“Time hath, my lord,/A wallet at his back, wherein he puts/Alms for oblivion, a great-sized monster/Of ingratitudes.”

Troilus and Cressida

Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Marjorie Garber:

“Another of Ulysses’ remarkable and resonant speeches, echoing down the ages, will demonstrate a similar point. [MY NOTE:  She’s referring to Thersites’ parody of his ‘degree’ speech.] Ulysses is advising a grumpy Achilles, furious at the way in which the Andrew Weems as as Thersites‘lubber Ajax’ has been lauded in the Greek camp, while Achilles himself, the former hero, is ignored or passed by ‘strangely.’ The whole stratagem, including the behavior of the apparently indifferent generals, Agamemnon, Nestor, and Menelaus, is of course Ulysses’ own devising, as a way to make Achilles reform his ways and return to battle. Consulted, Ulysses hints broadly at the easy forgetfulness of the times, and, indeed, of Time. The backpack of things forgotten and welcoming the newcomer ‘like a fashionable host’ while he coldly ushers a previous favorite out the door, is as recognizable in a modern world of ‘celebrity culture’ as it was in a world of courts and courtiers. Here is Ulysses to Achilles:

Time hath, my lord,

A wallet at his back, wherein he puts

Alms for oblivion, a great-sized monster

Of ingratitudes. Those scraps are good deeds past,

Which are devoured as fast as they are made,

Forgot as soon as done. Perseverance, dear my lord,

Keeps honour bright. To have done is to hang

Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail

In monumental mock’ry…


For Time is like a fashionable host,

That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’hand

And, with his arms outstretched as he would fly,

Grasps in the comer. Welcome ever smiles,

And Farewell goes out sighing. O let not virtue seek

Remuneration for the thing it was;

For beauty, wit,

High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,

Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all

To envious and calumniating time.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin –

That all with one consent praise new-born gauds,

Though they are made and moulded of things past,

And give to dust that is a little gilt

More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.

The present eye praises the present object.

Although this picture of time and fame is fully recognizable today, the line that often leaps out of this passage is ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.’ Often used as if meant something like ‘We’re all brothers and sisters and should love another,’ in context it means quite the opposite. What makes the whole world kin is the flightiness of the human attention span, the persistent preference for the flash over the solid, the new rather than the enduring. Whether or not this is ‘true,’ it is not a reassuring piece of ‘Shakespearean’ philosophy. Nor, we might say, is Troilus and Cressida.

Over the course of his career Shakespeare wrote three remarkable plays that linked the names of famous lovers in their titles.  One of these, Romeo and Juliet, was to become, over the ensuing centuries, the modern paradigm for romantic passion. The other two plays, Troilus and Cressida and Antony and Cleopatra, put onstage the love stories of ‘mutual pair[s] – to use a suggestive phrase from Antony and Cleopatra – who were already legendary in Shakespeare’s time.

The three love triangles have much in common. Each moves the story to a progressively wider stage than the last, from Renaissance Verona to ancient Troy to the Rome and Egypt of history and empire.  Both Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida present pairs of lovers whose love is doomed by circumstances beyond their control. In both cases the lovers are torn apart by hostile camps – the Montagues and the Capulets, the Greeks and the Trojans; in both cases the woman is torn from her lover by her father’s act of will. Old Capulet wants Juliet to marry Paris (a very different ‘Paris’ from the dashing abductor of Helen); Calchas, Cressida’s father, who has defected to the Greek camp, insists that she be returned to him, traded as a prisoner of war from the Trojans to the Greeks. Almost as if to emphasize these parallels, Shakespeare provides for Troilus and Cressida, as he did for Romeo and Juliet, an aubade, or dawn love scene, that takes place after the first night the lovers have spent together. In Troilus and Cressida, this is act 4, scene 2. As in Romeo and Juliet, the young man feels he must go because he hears the signing of the lark – incidentally, a distinctively English, rather than ancient Greek or Italian, bird. As in Romeo and Juliet, his beloved pleads with him to stay.

The lovers in Romeo and Juliet are young and innocent, caught up in a long-standing family feud. In Troilus and Cressida the ‘feud’ is the Trojan War, ongoing for seven years as the play begins, and again the lovers are overwhelmed by larger political concerns; they may be older than Romeo and Juliet, but their passions are as raw, as powerful, and as ungoverned. Antony and Cleopatra are old warhorses in love, and instead of being incidental and accidental bystanders, they are principals in the ongoing ‘feud,’ the struggle for control of the Roman Empire. In general structural terms, these plays put the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ worlds in conflict (night/day, love/war, passion/realpolitik), with the lovers, separately and conjointly, caught in the midst of forces they cannot control.

In Troilus and Cressida Pandarus begins the play as Troilus’ profane, joking companion, less romantic and more pragmatic than he about the sexual spoils of love. In this, as is Cressidaoften noted, he is like Mercutio. But his unique position as Cressida’s uncle and confidant also allows him to play a role very like that of Juliet’s Nurse, and, like the Nurse, Pandarus seems more amusing in the ‘comic’ parts of the play than when the action turns in the direction of tragedy. His bawdy joking with his niece Cressida in the first act, as he tried to persuade her to take an interest in Troilus, prefaces a scene – superbly crafted by the playwright to introduce a lengthy cast of characters – in which the nobility of the Trojan force ‘pass over the stage’ one by one as Pandarus points each out to Cressida. Her question ‘What sneaking fellow comes yonder?’ is clearly a teas to her uncle (the ‘sneaking fellow’ is the long-awaited Troilus), and the moment she is alone she acknowledges to herself, and to the audience, that she has already fallen in love. Later, when Cressida has learned she will be forced to leave Troilus and return to her father, Pandarus takes on, belatedly, the voice of Friar Laurence, vainly counseling Cressida, ‘Be moderate, be moderate” (4.5.1), while Cressida, like Juliet (and Romeo) refuses moderation: ‘The grief is fine, full, perfect that I taste.’

But if Troilus and Cressida looks back toward Shakespeare’s idealistic love tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, it also looks forward to Antony and Cleopatra.  As Troilus and Ulysses watch Cressida’s flirtatious behavior with Diomedes in the Greek camp, Troilus is confronted with a truth he cannot face or bear. ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ he declares in his agony. What he sees is the ‘same’ physical or material person, but not the person he thought he knew, and loved. Antony says something very similar, under comparable circumstances: ‘[W]hat’s her name/since she was Cleopatra?’  (Cleopatra later in the scene will also bring together reputation and name: ‘Since my love is Antony again, I will be Cleopatra.’  In each case the lovers express themselves in a language of boundlessness and excess that comes, at the end, into conflict with the mundane realities of the political and social world. Juliet says ‘[M]y true love is grown to such excess/I cannot sum up some of half my wealth.’ Cleopatra teases, ‘I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved,’ and Antony replies, ‘Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.’

In Troilus’ case the assertion of love’s boundlessness comes, characteristically, in a catalogue of poetic excesses; at the same that he incarnates the lover of the romance tradition he is detached enough to record the extent of that incarnation. The scene takes place in that classic erotic locale, the orchard. Pandarus has arranged for the lovers to meet there. Cressida appears veiled, and full of foreboding: it is not clear whether her fears are virginal or prophetic, but Troilus seeks to reassure her:


O let my lady apprehend no fear. In all Cupid’s pageant there is presented no monster.


Not nothing monstrous neither?


Nothing but out undertakings, when we vow to weep seas, live in fire, eat rocks, tame tigers, thinking is harder for our mistress to devise imposition enough than for us to undergo any difficulty imposed. This is the monstruosity in love, lady – that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.

Throughout the early scenes Troilus has expressed himself in romantic and Petrarchan clichés, like the Romeo who dotes upon Rosaline. In fact, the lovers whose language Troilus’s most resembles early in the play are the more self-mocking Rosalind of As You Like It and the delightfully preening Berowne of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Both are more self-knowledgeable than Troilus, and both, unlike him, inhabit comic worlds. Here is Troilus:

O Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus,

When I do tell thee ‘There my hopes like drowned,’

Reply not in how many fathoms deep

They lie entrenched. I tell thee I am mad

In Cressid’s love…

(Compare this to ‘O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love. But it cannot be sounded. My affection hath an unknown bottom, like the Bay of Portugal!’ [Rosalind to Celia]. And here is Troilus again:

    O, that her hand,

In whom comparisons all whites are ink

Writing their own reproach…

(Compare this to ‘I hear protest,/By this white glove – how white the hand, God knows!’ [Berowne to Rosaline, Love’s Labour’s Lost]

But with the realization of his desires, the sexual encounters that follows act 3, scene 2, 503148e0d373b.preview-300Troilus’ idealism, troped on literature, collides calamitously with political expediency. In the next scene, Calchas will demand the return of Cressida. We may notice that her language in the orchard scene is already, perhaps playfully (or innocently?) ominous.  Twice she says to Troilus, ‘Will you walk in, my lord?’ – the traditional invitation of the prostitute to her customer. Shortly thereafter, when it has been decided to swap Cressida to the Greeks at her father’s behest, this same invitation, ‘Please you walk in, my lords?’ will be spoken by Paris to the Greeks who have come to fetch her – including Diomedes, who will shortly become her lover.

Her devolution onstage is rapid. In act 4, scene 6, the scene of her arrival at the Greek camp, she is kissed by a whole lineup of Greeks (Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles, and Patroclus), bandies cuckoldry jokes with Menelaus, and promises the skeptical Ulysses a sub-Troilus-articleLargekiss ‘[w]hen Helen is a maid again.’ She and Diomedes are already on friendly terms. ‘Lady, a word. I’ll bring you to your father,’ he says, but is clearly already attracted to her and she, perhaps to him. Before long we will hear Ulysses’ categorical dismissal:

Fie, fie upon her!

There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip;

Nay, her foot speaks. Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body.

O these encounterers so glib of tongue,

That give accosting welcome ere it comes,

And wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts

To every tickling reader, set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.


‘Daughters of the game’ are prostitutes. Cressida, like Helen, is both a ‘slut’ and a ‘spoil,’ a trophy of the war.

The stage is set for Troilus’ disenchantment, which is as violent and excessive as his love. If Cressida is the anti-Juliet, so, in these latter scenes, is she the anti-Desdemona. As will happen in Othello, the jealous lover contrives to watch his beloved from afar, but in this case she is genuinely unfaithful. Troilus’ love token is a sleeve rather than a handkerchief, and it is undeniable that she does, in fact, give it to her new lover, Diomedes. Troilus, watching with Ulysses, is appalled and incredulous. ‘Let it not be believed, for womanhood!’ he cries (5.2.129).  This cannot be the women he loves:

If beauty have a soul, this is not she.

If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies,

If sanctimony be the gods’ delight,

If there be rule in unity itself,

This is not she…


      This is and is not Cressid.

(5.2, 138-142, 146)

Troilus’ despairing declaration, ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ tells the only real ‘truth’ the play has to offer. It is a ‘truth’ as metatheatrical as it is metaphysical, the actor who plays Cressida ‘is’ and ‘is not’ the figure of consummate desire and legendary inconstancy.

Troilus’ language here will mirror the fall from idealism to shuddering physicality: ‘The bounds of heaven are slipped, dissolved, and loosed,’ and now instead ‘orts of her love,/The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics/Of her o’er-eaten faith, are bound to Diomed/ (5.2.156-160). Diomedes gets the leftovers of love’s banquet. Troilus’ earlier, beautiful lines of erotic anticipation:

I am giddy. Expectation whirls me round.

Th’imaginary relish is so sweet

That it enchants my sense…

Are now turned to disgust. The prevalence throughout the play of this language of appetite and scraps, on the one hand, and of buying and selling, on the other, informs bout the story of Cressida and the story of Achilles. Commerce, the desired object made a commodity in the marketplace, is their common bound.

Shakespeare brilliantly sutures the persistent philosophical – and economic – question of value in this play, underscored by Troilus’ famous question ‘What’s aught but as ‘tis valued,” to the much more highly charged issue of a woman’s worth. For as becomes clear from the onset, Helen is worth a war, the loss of countless lives, and the end of a mode of civilization. Cressida – despite the fact that she is, if Pandarus is to be believed, as beautiful as Helen – is tamely exchanged for a single prisoner.

The play set up the comparison between Cressida and Helen early on, and frequently turns to it. ‘An her hair were not somewhat darker than Helen’s – well, go to, there were no more comparison between the women,’ Pandarus says to Troilus, who needs no convincing. When Paris’ servant speaks of ‘the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, love’s visible soul,’ Pandarus replies, with deliberate provocation, ‘Who, my cousin Cressida?’ ‘No, sir, Helen,’ says the servant. ‘Could you not find that out by her attributes?’ To which Pandarus retorts, ‘It should seem, fellow, thou hast not seen the Lady Cressid.’

Helen’s role as cause of the quarrel, and of the deaths on both sides, is widely recognized. ‘Helen must needs be fair/When with your blood you daily paint her thus.’ Troilus rails as the sound of battle disturbs him from his love reverie about Cressida in the opening scene. Barbican - Cheek by Jowl Troilus and Cressida - Marianne Oldham as Helen c Keith Pattinson‘I cannot fight upon this argument’ [1.1.86-88]. The Greek Diomedes will later be devastatingly forthright when asked by Paris who deserves Helen most, him or Menelaus. Their claims to the ‘whore’ are equal, he says. ‘You are too bitter to your countrywoman,’ says Paris, mildly under the circumstances, and receives in response Diomedes’ angry diatribe:

She’s bitter to her country. Hear me, Paris.

For every false drop in her bawdy veins

A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple

Of her contaminated carrion weight

A Trojan hath been slain. Since she could speak

She hath not given so many good words breath

As, for her, Greeks and Trojans suffered death.

[4.1. 70-76]

They all acknowledge this – and they all carry on the war, year after year.

In act 2, scene 2, Priam gathers his sons for a war council, and reports Nestor’s ultimatum:

After so many hours, lives, speeches spent,

Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks:

‘Deliver Helen, and all damage else –

As honour, loss of time, travail, expense,

Wounds, friends, and what else is dear that is consumed

In hot digestion of this cormorant war –

Shall be struck off.’…

Hector, consulted first, is clear in his own mind: ‘Let Helen go.’ He argues:

If we have lost so many tenths of ours

To guard a thing not ours – nor worth to us,

Had it our name, the value of one ten—

What merit’s in that reason which denies

The yielding of her up?

Troilus objects that the issue is one of honor; rebuked by Helenus for paying insufficient reason to ‘reason,’ he is sharp in his reply:

You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest.

You fur your gloves with ‘reason’…


         Nay, if we talk of reason,

Let’s shut our gates and sleep…

The center of the debate, though, comes in the subsequent exchange between Hector and Troilus, which functions in a way as the fulcrum of the play:


Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost

The holding.


What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?


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.

Troilus’ lengthy and passionate response again turns on the question of honor and commitment, and ends with an indictment of the Trojans for their vacillation:

If you’ll avouch ‘twas wisdom Paris went –

As you must needs, for you all cried, ‘Go, go!’;

If you’ll confess he brought home noble prize –

As you must needs, for you all clapped your hands

And cried, ‘Inestimable!’ – why do you now

The issue of your proper wisdoms rate,

And do a deed that never fortune did:

Beggar the estimation which you prized

Richer than sea and land? O theft most base,

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

Again, as with his profession of love to Cressida, Troilus speaks in terms of necessary excess: some things are priceless. Like Antony’s ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned’ (Antony and Cleopatra 1.1.15), Troilus’ argument balances ‘estimation’ and the ‘inestimable.’

The scene is interrupted by the appearance of Cassandra, ‘our mad sister,’ who prophesies, 16102_3444897as she will more than once in the play, the destruction of Troy that the audience well knows is about to come:

Cry, Trojans cry! Ah, Helen, and ah woe!

Cry, cry ‘Troy burns’ – or else let Helen go.

But Cassandra’s vision has no effect; if anything, it redoubles Troilus’ fervor. And when Priam asks Paris, Helen’s ravisher and lover, for his thoughts, Paris, too, responds in terms of honor: ‘I would have the soil of her fair rape/Wiped off in honourable keeping her.’ To give her back would be to acknowledge that she was not worth taking: ‘Well may we fight for her whom we know well/The world’s large spaces cannot parallel.’

Diametrically different values are placed on women and their roles: Cassandra, the prophetess, is disregarded and powerless; Cressida is unvalued by the state. Only Helen, ‘the subject’ of the quarrel, has any power at all, and her power is ultimately emblematic. Hector, despite his doubts and reasons, has already decided upon his ‘resolution to keep Helen still;/For ‘tis a cause that hath no mean dependence/Upon our joint and several dignities,’ and Troilus is quick to congratulate him: ‘Why, there you touched the life of our design.’ The shedding of Trojan blood is for ‘glory,’ not for anger or sexual desire, ‘She is a theme of honour and renown.’

Helen is a ‘subject,’ a ‘cause,’ a theme.’ Cressida is merely a woman, first overidealized, then devalued, finally dismissed by Ulysses as one of the ‘daughters of the game’ – a typical whore – after she is greeted by the Greek generals and kisses them one by one.  From the first, it seems, she is aware of the precariousness of her position, as she resists her uncle’s matchmaking, and Troilus’ importuning:


Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing;

Things won are done. Joy’s soul likes in the doing.

That she beloved knows naught that knows not this:

Men price the thing ungained more than it is.

That she was never yet that ever knew

Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.

Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:

Achievement is command; ungained, beseech,

Then though my heart’s contents firm love doth bear,

Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.

This prudent advice to maidens to hold off yielding in love so as to keep their suitors eager – a tactic that seemed to work for Anne Boleyn and has long been a favorite maxim of middle-class mothers with marriageable daughters – turns out to be advice that Cressida herself will not heed. Like Juliet on the balcony, announcing her love to Romeo (‘Fain would I dwell on form,/..but farewell, compliment./Dost thou love me?’), Cressida will acknowledge the social taboo and her decision to cross it in the name of love:


Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart.

Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day

For many weary months.


Why was my Cressid then so hard to win?


Hard to seem won; but I was won, my lord,

With the first glance that ever – pardon me;

If I confess much, you will play the tyrant.


        See we fools!

Why have I blabbed? Who shall be true to us,

When we are so unsecret to ourselves?

But though I loved you well, I wooed you not –

And yet, good faith, I wished myself a man,

Or that we women had men’s privilege

Of speaking first…

As for Cassandra, the unheeded voice of an inevitable and unwanted political and historical future, she has in this play neither the credit of a man nor the seductive appeal of a woman. Troilus dismisses her as a ‘foolish, deceiving superstitious girl’ (5.3.82). She is grouped, for this play’s purposes, with the world of dream and prophecy. When old Priam tries in vain to convince Hector to avoid the fateful battle, he names those who believe in such portents – women (Hector’s wife, mother and sister) and old men:

Thy wife hath dreamt, thy mother hath had visions,

Cassandra doth foresee, and I myself

Am like a prophet suddenly enrapt

To tell thee that this day is ominous.

(5.3 65-68)

[MY NOTE:  And of course, think back to the wives in Julius Caesar.]

Yet a powerful dramatic irony of the play derives from the fact that it is not only Cassandra, but also Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus, who ‘foresee’ so clearly what literature will make of them – and still do not believe. The question of ‘free-will’ for fictional dramatic characters is probably a moot point or a topic for scholastic philosophers, but in the case of Troilus and Cressida, whose existence in literature is tied so directly to this story of ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood,’ Shakespeare provides for the audience a scenario at once moving and tragic: the spectacle of two characters struggling blindly against their own mythic identities. We know what Troilus and Cressida do not: that their rhetorical flourishes (‘As true as Troilus,’ ‘As false as Cressid,’) will come true – have, indeed, already come true.

If the role of love and eroticism is compromised in Troy, the place of romantic excess, what role do passions play in Greece, home of the absconded Helen and the cuckolded husband Menelaus? Hector’s challenge to the Greeks, as Aeneas reports it, is couched explicitly in courtly terms:

[“]He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,

Than ever Greek did compass in his arms,

And will tomorrow with his trumpet call

Midway between your tents and walls of Troy

To rouse a Grecian that is true in love.

If any come, Hector shall honour him.

If none, he’ll say in Troy when he retires

The Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth

The splinter of a lance”…


The challenge is well understood in the Greek camp, as Ulysses notes, to be directed at Achilles, the acknowledged Greek champion. But who is Achilles’ lady? He has no ‘Grecian dame.’ Much later in the play we learn that he does have a ‘fair love,’ and that she is a Trojan, a daughter of Queen Hecuba. But in Shakespeare’s play this lady remains offstage and unnamed; her dramatic role is merely to send the letter reminding Achilles of an oath he has sworn, an oath that keeps him from fighting Hector even once he has determined to do so (5.1.32-30). It is not love for the daughter of Hecuba but rather his love for Patroclus that will drive him finally to abandon the courtly code and the rules of war altogether.

[MY NOTE:  And here I think in her reading of Achilles’ love for Patroclus Garber definitely has a leg-up over Goddard, who, for all his virtues, is still very much a man of his time.]

The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, who share a tent and loll on a bed, is both achilles and patroclusa heroic friendship and an erotic bond. Such noble, idealized, and eroticized friendships between men would have been as recognizable to Elizabethans as they were to Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, Theocritus, Martial, and Lucian, among other classical authors. Thersites, contemptuous of both men, is especially derogatory toward Patroclus, whom he calls ‘Achilles’ male varlet,’ and his ‘masculine whore’ (5.1.14, 16), as well as ‘boy,’ an insult to his warrior context.  In the same scene Thersites gives Achilles the letter from Hecuba containing her daughter’s love token, it seems clear that both the person Achilles addresses as ‘[m]y sweet Patroclus’ and the princess he calls ‘my fair love’ have claims upon his passions and affection. But when word comes that Patroclus has been killed in battle, Achilles is grief-stricken and enraged. ‘Great Achilles,’ Ulysses reports, ‘[i]s arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance./Patroclus’ wounds have roused his drowsy blood.’ Achilles, entering, calls out to Hector, ‘thou brave boy-queller.’ Setting aside the vow he has made to Hecuba’s daughter, he summons his Myrmidons. Dramatically speaking, it is Patroclus – not Helen, not any woman – for whom he will fight and kill Hector.”


So…I need to hear from you…what do you think of Troilus and Cressida?????


Our next reading:  Troilus and Cressida, Act Four

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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