ning of the sun,

To close the day up, Hector’s life is done…

The dragon wing of night o’erspreads the earth…

(V, viii, 5-8, 17)

It is as though night is falling – the curtain coming down (the play is nearly over) – on whatever values might have operated – in war, in love, in politics and government – in the pre-Christian classical world. Although Hector’s magnanimity in sparing Greeks at his mercy – including Achilles – seems like the cherishable remnant of an older and better code, in the current atmosphere it is disparaged as a foolish anachronism. ‘Tis fairy play,’ he says to his brother Troilus, who replies – ‘Fool’s play, by heaven, Hector.’ Fair is soiled, fair is foolish – it has come to this.

In this great meltdown of distinctions and values, which the play both portends and enacts, questions of value and valuation become of paramount importance. What is this worth? How do you esteem that? What are your grounds for attributing this value, this worth, this price? Is it intrinsic, or in the eye of the beholder, the appraiser, the attributor, the reflector? Here, of course, the debate among the Trojans as to whether to send Helen back to the Greeks is central. Hector is very clear in his own mind – ‘Let Helen go.’ He gives his reasons, and unanswerably good reasons they are. But Troilus invokes ‘honor’ and pours metaphoric contempt on ‘reason.’

You fur your gloves with reason…

…Nay, if we talk of reason,

Let’s shut our gates and sleep! Manhood and honor

Should have hare-hearts, would they but fat their thoughts

With this crammed reason.

Hector is too intelligent to be rebuffed and beclouded by metaphors, and simply, cogently replies:

Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost

The keeping.

At which point, Troilus articulates the central question of the play: ‘What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?’ The question implies an extreme relativism in the realm of values (and we may remember that in Hamlet, written perhaps one year earlier, Hamlet had delivered himself of the opinion that ‘There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.’) Troilus is saying, or implying that there are no intrinsic values, only attributed ones. Coming from a young man who regards himself as exemplifying, as incorporating, an absolute standard of fidelity, this is somewhat inconsistent, but inconsistency prevails in this play. However, at this point, Hector deals firmly with his younger brother’s casuistry:

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 th’affected merit.

Difficult words (as so often in this tortive and errant play), but Hector is saying that many Trojans, like Troilus, have made ‘the service’ (of keeping Helen) ‘greater than the god’ (Helen’s own worth). There is, he says, a lot of doting ‘attributive’ will around, which ascribes value without any objective sense of the thing or person thus evaluated. Mainly Hector wants to assert that something, someone, can be ‘precious of itself/As in the prizer.’ Simply, there are intrinsic, non-contingent values – values not dependent on the eye of the ‘prizer’ or appraiser. Things are not simply as they are valued. Hector is still capable of making a ‘free determination’ between right and wrong. Of course Helen should be given back to the Greeks:

There is a law in each well-ordered nation

To curb those raging appetites that are

Most disobedient and refractory.

If Helen, then, be wife to Sparta’s king,

As it is known she is, these mortal laws

Of nature and of nations speak aloud

To have her back returned. Thus to persist

In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,

But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion

Is this in way of truth.

In way of truth. This is the absolutely crucial moment in the play – is it still possible to think, and speak, and winnow your way down and along to ‘truth?’ Or is everything now merely a matter of ‘opinion’? [MY NOTE:  Somehow this seems vaguely topical today in the U.S…]  This is a word which keeps occurring in the play, as if to mock the unitary pretensions of ‘truth,’ until we realize the aptness and accuracy of Thersites’ outburst – ‘A plague of opinion! A man may wear it on both sides like a leather jerkin’ (III, iii, 263-6). There is opinion – lots of it – but so far from leading to the ‘way of truth,’ it seems to lead, scatteringly, away form it. You can turn it this way and that way, inside and out; good-bad; right-wrong; true-false – either way, a reversible leather jerkin. Hector is still speaking out for the stabilities of truth against the unpredictable sways and surges of the errant tides of ‘opinion.’ But if we think we now have a ‘fixed’ point, we are about to be monumentally disappointed. Hector is about to reverse himself.

Following his statement that ‘Hector’s opinion/Is this in way of truth’ – where for just one moment in the play opinion and truth are at one, identical – he announces:

    Yet ne’ertheless,

My spritely brethren, I propend to you,

In resolution to keep Helen still…

Having clearly perceived and delineated the ‘way of truth,’ Hector suddenly abandons it, swerves away – he ‘propends’ to the others, a strange word meaning leans or inclines, a tortive and errant movement and moment indeed. Cressida’s rapid metamorphosis from chase lover to one of the ‘daughters of the game’ – under gruesome Grecian mass male pressure, be it said – is not more swift or surprising than Hector’s defection from the ‘way of truth.’ Of course, Shakespeare had made things impossibly difficult for himself. He can write against the grain of history, as he often, dazzlingly, does. But even he could not rewrite history. Helen was not given back, and Troy fell. No way round that. Hector’s arguments cannot prevail if the play is to remain within the plausible limits of the legend. What Shakespeare can show in this extraordinary moment in which, for one last time, truth is unanswerably articulated and asserted, and then haplessly abandoned, is that truth, and a free demonstration of right and wrong, are prime casualties of war.”


And from Goddard:

cw_shakespeareanplays“If Achilles, the bravest of the Greeks, was not inclined to fight, Hector, the flower of Troy, was even less so. And if Achilles was being pushed into the conflict by the craft of Ulysses, Hector was doing his best to keep his younger brother, Troilus, out of the fray. Such a parallelism and contrast can obviously be the result only of the author’s constructive intention.

Among the warriors Shakespeare has drawn in any detail, Hector is the noblest and most heroic. Othello and Antony might be cited to challenge that statement. But Othello as warrior figures in the main only retrospectively and symbolically in the play that bears his name. Long before it is over ‘Othello’s occupation’s gone,’ as is Antony’s in another sense before Antony and Cleopatra is over. Faulconbridge and Coriolanus are just as brave as Hector, but they lack his ‘sadness,’ as Laotse would call it. They move in another and lower world (though Coriolanus ascended from it at the very end). If there were more warriors like Hector, there would be no war. He is as alien, intrinsically, to the military world as Abraham Lincoln was. For the truth about that world, there is no one to go to like a brave but disillusioned soldier. Hector is a warrior who sees through war. The tragedy lies in his failure to live up to his vision.

Strangely – yet on second thought not strangely, but prophetically – the first glimpse we have of him is about the most unattractive in the whole play. Says Alexander:

    Hector, whose patience

Is a virtue fix’d, to-day was moved.

He chid Andromache and struck his armourer.

In its ‘dumb cradle’ we might find the whole future of Hector in those two lines and a half. Alexander offers as explanation of Hector’s unaccustomed mood the fact that Ajax had bettered him in battle the day before. But we need know little of Shakespeare to know that the cause lies deeper than that. Hector ‘chid Andromache and struck his armourer.’ Hamlet excoriated Ophelia. Othello struck Desdemona. The causes in all three cases were the same: distress of soul, a tumult in the underworld.

An offer comes from the Greeks via Nestor to end the conflict:

Deliver Helen, and all damage else…

Shall be struck off.

‘Hector, what say you to ‘t?’ asks Priam. And Hector, who almost alone because of his unassailable valor can afford to say it, replies:

Let Helen go.

Hundreds of the Greeks who have been slain in her defense, he goes on to say, have been just as priceless as Helen. The speech in which he asserts it is just as ‘democratic’ as that of Ulysses on degree was feudal. Who can doubt with which of the two the author came closer to agreeing? But Hector’s utterance scandalizes his younger brother Troilus, who chides him for weighing the honor of a king – Priam – ‘in a scale of common ounces.’ Helenus, a third brother, here mixes in the discussion on Hector’s side, but Troilus has nothing but contempt for the pacifist sentiments of this ‘brother priest.’ As Caesar did the Soothsayer, he dismisses him as a dreamer. But he cannot answer Hector in that tone, and when the latter announces tersely:

Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost

The holding.

all Troilus can say is,

What is aught but as ‘tis valu’d?

It is Hamlet’s ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ The profound words with which Hector replies to his brother’s question sound like Shakespeare’s own answer to Hamlet’s great half-truth, the poet’s denial that human thought alone makes the distinction between good and bad.

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 inclinable

To what infectiously itself affects,

Without some image of the affected merit.

There, in serious vein, is the justification of Falstaff’s soliloquy on honor. There is the eternal distinction between imagination, which actually grasps reality, and idealization, which merely tries to impose itself on it.

The length and lameness of Troilus’s reply are the measure of the unanswerableness of Hector’s wisdom.

We turn not back the silks upon the merchant,

When we have soil’d them, nor the remainder viands

We do not throw in unrespective sieve,

Because we now are full.

Helen would hardly have been flattered by such an argument for her retention.

    O theft most base,

That we have stol’n what we do fear to keep!

the younger brother concludes, letting all the cats out of the bag of war at once! Here, in so many words, in a too expansive moment, one of war’s own apologists admits precisely that connection between war and robbery on which, if we are not mistaken, Shakespeare’s own Henry V is founded.

Cassandra, inspired or mad as you choose to think her, comes in, calling out:

Cry, Trojans, cry! Lend me ten thousand eyes,

And I will fill them with prophetic tears…

Cry, Trojans cry! Practise your eyes with tears!

Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand.

Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.

Cry, Trojans, cry! A Helen and a woe!

Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.

‘Our firebrand brother’! The phrase should be revived in our day. But notice that the fire with which Paris burns is not pugnacity but lust (and we think of an earlier firebrand brother, Mercutio, who burned with both), as the scene at the opening of the third act is especially designed to make clear. Its theme is ‘love, love, nothing but love,’ love of course in its prostituted sense. Well does the cynically wise Pandarus inquire: ‘Is love a generation of vipers?’ And when he turns to Paris and asks who is on the field of battle today, Paris replies, embarrassed, ‘Hector, Deiphobus, Helenus, Antenor, and all the gallantry of Troy: I would fain have armed to-day, but my Nell would not have it so.’ Helen, too, it appears, dissuades from war, as does Cassandra. But for what opposite reasons! And there is clear symbolism when, a retreat being sounded announcing the return of the warriors, Paris begs Helen to unarm Hector:

     Sweet Helen, I must woo you

To help unarm our Hector…You shall do more

Than all the island kings, — disarm great Hector.

It is the Samson and Delilah theme.

But to return to Cassandra. Hector, profoundly moved by her prophetic words and never doubting their authentic source from above, turns to Troilus and asks:

Now, youthful Troilus, do not these high strains

Of divination in our sister work

Some touches of remorse? Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

Can qualify the same?

What far-off echo do these lines start?

…didst thou never hear

That things ill got had ever bad success?

Henry VI! In those two passages, Shakespeare’s supreme peace-lover (among men of political position) and his supreme military hero embrace. Hector and Henry VI.  How strange a union! It confirms that the conjecture that the significance of Henry VI in Shakespeare’s spiritual evolution has been neglected.  [MY NOTE:  Thoughts on this?]

Troilus replies that Cassandra is mad, not inspired, and with characteristic logic proves the goodness of their cause by the fact that they are fighting for it!

Her brain-sick raptures

Cannot distaste the goodness of a quarrel

Which hath our several honours all engag’d

To make it gracious.

This pleases Paris, who, conscious that the world may accuse him of ‘levity’ in precipitating such public turmoil for the sake of his private satisfaction, declares that, if all the power and all the difficulties were his own, he would do the same thing right over again. ‘Paris,’ says Priam,

you speak

Like one besotted on your sweet delights:

You have the honey still, but these the gall;

So to be valiant is no praise at all.

This merited rebuke from his father for his silly utterance stirs Paris to a reply that probably registers the extreme ebb of logic in all Shakespeare. And yet what a searchlight it throws across three-quarters of all the wars of history, and quite particularly over the one that culminated in the Battle of Agincourt. One can fairly see Paris draw himself up to resent Priam’s charge of selfishness:

Sir, I propose not merely to myself

The pleasures such a beauty brings with it;

But I would have the soil of her fair rape

Wip’d off, in honourable keeping her.

[MY NOTE:  Again, note ‘fair rape.’]

So, and not otherwise, did Henry IV and Henry V try in vain to wipe off the soil of Richard II’s blood and compensate for the fair rape of his kingdom and that of France by honorably keeping them. More phrases that fit our day. It grows increasingly clear that this play does not deal with Homeric war, or medieval war, or Elizabethan war, but War.

And then Hector replied to Paris and Troilus – in a speech that is the crisis of the play. It is thirty-one lines long and every one of them is worthy of scrutiny, for they tell, with a kind of finality, how it is that war can continue in a world where all decent men agree in condemning it as a moral horror. They show how little you can end war merely by convincing people that war ought to be ended. They define, as no other words I can remember in Shakespeare do so succinctly (not even Hamlet’s speech on blood and judgment which says much the same thing), what constitutes the freedom of the will and what the two chief enemies of that freedom are. They suggest the only sound basis for international law. And then…

For what comes then we are utterly unprepared. One of the noblest and wisest, suddenly, without warning, becomes one of the most disappointing speeches in Shakespeare – the last thing we would expect of Hector. The reversal at first seems out of character. Yet it is precisely what we see around us every day, what we ourselves are forever doing, if, like the vast majority, we are reasonably decent, well-meaning persons who defer to the opinions of everybody else, especially of our own class. Why, then, if Hector does what we all do, are we so unready for it? Because art is a magic mirror. In it we have seen Hector’s soul, and know, as we knew of Hamlet, that he was created for something better. So were we. ‘Man will become better,’ says Chekhov, only when you make him see what is like.’ Here is what Hector said:

Paris and Troilus, you have both said well,
And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy:
The reasons you allege do more conduce
To the hot passion of distemper’d blood
Than to make up a free determination
‘Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision. Nature craves
All dues be render’d to their owners: now,
What nearer debt in all humanity
Than wife is to the husband? If this law
Of nature be corrupted through affection,
And that great minds, of partial indulgence
To their benumbed wills, resist the same,
There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth; yet ne’ertheless,
My spritely brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still,
For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependance
Upon our joint and several dignities.

This by way of truth – and yet.  ‘Yet ne’ertheless’: seldom can you put your finger on the very syllables that register the turning point of a play. It is what Bernard Shaw calls Heartbreak House

When he who might

Have lighted up and led his age,

Falls back in night.

From truth to – dignity. From wisdom to – fame.  From heroism to – glory. But most of all from one’s own soul to – whatever everybody thinks and does. Once more, ‘Falstaff on honour’ is justified.

No wonder that Troilus exults over the conversion of his brother:

Why, there you touch’d the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us;
For, I presume, brave Hector would not lose
So rich advantage of a promised glory
As smiles upon the forehead of this action
For the wide world’s revenue.

Troilus is for war so that the poets of the future may not lack materials and themes! It is unkind of Shakespeare, who is reaping the harvest, not to be more sympathetic with the sower of the seed.

     I am yours,

You valiant offspring of great Priamus,

cries Hector;

I have a roisting challenge sent amongst

The dull and factious nobles of the Greeks

Will strike amazement to their drowsy spirits.

‘Have sent’ – what a light that past tense sheds over the preceding scene! Here doubtless is the real reason why Hector capitulated. He had already committed himself, and did not have the courage to change his mind. He falls victim to a subtler form of the same weakness that undid Achilles: pride. And he hasn’t the excuse that it was a Ulysses who seduced him.

But if Hector fails at the supreme moment, it does not mean that his inner convictions are altered, or that he ceases to make efforts for peace. On the contrary. Especially does he attempt to keep Troilus out of the fighting. It is as if he reasoned: ‘It is too late for me to change. But my young brother can be different and better.’ The older generation – not to imply that Hector is quite that to Troilus – can always be divided in this respect into two classes: those who say, ‘We took it in our day, now let the youngsters take it,’ and those who, just because they faced it, want to save the younger generation from the same experience. Hector belongs to the latter class. But he has a tough subject in Troilus, who, as we have seen, is infected, despite the anachronism, with the pseudo-chivalric ideal of glory and honor.”


And this might be of interest.  It’s a link to lectures given by Marjorie “Shakespeare After All” Garber on Shakespeare’s later plays, including Troilus and Cressida.  Well worth your time.  (And thanks, Mahood for the link.)


How is your reading going?  Finding it easy or tough going?  Thoughts on the play?  On the critics we’ve been reading?



Our next reading:  Troilus and Cressida, Act Three

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning



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