Troilus and Cressida
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: During the feasting on the eve of battle, Ulysses takes Troilus to Calchas’ tent to find Cressida. As they approach, they spy on Cressida as she flirts with Diomedes and gives him one of Troilus’ love tokens. Troilus cannot believe his eyes, but is soon besides himself with rage and vows to kill Diomedes. Back inside Troy, Hector arms himself for the fight – despite Andromache and Cassandra’s attempts to stop him. Troilus also prepares himself for battle, tearing up an unread letter from Cressida. As the battle begins, personal vendettas take precedence: Troilus fights both Diomedes and Ajax, and Achilles demand vengeance after his beloved Patroclus is killed. Though beaten back by Hector, Achilles sneaks up on him with a group of soldiers and has him brutally murdered – even though he is unarmed. As news reaches the Greeks, they become convinced that victory will be theirs. Troilus mourns the loss of Hector and plans revenge, and when Pandarus appears, curses him.
Once Troilus has been jilted (if indeed he has, Cressida writes him a letter which he dismisses out of hand, and we are never permitted to hear its contents), the play brings to an end its cycle of betrayals. Despite Andromache’s serious misgivings, and Cassandra’s unheeded (as always) premonitions of disaster, Hector is still determined to fight and heads out for battle. Though he quickly faces his arch-enemy Achilles, their first fight is inconclusive and they separate. But when the news arrives that Patroclus, Achilles’ lover has been killed, Achilles orders, then carries out, Hector’s death – unarmed and in cold blood. This epic betrayal, so immense that it even touched Hamlet’s players (remember Hecuba’s lament over Hector’s corpse in front of the Prince), effectively ends the play’s action, which closes with Troilus’ bitter insistence that “no space of earth shall sunder our two hates.”
But is telling that Troilus is not permitted to have the last word. In the earliest text of the play, it is the bawd Pandarus who closes the proceedings, ruminating on the betrayal of his own reputation. After being struck by Troilus for his behavior, he complains:
O world, world, word! – thus is the poor agent despised. O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set a work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so desired and the performance so loathed?
Pandarus’ final words are as grimly punning as ever, and they provide a troubling and enigmatic ending to the play. The impression the audience (and readers) are left with is hardly one of epic tragedy – the kind of tragedy that should be enshrined in Hector’s death – but neither are Pandarus’ jokes about “endeavor” and “performance” easy to laugh at, given the horrendous forced separation endured by the lovers. Troilus and Cressida ends, I think, like it’s position in the First Folio, stuck somewhat uncomfortably between tragedy and comedy.
“The audience cannot go mad with Cassandra, and have been alienated in turn from all the Greeks and all the Trojans. Thersites is a reductive truth teller, too horrible, too outcast for any identification. As for Pandarus, Troilus rejects him, as though the poor bawd were responsible for Cressida’s turn to Diomede, but by now Troilus himself is more than half-crazed and is wholly self-centered. No other play by Shakespeare closes with so explicit a rancidity, and indeed with a direct insult to the audience. But I wonder if even so sophisticated and intellectual an audience as the Inns of Court could have tolerated the outrageousness of the final identification that the syphilis-racked Pandarus proclaims to all of us:
As many as be here of Pandar’s hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall,
Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,
Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made.
It should be now, but that my fear is this:
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.
The ‘galled goose of Winchester,’ a syphilitic whore, is not a very appreciate audience for Pandarus, but who would be? Perhaps Shakespeare had intended Troilus and Cressida for the Globe, or even for elsewhere, and perhaps also a version of the play had moved a highly placed person to warn the always circumspect Shakespeare that, for once, he had gone too far. All of Act V, increasingly violent and disaffected, might have been the playwright’s reaction to his dilemma. We have (I repeat) no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida ever was played anywhere before the twentieth century, though some scholars speculate that it failed at the Globe, which to me seems very unlikely. [MY NOTE: How about Goddard’s theory that it played at the Inn of Court?] As a drama, it carries an odd aura of the forbidden, as though Shakespeare dares to trespass against the state, wholly contrary to his practice of a lifetime. I wonder whether Act V originally ended differently when Shakespeare still hoped to stage Troilus and Cressida? Measure for Measure goes further into societal alienation, and yet seems to me the less personal work. Critics who have suggested that Troilus and Cressida shares the concerns and sufferings of the Sonnets seems to me correct. Magnificent in language, Troilus and Cressida nevertheless retreats from Shakespeare’s greatest gift, his invention of the human. Something we cannot know drives him, in this play, against his own strength as a dramatist.”
This she? no, this is Diomed’s Cressida:
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. 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 fight
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.
Instance, O instance! strong as Pluto’s gates;
Cressid is mine, tied with the bonds of heaven:
Instance, O instance! strong as heaven itself;
The bonds of heaven are slipp’d, dissolved, and loosed;
And with another knot, five-finger-tied,
The fractions of her faith, orts of her love,
The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics
Of her o’er-eaten faith, are bound to Diomed
There should be one Cressida – ‘a thing inseparate’ – but she seems to have ‘divided’ into Troilus’ Cressida and Diomedes’ Cressida. There should be ‘rule in unity’ (i.e. one cannot equal two) but in the case of Cressida one has become two. Hence Troilus finds himself pushed to the ontologically impossible conclusion – This, and is not, Cressid.’ As he experiences it, there is a madness seeping into language itself: ‘O madness of discourse,/That cause sets up with and against itself: Bifold authority.’ Language seems to be going in opposite directions at the same time – with and against itself; bifold authority – an authority which upholds and refutes at the same time. Such is the double, self-contradictory, authority operative in this play.
It is particularly horrifying and unacceptable to Troilus that the bonds which tied Cressida to him and which should be absolute – ‘strong as heaven itself’ – ‘are slipped, dissolved, and loosed.’ Bonds were holy things for Shakespeare, too ‘intrince t’unloose’ (Lear, II, ii, 77). If they do not hold nothing else holds. And in this play, nothing else does. It is notable that Troilus, in his understandable nausea, thinks of Cressida’s love with Diomedes in terms of unpleasant leftovers – ‘greasy relics of her o’ereaten faith.’ In a play in which rampant appetite is allowed free rein, it is hardly surprising that so many of the activities and processes are likened to eating, with taste constantly sickening over into distaste. From the start, love, or rather sex, is made a kitchen matter – ‘He that will have a cake out of the wheat must tarry the grinding.’ (I, i, 15). Reputation in war is, likewise, a table matter: ‘For here the Troyans taste our dear’st repute/With their fin’st palate’ (I, iii, 337-8). War is a ravenous glutton – ‘what else dear that is consumed/In hot digestion of this cormorant war’ (II, ii, 5-6). So is Time – ‘A great-sized monster of ingratitudes./Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devoured/As fast as they are made.’ (III, iii, 147-9). (In this play, time is only and always ‘injurious’ – in other plays, ‘mature’ or ‘ripe’ time can be an agent of restoration, regeneration, renewed continuities. It is what always defeats evil when it seems that nothing else can. But in this play – it is part of its bleakness – time is only a gobbler-up, a destroyer. ‘What’s past and what’s to come is strewed with husks/And formless ruin of oblivion;/But in this extant moment…’ (IV, v, 165-7). [MY NOTE: Excellent point!] These Trojans and Greeks live only in the ‘extant moment’ – and it is desolating.) Agamemnon tells Achilles that virtues left unused ‘like fair fruit in an unwholesome dish,/are like to rot untasted.’ (II, iii, 122-3). But perhaps the most important food is honey, associated from the first with Helen, and by implication with the lubricious pleasures of sex. There is one scene in Priam’s palace in which Helen (‘honey-sweet’), Paris and Pandarus bandy innuendoes and the word ‘sweet’ is used seven times. By which time it has come to sound, and feel, distinctly sickly, sickening. One rather sympathizes with a latter, a spitting comment from Thersites – ‘”Sweet,’ quoth ‘a! Sweet sink, sweet sewer.’ In the epilogue by Pandarus, added later, he refers to the time when a bee loses ‘his honey and his sting’ and ‘Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail.’ As they have failed in this play. The play was to have ended with Troilus’ line – ‘Hector is dead; there is no more to say’. But Shakespeare decided there was just a little more to say, and he lets Pandarus say it. it is a speech about brothels, prostitution, venereal disease, and his own imminent death. No other play ends with such an unpleasant gesture to the audience:
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.
It is a strange play [MY NOTE: Understatement!] and in many ways a sour and abrasive one. Any intimations of grace and a return to normal human life are ruthlessly excluded. It is easy to agree with Brockbank that there is ‘no sense of betrayal of an heroic and chivalric tradition, for of that there were no glimpse,’ and his summing up seems apt: ‘Love’s infinity, heroic glory, and universal harmonies of state have only a transient visionary and verbal validity in a world that has lot touch with the values by which is pretends to live. (On Shakespeare, p. 10). There is little physical action in the play – Cressida goes to bed with Troilus, Hector is murdered. Most of the time, in both camps, is taken up with debate. Some scholars see this as supporting the theory that it was written for the Inns of Court, with its forensically sophisticated audience in mind. Certainly a lot of the rhetoric is strangely formal, intricate, hyperbolic. At the height of his anguish, Troilus uses words like ‘recordation,’ ‘esperance,’ ‘deceptious’; wooing Cressida intensely he says things like ‘What makes this pretty abruption? What too curious dreg espies my sweet lady in the fountain of our love!’ (III, ii, 65-7) – which is oddly elaborate, to say the least. The language usage ranges from the smooth political orations of Ulysses (often founded on banalities, clichés, and tautologies) to the snarling, splenetic invective of Thersites – ‘all the argument is a whore and a cuckold’ – ‘—nothing but lechery! All incontinent varlets!’ We must allow Thersites the validity and consistency of his perspective, but he is too biliously predictable to merge as the reliable voice of the play. There is no such voice. Interestingly, Thersites and Ulysses never meet and confront each other. Perhaps these are two discourses which can just run on, uninterruptedly, forever. Perhaps too there is a sense in which the play is an experiment in language and its possibilities – certainly, the characters seem to stand a long way from us, and hardly engage us as characters in Shakespeare’s other plays do. Nevertheless, it is a disturbing and disconsolating experience as Shakespeare shows us, as only Shakespeare could, how war devours everything.”
And to sum everything up, I’ve chosen this from Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary: the short chapter entitled “Troilus and Cressida – Amazing and Modern.”
“To start with there is the buffo tone. The great Achilles, the heroic Achilles, the legendary Achilles wallows in bed with his male tart – Patroclus. He is a homosexual; he is boastful, stupid, and quarrelsome like an old hag. Only Ajax, a chicken-brained heap of flesh, is more stupid than he. The whole camp laughs at those two giants, envious of each other. They are both cowards. But Shakespeare is not content with all this. Achilles and Patroclus play in their tent at mimicking the kings and generals. Often in Shakespeare clowns imitate princes. But here the mockery is even more cruel and spares no one. Heroes imitate clowns, and they are clowns. Only the real clown is not a clown. He makes clowns of princes. He is wiser. He hates and sneers.
Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded of Agamemnon; Thersites is a fool to serve such a fool; And Patroclus is a fool positive.
The fools’ circle is now closed. Even Nestor and Ulysses are for a while engulfed by this universal foolery; they are a couple of old prattlers, unable to win the war without the help of two morons.
And Troy? An old procurer and a young girl watch the warriors and the king’s sons return from a sortie fought outside the city walls. For them the war does not exist. They have not noticed it. All they see is marching men. In Troy there is also Helen. Shakespeare shows her only in one scene, but even before she has been shown Pandarus will have told us how she embraced Troilus in a ‘compass’d window’ and plucked hairs from his youthful beard. The buffo tone has changed; it is more subtle now, but no less ironic. In the Greek camp we have seen red-faced fools, big, fat, heavy barbarians mimicking one another. In Troy we meet smart courtiers with their small talk. Parody is still there, but its subject has changed. Paris kneels at Helen’s knees as in a courtly romance. Page boys play the lute or the cither. But Paris calls the lady from a medieval romance simply – ‘Nell.’ Lovely Nell, Greek queen and the cause of the Trojan War, cracks jokes like a whore from a London inn. The buffo tone, the great parody, the anachronisms and contemporary allusions, all this amazes us in a work written a year after Hamlet. Offenbach’s La belle Helene of 1601. But Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is not Le belle Helene.
For it is not the buffo tone that is the most amazing, but its sudden break, or rather its fusion with a most bitter philosophy and passionate poetry. In the Greek camp no one has any illusions. Everybody knows that Helen is a whore, that the war is being fought over a cuckold and a hussy. The Trojans know it too. Priam and Cassandra know it, even Paris knows it, certainly Hector knows it. Both parties know it. And what of it? The war has been going on for seven years, and it will go on. [MY NOTE: Afghanistan anyone?] Helen is not worth one drop of Greek or Trojan blood split in battle. But what of it? And what does ‘is not worth it’ mean?
Menelaus is a cuckold. Helen is a tart, Achilles and Ajax are buffoons. But the war is not buffoonery. Trojans and Greeks die in it, Troy will perish in it. Heroes call on gods, but there are no gods in Troilus and Cressida. There are no gods and there is no fate. Why then is war being waged? On either side it is not just fools who are taking part in it. Nestor, Ulysses, even Agamemnon, are no fools. Neither Priam, nor Hector, nor even Troilus – who hankers after the absolute – is a fool. In no other play of Shakespeare’s, perhaps, do the characters analyze themselves and the world quite so violently and passionately. They want to choose in full awareness. They philosophize, but it is not an easy or apparent philosophy. Nor is it just rhetoric.
The great dispute about the sense and cost of war, about the existence and cost of love, goes on from the opening to the final scene of Troilus and Cressida. It is a dispute constantly punctuated by buffoonery. One can call it something else: it is a dispute about the existence of a moral order in a cruel and irrational world. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, has faced the same trial.
The war goes on. Trojans and Greeks kill each other. If war is just butchery, the world in which war exists is absurd. But the world goes on, and one has to give it a purpose in order to preserve the sense of the world’s existence and a scale of values. Helen is a whore, but Helen has been abducted with Priam’s permission and that of the Trojan leaders. Helen’s cause has become Troy’s cause. Helen has become the symbol of love and beauty. Helen will become a whore only when the Trojans return her to Menelaus and admit themselves that she is a whore, not worth dying for. How much is a jewel worth? A trader weights it on the scales. But a jewel can be worth something else; worth the price of passion it has aroused; the price it has in the eyes of the person who wears it; the price given to it.
Hector knows all about Helen, and almost all about war. He knows that according to the law of nature and the law of the land Helen ought to be returned to the Greeks; that it would be common sense to give her back. But he knows also that to give Helen back would mean a loss of face, an admission that a jewel is weighed on scales and worth only as much as tradesmen give for it in gold; that traders and nouveau-riche ship owners are right in thinking that everything, including love, loyalty and even honor, can be bought. The war has lasted seven years. People have died for Helen. To give Helen back would deprive those deaths of any meaning. Hector makes a deliberate choice. He is not a young enthusiast, like Troilus; or a crazy lover, like Paris. He knows that the Greeks are stronger and that Troy can be destroyed. He chooses against reason, and against himself. To him reason seems a tradesman’s affair. Hector knows he must choose between the physical and moral destruction of Troy. Hector cannot vie Helen back.
This dispute is not carried on in a void. Troilus and Cressida is from the outset a modern play, a sneering political pamphlet. Troy was Spain, the Greeks were the English. The war went on for a long time after the defeat of the Invincible Armada, and the end was not in sight. The Greeks are down-to-earth, heavy and brutal. They know the war is being fought over a cuckold and a hussy, and they do hot have to make themselves believe that they die for the sake of loyalty and honor. They are part of another, a new world. They are tradesmen. They know how to count. To them the war really makes no sense. The Trojans insist on their ridiculous absolutes and a medieval code of combat. They are anachronistic. But from this it does not follow that they do not know how to defend themselves; or that they must surrender. The war is pointless, but a pointless war, too, has to be won. This is a proof of Shakespeare’s realism. Ulysses is a realist, a practici8an, a rationalist. He even knows mathematics. In his great speech he refers to Euclid’s axiom: ‘That’s done, as near the extremest ends/Of parallels.’ (1,3)
Ulysses the rationalist is also an ideologist, who constructs a system to suit his practice. He invokes the entire medieval cosmogony and theology. He speaks about the hierarchic principle which rules the universe, the sun and the planets, the stars and the earth. This heavenly hierarchy is paralleled on earth by a hierarchy of class and rank. Hierarchy is a law of nature; its violation is equal to the victory of force over law, anarchy over order. Not only feudal mystics try to find a purpose for this war, fought over a cuckold and a tart. Rationalists also defend the war. Here lies the bitter wisdom and the deep irony of Troilus and Cressida.
Hector has been idealized into a knight of the medieval crusades. Having noticed that Achilles’ ‘arms are out of use,’ he gives up the duel. Achilles has no such feudal scruples. He avails himself of the moment when Hector has laid aside his sword and taken off his helmet, and murders him helped by his Myrmidons. Troy shall fall, as Hector has fallen. She is anachronistic with illusions about honor and loyalty, in the new Renaissance world where force and money win. Hector is killed by the stupid, base and cowardly Achilles. No one and nothing can save the sense of this war.
War has been ridiculed. Love will be ridiculed too. Helen is a tart, Cressida will be sent to the Greek camp and will become a tart. The transfer of Cressida to the Greek camp is not only part of the action of the play; it is also a great metaphor.
Cressida is one of the most amazing Shakespearean characters, perhaps equally amazing as Hamlet. And, like Hamlet, she has many aspects and cannot be defined by a single formula.
This girl would have been eight, ten, or twelve years old when the war started. Maybe that is why the war seems so normal and ordinary to her that she almost does not notice it and never talks about it. Cressida has not yet been touched, but she knows all a bout love, and about sleeping with men; or at any rate she thinks she knows. She is inwardly free, conscious and daring. She belongs to the Renaissance, but she is also a Stendhal type akin to Lamiel, and she is a teen-age girl of the mid-twentieth century. She is cynical, or rather would be cynical. She has seen too much. She is bitter and ironic. She is passionate, afraid of her passion and ashamed to admit it. She is even more afraid of feelings. She distrusts herself. She is our contemporary because of this self-distrust, reserve, and a need of self-analysis. She defends herself by irony.
In Shakespeare a character never exists without a situation. Cressida is seventeen. Her own uncle procures her for Troilus and brings a lover to her bed. Cynical Cressida wants to be more cynical than her uncle; bitter Cressida scoffs at confidences; passionate Cressida is the first to provoke a kiss. And it is at this point that she loses all her self-confidence, becomes affectionate, blushing and shy; she is now her age again:
….I would be gone.
Where is my wit? I know not what I speak.
This is one of Shakespeare’s most profound love scenes. The balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, set all in one key, is just a bird’s love song. Here we have everything. There is conscious cruelty in this meeting of Troilus and Cressida. They have been brought together by a procurer. His chuckle accompanies them on the first night of their love.
There is no place for love in this world. Love is poisoned from the outset. These wartime lovers have been given just one night. And even that night has been spoilt. It has been deprived of all its poetry. It has been defiled. Cressida has not noticed the war. The war reached her at the break of dawn, after her first night with Troilus.
You men will never tarry.
O foolish Cressid! I might have still held off,
And then you would have tarried.
Pandarus had procured Cressida like some goods. Now, like goods, she will be exchanged with the Greeks for a captured Trojan general. She has to leave at once, the very morning after her first night. Cressida is seventeen. An experience like this is enough. Cressida will go to the Greeks. But it will be a different Cressida. Until now she has known love only in imagination. Now she has come to know it in reality. During one night. She is violently awakened. She realizes that the world is too vile and cruel for anything to be worth defending. Even on her way to the Greek camp Diomedes makes brutal advances to her. Then she is kissed in turn by the generals and princes, old, great and famous men: Nestor, Agamemnon, Ulysses. She has realized that beauty arouses desire. She can still mock. But she already knows she will become a tart. Only before that happens, she has to destroy everything, so that not even memory remains. She is consistent.
Before her departure for the Greek camp she exchanges with Troilus a glove for a sleeve. Never mind these medieval props. She could equally well have exchanged rings with Troilus. Details are not important. What matters is the pledge of faith itself. That very evening Diomedes will ask Cressida for Troilus’ sleeve. And Cressida will give it to him. She did not have to give it. She could have become Diomedes’ mistress without doing so. And yet she could not. First she had to kill everything in herself. Cressida went to bed with Diomedes, as Lady Anne went to bed with Richard who had killed her husband and father.
In this tragicomedy there are two great parts for clowns. The sweet clown Pandarus in Troy, and the bitter clown Thersites in the Greek camp. Pandarus is a kind-hearted fool who wants to do his best for everybody, and make the bed for every couple. He lives as if the world were one great farce. But cruelty will reach him as well. The old procurer will weep. But his cry will evoke neither pity nor compassion.
Only the bitter fool Thersites is free from all illusions. This born misanthrope regards the world as a grim grotesque:
Would I could meet that rogue Diomed! I would croak like a raven; I would bode, I would bode. Patroclus will give me anything for the intelligence of this whore. The parrot will not do more for an almond than he for a commodious drab. Lechery, lechery! still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them!
Let us imagine a different ending for Othello. He does not murder Desdemona. He knows she could have been unfaithful; he also knows he could murder her. He agrees with Iago: If Desdemona could be unfaithful, if he could believe in her infidelity, and if he could murder her, then the world is base and vile. Murder becomes unnecessary. It is enough to leave.
In tragedy the protagonists die, but the moral order is preserved. Their death confirms the existence of the absolute. In this amazing play Troilus neither dies himself, nor does he kill the unfaithful Cressida. There is no catharsis. Even the death of Hector is not fully tragic. Hero that he is, he pays for a noble gesture and dies surrounded by Myrmidons, stabbed by a boastful coward. There is irony in his death, too.
Grotesque is more cruel than tragedy. Thersites is right. But what of it? Thersites is vile himself.”
And so we come to the end of another play. What are your thoughts? Did you like it? Hate it? How would you rate it? SHARE WITH THE GROUP! (You’ve all been WAY too quiet…)
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning – Shakespeare Sonnet #133
Our next play: One of my personal favorites, Measure for Measure, with my introductory post on Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.