Troilus and Cressida* is my nominee for the most amazing of all Shakespeare’s plays, and that’s saying a lot. In text and in performance, Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, All’s Well that Ends Well, Twelfth Night and many more would spring to educated people’s minds before this strange Trojan War epic.
Yet Troilus and Cressida outpaces them all in the race to be most puzzling. So far as I know, no other play apart from Titus Andronicus** – not only by Shakespeare but by anybody – has been claimed to be both a tragedy and a comedy, as well as spots in between. There are even more puzzles about the play, perhaps more than about any other of Shakespeare’s works, and they raise issues that go far beyond what we may style as literary criticism.
Many of these uncertainties are the sort that bedevil Shakespeare scholarship generally – and that help make burrowing into the works of the master so exciting. It is not clear when the play was originally written, though it is generally accepted to have been around 1600. There are two and a half versions – two almost identical quartos published in 1609, and the 1623 Folio text, all with wee posers for the excitable, such as myself. Whether the quarto(s) or the Folio is the “authoritative” version is moot.
There is more. Many words in the English language are found first in Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida has a number he used only in this play, and there are others that have never been used by anyone else, ever.***
All these and more factors may help to explain why the play is not better known.
The quartos are a good place to start. They were published in quick succession in 1609, the same year Shakespeare’s sonnets were first printed. The theatres were closed in that year due to the plague and Shakespeare may have been trying to make some money from his writing.
The first quarto claimed the play had been performed by his company, the King’s Men, but it was quickly replaced by a new edition, alike in every respect but for the title page and a preface, from “a never writer” to the “ever reader”.
The preface is a source of endless fascination. It contradicts the earlier version by saying it has never been performed – “never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar”, and then goes on to say that what had been a “history” was now a comedy, “passing full of the palm comical”. Shakespeare is compared to the Roman comic playwrights Plautus and Terence.
Moreover as addressed to the “ever reader” it may be that Shakespeare rejigged an earlier version of the play (and that may have been performed) to make it more suitable for reading. In any case, as with other plays published at the time, it was sold as something to be read, not as a script to be performed.
I think this matters for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important being that the presumed difficulties of the play may very well stem from its form as a dramatic script but infused with complexities and nuance that can only be appreciated at leisure, by an “ever reader”, or even, an “eternal reader”. Even when staged in “intimate” settings like Blackfriars theatre instead of the larger Globe playhouse, Troilus and Cressida is so full of subtle innuendo, complex philosophising, and sexual and other multiple entendres that no viewer could hope to gain a full appreciation at a sitting or reading. Certainly I have seen it three times and have read it at least half a dozen times, three in the most recent Arden edition, and think there is more there yet.
Never Writer’s big point, that the play is a comedy, is major. After all, this is a play set in a war, whose outcome is known to everyone. Lovers torn apart jostle for prominence with the death of the Trojans’ most famous warrior, with the weeping sores of venereal disease seeping through the lines to infect the whole. Get a rib-tickler out of that and you’d have to be – Shakespeare.
It is a tall order without doubt. But it is doable, and I am not alone in thinking it.^
What makes it doable is the underlying intent, what Shakespeare was trying to achieve – according, of course, to me. Ultimately that is what draws me to the play, as ultimately I am drawn to Shakespeare’s work in “the whole of all its parts”.
It seems to me Shakespeare was attacking the courtly ethos associated with the late Elizabethan monarchy, peeling away the layers of false gentility to reveal the ugly inside of what were, once seen the right way, self-evidently hypocritical values. Unless it is the venomous fool Thersites, no one among the major characters emerges unscathed.
There is external evidence that Shakespeare took a dim view of these values at the time. In sonnet 130, he contrasts the romantic view of love with his own realistic one:
“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/As any she belied with false compare”. This is loving not despite a lover’s “blemishes” but in their fullness. Troilus’ love-sick puppy does not stand up well to this grown man’s emotions.
Troilus and Cressida extends this suspicion of the standards of chivalric, “courtly” behaviour to encompass its most extreme practice: warfare. There is really nothing else at stake in the war than “honour”: the Greeks could go home empty-handed, and the Trojans could turn Helen over to them, and the loss for either would be face, and nothing else. To stand on the rightness of their cause has already, when the play begins, costs untold lives on both sides, with the Trojans risking everything: their city, their culture, the lives of everyone there, men, women, children, the old and frail. For the Greeks, the risks are less in that “just” the lives of those on the field of battle are at risk, but as the play opens the battlefield is strewn with the ghosts of warriors fallen in the pursuit of a woman who is happy where she is, thank you very much.
The conclusion, made plain in both camps during the play, is that they fight not because they have to, but because they want to. The element of tragedy is self-evident in this, given that no audience would be unaware of the final outcome.
Yet it is also laughable. These are not men, but children at play with deadly consequences. Critical scenes in the play that might be thought to be hard to raise a laugh, really could: Hector’s death, for example, after he pursued and killed a Greek for his armour, dragging the unnamed victim home and stopping for a rest, surrounded by Achilles’ warriors known as Myrmidons – descended if you will from ants! – to be slain by Achilles as a sadistic child might pull wings off flies. Tragic from one view, but losing one’s life for soldier bling…an audience in Shakespeare’s day could have found this funny, and so in ours.
Mounting or reading this play as a comedy exposes these values to trenchant ridicule underscored in the character of Thersites, whose all but endless trashing of the pretensions of both camps, and shrewd perceptions of the underlying macho and sexual motivations involved, is a slap in the face not just to Greeks and Trojans, but to men who share their values.
And there are plenty of those around.
This year is the centenary of the beginning of what is variously called the First World War, World War I and the Great War. The parallels with the Trojan War are not exact, by any means. Nonetheless, for all its outrage and political undertones, the assassination of an Austrian archduke by Serbian radicals need not have begun a conflagration that would go on to consume the lives of millions upon millions, and did even worse as I hope to show.
The archduke’s murder unleashed the same passions that made peace impossible between the Trojans and the Greeks: men’s passions, or if you prefer, boys’ stuff, ruled on both occasions. They are not the only passions in men. But they ruled then, and can rule again.
To see these at work in the Great War Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel is widely regarded as the truest reflection of that conflict. It is also an honest account by a man who relished the fighting. The male urges laid bare in Troilus and Cressida bare their teeth in Storm of Steel.
Of course not all males allow themselves to be swept up in madness. Thersites in Troilus and Cressida was frank in his cowardice. In the Great War New Zealander Archibald Baxter’s refusal to serve led him to the front lines in France as authorities sought to break him and his comrades through beatings and torture. His account, We Will Not Cease, shows heroism of another sort.
Baxter’s beliefs can only be said to be a guide to the future in a general way: that men need not give way to the urges that lead individuals to violence and societies to wholesale slaughter. Resistance to aggression can be the only option. The Second World War was just like that: Hitler was determined on war from shortly after the end of the Great War, when few if any even knew he existed, and no amount of persuasion or acquiescence would have avoided it, as events proved. Not only the passions of men, but the sway of policy made “Hitler’s war” unique among the wars of so-called civilised states. While we solemnly intone the futility of the Great War in the near future, remembering what came after won’t hurt.
All of this, right down to our world today, relates to men, to their attitudes, passions and power. Women only feature as symbols and objects, or as victims. The world of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is in that sense the same as the world of 1914, and nearly the same as the world of today.
But just nearly the same. Those who read this blog regularly, and those who read my fiction, will know that my work is meant partly to chart what I feel is an epochal shift in western society, and by extension eventually all society. That sees women moving to replace men as decision-makers in all aspects of social life: business, services, politics. What some might see as a rise to equality I see as a necessary victory over the passions that have ruled us for too long. What is important is not women “coming to be equals” but men losing their place on top.
This is not about “gender”, but about values, however much they may be bound up with gender, and Archibald Baxter and men like him have shown it. Men generally have been able to indulge their violent inclinations for a very long time because of the reality of their physical strength^^; the industrial revolution and the many implements of destruction spawned by it have undermined and will finally destroy that advantage. The strength of “womanhood” and the values implied by it are now being ushered into the forefront of social life.
Real, physical women are not the same as these values. It is not surprising that many if not all of the women to arrive in positions of political power clawed their way to the top by being more male than men. It was not Margaret Thatcher’s handbag that was relevant but her willingness to swing it.
Yet this process and the broad outlines of its outcome are unmistakeable. Woman is coming to rule, politically and socially. “Equality” really means “supremacy”, and negation is the reason: male values are too dangerous. The sabre-rattling that led to the Great War cost millions of lives; the same attitudes today threaten global catastrophe, and even when this is avoided can cause needless distress and harm to hundreds of millions of people.
All this may seem a long way from Troilus and Cressida and in a sense it is. Shakespeare in his day could only mock male values. The women in this play are not agents of their own destiny but are victims of the whims of their male rulers. Cressida has long been portrayed as a “slut” but it seems to me shows intelligence and wit in adapting – and quickly – to her circumstances after being totally betrayed by the man she loved. The parallel with Helen is ironic. Cressida must go to the Greeks as a matter of principle while Helen must stay for the same reason. Both are no more than tokens, symbols, not fully human.
At any rate Shakespeare could hardly have foreseen a time when women’s estate would change. The single example of his age, Elizabeth, was taken – as she was – to be a great exception, all the more as she was hailed as a virgin. John Knox, the Scottish reformer, railed against her and the notion that women should rule men as he regarded it as anti-Biblical and anti-Christian.
What Shakespeare could do was to expose the sexual basis of much male behaviour, not just that directed at women. The amount of sexual innuendo in Troilus and Cressida is astonishing for a work peopled mostly by men, and suggests that sexual prowess and sexual competitiveness are significant factors in male behaviour not only toward women but toward other men. It is a commonplace that women in our time dress for other women at least as much as for men, but a recent study into dancing suggests men dance in the same way – parading themselves in front of other men as well as women, to dominate or ward off competition, not merely to seduce their opposites.
Pandarus, deathly ill with “Neapolitan bone ache” (syphilis) farewells the audience at the very end of the play promising to “bequeath you my diseases”. What Shakespeare meant by this parting shot is not entirely clear. Some think he himself had syphilis and not surprisingly wasn’t happy about it. Whether that is true or not, it seems to me to be more an indictment not of the rutting but the strutting style of masculinity so ridiculed by Thersites in the play, as men view sex as a form of power, and their conquests as chaff. Early in the play, as Cressida contemplates yielding to Troilus, she articulates her weakness: her only strength is in withholding her favours; once she has granted them, she is totally captive to her seducer – and so it proves. Sex as power is a sickness in keeping with and an element in the notion of war as a blood sport. Though he is clearly a lover and not a fighter, Pandarus facilitates the ethos and must guiltily succumb.
We no longer live in such times. But the consequences of change in sexual attitudes are far from clearly articulated in decision-making in political life.
The great risk is that “women as men”, as satirised in the dystopian novel Regiment of Women by Thomas Berger, will turn out to be the rule. I don’t think it will, though it is absurd also to say that women as individuals are each and all superior to men. It is about values and there is a change going on among we poor males too. And even so evil will grab hard any purchase it can find, as the ambivalent ending of Kaos acknowledges.
In our time – right now! – we still see politics as a boys’ game in full cry. Stresses and strains on the international stage give macho impulses their head – what should be a last resort is the first, what is a symbol only is a cause, what is a restricted field of disagreement is an invitation for the “nuclear option”. We are not yet out of the shadow of the world mocked by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida. There is still time to change it from a comedy to a tragedy.
Thanks for getting through this.
*The best edition by far as I’ve noted in previous posts is David Bevington’s third series Arden. There is such a thing as an editorial masterpiece, and this is it. I have not given a precis of the play – readers should consult Wiki or Bevington.
**Titus has been claimed to be a send-up of contemporary revenge tragedies. Jonathan Bate’s Arden edition persuasively argues against farce.
***See Bevington’s note on the text.
^It would be interesting to see the play done in repertory with itself – as a comedy one night, a tragedy or tragicomedy the next. See Bevington p426.
^^See Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex.