What can I possibly say about Troilus and Cressida, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and least popular plays, especially when I’m reading it for the first time, without knowing either Homer’s Iliad or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde? Let this simply be a record of my first impressions of the play.
1/ Shakespeare throws us into the middle of the Trojan War, and after the prologue, brings us straight to Troilus. This is unusual—Shakespeare tends to start with some supporting characters and possibly have them talk about the protagonists before they appear on stage.
Troilus no longer has interest in fighting.
“TROILUS […] Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair,
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.
I cannot fight upon this argument;
It is too starved a subject for my sword…”
(Act 1 scene 1)
He’s no longer interested in the war because he’s infatuated with Cressida.
“TROILUS […] I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid’s love; thou answer’st she is fair,
Pour’st in the open ulcer of my heart
Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice;
Handlest in thy discourse, O, that her hand
In whose comparison all whites are ink,
Writing their own reproaches…”
Whom does he remind me of? Orsino. Troilus and Cressida is dated around the same time as Twelfth Night. Cressida, however, is not Olivia: she does like Troilus but does not want to yield easily.
2/ In the first scene, Troilus and Pandarus compare the women. In the second scene, Pandarus and his niece Cressida compare the men. The language, as people say, is knotty.
“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 each 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. Well, the gods are above; time must friend or end. Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body. No, Hector is not a better man than Troilus.”
(Act 1 scene 2)
Pandarus means Troilus is not himself because he is in love, but may there be something more than that?
They go on for some more, and at some point start talking about Troilus’s complexion.
“PANDARUS […] Helen herself swore th’ other day that Troilus, for a brown favor—for so ‘tis, I must confess—not brown neither—
CRESSIDA No, but brown.
PANDARUS Faith, to say truth, brown and not brown.
CRESSIDA To say the truth, true and not true.”
This has an echo later in Troilus’s speech, after he witnesses Cressida’s betrayal:
“TROILUS 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 was not she. […]
This is, and is not, Cressid…”
(Act 5 scene 2)
This is why it gets on my nerves when people share Polonius’s line as though it’s Shakespeare’s own advice, “To thine own self be true”. What self? Shakespeare knows each of us has several selves, and we often don’t understand ourselves.
3/ I’ve read that there’s lots of debate about Ulysses’s degree speech in Act 1 scene 3 (degree here means rank, station, standing, respect, order, hierarchy). Is it evidence, as some people say, that Shakespeare is a conservative in favour of order and hierarchy? After all, in King Lear there’s no respect for degree and everything turns upside down—all is chaos. Or is it like usual—Shakespeare’s characters are not necessarily Shakespeare? Or is it more complex?
“ULYSSES […] Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. […]
Force should be right, or rather right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too…”
(Act 1 scene 3)
The speech is soon undermined as Ulysses ignores order, ignores right and wrong, and plots to rig an election and get Ajax (instead of Achilles) to fight Hector, with the intention of provoking Achilles back into battle. He is pragmatic and scheming.
4/ There seem to be more debates and long speeches in Troilus and Cressida than in other Shakespeare plays I’ve read, even the histories. 2 scenes later, there’s a debate in the Trojan camp about whether to return Helen to the Greeks or continue the war.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths, perhaps (partly) thanks to the teaching of rhetoric in grammar school, is that he can argue any side. Hector argues for reason “What merit’s in that reason which denies/ The yielding of her up?”, Troilus argues against reason:
“TROILUS […] Nah, 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. Reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject.”
(Act 2 scene 2)
Sadly, the ability to see different arguments and points of view and argue for different sides is no longer considered a virtue in the current climate.
Troilus is contrasted with his father Priam and his brothers Hector and Helenus, but I think he may also be contrasted with the pragmatic Ulysses: if Ulysses thinks that whatever needs to be done at any point in time is the right thing to do, the just thing to do, Troilus is more of an idealist. He doesn’t believe in the war, as we see in the first scene, but he believes in honour, and they have to continue fighting because of honour.
“TROILUS […] 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!
But thieves unworthy of a thing so stol’n,
That in their country did them that disgrace
We fear to warrant in our native place.”
The conversation is also interesting because Hector thinks a thing (in this case, Helen) may have or lack intrinsic value, whereas Troilus thinks “What’s aught but as ‘tis valued?” (ibid.).
I think Hector comes across as the most noble and reasonable character—not only in the scene but in the entire play—whereas Troilus appears too idealistic. I can’t help thinking that at that point Shakespeare sways heavily to Hector’s side and gives him (too many) strong arguments, only to be defeated by history, so when Hector finally yields to Paris and Troilus, it doesn’t seem wholly convincing.
Speaking of Paris, he just seems indifferent to the troubles he has caused (an entire war!). When we see Paris and Helen later in the play, both come across as self-centred and shallow. And when he hears the news about Cressida, he doesn’t empathise with Troilus either:
“PARIS There is no help.
The bitter disposition of the time
Will have it so…”
(Act 4 scene 1)
5/ The meeting of Troilus and Cressida must be one of the greatest love scenes in Shakespeare. It almost seems like a parody of Romeo and Juliet, with Pandarus being present and acting like a bawd. But it’s a great scene.
I’m just going to pick out a few lines from Cressida:
“CRESSIDA […] If I confess much you will play the tyrant.
[…] 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…”
(Act 3 scene 2)
The entire speech is wonderful—sorry for butchering it—but look! Do these lines not make you think of Viola in Twelfth Night? She confesses her love first, not only when she’s Cesario but also after she has revealed herself to be Viola (though still in men’s clothing). And in her irrational submission, she allows Orsino to play the tyrant.
6/ Thersites is perhaps the darkest, most bitter and hateful fool in Shakespeare (he’s a soldier but functions as a fool). His curses remind me of Caliban in The Tempest, but he’s much nastier. You can’t imagine something like “The isle is full of noises/ Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not…” coming out of Thersites’s mouth.
But he sees through everyone. And, admit it, he’s hilarious. I mean, he says to Ajax:
“… thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in my elbows; an asinico may tutor thee.” (Act 2 scene 1)
“This lord, Achilles, Ajax, who wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head…” (ibid.)
“The common curse of mankind, folly and ignorance, be thine in great revenue.” (Act 2 scene 3)
“Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol of idiot-worshippers, here’s a letter for thee.” (Act 5 scene 1)
“he has not so much brain as ear-wax.” (ibid.)
And about himself:
“I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” (Act 5 scene 7)
G. Wilson Knight says:
“[Thersites] is cynicism incarnate: a demoniac spirit of keen critical apprehension, who sees the stupid and sordid aspects of mankind, fit only for jeers with which he salutes them in full measure. His critical intellect measures man always by intellectual standards. He sees folly everywhere, and finds no wisdom in mankind’s activity. He sees one side of the picture only: man’s stupidity.” (The Wheel of Fire)
7/ Compared to other Shakespeare plays, I think Troilus and Cressida is much bitterer. He doesn’t hold back.
When Paris foolishly asks Diomedes, a Greek commander, if he (Paris) or Menelaus “deserves fair Helen best”, Diomedes goes on a harsh rant, calling Helen a whore, Menelaus a cuckold, and Paris a lecher.
“PARIS You are too bitter to your countrywoman.
DIOMEDES 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 Troyan hath been slain. Since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Troyans suffered death.”
(Act 4 scene 1)
Paris can only give a weak response.
Under Shakespeare’s pen, the war is pointless; Paris and Helen are shallow, and indifferent about the sufferings and deaths they have caused; Pandarus acts like a pimp; Ulysses is cunning and sly; Ajax is strong but a fool; Patroclus is Achilles’s “masculine whore” (to use Thersites’s word); most commanders have no regard for honour; and above all, Achilles in the play is nothing like the heroic image we associate with him but instead, he is proud and full of himself and unreasonable—Shakespeare removes the reason he refuses to fight—and at the end Achilles kills Hector in an unhonourable, despicable way.
It’s no wonder that Nuttall says “Troilus and Cressida is the play that Hamlet could have written”.
When the play ends, the war is still raging on; the Troilus-Cressida plot hasn’t been resolved; there’s no sense of culmination, let alone resolution; there seems to be nothing but war and lechery; and the last words of the play are spoken by the revolting Pandarus:
“PANDARUS […] Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.”
(Act 5 scene 10)
Troilus and Cressida, frankly speaking, is a very unpleasant play. There are many great things in it, but it’s still a deeply unpleasant play. In Hamlet, Hamlet is cold, cynical, and in some ways inhuman, but there’s warmth and life in other characters of the play. Othello has Desdemona and Emilia. King Lear has Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the Fool, and the unnamed servant who kills Cornwall and avenges Gloucester.
There is no redeeming thing in Troilus and Cressida, and the only truly noble character is Hector, but he’s killed, and his death somehow feels like an anti-climax. “Hector is dead; there is no more to say”. I’m not sure how I feel about Troilus.
I’m going to end my blog post with Tony Tanner’s words:
“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.” (Introduction)