Troilus and Cressida
By Dennis Abrams
Aeneas breaks the news to Troilus: Diomedes has arrived with Antenor, who is to be exchanged for Cressida With little time left, the couple tearfully exchange love tokens, and Troilus begs Cressida to remain faithful to him. MEANWHILE, in the Greek camp, preparations for the combat have been finalized; Cressida and Diomedes arrive, followed closely by Hector, Aeneas and Troilus. Ajax and Hector begin to fight, but Hector ends it when he learns that the two are cousins. Hector is then welcomed by the Greeks as an honorable foe, but the mood turns sour when the irate Achilles rashly challenges him to combat.
I find it interesting that while the Greeks and Trojans have been at war seemingly forever, there is one thing they seem to have in common: disgust for Helen and the war they are all seemingly compelled to fight in her name. Though Troilus joins Paris in defending Helen’s beauty and reputation, it is still revealing that he describes her as a commodity, twisting Marlowe’s infamous lines from Doctor Faustus to emphasize the ‘price’ of the woman who has “launched above a thousand ships/And turned crowned kings to merchants.” The Greek Diomedes, discussing the same subject with his enemy Paris later in the play, is not at all convinced by Troilus’s sense of Helen’s value: ‘She’s bitter to her country,” he spits out:
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.
In Diomedes’ cruel analysis it is Helen’s body, ‘contaminated’ by the frank sexuality that has led her to desert her husband, that is the root of their trouble. Thersites, probably the most cynical voice of all in the play (there is a lot of competition), boils it down further when he says that the war is nothing more than an argument over a whore and a cuckold, adding “a good quarrel to draw emulous rival factions and bleed to death upon.”
And to go back to the idea that there is no “rule in unity itself,” as Troilus makes clear in the play’s final act, that is nothing new: Cressida herself explained it to him at their very first, anxious meeting:
I have a kind of self resides with you –
But an unkind self, that itself will leave
To be another’s fool.
Although her words are simple (a rare thing in a play noted, I think correctly, for its difficult, knotty language), Cressida’s thoughts are densely intricate. She means – if even she knows entirely what she means – that while part of her “resides,” and wants to reside, wit Troilus, she also despises herself for becoming “another’s fool.” It is that sense of internal dislocation (for want of a better term) that seems to help explain why she acts as she does, and in doing so explain why she lived up to the reputation for which she had become infamous by the time Shakespeare’s play reached the stage. Her betrayal of Troilus is also a betrayal of herself – but so was her getting-together with Troilus in the first place.
“If Troilus and Cressida has a villain, it cannot be the paltry Achilles. After Thersites, the genius of the play belongs to Ulysses, who says nothing that he believes, and believes nothing that he says. He is not Shakespeare’s best portrait of a politician (various clerics dispute that eminence with various kings), but he might have dismayed any of several high personages at court, which again may account for Shakespeare’s failure to stage the play at the globe. Ulysses represents the state, its values and interests, he is the idea of order at Troy, the Contract with Greece, in the Gingrichian sense. His three great speeches, all undermined by their contexts, would qualify him to head our Republican Party, if not quite our Christian Coalition. Frankly a Machiavel, Ulysses nevertheless is more than a superb sophist. He possess grand gusto, what other law-and-order demagogue has so persuasively defended the oppressiveness of hierarchy? We hear the eternal voice of the societal Right speak through him:
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
The language is very different from the scurvy rant of Thersites, but the pith is the same. Who is the true nihilist, Ulysses or Thersites? The authentic chill that emanates from Ulysses comes when he speaks as the Elizabethan spymaster, Walsingham or Cecil, whom Shakespeare must have suspected of terminating Christopher Marlowe with maximum prejudice, and of torturing Thomas Kyd. As we hear Ulysses, we can guess shrewdly why Shakespeare suppressed this brilliant play:
The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Pluto’s gold,
Finds bottom in th’uncomprehensive deep,
Keeps place with thought, and (almost like the gods)
Do thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.
There is a mystery, with whom relation
Durst never meddle, in the soul of state,
Which hath an operation more divine
Than breath or pen can give expressure to.
All the commerce that you’ve had with Troy
As perfectly is ours as yours, my lord.
This sublime passage is doubly blasphemous, set as it is both against the Intelligence Service and (by implication) against the divine mystery for which the state apparatus professes to work. Church and state being one, then and (increasingly) now. Perhaps Shakespeare wrote this dangerous speech only for his private pleasure, as a protest against the evil that had destroyed his playwright precursors. It may have been prompted by the frankly agonistic declaration Ulysses makes to Ulysses just before this, perhaps the play’s strongest poetry, when taken out of its context:
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 devour’d
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 mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue: if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter’d tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing. O, let not
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 gawds,
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.
The epitome of this savage wisdom is the wonderfully sour ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin –,’ a reduction of all individuality and individual accomplishment that massively replies to the lament of Achilles: ‘What, are my deeds forgot?’ It is ironic that Shakespeare has composed the definitive formulation of the sadness to which his own work has been least subject. In a sardonic play so overtly aware of Ben Jonson (he informs Ajax, even as he does Malvolio in Twelfth Night), perhaps the warning of Ulysses was another offhand smack at Jonson, whose desire for dramatic eminence was compounded by his resentment of Shakespeare’s superiority. We only can surmise, as ‘gentle’ Shakespeare slyly abstained from any overt ripostes to Jonson’s acerbic allusions to Shakespeare’s work. Time’s envies and calumnies are universal; not merely Jonsonian, and clearly Shakespeare transcends the War of the Theaters when ‘love, friendship, charity’ go down to oblivion, while ‘The present eye praises the present object.’
There is a quality both exhilarating and disconcerting in this most powerful of Ulysses’ utterances. To call oblivion, total forgetfulness, ‘a great-siz’d monster of ingratitudes’ is to associate ‘those scraps [of] good deeds past, which are devour’d/As fast as they are made’ with the ingestion of Cressida by her lovers, an association that underscores the generic imagery of the play, in which lechery and gluttony are fused. In a phantasmagoria of superb energy, Time’s specious charity, ‘alms for oblivion,’ yields to time the fashionable host, who gives you a slight handshake as you go, and hugs your newcomer replacement. Everything in the play – the sexual delights of love, the rise and fall of reputations in battle, the persuasive orations of the ‘dog-fox’ Ulysses – is summed up by the pungent formula, ‘Welcome ever smiles,/And farewell goes out sighing.’ That embraces all action in the symbolic gesture of the panderer’s craft, and proclaims the play’s choices: Pandarus or Thersites.”
“Troy-Greece; chivalry-barbarism; it looks, at the beginning, as if some such simple dualism and polarity is to be envisaged – and to an extent something of that remains. The Greeks, certainly, are the real bastards of the play. But there is, throughout, too much ‘commixtion’ to sustain any sense of simple divisions and oppositions. When, as the result of the rather foolish challenge to a single combat, Hector is to confront Ajax, Trojan Aeneas says:
This Ajax is half made of Hector’s blood,
In love whereof half Hector stays at home;
Half heart, half hand, half Hector comes to seek
This blended knight, half Troyan, and half Greek…
— blended, melted, it is different to sort things out into stable oppositional – Troy-Greece – categories. As Hector himself recognizes (speaking to Ajax):
The obligation of our blood forbids
A gory emulation ‘twist us twain.
Were they commixtion Greek and Troyan so
That thou couldst say, ‘This hand is Grecian all,
And this is Troyan; the sinews of this leg
Al Greek, and this all Troy; my mother’s blood
Runs on the dexter cheek, and this sinister
Bounds in my father’s,’ by Jove multipotent,
Thou shouldst not bear from me a Greekish member
Wherein my sword had not impressure made
Of our rank feud.
But it cannot be done. You cannot say of a person’s body – or temperament, or being – that’s the Trojan bit and that’s the Greek bit. I’ll reject this, save that. We are all, put it this way, Trojan-Greek compounds or ‘conmixtions,’ and, going by this play, not the much better off for it.
All of this makes the question of ‘identity’ a troubling matter (you may be as much of a Trojan as a Greek, but you have to take sides). People seem endlessly uncertain as to other people’s identities. Who are you? Who is that? Is that so-and-so? Are you so-and-so? Such questions are asked more in this play than in any other of Shakespeare’s works. Even self-identity is in doubt. An early exchange:
Pandarus: Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.
Cressida: Then you say as I say, for I am sure he is not Hector.
Pandarus: No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.
Cressida: ‘Tis just to teach of them; he is himself.
Pandarus: Himself? Alas, poor Troilus, I would he were.
Cressida: So he is.
Pandarus: Condition, I had gone barefoot to India.
Cressida: He is not Hector.
Pandarus: Himself? No, he’s not himself. Would ‘a were himself.
(I, ii, 66-78)
There is a good deal of splitting of the self in the play – these days we would, of course, refer to the divided self. A simple example is provided by warriors meeting during a truce. Aeneas greets Diomedes very courteously, but says – when we meet on the field, I will inflict all possible damage on you. That is absolutely all right by Diomedes:
The one and other Diomed embraces.
Our bloods are now in calm, and, so long, health!
But when contention and occasion meet,
By Jove, I’ll play the hunter for thy life
With all my force, pursuit, and policy.
Which encounter prompts Paris to comment:
This is the most despiteful gentle greeting,
The noblest hateful love, that e’er I heard of.
There are the oxymorons of war, and in the event it is the gentleness and nobleness that go under, while spite and hate triumph. But it is the splitting occasioned by this war – ‘the one and other’ – I want briefly to say with. And while all the main characters are split – divided, fractured, fragmented – in various ways, the crucial figure is Cressida.
This play is one of three by Shakespeare which has for its title the names of a pair of lovers (Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra are the others). In fact, by the most generous estimate, barely one third of the play directly concerns the doomed lovers – and perhaps Shakespeare has not quite managed to make the private erotic affair fruitfully and illuminatingly coalesce with the public matters of the war – though he clearly wants to show love and war, or the erotic and martial, as inseparably intertwined. This is a play about the Trojan War, but still, the tragically split Cressida is central to the play, and she is aware of latent instabilities and divisions within herself, almost from the start:
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 know not what I speak.
(III, ii, 149-52)
There is a kind of hapless honesty about Cressida. Secure in Troy, there is no reason to doubt that she would have been sincerely faithful to Troilus; but in a new, alien, context, with new pressures, fears, needs, importunities, other aspects of her self, or other selves, emerge (for which of us would that not be the case?). Troilus seems to have some intimation of possible danger ahead:
But something may be done that we will not;
And sometimes we are devils to ourselves
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency.
And, finally, from Goddard (and I’m sorry I repeated some of Goddard’s text in two posts…):
“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 see, is infected, despite the anachronism, with the pseudo-chivalric ideal of glory and honor.
In the scene where Hector is to fight Ajax, Ulysses draws a penetrating contrast between the two brothers. He says of Troilus that he is
Manly as Hector, but more dangerous;
For Hector in his blaze of wrath subscribes
To tender objects, but he in heat of action
Is more vindicative than jealous love.
The encounter between the Trojan and Greek champions confirms Ulysses’ account of Hector. ‘Hector, thou sleep’st, awake thee!’ cries the disgusted Troilus, so casual are his brother’s blows; and Ajax declares that he himself is not yet warm. Hector’s heart is not in the fight, and the decision left to him, he calls off the duel on the ground that Ajax is his cousin!
The obligation of our blood forbids
A gory emulation ‘twixt us twain.
(Ajax was Priam’s sister’s son.) Here is another crossing of the battle lines! Another ‘touch of nature’ to make the whole world kin. Another seed of peace. ‘You are as much Trojan as Greek,’ says Hector in effect to Ajax, ‘to spill your blood would be to spill my own.’
….the just gods gainsay
That any drop thou borrow’dst from thy mother,
My sacred aunt, should by my mortal sword
Be drain’d! Let me embrace thee, Ajax.
And even the unutterable Ajax – who throughout the play stands for stupid brutal force – is momentarily softened; in words that we never would have believed could come from his conceited and boastful mouth, he meets Hector’s fraternal attitude halfway:
I think thee, Hector.
Thou art too gentle and too free a man.
I came to kill thee, cousin, and bear hence
A great addition earned in thy death.
Thus does a genuinely peaceful spirit in a courageous man beget peace in utterly unpromising quarters. Think, if Richard II could have met Bolingbroke so. And fancy what Hotspur and Mercutio would have said of Hector’s conduct! But Romeo would have approved.
Aeneas calls Hector’s attention to the fact that the two hosts drawn up to witness the combat are expecting more than this, as we would say, ‘for their money.’ Only a man of unimpeachable physical bravery could risk the unpopular answer Hector makes:
We’ll answer it:
The issue is embracement. Ajax, farewell.
But Ajax invites him to the Grecian tents, and, taking his hand, Hector goes with him to meet and eat with the ‘enemy.’
Then follows a scene of fraternizing and embracements that might have brought the4 whole affair to a friendly conclusion, if they could but have realized that there is no guide so divine as the spirit of good moment. Agamemnon says exactly this without realizing what he is saying:
What’s past and what’s to come is strew’d with husks
And formless ruin of oblivion;
But in this extant moment, faith and troth,
Strain’d purely from all hollow bias-draing,
Bids thee, with most divine integrity,
From heart of very heart, great Hector, welcome.
And of all the tributes in the play to Hector’s fairness in fight, and proofs that in his heart of heart he is a lover of life, not of death, that of the aged Nestor is most convincing:
I have, thou gallant Trojan, seen thee oft…
When thou hast hung thy advanced sword i’ th’ air,
Not letting it decline on the declin’d,
That I have said to some of my standers by
‘Lo, Jupiter is yonder dealing – life!’
(I add the dash and the [bold lettering] to stress Nestor’s meaning.) This from an enemy! Imagine, after that, mentioning the temper-mad, prisoner-slaying victor of Agincourt on the same day with Hector as an ideal warrior.
To Menelaus, Hector makes the mistake of mentioning Helen, his ‘quondam wife.’
Menealus: Name her not now, sir; she’s a deadly theme.
Hector quickly begs his pardon, and so it remains, characteristically, for Ulysses to bring the conversation back from fraternity to enmity by declaring that the towers of Troy are destined to ‘kiss their own feet.’ Hector answers modestly and unprovocatively, but just then Achilles steps up, and the two greatest warriors in the world confront each other, unvisored, for the first time.
Hector: Is this Achilles?
Achilles: I am Achilles.
It is another supreme moment. Hector, we feel, would have been willing to carry friendliness to the extreme point of peace. But the poison of injured pride, injected by Ulysses, has been working in Achilles’ veins. He thinks of nothing but the recovery of his lost laurels, and surveys Hector only in order to decide in which part of his body he shall destroy him. Achilles’ boasts draw boasts from Hector, for which, however, he is instantly sorry:
You wisest Grecians, pardon me this brag.
His insolence draws folly from my lips.
The scene ends – the genuine friendliness gone – on the note of enmity only momentarily suspended:
Achilles: To-morrow do I meet thee, fell as death,
and the next act opens with Achilles telling Patroclus that they must heat Hector’s blood with wine tonight and ‘feast him to the height.’ Is Achilles learning craft from his master, Ulysses?”
Our next reading: Act Five of Troilus and Cressida
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.