Since starting this blog my aim has been to write at least one post a week, and lately I’ve been failing conspicuously to do that. Blagh! Life outside the blogosphere has just got pretty full on for one thing, and also I’ve been thinking about things, maybe rather too much. Still, I have a plan so I thought I’d try to put a bit more of it into action with a new post, though it is only a teaser for something to come.
My next to last post was intended to be a sort of introduction to a Shakespeare play most people have never heard of, Troilus and Cressida, a play that will have a walk-on part in the book I am writing now, Kaos. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, and perhaps the most problematic of them all. Anyone wishing to get right into this will find David Bevington’s Arden edition a lot of fun.
I have seen this play three times: once at Stratford in the mid-1980s in a version set in the Crimean War, once in Edinburgh early in this century in a version that might be described as traditional, using a Renaissance staging, and in Glasgow not long after in a wild and exciting version of gender transference with the usual male roles played by women and vice versa. Each of these had its attractions, but for me none was ultimately successful.
That is not really surprising. In order to stage a play one must know what it’s about, and it is hard to say for sure what this play – which Bevington argues was “experimental” for Shakespeare – is about. There is a great deal of conflicting possibility contained within it: Its most famous lines, spoken by Odysseus to Achilles, have been argued about for several hundred years.
But that is mere detail from my perspective. The real troubles with this play are more profound, and stretch right back to its first publication as a quarto and the folio that followed fourteen years later.
There were three versions of this: two quartos and the version in the folio. The quarto versions are identical, apart from what might ordinarily appear to be extraneous introductory material. In this case a great range of problems flows from this packaging. One of the quartos says on the title page that the play had been performed by Shakespeare’s company, but the second quarto – identical in every other respect – says that it has never been performed.
That’s not all. This second version has a strange introduction to the reader that goes on to say that there are plenty of laughs in it: that Troilus and Cressida is a comedy right up there with the best of Terence and Plautus, Roman comic authors. Given that the play is set in the Trojan War and that it involves the death of the Trojan hero Hector, this at first sight seems a stretch. And even at second sight: a central character, Achilles’ fool Thersites, is arguably one of the most bitter characters in all literature, while Pandarus, whose name is the origin of one of the words for pimp, delivers a parting shot to the audience groaning with pustules of invective. Pandarus’ farewell to the audience has been taken to suggest that Shakespeare was suffering from syphilis, and this may be true. But readers who persist with me will see a different colouring altogether to Pandarus’ performance.
Then there is the folio, where the play is an apparently late addition, sandwiched in between the history plays and the tragedies. The folio also arranges the play differently.
So when some one asks the apparently simple question, “what is this play about?”, the answer is not necessarily straightforward.
My aim is to provide a reading of Troilus and Cressida different from the others I have encountered, including Bevington’s. I would not presume to suggest that my reading will exhaust the possibilities of the play. Lots of people have had a slash at interpreting Troilus and Cressida and my version is just as likely to be full of problems and errors as any other. What I want to do is to try to follow the claim in the quarto that it is indeed a comedy, that it is possible for a production to have the audience rolling in the aisles even as Hector is unceremoniously dealt to by Achilles’ helpmates. For to my mind, this is a play about what it means to be a human being, and within that, the poor quality of the male of our species, who regards himself as the lynchpin of society when he is more the cause of all the trouble. Shakespeare is sticking it up the idea of male superiority, skewering any kind of view of chivalry as he does it. If it hurts, well, so it should seems to be the message.
To laugh at these notions, to adopt a realistic view of men whose claims to superiority over woman rest simply and fully on physical strength, catered to an audience of emerging “bourgeoisie”, men with money who’d made their money, not had it handed down to them, men whose retinues were just as real, who could look, however implausibly, forward to a society based on merit. Their view of posterity was as unglamorous as their notions of the reality of the present.
About the time the quartos were published, Shakespeare’s sonnets were also released, and it is instructive to read one of the most of famous of these fourteen line marvels in this context, number 130:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts be dun;
If hairs be wires, why then black wires grow on her head;
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that in my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
Than any she belied with false compare.
To me this sonnet is about real love, about where it comes from and where it definitely does not. At a time when the cult of the not-long-dead Elizabeth I had seen quite ridiculous paeans to the chivalric notion of woman as perfect, as “goddess”, and of male behaviour in general, sonnet 130 stood up for real emotions in a real world and was a brave attack on the fantasy values of The Faerie Queen and any who promoted them.* The way I see Troilus and Cressida, this play is an even more ferocious attack in the same vein.
More to come! Thanks for reading.
*It is astonishing to me that the editor of the Arden edition of the sonnets, Katherine Duncan-Jones, says of this sonnet that “with utter cynicism, the speaker praises her as a ‘poor thing, but mine own’, celebrating her in swaggering terms which are ingeniously offensive both to her and to women in general”. Even taking into account “context” of the other sonnets in the sequence, it really doesn’t wash. Duncan-Jones is making this sonnet mean what she is determined for it to mean. The evidence is simply not there. And Shakespeare never wrote ‘a poor thing, but mine own’, which is a misquotation from As You Like It, by a poor man who has more kindly thoughts than Duncan-Jones allows him, and whose remark is partly a rueful reflection on his own character and suitability as a mate.