Thursday, March 8, 2007

Week 06, Troilus

Scene-by-Scene Notes on Troilus and Cressida.

Prologue and General Comments.

The prologue reminds us of the great Homeric backdrop to the play, and in the end, the Homeric version seems to win out since Ulysses’ cunning fails to draw Achilles into the battle; it’s the death of Patroclus that accomplishes this in Act 5, Scene 5-6. On the whole, the play shows the disillusionment that besets both love and war—activities that almost always begin with high ideals and unrealistic expectations, and, all too often, end in bitterness and frustration, even when the object is attained.

Act 1, Scene 1.

It’s seven years into the war, and Troilus is out of sync with the war’s imperatives; he sounds like a Petrarchan sonnet, with his sighing extremes—as in “I find no peace, but have no arms for war.” By the end of the play he will be furious at Diomedes, disillusionment over Cressida having given him his cause. But by then, Achilles has killed Hector and the Trojans are doomed. Pandarus is eager to spur Troilus on, increasing his lovesickness.

At 109, we hear that Paris has been slightly wounded by Menelaus. The play constantly undercuts the heroic version of the “great cause” that animates both Greeks and Trojans; it seems as if the play sides with Thersites, who puts it all down to stupidity and lechery and contemptible male pride. Love and war are intertwined, to the honor of neither.

Act 1, Scene 2.

Cressida’s servant Alexander tells her that Hector is ashamed of himself since Ajax has given him a good beating. Hector is spurred on by his shame to challenge any Greek to maintain his lady’s as good as Andromache. At line 136, Pandarus pursues his private interest of bringing Troilus and Cressida together. The girl seems worldly enough in her answers, at least until she meets Troilus later on. From line 177 onwards, there follows a pageant of Trojans—Aeneas, Hector, and others. Cressida opines that Troilus is “a sneaking fellow.” Well, as she explains to us, she must maintain her chastity. At 282ff, she gives in soliloquy the real reason for her standoffishness: she fears she will be lightly prized once she is no longer chaste. This is true, of course, but it doesn’t equate with wide-eyed innocence; she does not (to borrow a line from Polonius in Hamlet) “speak like a green girl.”

Act 1, Scene 3.

Agamemnon is trying to explain why seven years have passed with no victory; the joint argument from the King and Nestor is “trust us—this is wise policy beyond your devising.” Ulysses then tells everyone to listen to him, and Agamemnon says that given the source, they fully expect to hear wise counsel, and not the sort of nonsense Thersites spews. Ulysses says at 109ff, “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows”; the world will “turn wolf universally.” From 142ff, Odysseus explains that respect for rank is at low ebb thanks to Achilles’ prideful refusal to do his part for the Greeks. (In The Iliad, the reason given is that Agamemnon arrogantly asserted his supremacy by demanding as his share of the spoils Achilles’ favorite concubine, Briseis.) Achilles and Patroclus mock Agamemnon, and this has spurred on Ajax (who is none too bright) to mock the King, too, and to make Thersites his agent for this purpose. Ajax ’s posturing, especially, is said to appeal to those who value nothing but stupid, brute force rather than shrewd policy. There are serious rifts between the leading Greeks. Well, it’s hard to see how Agamemnon’s “policy” amounts to much more than incompetence.

Aeneas visits Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge. The Greeks consider Troy ’s men ceremonious courtiers rather than blunt fighters. This notion is in line with traditional portrayals of the Trojans as indulgent, over-civilized, proponents of the “luxurious state” later found so blameworthy by that Athenian lover of all things Spartan, Plato. Aeneas answers chivalrously that the Trojans are civil in time of peace, but deadly in war. Agamemnon’s reply at 287-88 shows how inextricable love and war prove in this play: all soldiers, he insists, are lovers or plan to be. Ulysses, however, has a scheme to take down Achilles a few pegs—Hector’s challenge is obviously aimed at Achilles, but Ulysses wants to arrange for Ajax to “happen” to win a lottery for that honor, thereby upstaging his rival attention-seeker Achilles.

Act 2, Scene 1.

Thersites and Ajax relate to each other in an interesting way; the first act went far towards undercutting the heroes’ claims to high honor. Throughout the play, Thersites will rail at the biggest targets for their lechery, double-dealing, stupidity, pride and enviousness, and he in turn will become the target for their sexually charged taunts of cowardice, effeminacy, and so forth (some of which he will heap right back on none other than Patroclus, of course). Thersites sees Ajax as nothing more than a blunt instrument for those who actually wield power; in a phrase, he is “Mars his idiot.” At line 92 and elsewhere, Thersites attacks the principle of rank; he doesn’t believe those who stand upon it are worthy of it. “I serve thee not,” he says to Ajax , who proceeds to beat him. Achilles is much more “civilized” in his dealings with Ajax , but nonetheless Thersites lumps him together with Ajax , and prefers Hector; Thersites has more regard for Ulysses and Nestor, and prefers the company of the intelligent. Agamemnon he despises as a pretender to honor and wise counsel.

Act 2, Scene 2.

Priam finds that his sons Helenus and Hector would gladly agree to hand over Helen to the Greeks, restoring her to Menelaus of Sparta and thereby saving a lot of bloodshed on both sides. Troilus (along with Paris) insists that the Trojans should be willing to fight over trifles if occasion bids them do it, but Hector doesn’t agree, and he points out to his youngest brother that determining Helen’s value is not the province of lone individuals; her value is what it is, and due regard must be shown for the impact any determination may have on the entire Greek host: “tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the gods.” It won’t do to fetishize honor and war at the expense of practical consequences. The Riverside notes mention that neither the Greeks nor the Trojans has any claim to absolute righteousness in its quest: Paris went to Greece to make away with Helen because Hercules had absconded with Priam’s sister Hesione and then given her to Ajax ’s father Telamon, so we can’t really claim that “the Trojans started the trouble.” Troilus maintains chivalric idealism at this point, and his naïve idealism bids him recommend that the Trojans hold on to Helen at all costs. Hector, who has been doing much of the fighting, thinks otherwise. Nonetheless, his current challenge owes more to personal shame, most likely, than statecraft. War, in Shakespeare’s representation of it, is a great distorter of motives and words, and it often sunders words from deeds, or rather widens the gap always extant between them to begin with. Cassandra breaks in around line 97 and aligns herself with those who want to return Helen, knowing as she does that Troy is doomed. (It’s worth recalling that Cassandra, Apollo’s priestess, was cursed when she refused to sleep with him—she sees the future clearly, but no one will believe her, so her gift is wasted.) Around 118ff, Troilus and Paris show some contempt for “reality-based” decision-making. Nearly every Trojan soldier, he says, will defend the beautiful Helen, and will fight to the death for this icon and enabler of masculine valor and display. Around line 156, Hector makes the strongest case in favor of recognizing brute reality, admitting that Helen ought to be returned to Menelaus of Sparta, but then around 189, he accedes to Troilus’ cause: their “joint and several dignities” demand that they hang on to their stolen woman. She is a “theme of honor and renown.” While Troilus holds this position as a naïve young romantic, Hector takes it up in a different manner altogether—he has little personal regard for Helen, but public necessity dictates that the woman be defended and held for her symbolic, unifying value: war needs symbols as rallying points, or the cause flounders.

Act 2, Scene 3.

Thersites and the leading Greek warriors are opponents, but they need one another; Thersites’ railing observations feed upon the warriors’ stupidity and pretentiousness, and the warriors, in turn, in part define themselves by heaping insults on his head. Thus Patroclus’ entreaty at line 23, “Good Thersites, come in and rail,” and Achilles’ description of him as “my cheese, my digestion.” ( Ajax is upset at this juncture partly because Achilles has weaned his fool from him.) The cynical clown has found his proper object, and they have found the object of their scorn, too. He wishes venereal disease on the lot of these fools, all of them guilty of “warring for a placket” rather than the high honor they claim to uphold. This satirical connection between war and promiscuous, unworthy sexual pursuits is common in literature and film: consider, to give just one instance, Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, where that theme is managed hilariously: General Jack D. Ripper launches World War III because he’s been having some kind of problem like erectile dysfunction, which he calls “loss of essence.” (And of course there’s the good Nazi Party expatriate Doctor himself, with his “strange love” of atomic destruction.) Thersites finds that the war between Greek and Trojan is no better than a self-perpetuating, bloody pageant of lunatics and fools, begun by an act of whoredom and perpetuated by lust for wicked women and illusory honor. He suggests that the very walls of Troy would crumble to dust before the likes of Agamemnon or Ajax will ever batter them down. That turns out to be a false supposition, but it’s easy to see why he makes it in this seventh year of hostilities. His speeches also suggest that he’s aware of the intractable problem confronting anyone (especially men) who opposes a violent mass confrontation: charges of cowardice, effeminacy, carping, and treachery are bound to fly at their heads. Thersites’ attitude towards this hypermasculine vitriol is “bring it on”; it’s the very stuff he feeds upon and turns to satirical account. But for all his railing and undermining, the war will continue to bleed both sides: fools learn not by instruction but rather (if at all) by bitter experience; for Thersites, the proceedings make “good copy” and a pageant not to be missed.

Act 3, Scene 1.

Agamemnon and his subordinates butter up Ajax as a spur to Achilles’ pride—they need him back in the battle. Pandarus enlists Helen to keep Hector out of the individual combat, although this strategy fails. Helen is a worldly survivor, a wily woman.

Act 3, Scene 2.

Troilus is here in a state of agonized expectation, and he fears the loss of self-identity and autonomy that occurs when a person falls in love. He attributes the same sort of confounding or loss of identity with the shock of great hosts in battle. When Cressida is brought in by Pandar, she seems genuinely shy at first, and Troilus seems almost bereft of words. But soon the two (after a few long kisses) will recover their eloquence, and in this scene they go on to make extreme claims about how their faith (or lack thereof) will prove a byword for all others. As John Donne would say, “beg from above, a pattern of our love.” Pandarus stakes his own good name on the outcome of the love match—well, as is commonly said, “be careful what you wish for” since “pandering” is now invariably twinned with “pimping” in our lexicon of disrepute. Cressida now realizes she has perhaps said too much. She has admitted to loving Troilus at first sight and has engaged in comically Petrarchan declarations of fidelity. Behind this whole dialogue—especially Cressida’s part of it—is the understanding that love is a kind of game, a power exchange in which “secrecy” is to some extent necessary: “who shall be true when we are not secret to ourselves?” Self-revelation establishes intimacy, but it also breeds contempt and disloyalty. As an old professor of mine would say, “idealizing eroticism” is necessary, but also inherently risky because it relies on the perpetuation of illusions.

Act 3, Scene 3.

Calchas calls in a favor for his old defection from the Trojans to the Greeks, and the favor consists in the Greeks giving up Cressida to Diomedes in exchange for the captive Trojan Prince Antenor. Agamemnon agrees readily. Ulysses counsels the King to ignore Achilles for a while, and treat him with indifference. Achilles is easily gulled by this act, and worries that Ajax is stealing his thunder with present deeds of valor. Ulysses points out to Achilles that “emulation hath a thousand sons” all at the ready to tread their father down in the dust the moment he slows down or strays from the path of heroic example. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” says Ulysses in his key speech from lines 169-80: a desire for novelty, and a propensity to forget the past. (The eye is, as Wordsworth later reminds us, “the most tyrannical of the senses,” and we are easily taken in by what is before us.) When Achilles pleads private reasons, Ulysses points out that everybody knows about his Trojan girlfriend Polyxena anyhow. Well, Achilles says he’d like to gaze upon Hector in his own tent. He doesn’t explain exactly why, but we will soon find out. Thersites comes onto the scene and mocks the pride of Ajax , who has been peacocking around like Hercules in anticipation of his battle with Hector, disdaining speech and all manner of rank below his own godlike status. (This issue of rank and reputation links the present scene with the previous one; as always, Thersites’ view is “a plague of opinion,” and he goes on to mock Achilles and Patroclus as viciously as he takes down Ajax .) Ulysses’ advice has been that military renown is never entirely lost; one can always create it from scratch by performing worthy new actions in the public eye—to a centerless rogue like Achilles, that kind of counsel is appealing, especially if we remove that pesky term “worthy.” How different his attitude is from Troilus’, who supposes that honor once lost is gone forever.

Act 4, Scene 1.

Cressida will indeed be turned over to Diomedes and the Greeks, with whom Calchas the ex-Trojan priest now resides. Paris points out that the “bitter disposition of the time will have it so” demands this arrangement. (Diomedes doesn’t have a kind word to say about Helen, the object of the war from the outset.) Paris , at 76-77, jests that Diomedes is merely “dispraising the thing” the thing he “would buy,” but in fact just about everyone but Paris says such things in bitter earnest.

Act 4, Scenes 2-4.

In the aftermath of their love scene, Cressida re-experiences some of her prior fear of devaluation since Troilus and she must now part with the coming on of day; he has obtained his prize, she thinks, and so now he’s off to other things. But both soon find out that they are to be parted much more permanently than this brief “cursing of the dawn” scene suggests, and they exchange tokens of fidelity (a sleeve and a glove; a “sleeve” here means a piece of fabric that can be worn on a helmet or otherwise displayed). Pandarus fears that Troilus will go mad, and Cressida protests she won’t go. But Troilus dutifully turns her over for exchange, demanding several times that she remain faithful and promising to make his way across the Greek lines to visit her. Diomedes makes no promises and indeed treats the whole notion of female honor with scorn. He will use Cressida as he sees fit. All await the great event of Hector and Ajax ’s single combat.

Act 4, Scene 5.

Cressida is welcomed into the Greek camp with many kisses, and Ulysses condemns her as a flirt who is all too well suited to the times: an opportunist. Hector and Ajax fight, but Hector decides that since they are cousins, the battle should end happily with an embrace. Hector is invited to the Greek camp to see Agamemnon and Achilles. During the brief truce, the men all treat one another with the greatest civility, but this pleasantry is soon shattered when Achilles gazes long upon Hector’s body, and declares that he is just trying to determine where exactly he will strike him the mortal blow.

Act 5, Scene 1.

Thersites again rails at Achilles and calls Patroclus a male “varlot” or whore. Achilles, given a letter from Hecuba reminding him of a promise to Polyxena, for the sake of which vow he will yet again fail to take the field for the Greeks. Thersites mocks the absent Diomedes and Menelaus, the latter for being cuckolded by Helen, of course: “nothing but lechery” and incontinence, i.e. absence of self-restraint in martial and erotic affairs alike.

Act 5, Scene 2.

Troilus (dogged by Thersites and accompanied by Ulysses, who is perhaps set on embittering Troilus; in the background may lie the prophecy that Troy can’t be conquered if Troilus lives beyond his twentieth year) can barely restrain himself when he sees Cressida (at first reluctant) hand over the sleeve Troilus had given her, and promise to meet him. To herself she pleads the tyranny of the eye, and faults her sex in general rather than herself individually. What Ulysses had said about the general public with regard to martial reputation, it seems, applies equally well to the realm of love: only the present counts. At 146, the embittered Troilus says that “this is, and is not, Cressid.” He simply can’t credit the change he believes has taken place in her.

Act 5, Scene 3.

Hector, declaring that honor is more precious even than life, will not be persuaded by Cassandra, Priam, or Andromache. Troilus will fight, too, in spite of his youth—he will have his revenge on Diomedes (a private motive Hector doesn’t seem to be aware of). Pandarus, plagued with one or more of the time’s intractable venereal diseases (no doubt thanks to his own exploits), gives Troilus a fair-sounding letter from Cressida, but of course Troilus no longer believes such pledges of fidelity.

Act 5, Scene 4.

Thersites just wants to watch the whole pageant of foolery, and hopes to see Diomedes stripped of his newly won sleeve. Ajax , we hear, is refusing to fight, presumably in imitation of Achilles, and the Greek camp is overtaken by an anarchic mood. Diomedes and Troilus fight, and then a comic scene ensues in which Hector threatens Thersites, who escapes by dint of cowardice.

Act 5, Scenes 5-6.

Diomedes sends Troilus’ horse back to Cressida as a trophy. Patroclus (who in The Iliad puts on Achilles’ armor and is mistaken for him) is killed by Hector, and Agamemnon is in dismay at the state of affairs: Hector is like Mars himself, slaying Greeks left and right. Troilus has infuriated Ajax by killing a friend of his, and he and Ajax (along with Diomedes) fight inconclusively. Now comes the much-awaited match between Achilles and Hector, and the former bows out, pleading rustiness.

Act 5, Scene 7.

Thersites mocks Menelaus’ battle with Paris , but when the bastard Margarelon challenges him, again Thersites, reveling in his own similar status, escapes injury. It’s a fitting tribute to the play’s thoroughgoing smackdown of the heroic ideal that by this point, most of us probably revel in the frank cowardice of Thersites—at least the man is honest, which is worth something. He has no intention of losing his life in a contest he finds contemptible.

Act 5, Scene 8.

Achilles makes his Myrmidons hack to death the unarmed Hector, and then bids them tie the corpse to the tail of his horse. Unable to defeat the chivalrous Trojan in a fair fight, he does not hesitate to claim new glory by means of an outrageously cowardly act: “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain!” Although Hector is noble and therefore naively expects Achilles to honor the chivalric laws of war, his death seems more pointless than heroic. After all, the play has already explicitly rejected the notion that the Trojan War is about honorable exploits and pure ideals. (It wasn’t that even in Homer, to be honest. But at the same time, it would almost certainly be wrong to suppose that the current play represents Shakespeare’s only view of military heroism—Henry V must be considered alongside Troilus and Cressida if we want a balanced view.) It is impossible to claim the status of catharsis-inducing hero when you are unceremoniously hacked to pieces at the instigation of a prating liar who has no more honor than Jack Falstaff. (See I Henry IV, 5.1.131-41: “ Can honor set to a leg? No. / Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? / No…. What / is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? / What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! / Who hath it? He that died a’ Wednesday…. / I’ll none of it, honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.”)

Act 5, Scenes 9-10.

Troilus, still spoiling for a fight, counsels a move back towards Troy and counsels mere revenge to “hide our inward woe.” The sick Pandarus, struck on the pate by Troilus, retreats, whinily bequeathing us his byword-name and his inveterate diseases. It seems that the legacy of the foundational and glorious Trojan War, in this play at least, is no more than the perpetual plague of venery and violent destruction. Chivalry is undone; the Trojans have lost their greatest champion, and Troilus, although he’s found his cause to fight, is deeply embittered. For the moment, the knavery of the false warrior Achilles trumps all. In conclusion, while it might be thought that Shakespeare’s version of the Trojan War is the exact opposite of Homer’s account in The Iliad, that would be an exaggeration since Homer is by no means unwilling to present the occasional pettiness and contrariness of men such as Agamemnon and Achilles. The ancient author gave his listeners not so much propaganda as a complex presentation of a complex event (mythical or otherwise); Shakespeare’s account distinguishes itself in its thoroughgoing and successful attempt to weld the least attractive elements of both war and erotic experience, thereby undermining the heroic status of the great events behind the story of Troilus and Cressida. He has invented nothing entirely new, we might say, but has instead fixed his intent on spinning a counter-narrative whose threads were already embedded in his ancient original. This same motive seems to de-emphasize the more respectful Chaucerian version that Shakespeare also used as a source for his play.

Why is Troilus a “problem comedy”? Well, the grand distinction between comedy and tragedy is that while the former is about great potential and possibility confronting and overcoming (or at least settling with) various limitations owing to human nature and the social order, tragedy deals with the realm of dire consequentiality that ensues when we have exhausted or wasted all of our best options. To borrow a Churchillian line (itself borrowed to good effect by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth), the main action of a tragedy takes place within “a period of consequences,” a time when, if your mistakes outweigh your ability to make them right, you will be trapped and destroyed by the circumstances you yourself have partly or entirely created. (This is surely a Christian-era inflection of tragedy in which it’s generally acknowledged that Providence is just; Greek tragedy thrives rather on the sense that the cosmos may well not be just or even particularly comprehensible.) Troilus and Cressida trades in the disillusionment of an at least arguably idealistic young man in the face of cynicism and betrayal; the play’s action doesn’t rise to the level of high tragedy, and there is no real sense of finality at the play’s conclusion. Troilus has shifted his considerable energy into the activities of making war rather than love, but he has not regained the degree of idealism that seems to have driven him towards his short-lived match with Cressida. Plain bitterness and a desire for revenge do not constitute tragic insight; the Aristophanic scoffing of Thersites more closely captures the spirit of the play, I think, than anything connected chivalric idealism, or to the reconciliation, generosity, renewal, and transformation that prevail in Shakespeare’s lighter comedies. The term “problem play” is somewhat overused in contemporary criticism (in keeping with the propensity of criticism to choose and redefine its object to suit its own predilections and assumptions), but it seems appropriate to Troilus and Cressida, the very genre of which is by no means certain since, while the 1623 folio edition lists the play as a tragedy, other (quarto) editions call it variously a history or a comedy.

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