By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published as two separate essays, in Philological Quarterly, Spring 1967, and Shakespeare Quarterly, Spring 1966. Reprinted in The Edge of Impossibility.

Troilus and Cressida, that most vexing and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays, strikes the modern reader as a contemporary document——its investigation of numerous infidelities, its criticism of tragic pretensions, above all, its implicit debate between what is essential in human life and what is only existential are themes of the twentieth century. Philosophically, the play must be one of the earliest expressions of what is now called the “existential” vision; psychologically, it not only represents the puritanical mind in its anguished obsession with the flesh overwhelming the spirit, but it works to justify that vision. It is not only the expense of spirit in a “waste of shame” that is catastrophic, but the expenditure of all spirit——for the object of spiritual adoration (even if, like Helen, it is not unfaithful) can never be equivalent to the purity of energy wasted. Shakespeare shows in this darkest and least satisfying of his tragedies the modern, ironic, nihilistic spectacle of man diminished, not exalted. There is no question of the play’s being related to tragedy; calling it one of the “dark comedies” is to distort it seriously. This is tragedy of a special sort——the “tragedy” the basis of which is the impossibility of conventional tragedy.

The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in LiteratureThis special tragedy, then, will be seen to work within the usual framework of tragedy, using the materials and the structure demanded of an orthodox work. What is withheld——and deliberately withheld——is “poetic justice.” Elsewhere, Shakespeare destroys both good and evil together, but in Troilus and Cressida the “good” characters are destroyed or destroy themselves. The “evil” characters (Achilles, Cressida) drop out of sight; their fates are irrelevant. Ultimately, everyone involved in the Trojan War will die, except Ulysses and Aeneas, and it may be that Shakespeare holds up this knowledge as a kind of backdrop against which the play works itself out, the audience’s knowledge contributing toward a higher irony; but this is probably unlikely. The play as it stands denies tragic devastation and elevation. It follows other Shakespearean tragedies in showing the annihilation of appearances by reality, but the “reality” achieved is a nihilistic vision. Thus, Pandarus closes the story by assuming that many in his audience are “brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade” and by promising to bequeath them his “diseases.” The customary use of language to restore, with its magical eloquence, the lost humanity of the tragic figure is denied here. Othello is shown to us first as an extraordinary man, then as a man, then as an animal, but finally and most importantly as a man again, just before his death; this is the usual tragic curve, the testing and near-breaking and final restoration of a man. Through language Othello ascends the heights he has earlier relinquished to evil. But in Troilus and Cressida Troilus ends with a declaration of hatred for Achilles and a promise to get his revenge upon him. He ends, as he has begun, in a frenzy. His adolescent frenzy of love for Cressida gives way to a cynical, reckless frenzy of hatred for Achilles. Nowhere does he attain the harmonious equilibrium required of the tragic hero or of the man we are to take as a spokesman for ourselves. Even his devastating scene of “recognition” is presented to the audience by a device that suggests comedy: Thersites watching Ulysses watching Troilus watching Cressida with Diomed. Troilus is almost a tragic figure——and it is not an error on Shakespeare’s part that he fails to attain this designation, for the very terms of Troilus’ experience forbid elevation. He cannot be a tragic figure because his world is not tragic but only pathetic. He cannot transcend the sordid banalities of his world because he is proudly and totally of that world, and where everything is seen in terms of merchandise, diseases, food, cooking, and the “glory” of bloodshed, man’s condition is never tragic. That this attitude is “modern” comes as a greater surprise when one considers the strange, fairy-tale background of the play (a centaur fights on the Trojan side, for instance) and the ritualistic games of love and war played in the foreground.

Shakespeare’s attempt here to pierce the conventions demanded by a typical audience’s will takes its most bitter image in the various expressions of infidelity. Infidelity is the natural law of the play’s world, and, by extension, of the greater world: woman’s infidelity to man, the body’s infidelity to the soul, the infidelity of the ideal to the real, and the larger infidelity of “time,” that “great-sized monster of ingratitudes.” Here, man is trapped within a temporal, physical world, and his rhetoric, his poetry, even his genius cannot free him. What is so modern about the play is its existential insistence upon the complete inability of man to transcend his fate. Other tragic actors may rise above their predicaments, as if by magic, and equally magical is the promise of a rejuvenation of their sick nations (Lear, Hamlet, etc.), but the actors of Troilus and Cressida, varied and human as they are, remain for us italicized against their shabby, illusion-ridden world. Hector, who might have rejected a sordid end, in fact makes up his mind to degrade himself and is then killed like an animal. As soon as he relinquishes the “game” of chivalry, he relinquishes his own right to be treated like a human being, and so his being dragged behind Achilles’ horse is a cruel but appropriate fate, considering the violent climate of his world. One mistake and man reverts to the animal, or becomes only flesh to be disposed of. As for the spirit and its expectations— they are demonstrated as hallucinatory. No darker commentary on the predicament of man has ever been written. If tragedy is a critique of humanism from the inside,1 Troilus and Cressida is a tragedy that calls into question the very pretensions of tragedy itself.

In act 2, scene 2, the Trojans have a council of war, and Troilus and Hector debate. What they say is much more important than why they say it, a distinction that is also true about Ulysses’ speeches:

Brother, she is not worth what she cloth cost The holding.

What is aught but as ’tis valued?

But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer. (2.2.51-56)

Questions of “worth,” “cost,” and “value” permeate the play. Human relationships are equated with business arrangements—the consummated love of Troilus and Cressida, for instance, is a “bargain made,” with Pandarus as legal witness. Here, it is Helen who is held in question, but clearly she is incidental to this crisis: Hector insists, along with most Western philosophers, that there is an essential value in things or acts that exists prior to their temporal existence and their temporal relationship to a “particular will.” They are not created by man but exist independently of him. In other words, men do not determine values themselves, by will or desire or whim. Values exist a priori; they are based upon certain natural laws, upon the hierarchy of degree that Ulysses speaks of in the first act. Hector parallels Ulysses in his belief that “degree, priority, and place,/ Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,/ Office, and custom” (1. 3. 86-88) are observed not only by man but by the natural universe. What is strange is that any personal guidance, any evidence of gods or God, is omitted; though the Olympian gods are concerned with the Trojan War, and even though a centaur fights magnificently in the field, the gods ultimately have nothing to do with the fate of the men involved. Like Greek tragedy, this play has certain “vertical” (or universal) moments that coincide with but can sometimes be only weakly explained by their “horizontal” or narrative position. The speeches of Ulysses and Hector are set pieces of this vertical sort, since they explain and insist upon values that must be understood so that the pathos to follow will be more clearly understood; the speeches are always out of proportion and even out of focus, compared to the situations that give rise to them. At these points—significantly, they come early in the play—there is a straining upward, an attempt on the part of the characters to truly transcend their predicaments. The predicaments, however, cannot be transcended because man is locked in the historical and the immediate. Ulysses’ brilliance cannot trigger Achilles into action, and, when Achilles wakes to action, all semblance of an ordered universe is destroyed; Hector is destined to kill a man “for his hide” and then to die ignobly, and so his groping after absolute meaning in act z must be undercut by a complete turnabout of opinion, when he suddenly and inexplicably gives in to the arguments of Troilus and Paris.

Troilus, the “essentialist” in matters concerning his own love, the weakly romantic courtier who has been transformed simply by the anticipation of love, is in this scene the more worldly and cynical of the two. Though he speaks of the “glory” of the war and Helen as a “theme of honor and renown” who will instigate them to deeds that will “canonize” them, his conviction that man creates all values out of his sense experiences is much more worldly than Hector’s Platonic idea that values exist prior to and perhaps independent of experience.2 Reason itself is called into question: Helenus is accused by Troilus of “furring” his gloves with reason, and reason is equated with fear (2. 2. 32); “Nay, if we talk of reason,/ Let’s shut our gates, and sleep.” This exchange is usually interpreted as pointing up Troilus’ infatuation with honor as an extension of his infatuation with Cressida, but this insistence upon the relativity of all values is much “harder” (to use William James’s distinction between “hard” and “soft” thinkers) than Hector’s. What is most surprising is that this comes after Troilus’ earlier condemnation of Helen (she is “too starved a subject” for his sword). Hector, in his reply, calls upon a supratemporal structure of value that is at all times related to the rather sordid doings of Greeks and Trojans: actions are “precious” in themselves as well as in the “prizer.” His argument, based upon the “moral laws of nature” that demand a wife be returned to her husband, parallels Ulysses’ prophetic warnings concerning the unleashing of chaos that will result in a son’s striking a father dead. Hector says:

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory. (2.2.180-183)

In doing so, he has shifted his argument from the universal to the particular, speaking now of “law” within a nation and not “law” that exists prior to the establishment of any human community. If this shift, subtle as it is, is appreciated, then Hector’s sudden decision a few lines below is not so surprising. He gives so many excellent reasons for wanting to end the war, then says, “Yet, ne’ertheless,/ My spritely brethren, I propend to you/ In resolution to keep Helen still. . . .”

No doubt there is something wrong with the scene; no audience would ever be prepared for Hector’s sudden change of mind. But it is necessary for the play’s philosophic core that the greatest of the Trojans for some inexplicable reason will turn his back on reason itself, aligning himself with those of “distempered blood” though he seems to know much more than they. The scene makes sense if it is interpreted as a demonstration of the ineffectuality of reason as reason, the relativity of all values, and the existential cynicism that values are hallucinatory in the sense that they are products of man’s will. As Troilus says, “My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears,/ Two traded pilots ‘twixt the dangerous shores/ Of will and judgment” (2. 2. 63-65). Must Troilus be seen as a “lecher,” as one critic calls him,3 because he does not recognize that only marriage is sanctioned by heaven, not courtly love? On the contrary, it seems clear that Shakespeare is pointing toward a criticism of all values in the light of what we know of their origin—through the senses—and that Troilus’ flaw is not his inability to understand a moral code, but his humanity.

The limitations and obsessions of humanity define the real tragedy of this play and perhaps of any play, but only in Troilus and Cressida does Shakespeare refuse to lift man’s spirit above them.4 And it is certainly no error on the playwright’s part that the highly moral, highly chivalric Hector changes into quite another kind of gallant soldier when he is alone. In act 5, scene 6, Hector fights with Achilles and, when Achilles tires, allows him to escape; no more than a minute later he sees another Greek in “sumptuous” armor5 whom he wants to kill “for his hide.” Why the sudden change? It may well be that through allowing Achilles freedom, Hector gains greater glory for himself, and so his “chivalric” gesture is really an egoistic one. (Achilles has said earlier that he is overconfident and a little proud, despite everyone’s opinion of him—4. 5. 74-75.) His sudden metamorphosis into a killer can be explained by the relativity of values in even the most stable of men when he can act without witnesses. Though the mysterious Greek runs away and really should not be chased, Hector does chase him and kill him. He does this out of lust for the man’s armor; he has refrained from killing Achilles because of his egoistic desire to uphold his reputation. The scene is also an allegorical little piece (most of the scenes involving Hector have an obviously symbolic, “vertical” thrust) that suggests that Death himself is present on the battlefield, tempting everyone with an external show of sumptuousness. Shakespeare, therefore, in two carefully executed though puzzling scenes, shows the upholder of “essentialist” views to switch suddenly and inexplicably to the opposite. His psychological insight is extraordinary here, for though the narrative inconsistency of Hector may baffle an audience, he shows that the will does indeed utilize knowledge for its own sake; “knowledge” may be in control but only because the will at that moment allows it. Jaspers speaks of the desire of man to subordinate himself to an “inconceivable supersensible” and to the “natural character of impulses and passions, to the immediacy of what is now present,”6 and it is this tragic instability of man that Shakespeare demonstrates.

The debate between what is essential and what is existential is carried on in a kind of running battle by Thersites, who speaks as a debased, maddened Fool licensed to roam about the Greek field. An intolerable character, and not at all an amusing one, he speaks with an intelligence equal to Ulysses’ but without any of Ulysses’ control. He is “lost in the labyrinth of [his] fury,” and we need not ask what he is so furious about: it is the condition of life itself He counters Ulysses’ speech on degree by various parodies of degree, Ulysses’ analytical mmd transformed in Thersites into a savage talent for splitting distinctions:

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. (2.3. 67-71)

His curses are a disharmonious music that balances the overly sweet music attending Helen, and the result of his relentless cataloguing is certainly the calling-down of all ideals as they have been expressed in the first two acts of the play:

. . . Here’s Agamemnon, an honest fellow enough, and one that loves quails, but he has not so much brain as ear-wax and the goodly transformation of Jupiter there, his brother the bull, the primitive statue, and oblique memorial of cuckolds . . . to what form but that he is should wit larded with malice and malice forced with wit turn him to? To an ass, were nothing: he is both ass and ox; to an ox, were nothing: he is both ox and ass. To be a dog, a mule, a cat, a fitchew, a toad, a lizard, an owl, a puttock, or a herring without a roe, I would not care; but to be Menelaus! …. (5.1.56 ff.)

Thersites is to the Greeks and Trojans as the Fool is to Lear, except they learn nothing from him. While Ulysses in his famous speech on “degree” strains to leave the earth and to call into authority the very planets themselves, Thersites grovels lower and lower, sinking into the earth and dragging with him all the “glory” of this war: “Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion.” He is almost ubiquitous, this maddened and tedious malcontent, and if his cynicism is exaggerated in regard to what he has actually seen, so are the romantic and chivalric ideals of the first half of the play exaggerated in regard to their objects. Thersites runs everywhere, from scene to scene, hating what he sees and yet obviously relishing it, for he is the very spirit of the play itself, a necessary balance to its fraudulent idealism. Significantly, he disappears just when the battle begins in earnest. He is last seen just after Patroclus is reported killed by Hector. After this, the action throws off all ceremonial pretensions, and men go out in the field to destroy, not to play a game. Once Achilles announces that he will kill Hector in “fellest manner,” we have no need for Thersites, who is of value only to negate pretensions. Perhaps he does return, in the figure of Pandarus—for the mocking, loathsome Pandarus who ends the play seems a new character altogether. He is really Thersites, but Pandarus is needed to unify the love plot: the play’s final word is “diseases,” a fitting one certainly, but one that makes more sense in Thersites’ mouth than in Pandarus’. Thersites’ is the most base, the most existential vision in the play, and if we hesitate to believe that it is also Shakespeare’s vision, we must admit that he has spent a great deal of time establishing it. His function is to call everything down to earth and to trample it. In his discordant music he celebrates what Troilus and others have been experiencing, and it is certainly Shakespeare’s belief, along with Thersites’, that “all the argument is a cuckold and a whore.”

The play’s great theme is infidelity, and it is this that links together the various separate actions. There are three stories here—that of Troilus and Cressida, that of the Greeks’ quarrel with Achilles, and that of Hector’s downfall—and all three pivot around a revelation or demonstration of infidelity. Casting its shadow over the entire play, of course, is the infidelity of Helen. But it is not even a serious matter, this “fair rape”; it is a subject for bawdy jests for all except Menelaus. “Helen must needs be fair,/ When with your blood you daily paint her thus,” (1. 1. 95-96) Troilus observes bitterly, but a reflection of this type is little more than incidental. From time to time Greeks and Trojans register consciousness of what they are doing, but in general the games of love and war are enjoyed for their own sakes. It is characteristic of men to give their lives for such activities, Shakespeare suggests, not characteristic of just these men. It is characteristic of all love to be subject to a will that seems to be not our own, and, as Troilus says, “sometimes we are devils to ourselves” (4. 4. 95). Cressida is not just Cressida but all women—the other woman in the play, Helen, is no more than a mirror image of Cressida. When Troilus says that Cressida has depraved their mothers, he is not speaking wildly but speaking symbolically. Hector’s sudden about-face is not freakish, but natural; Achilles brutality is not bestial, but human. Above all, the play does not concern isolated human beings but, like all Shakespeare’s tragedies, it contains the whole world by implication. Nowhere in the play is it suggested that there is a contrasting life somewhere else. Pandarus’ impudent address to the audience is intended to link his pandering with that of the audience’s generally, and to suggest that the play is a symbolic piece, the meanings of which accord with the experiences of the audience. This should be understood if the play is to be recognized as a kind of faulty tragedy and not just a farce or satire.

The infidelity theme is illustrated on many levels, some of them ingenious. Shakespeare’s conception of his art as existing in a kind of multidimensional sphere—his use, for instance, of structure to comment upon content —is nowhere so brilliant as in this play. It has been noted that Othello takes place in a double time,7 the foreground being the “timeless” time of the tragic narrative that is universal and the background an attempt to set up a plausible chronological order; in Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare uses structure to point up his irony, the discrepancy between man’s ideals and what he makes of them in reality. It is not “the world” as such that violates man’s ideals; it is man himself. The play begins with symmetrically balanced scenes: Troilus and Pandarus, then Cressida and Pandarus; the great Greek council of war, then the Trojan council; the central position (act 3, scene 2) of Paris and Helen, the magnificent lovers and the cause of the war, who are shown to be, unfortunately, insipid and vulgar. We move back and forth from Greek to Trojan worlds, and then, near the end of the play, the two are brought together when Cressida gives herself to the Greek Diomed. After this, the play seems to fall apart. Chaos threatens. The death of Hector is a butchery, and yet Hector has debased himself before his death. Troilus does not kill Diomed or Achilles but simply vows revenge; this is the last we see of him. Pandarus closes the play, not because what would seem to be a normal narrative has ended but because the play’s points have been made. Characters act in order to illustrate meanings, and then they disappear; there is no reason even to punish them, for justice is clearly not the way of the world, and certainly the infidelity of Cressida is a “given” for the audience, not a surprise. Here, Shakespeare uses technique to illustrate theme. The almost geometric precision of the play’s beginning is matched by the chaos of its ending. Its fairy-tale plots give way to psychological reality, and men live in earnest, thus precipitating the chaos that Othello envisioned as coming when love is destroyed. On a rather abstract level, we have the “infidelity” of the play’s unfolding as contrasted with its promises as a seemingly conventional work dealing with a familiar story.

The more literal demonstrations of infidelity deal with the relationship between man and woman, the relationship of man and time, the relationship of man with his ideals, and the relationship of the soul and the body. The most interesting of these is the last-mentioned, because in a sense it includes all the others.

Much, certainly, has been written on the theme of “time” in this play,8 and Ulysses’ marvelous speech calls attention to itself as one of the important set-pieces of the play. But the whole conception of “time” as having supplanted eternity rests upon an existential basis—the mortality of spirit and the corruptibility of the flesh; that is, Ulysses in act 3 rejects philosophically what he has said in the “degree” speech in act 1. It is no matter that all Ulysses is trying to do is to spur Achilles into action— no desire in the play is ever equivalent to the homage paid to it; what is important is the assumption behind each of his lines:

Time hash, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-siz’d monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: . . .
. . . . O! let not virtue seek
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, . . .
(3.3. 148-175)

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”: a famous line rarely recognized as the savage indictment of human destiny it is. Here, Ulysses quite deliberately equates “high birth, vigor of bone, desert in service, love, friendship, and charity” as victims of “time”; it is not suggested that any of these outweigh the others simply because they are more spiritual. “Vigor of bone” may be calmly equated with “love,” for both are leveled by the passage of physical time: “The present eye praises the present object.” Man lives only in the present, a continuously changing present that consumes him and goes on to new flesh. This vision of life is possible only to someone who recognizes nothing beyond man as flesh.

So it is no surprise to Ulysses when Cressida behaves as she does. His language loses its bombastic quality once the Greek council scene in act 1 is over and, as the play continues, becomes direct and objective: “All’s done, my lord,” he tells Troilus when Cressida has exhibited her unfaithfulness. If the “degree” speech is compared with his later lines, it will seem to be pompous and excessively rhetorical.9 His vision of chaos is a vision so terrifying that he tries to restrain it through the use of tightly controlled language and imagery; there is the sense in this speech, with its interpretation of the cosmos in terms of man, and, most importantly, in terms of Achilles’ disobedience, of something weak and false, something wished for rather than believed. Ulysses leaps from the sight of the “hollow” Grecian tents upon the plain to the “heavens themselves” and tries to relate the two. His threat is that if degree is masked, everything will “include itself in power,” power will be overcome by will, will by appetite, and appetite will at last eat itself up, a universal wolf confronted with a universal prey. This is certainly ironic in that Ulysses is concerned specifically with power and that his intelligence is of value only as it directs the power of Achilles. While he seems to be speaking against raw power he is really speaking for it; and the greatest chaos of all is to come when Achilles does indeed go into battle, just as everyone wishes. This famous speech, with its evocation of a marvelous, orderly universe threatened by man’s willfulness, is, when examined, hardly more than a sophistic facade of rhetoric intended to bring power, will, and appetite into being. It is directed toward the same ends but is never so honest as the speeches of Troilus and Paris defending Helen. Even if the speech is accepted on its literal level, it is philosophically rejected by Ulysses’ later speech. Indeed, the tradition of considering Ulysses the wisest person in the play is suspect; as George Meyer points out, his wisdom has clear limitations.10 He seems to be an instrament rather than a fully realized person. Like a refined Thersites, he “sees” and “knows” things but he has little to do with what happens.

The infidelity of time is not the primary theme of the play, but is rather an illustration of the results of the tragic duality of man, his division into spirit and flesh. If we are to take Troilus as the moral center of the play, then the initiation into the discrepancy between the demands of the soul and those of the body is the central tragic dilemma. His experience is a moving one, and the fact that he is surrounded, in his naivete, with various types of sexual and moral degeneracy should not undercut his experience. Surely, the play is filled with “derision of folly,” and its relationship to the comical satires of Jonson and Marston is carefully detailed by Campbell,11 but the experience of Troilus is not a satirized experience; it is quite clear that Shakespeare is sympathetic with his hero and expects his audience to share this sympathy.

Let us examine Troilus’ education in terms of his commitment to a sensualized Platonism, a mystic adoration of a woman he hardly knows. He begins as a conventional lover who fights “cruel battle” within and who leaps from extremes of sorrow to extremes of mirth because he has become unbalanced by the violence of what he does not seem to know is lust. In the strange love scene of act 3, scene 2, with its poetic heights and its bawdy depths, Troilus is giddy with expectation and his words are confused: does he really mean to say that he desires to “wallow” in the lily beds of Cressida’s love, or is this Shakespeare forcing him to reveal himself? The scene immediately follows the “honey sweet” scene in which Pandarus sings an obscene song to Paris and Helen and declares that love is a “generation of vipers”; certainly Troilus’ maddened sincerity is pathetic in this circumstance, since we have heard Cressida reveal herself earlier and give the lie to Troilus’ opinion of her: “she is stubborn-chaste against all suit” (1. 1. 101). After Pandarus brings them together, Cressida says, “Will you walk in, my lord?” ( 3. 2. 61). Troilus continues his rhetorical declaration of passion by lamenting the fact that the “monstruosity in love” lies in the will being infinite and the execution confined, and she says a second time in what is surely a blunt undercutting of his poetry, “Will you walk in, my lord?” Pandarus, meanwhile, bustles around them and comments upon their progress. It seems clear that Troilus of operating on a different level of understanding than are Cressida and Pandarus—what he takes quite seriously they take casually. It is part of the “game.” Cressida has declared earlier that she lies “Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my wit, to defend my wiles” (1. 2. 282-283). She is content to think of herself as a “thing” that is prized more before it is won (1. 2. 313), and how else can one explain her behavior with Diomed unless it is assumed that she is “impure” before becoming Troilus’ mistress? It is incredible to think that Troilus has corrupted her, that he has brought her to her degradation,12 if only for naturalistic reasons; it is just as incredible as Desdemona’s supposed adultery with Cassio. On the contrary, Cressida must be seen as an experienced actress in the game of love, just as everyone else in the play with the exception of Troilus is experienced at “acting” out roles without ever quite believing in them.13 Shakespeare uses Calchas’ abandonment of the Trojans to signal Cressida’s coming infidelity. Just as the father betrays his native city, so does Cressida betray Troilus. Not much is made of Calchas in this play, perhaps because there are already so many characters, but Thersites does remark that he is a “traitor.” In earlier treatments, Calchas, who was a Trojan bishop, is a guide and counselor for the Greeks, a respected man; in later sources he is progressively downgraded.14 In this play he is nothing but a traitor whose flight to the Greeks brings about Cressida’s actual infidelity. Not that his behavior has caused hers: Cressida could have learned infidelity from any number of sources in her world.

Troilus’ tragedy is his failure to distinguish between the impulses of the body and those of the spirit. His “love” for Cressida, based upon a Platonic idea of her fairness and chastity, is a ghostly love without an object; he does not see that it would be really a lustful love based upon his desire for her body. Shakespeare is puritanical elsewhere, but I think in this play he reserves sympathy for the tragedy of the impermanence of love built upon lust; Troilus is a victim not of cunning or selfishness but simply of his own body. He may be comic in his earlier rhetorical excesses, and pathetic in his denial of Cressida’s truly being Cressida (act 5, scene 2), but his predicament as a human being is certainly sympathetic. In acadernic criticism there is often an intolerance for any love that is not clearly spiritual, but this failure to observe the natural genesis and characteristics of love distorts the human perspective of the work of art altogether. Troilus’ behavior and, indeed, his subsequent disillusionment are natural; he is not meant to be depraved, nor is his declaration of love in terms of sensual stimulation—particularly the sense of taste—meant to mark him as a hedonist and nothing more. It is Cressida, the calculating one who thinks of herself as a “thing,” and Diomed, so much more clever than Troilus, who are villainous. The first line of Sonnet 151 might apply to Troilus: “Love is too young to know what conscience is.” Troilus’ youthful lust is a lust of innocence that tries to define itself in terms of the spiritual and the heavenly, just as Ulysses’ speech on degree tries to thrust the disorderly Greeks into a metaphysical relationship to the universe and its “natural” laws. Both fail—Troilus because he does not understand his own feelings and Ulysses because there is, in fact, no relationship between man and the universe. In both failures there is the pathetic failure of man to recognize the limitations of the self and its penchant for rationalizing its desires. Nothing is ever equivalent to the energy or eloquence or love lavished upon it. Man’s goals are fated to be less than his ideals would have them, and when he realizes this truth he is “enlightened” in the special sense in which tragedy enlightens men—a flash of bitter knowledge that immediately precedes death. It is difficult to believe, as Campbell argues, that the finale of Troilus and Cressida should be regarded only as the “intelligent use of an accepted artistic convention,”15 that is, as the ejection of derided characters in satire, and not as the expression of personal disillusionment of these characters. Troilus is not a satisfactory tragic hero, but he is certainly a human being who has suffered an education. The fact of his going off to die in what is left of the Trojan War would seem to annul the parallel Campbell makes with the banished Malvolio of Twelfth Night.

The play, with its large number of characters, submits various interpretations of itself to the audience.16 The most strident of the points of view is Thersites, who maintains one note and emerges as a kind of choral instrument to insist upon the betrayal of the spirit by the body. The violent rhythms of the play—its jagged transitions and contrasts between sweetness and bawdiness, pomposity and blunt physical action—are most obviously represented by Thersites in his labyrinth of fury. If he reminds us of anyone else in Shakespeare, it is Iago, who cannot love and who must therefore drag everyone down to his bestial level. But Thersites is more mysterious a character than Iago because he figures not at all in the action—the play would be different without him, but not radically different. He comes onto the stage and mocks the rituals that have characterized the first part of the play; we feel, after Troilus’ inflamed words and the Greeks’ pompous speeches, that this is a man who speaks the truth, who sees at once through all masks. Because it is static, his nihilism soon becomes wearisome. But he is not intended to be an entertaining character; he is little more than a voice that has attached itself to this war simply in order to interpret it.

Thersites makes his noisy entrance immediately after Ulysses explains his plot to get Achilles into action. He undercuts all pretensions of the council scene: if Agamemnon had boils, and the boils ran, then “would come some matter from him. I see none now.” And: “There’s Ulysses and old Nestor, whose wit was mouldy ere your grandsires had nails on their toes” (2. 1. 114-116). Patroclus, who is not a particularly unsympathetic character, is recognized by Thersites as Achilles’ “brach,” his “male varlet,” and his “masculine whore.” Thersites has the magical immunity and privilege of a court jester, and his fearlessness in speaking bluntly even to Achilles suggests that he is not to be explained in naturalistic terms so much as in symbolic terms. He calls for vengeance, the “Neapolitan bone-ache” on the whole camp, for this is a fitting curse for those who “war for a placket” (2. 3. 20-22) . Significantly, the other character who comes closest to Thersites’ cynicism is Diomed, who promises to prize Cressida according to her “worth” (4. 4. 133), and who speaks of Helen as “contaminated carrion.” Because he has no illusions at all, Diomed conquers Cressida at once. Thersites’ rage, however, is impotent, a rage to which no one seems to listen. He calls down curses upon the heroes who surround him in an effort to deflate their fraudulent romanticism and to make them less than human. Man in Thersites’ vision is a catalogue of parts; he is the maddened puritan who cannot endure the discrepancy between the ideals of man and the physical counterparts of these ideals, and who wants nothing so much as to rip to shreds the pretensions of the heroes and to substitute for their grandiose views of themselves a devastating image of man as a physical creature unable to transcend the meanness of his body. Here is Thersites in a typical curse:

. . . Now the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs, loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, lime-kilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take again such preposterous discoveries! ( 5. 1. 20-28 )

The effect of all this is exactly the opposite of that of a magical incantation. Thersites is used by Shakespeare to break illusions, to break the spells cast by the eloquent and self-deceived rhetoricians of the early scenes. He echoes Ulysses’ warning that appetite will devour itself when he says “lechery eats itself” (5. 4. 37). In the scenes of battle between Troilus and Diomed, the relationship between the debased war and debased love is made clear. They take on the roles, however diminished, of Menelaus and Paris, suggesting the endlessness of infidelity. Last of all, Thersites is heard noisily excusing himself from battle:

I am a bastard too; I love bastards: I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in velour, in everything illegitimate…. (5.7.17-20)

He reveals himself as a coward, just as eagerly debasing himself as he has debased everyone else, and is driven offstage with a curse: “The Devil take thee, coward!” As Tillyard remarks, the world of Troilus and Cressida is a world in which things happen to men, rather than a world in which men commit actions.17 Only the evil have a positive capacity for action; the rest are powerless, and most powerless of all is Thersites in his fury.

Unlike ideal and orthodox tragedy, this play leads to no implicit affirmation of values. However, it is not necessary to say that the play gives us no ”conclusion,”18 or that it is only a “rich, varied, and interesting, indeed, heroic and sensational spectacle” devoid of clear moral sinificance.19 The controversy over the genre to which the play belongs is an important one, because it suggests the complexity of the work. That it can be a comical satire to one person, a dark comedy to another, a tragedy to another, and a heroic farce to yet another makes clear the fundamental ambiguity of the work. Arguments over class)fication may seem superficial, but they are really concerned with the deeper, more important task of understanding the play’s meaning as it is qualified by the striking extremes of tone, mockery in both content and structure, and its placing of a heroic young man in a degenerate society that seems utterly aliens to him. Like Othello, with whom Brian Morris compares him,20 Troilus is a man who is unaccountable in terms of the world that has made him: he is a “given,” an innocence that is introduced only in order to be disillusioned and destroyed.

Above all, the play should be recognized as containing within itself a comment upon the “real” world and not as a satirical offshoot of the larger world, somehow inferior to it. It does not point toward another, better, more perfect way of living. This is important or we will interpret the play as satire against courtly love and chivalric ideals. It is certainly a satire against these codes of living, but it is also much more; like Gulliver’s Travels, it works toward establishing all mankind as its satiric object. There has been much discussion about Shakespeare’s reasons for choosing this familiar story, but I think it important to insist that the play’s world—like the worlds of the tragedies—is complete within itself. It is a mythic or allegorical representation of a complete action that does not demand outside knowledge to fufill it. R. A. Foakes suggests that we see or experience the play in a kind of “double time,” seeing beyond the moment and knowing more than the characters do at any particular point:

. . . if [Shakespeare] reduces the accepted stature of the heroes . . . he does it securely in the knowledge that we will have in mind the legend that has descended from Homer, via Virgil, with medieval accretions . . . and has survived all additions and mod)fications to maintain still the ready image of Hector and Achilles as types of great warriors, Helen as a type of beauty. This vision mod)fies our attitude to the play. . . . 21

This idea, while imaginative and stimulating, is based upon an erroneous conception of what drama is. We must remember that the play is meant to be played, shown, demonstrated, and that while a work of art is unfolding, no observer, however learned, can experience it with a “double awareness.” This is certainly to attach too great an agility to the mind. I believe that Shakespeare in this instance seized upon a popular story in order to use it, simply, as a symbolic representation of an idea that at this time of his life must have obsessed him, and that the Troilus-Cressida story and the Trojan War story are not meant to be played out against anyone’s prior knowledge but are intended to transcend or negate this prior knowledge, or simply to create another world altogether—just as someone like Faulkner is obsessed with a Christ-pattern in his works, not in order to derive meaning from a comparison with the biblical Christ but rather to substitute for that Christ a “real” Christ, a human being. This makes the difference between merely clever art based upon cultural knowledge of earlier art (one certainly thinks of T. S. Eliot in this respect) and art that is deadly serious and wants to absolutely re-create and reinterpret the world. There can be nothing “left over” in Troilus and Cressida, and Shakespeare works hard to establish our attitude to his play through his relentless imagery and irony—he would not be secure in the knowledge that our attitudes were going to be modified by other versions of the legend.

Laurence Michel, centering his analysis on Othello, sees Shakespearean tragedy as a “critique of humanism from the inside.” 22 He studies the discrepancy between the pretensions of humanism and the stark reality of tragedy, which sees “everything humanistically worthwhile . . . blighted, then irretrievably cracked; men are made mad, and then destroyed….” Following Aristotle’s insistence upon the primacy of the plot, Michel suggests that the plot, as the soul of the action, criticizes the humanistic ideals that the characters live by, and that this is therefore a critique from the “inside.” Troilus and Cressida, so much more complex than Othello, suggests by its subject matter and its mockery of opposites (flawed “reason” vs. flawed “emotion”) a criticism of the pretensions of tragedy itself—whether it is redefined as “metatheater” or simply as flawed tragedy. The constant ironic undercutting of appearances; the fragments of tragic action that never quite achieve tragedy; above all, the essential philosophic split between the realm of the etemal and that of the existential, the temporarily existing, make it a comment on man’s relationship to himself that is very nearly contemporary. More than any other play of Shakespeare’s, it is Troilus and Cressida about which Auerbach seems to be speaking when he discusses the radical differences between the tragedies of Shakespeare and those of antiquity.23


1 Laurence Michel, “Shakespearean Tragedy: Critique of Humanism from the Inside,” Massachusetts Review, II (1961), pp. 633-650

2 For a wider application of Platonic ideas to Troilus and Cressida, see I. A. Richards, “Troilus and Cressida and Plato,” Hudson Review, (1948) pp. 362-376

3 F. A. Foakes, “Troilus and Cressida Reconsidered,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XXXII (January, 1963),p. 146.

4 R. J. Kaufmann, in “Ceremonies for Chaos: The Status of Troilus and Cressida,” ELH, XXXII (June 1965) sees the deep theme of the play to be the “self-consuming nature of all negotiable forms of vice and virtue (p. 142); the play itself is a prolegomenon to tragedy, a “taxonomical prelude to Shakespeare’s mature tragedies” (p. 159). David Kaula in “Will and Reason in Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XII (1961) sees the harmony necessary between self, society, and cosmos thwarted in the play, not clearly developed as it is in the more mature tragedies (p. z83).

5 See S. L. Bethell, “Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare: Modem Essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard F. Dean (New York, Peter Smith, 1957), p. 265.

6 Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existenz (New York, 1955), p. 20.

7 See M. R. Ridley’s Introduction to his edition of Othello in the New Arden ShakespeaTe (London, 1958), pp. lxvii-lxx.

8 See Wilson Knight in Wheel of Fire (Oxford University Press, 1935); Harold E. Toliver, “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time,” JEGP, LXIV (1965), pp. 243-246; and D. A. Traversi’s chapter on the play in An Approach to Shakespeare(New York, 1956).

9 See A. S. Knowland, “Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959), p. 359; and F. QuinIand Daniels, “Order and Confusion in Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XII (1961), p. 285. Professor Knowland also questions the importance of “time” in the play.

10 George Wilbur Meyer, “Order Out of Chaos in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,” Tulane Studies in English, IV (1954), pp. 55-56.

11 Oscar James Campbell, Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” (Califomia, 1938).

12 Foakes, op. cit., pp. 146-147.

13 Achilles as the “courtly lover” obeying an oath to Polyxena not to fight is suddenly stirred to savagery when Patroclus, his “masculine whore,” is killed, revealing his true love to be homosexual; Ajax, forced into a role by the cunning of Ulysses, soon swells with pride and becomes more egotistical than Achilles; Hector’s change of mind has been discussed above; Pandarus seems to reveal a newer, more disgusting side of his “honey sweet” character at the end of the play.

14 See R. M. Lumiansky, “Calchas in the Early Versions of the Troilus Story,” Tulane Studies in English, IV (1954), pp. 5-20.

15 Campbell, op. cit., p. z33.

16 See Rudolf Stamm, “The Glass of Pandar’s Praise: The Word Scenery, Mirror Passages, and Reported Scenes in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,” Essays and Studies (1964), pp. 55-77, for a detailed analysis of the self-consciousness of the play and its visual perspectives.

17 E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (London, 1950), p.86.

18 T. W. Baldwin, “Troilus and Cressida Again,” Scrutiny, XVIII (1955), p.145.

19 Hardin Craig, ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York, 1951), p. 863.

20 Brian Morris, “The Tragic Structure of Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959), pp. 488, 491.

21 Foakes, op. cit., p. 153.

22 Michel, op. cit., pp. 633-650.

23 “. . . Shakespeare’s ethical and intellectual world is much more agitated, multilayered, and, apart from any specific dramatic action, in itself more dramatic than that of antiquity. The very ground on which men move and actions take their course is more unsteady and seems shaken by inner disturbances. There is no stable world as background, but a world which is perpetually re-engendering itself out of the most varied forces…. In antique tragedy the philosophizing is generally undramatic; it is sententious, aphoristic, is abstracted from the action and generalized, is detached from the personage and his fate. In Shakespeare’s plays it becomes personal; it grows directly out of the speaker’s immediate situation and remains connected with it…. It is dramatic self-scrutiny seeking the right mode and moment for action or doubting the possibility of finding them.” Erich Auerbach, Mimesis(Princeton, 1953), p. 285.

1 Comment »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s