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Troilus and Cressida
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:23 pm - Troilus and Cressida
I attended Troilus and Cressida two years ago by a group calling themselves The Theatre For A New Audience. Ensconced in a large open theatre on 42nd Street near Sixth Avenue they put up in my view the most relevant play for my current society I have scene in years. For that reason I want to concentrate in this essay on the play itself; I would like to commend if in passing this audacious and quintessentially theatrical ensemble for giving a gritty and focuses account of Shakespeare’s dour polemic on illusion and reality. It was authentic, spoke with the author’s voice, was at all times measuredly and unobtrusively dedicated to his fierce and coruscating discourse.
I would guess that Shakespeare wrote Troilus And Cressida after reading Chapman’s translation of Homer. Rather interestingly, Shakespeare even mentions Chapman in the play, talking of the “Chapman” who traded in a market. “Chapman” meant in his times a merchant or peddlar; the ultimate punster, Shakespeare can’t resist the pun. Like the line about the face that launched a thousand ships, echoing Marlowe,
It’s a little tag by a rope dancer with words to amuse the cognoscenti. Chapman might have annoyed Shakespeare as a playwright. His speciality was the heroic play about a hero of every virtue and strength. It might have been watching one of Chapman’s extravaganzas and scoffing at their posturing that set him off. The initial speech of Pandarus about the many ways one can see what one desires might have been Shakespeare’s initial commentary on this peddlar of heroic fustian.
If that weren’t enough of an homage to Chapman by this shameless punster, I base my speculation that he was running a hit on poor Chapman on three bits of evidence: the narrator begins by telling us his tale commences “in the middle of the story”, a clear reference to Chapman’s Iliad, there are some long rhymed sequences which are not typical of later Shakespeare but very much the style of Chapman; who wrote his translation in heroic couplets.
Chapman was also a playwright; one imagines him at least once sitting in the audience while Shakespeare used his name. What Chapman thought of the burlesque is unrecorded. It isn’t a good natured spoof.
Shakespeare had a “magpie” quality, as Greene noted, that generally began working as a take on somebody else’s plot or work such as his version of Marlowe, Greene, Fletcher, Kyd, etc. and the whole large scale, innumerable minor characters and length of the peace, over three hours, suggests an attempt structurally to produce a précis of an epic rather than design his usual theatrical scheme with their doable plot.
This play does have a double plot with parallels: the abduction of Helen and that of Cardia, and the different and similar ways the Greeks and Trojans take such ruptures. The plot seems to try to pulls in as many major characters in the peace as possible in some haste rather than focus on a few historical figures as Shakespeare normally does.
The form is a one of a kind attempt of Shakespeare’s to forge another style of theatre. Troilus and Cressida is a comedy; it is witty, bawdily, wild in its puns and conceits, a virtuoso rollercoaster of wild language. Yet it sometimes has the density of image, elegiac beauty and charm of the tragedies. Shakespeare’s high comedies all have at least a few sympathetic charades; the low comedies were animated by farce.
This play has neither sympathetic characters nor plot-driven fancy like The Comedy Of Errors or The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Might Shakespeare have been thinking of hi friend Ben Jonson’ plays, lately quite successful, in which everybody is mean spirited, some more amusing in their dastardly deeds than others? Certainly Shakespeare burlesques human folly with a broad brush here, not typical of him, as Jonson did in Every Man in His Humour and Volpone.
In tragedies Shakespeare would commonly make the play about the noble characters, in this case, Helen and Menalaus, and leave the subplot to the lesser characters, Troilus and Cressida. In this case he does the contrary. Of course, he does have Chaucer’s model, but unlike Chaucer he spends more time on the Trojans and Greeks than on his two supposed protagonists. Shakespeare seemed to have titled his plays to sell them to an audience.
Julius Caesar, for example, is really about Brutes and might have been more aptly titled as much. Calling it after the great Julius had more of a pitch. This play could have been called The Iliad but that whatnot have had the market clout of pushing a play whose name suggested a bawdy love story.
I suspect that Shakespeare had been reading the Bible at the same time he was reading Chapman. He borrows Ezekiel’ line about “alms for oblivion” in this play. Great phrases stick in the minds of poets when they take them from others; Shakespeare was well known in his time for his adaptions of other men’s lines and style.
What might Shakespeare have been thinking when he wrote that time has a wallet on his back to give alms for oblivion?”
Shakespeare’s paraphrase of this simile of the great prophet he polishes and showed off in Troilus and Cressida says rather ironically that time is a traveler offers currency of sorts to nothingness, but the phrase from Asexual comes from the prophet’s inquiry about whether bones of the past can live, and what the value of virtue in a world that doesn't honor it may be.
He gives the line to Pandarus, a character he probably played himself. Some of Pandarus’ philosophy sounds much like the madidans of Prosper on magic and illusion, another one of Shakespeare’s self-portraits. The man who makes things happen, the puppeteer, is often a character Shakespeare writes for himself when he’s not playing dukes.
Since Ezekiel at the time is wondering about the apparent triumph of evil and vice in life, it certainly it’s not a subject unresonant with Shakespeare’ play or thought. Rather interestingly God tells Ezekiel not to take the works of pride all that seriously. Shakespeare’s most meanspirited character, Achilles, in this play is envenomed by pride.
Since much of Shakespeare’s talent lay not in pure invention of a story but his satirical or tragic take on other men’s stories, it would be a worthy inquiry to trace every borrowing and adaption he made to learn some of the mechanisms by which he transformed his reading material. It’s not unreasonable to look backward from Troilus and Cressida and imagine Shakespeare sitting in a room or in a park reading Homer in translation, Ezekiel, thinking what he thought about these authors and their achievements.
Since he was probably the greatest modern playwright, as Jonson says, in a league with thundering Aeschylus, we might learn something about the creative process from such an inquiry. Many work from Don Quixote to the noels of Fielding were began in such a manner.
Shakespeare seems to have made a study of people buying and selling in fairs around this time too. One can imagine him wandering through a London fair and commenting to friends or himself on the wiles and tricks of the buyers and sellers. There are many more similes about marketplace sales and how one bargains in this play than in any other Shakespeare work. Of course, the play is partially about buying and selling people.
The English culture up through about 1590 or so had only one great poet, Chaucer, and one great long poem, Troilus and Cresyde. I was in his time the only great long poem in English; in our time a masterpiece, the only long work Chaucer completed, and there is no better long poem in English if there are some very great ones.
It’s rather likely that Shakespeare was thinking of that poem when he write his long narratives in rich stanzas of compassion and piteous tragedy, Venus and Adonis and The Rape Of Lucrece. Shakespeare had been looking at a culture that in 1585 was like Norway in the last century with one great playwright and not much else; this is not only my opinion but the one of Philip Sidney. Shakespeare must have grown up reading both Chaucer and admiring his immense masterful poem.
For him, to admire was to borrow. Venus And Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are narratives in not dissimilar stanzaic forms with very intense psychological focus on the few characters, adorned by compassionate endings. It’s rather interesting to see that when Shakespeare in his middle age treats Chaucer’s subject directly, he shows no detached philosophic compassion as he did in these early narratives; he goes after these same characters with an axe.
Chaucer, though his poem is not a theatre piece, has a much more linear and spare design to this story. He is philosophic and irenic, giving his final peroration where Troilus in heaven wonders ho he could have taken the doings on Earth and its passions as seriously as he did, a great pathos. It is a kind of tragic narrative. Chaucer’s Troilus is much more of a formidable if rather straightforward character.
Shakespeare must have been looking at Chapman’s Homer and wanting to keep the brad epic flavor in a story that moves all over the place. His dialogue is very bawdy, rather the sort of spiteful wild stuff one imagines one heard in burlesque plays of the later Roman Empire.
Troilus and Cressida are very unimportant characters in the Greek legend of the Trojan Wars; Homer more or less passes them by. Shakespeare makes them characters like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: minor character but oddly often at center stage. There are four female parts, doubled by his tow boy actors playing females, very rare in Shakespeare. Patrocles might have been played by the taller these boy actors too. He adds a character,
Thersites, sort of a clown though he has a short formal turn for the same or another clown in the same play. Thersites is a slave, bastard and one without any virtues but his nimble writ, is not to be found in Homer or Chaucer or any Greek legend. He is often Shakespeare’s spokesman. He often sounds like a wag and scoffer out of Samuel Becket.
One always can spot the character Shakespeare plays in his work- Mercutio, various Dukes in the comedies, Prospero, Fortinbras, Hamlet’s father, etc.- as keys to who represents his own point of view. His characters are usually not motivated by a the action; it is the joke shared by the audience that they are father detached puppeteers like the author-director himself. We never know, for example, why Prospero does what he does or is as elaborate in his scheme as he is. He tells us but it isn’t believable.
Pandarus, Like other such parts he has the minimum number of lines to learn and recites the epilogue, usually a sign it is the author talking. Dryden notes he is not on stage much; that is not a sign, as he thinks, that Shakespeare has lost interest in him but that he wants to make an effect with as few verses to learn as possible.
Shakespeare does the same with Prospero and Mercutio. Also Pandarus has more dignity that the comparable character in the Hellenic legends and ene more than in Chaucer. I think we are seeing an autobiographical personage here.
This play very occasionally exhibits the odd lapses in Shakespeare s education that Ben Jonson refers to in his criticism of him. I’ve always wondered why, if Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek”, Jonson, who had both, was acting in his plays and his friend, didn’t give Shakespeare his knowledge but kept silent. What would it have cost him to tell Shakespeare that there were no seacoasts in Bohemia; it was a landlocked country?
Was it that Shakespeare who was director, manager and actor, couldn’t take criticism, or that Jonson didn’t mind making him a fool? I don’t know. Probably Jonson was in Troilus and Cressida and picked up that one of the characters could never have quoted Aristotle about young people having difficulties handles moral philosophy because Aristotle lived seven hundred years after the supposed date of the Trojan War. It’s interesting to ask oneself not merely why Shakespeare didn’t know this, but why Jonson, sitting in the theatre, probably playing one of the Greek nobles, didn’t correct him.
In any case Troilus And Cressida is a burlesque of The Iliad, meant to be seen as a gloss on a piece every educated man in England knew, and has as much knowledge of the ancient world as Shakespeare was able to put into his play. He very consciously must have wanted his audience to compare his venison of the Trojan War both with Homer and Chaucer’s long poem. He knows that some of the Greek Gods were Zeus and Dys if he called them Jove and Pluto.
The work has many qualities of Shakespeare’s earlier plays if the verse is very taut and linear. There is a prologue and epilogue, rhymed verse, an enormous amount of rhetoric, massive pile ups of similes, virtuoso displays of rhetoric that have the density and flamboyance of early theatre pieces of his like Love’s Labours Lost, the very nihilist ingenuity and cynicism about power and passion that one finds in Richard Third. Were this not put on late, one would suspect it would have had an early date.
The language can be very dense; it also is filled with puns as most of his comedies are. There is at worst a kind of fussiness about words that at its best is an alertness to the many meanings of language. Phrases are savored, masticated, inverted, played with almost as if the were paradigms capable oaf randomly amusingly connections. The lines are much more bawdy and coarse than any other Shakespeare play; it is his only burlesque of a given subject and beloved older work that he ever did.
One might speculate, and some have, why Shakespeare chose once in his life to write a pure burlesque, not quite a comedy if funny enough, and great, wild, generous and intelligent as it is, why it has such a sour take on nearly everything.
Nothing he says in this play is only in this drama; in no other theatre work is it so intense, ubiquitously dense and focused in its satire on passion, illusion and reality. Shakespeare from early to late was always a close pupil of older poets who regarded being prey to passions as venomous and unmanly; he was always for measure and taking passion no more seriously than it should be embraced.
A sentimental age forgot that Romeo and Gallate begins with Romeo in love ahead another woman, that Romeo and Gallate destroy themselves, that the parallel passions o the Montagues and Copulets and their feud bring great injury to both their houses. Antony And Cleopatra says much the same thing. Troilus and Cressida is different because it has an epic character; it trashes the whole world without the focus of these plays.
Nothing about this work has the weariness of some later plays like The Winter’s Tale or Cymbeline. The language is feral, virile, extravagant and heady. The tale movies forbad with a tremendous large energy that has none of the linear direction of most of his plays. New characters are piled upon other prodigal scenes using a large and enthusiastically colorful palette. Sometimes the language seems so wild it appears out of control. Shaw had made a very astute comment about Troilus and Cressida; he said it was the first play in which he held the mirror up to nature and it nearly ruined him. Beneath his characteristic facetiousness about both Shakespeare and nature, Shaw has directed us to the center of this play: it about very ordinary, imperfect and sometimes even rather nasty people adorned with great names.
Troilus states in the first scene that he is not a great warrior or really any man of great parts generally. He is without language to talk to Cressida when he woos her. He’s almost dumb. He seems not notably intelligent. He’s sort of a piteous bumpkin though a prince. He lacks virtue and honor too; he sells out Cressida and his love for her quickly enough at a few words from Paris.
When she is sold to the Greeks by her own father, he rather pathetically promises to bribe the Greek guards and see Cressida by night. He receives his information about his loss of Cressida from Paris, one who had taken law into his own hands when he had an erotic urge, and brought down upon the Trojans a terrible doom. He never confronts Paris and says to him that what is good enough for him is perfect for himself. He is a coward an has no honor.
Cressida is much more intelligent and articled but she is gulled easily by Pandarus into an affair with Troilus, as accepting of Diomed as she was of Troilus after a bit of ambivalence. One has the feeling she had many affairs before her liaison with Thralls. She comes from a family that may be noble but is not on the honorable side. Her cousin Pandarus manipulates her like a bawd; her father Calcas sells her out, ransoming a Trojan hero.
Even the most sympathetic character for Shakespeare, Hector, is at times weak; he can give back Helen, not much more than a beautiful slut, and end the killing of the war, but he finally backs down. Shakespeare’s contempt and rage for nearly his whole cast of noble miscreants throughout this play is the sort of feeling he has about low class people in other plays. Usually he finds sympathy for any character, no matter how villainous. His complaint about the actors in Troilus and Cressida is that they are not honorable.
We are all aware from other plays of Shakespeare that people without honor, bastards, liars, Machiavels and other villains, are liable to survive much better than those that have that virtue. Anyone with honor in Shakespeare do not very often last five acts. When they do, they are in exile like Prospero, or the king in As You Like It.
Yet in this play, the only one with such virtues, Hector, isn’t seen that much; the play is really about people not lacking in fustian to explain their survival motives but mostly treading water, walking through land mines of passions and stupid wars as people commonly do in life both before and after the Trojan War. Thersites is not precisely sympathetic but Shakespeare does not feel scorn for him; he is an honest man.
The power of the play comes from Shakespeare’s claim that the heros and heroines of Homer couldn’t have been any different than normal people in London; it turns Plato’s remark that Homer was wrong, the gods couldn’t have been flawed and immoral as we humans are sometimes us upside down. The personal rage that fuels it is rooted n a source we don’t know. We can see the same feelings in the middle of Timon Of Athens and King Lear, but Troilus and Cressida stands apart as Shakespeare’s one burlesque. Was there a model for Shakespeare to make such a satire that he had found in the Elizabethan theatre? We don’t know; too many plays he saw have been lost to us.
I don’t think this was a successful play in its time. It has no sympathetic characters or heros beyond the minor appearance of Hector, and he is on the vacillating side. Had this been a tragedy, Hector would have been its hero as Coriolanus was of another play directly about honor and nobility of character. One of this works’s most interesting characters, Pandarus, is not integrated into the main action enough; we don’t see his gradual realization that his schemes have not been other than injurious for those he meant to aid.
Pandarus at the beginning has much to say about perception and the vagaries of passion but we don’t hear much more from him about his philosophy after the action starts. Cressida, a very valent, charming, carnal and openly erotic woman whom Shakespeare sympathizes with is perhaps the most interesting and complex character in the play, but we don’t see her enough consistently either.
The play takes over three hours but if might have been an hour or more larger than that because of its scope. We never seen Magnolias’ opinion of Helen and her infamies, a subject Shakespeare would have been adapt at analyzing with ghat vigor. King Priam has a few lines and is gone.
Usually such characters, played by the same actor who gave us Polonius, have much more to say. I would guess this Thespian doubled as Nestor. Diomed is hardly a character. It seems strange to soy so; this epic play might have done well to be even more filled out than it was.
With all the unsavory or ordinary characters on the stage, Shakespeare has among them all a real animus for Achilles. This warrior strikes him as the acme of dishonorable character and low betray. After Hector beats him in fair combat, Achilles kills Hector, not by chasing him around Troy, but by having his legion of lackeys dispatch him unarmed. Then he savagely carries his corpse thorough the field tied to the tail of his horse.
It’s quite a departure from Homer’s version. Both Achilles and Troilus from different angles see hector’s honor and character as weakness.
All in all, Troilus and Cressida has been a play nearly unknown to any but scholars over the centuries. It’s witty, wild, beautifully written, intelligent, energetic and driven by personal genius. If it contains terror enough, it never stoops at all for a moment to pity.
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