Troilus and Cressida is certainly sick and twisted, but not in the same way that Measure for Measure is. They are nearly perfect complements to each other, as if Shakespeare had set himself twin challenges: for Measure for Measure, to write an unfunny comedy, and for Troilus and Cressida, to write a silly tragedy. People very nearly die in the “comedy” Measure for Measure, while Troilus and Cressida survive their “tragedy,” albeit unhappily. In both cases the cross-genre pollution doesn’t yield a healthy hybrid, but a self-conscious mutant.
But the two don’t mix their enzyme and substrate in the same way.
At some point mid-20th century, people didn’t believe Shakespeare had written the messy, chaotic last act with its dozen short scenes, but that claim seems to have died down.
The fragmentation and general confusion makes Troilus and Cressida less powerful than Measure for Measure, which has a cogent and visceral build-up of increasingly serious horrors. Troilus and Cressida doesn’t even attempt that, since whenever something “serious” occurs, it’s quickly followed by something that makes it much harder to take it seriously. The question then is what to make of it, since the lack of coherence is clearly a deliberate strategy but only seems to be make things more diffuse.
I’ve read a fair number of analyses claiming that it holds together in spite of itself or that the chaos powerfully subverts narrative expectation, but they’ve all been quite unconvincing (though I. A. Richards’ “Troilus and Cressida and Plato” is memorably strange), since we aren’t dealing with King Lear here. Jan Kott’s assessment in Shakespeare Our Contemporary is probably the most powerful–he makes the play sound amazing, more amazing and coherent than it actually is. Rosalie Colie, having made extensive studies on Renaissance paradox, was especially well-suited to analyze the play, and her explanation of how the play undermines the very shared conventions of linguistic use is brilliant:
The lovers demonstrate the reduction of expressive intentional language to social and linguistic counters. As they milk language of meaning, so their names lose private, individual meaning too, to signify impersonal morality-functions.
Rosalie Colie, Shakespeare’s Living Art
The language, which Colie and others treat at great length, is often remarkable at a conceptual level. I won’t dare analyze it here, other than to say that the excesses of the language make the banality of the plot and character that much more evident. Trivialization clearly seems to be the order of the day, but the question of why one would write a play that merely trivializes its subjects remains. Shakespeare shows off his genre-savvy here, but to what end?
My answer is that the play is a reductio ad absurdam, an attempt to mimic the analysis and response of the most jaded and cynical theater-goer, and yet let some modicum of human dignity remain. I think that unlike Measure for Measure, which leaves an uneasy sick feeling, Troilus and Cressida is ultimately affirming of something, though not a lot. By taking a Euripidean plot but writing it in the style of Aristophanes (via Plautus or Terence), he makes it difficult to cling on to anything without suspecting that there’s one more level of irony underneath it. But remember that Aristophanes came out exalting Aeschylus.
Certainly, most of the play undermines any ideals its characters purport. On the Greek side, Ulysses comes off as the classical Burkean/Rumsfeldian conservative, speaking eloquently and with seeming intelligence, but advocating for awfulness. Achilles is a joke. On the Trojan side, romantic lead Troilus lacks any common sense and intelligence. Here is his “argument” for fighting for Helen, which boils down to “Less thinking, more ass-kicking!”
TROILUS You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest;
You fur your gloves with reason. Here are your reasons:
You know an enemy intends you harm;
You know a sword employ’d is perilous,
And reason flies the object of all harm:
Who marvels then, when Helenus beholds
A Grecian and his sword, if he do set
The very wings of reason to his heels
And fly like chidden Mercury from Jove,
Or like a star disorb’d? Nay, if we talk of reason,
Let’s shut our gates and sleep: manhood and honour
Should have hare-hearts, would they but fat their thoughts
With this cramm’d reason: reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject.
Helen and Paris are about as worthy of fighting over as ever. Hector does appear to act with dignity, but all that signals is that dignity can’t exist in a vacuum. He is speaking for a virtue that the rest of the characters don’t even understand, and he can’t uphold it in a vacuum, and eventually he doesn’t. So he’s useless too in the face of the “Most putrefied core” of the anonymous Greek he slaughters in 5.8. Hell, the whole play could be said to be concerned with the absurdity of holding up any virtue that isn’t valued by the surrounding community, be it honor or fidelity–or love itself.
What is fascinating is that into this hybrid, Shakespeare stuck one of his most assertive and complex women. The reaction to her over the centuries has been predominantly scathing. Personal preference grants me a strong affection for Cressida. In her first appearance she engages in a long stint of Groucho-Chico/Bob and Ray doubletalk with her sleazy uncle.
CRESSIDA What, is he angry too?
PANDARUS Who, Troilus? Troilus is the better man of the two.
CRESSIDA O Jupiter! there’s no comparison.
PANDARUS What, not between Troilus and Hector? Do you know a man if you see him?
CRESSIDA Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him.
PANDARUS Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.
CRESSIDA Then you say as I say; for, I am sure, he is not Hector.
PANDARUS No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.
CRESSIDA ‘Tis just to each of them; he is himself.
PANDARUS Himself! Alas, poor Troilus! I would he were.
CRESSIDA So he is.
And so on and on. She is witty, coy, and apparently savvy. She adapts to her changing circumstances, none of which are under her control, perhaps covering up inexperience with raw smarts. She resists Troilus at first and then, after she falls for him, seems to think somewhat more of him than he deserves, as her dialogue switches from doubletalk to inflated rhetoric. While he still forces more of a unity than I think can be assigned to her, Jan Kott captures something of what makes her uniquely modern among Shakespearean characters, comparing her to Hamlet:
This girl could have been eight, ten, or twelve years old when the war started. Maybe that is why war seems so normal and ordinary to her that she almost does not notice it and never talks about it. Cressida has not yet been touched, but she knows all about love, and about sleeping with men; or at any rate she thinks she knows. She is inwardly free, conscious and daring. She belongs to the Renaissance, but she is also a Stendhal type akin to Lamiel, and she is a teen-age girl of the mid-twentieth century. She is cynical, or rather would be cynical. She has seen too much. She is bitter and ironic. She is passionate, afraid of her passion and ashamed to admit it. She is even more afraid of feelings. She distrusts herself. She is our contemporary because of this self-distrust, reserve, and a need of self-analysis. She defends herself by irony.
Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary
Were she in a less self-reflexive play, she’d easily be one of the best characters in the canon. As it is, she lacks the space to fully become what Kott describes her as being, yet even the partial portrait is sui generis.
As for the lovers together, their pledges of love to each other are very odd and epistemological:
TROILUS O virtuous fight,
When right with right wars who shall be most right!
True swains in love shall in the world to come
Approve their truths by Troilus: when their rhymes,
Full of protest, of oath and big compare,
Want similes, truth tired with iteration,
As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as earth to the centre,
Yet, after all comparisons of truth,
As truth’s authentic author to be cited,
‘As true as Troilus’ shall crown up the verse,
And sanctify the numbers.
CRESSIDA Prophet may you be!
If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallow’d cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! when they’ve said ‘as false
As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, as wolf to heifer’s calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son,’
‘Yea,’ let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
‘As false as Cressid.’
Are there any passages in Shakespeare that use the words “true” and “false” as incessantly as these two do, respectively? It’s numbing. And overblown: Cressida herself undermined the distinction in an earlier gabfest with Pandarus when she said “To say the truth, true and not true.” Troilus himself undermined it in the previous scene when he tautologically declared, “I am as true as truth’s simplicity,” spelling out the meaninglessness of the comparison with truth-values.
The speeches do set up Troilus later shrieking “False, false, false!” at Cressida in the last act, which, again, doesn’t quite rise to the level of King Lear here, especially considering that Cressida was just sold into slavery by her own people in exchange for the return of a prisoner. There’s no secret escape plan for Cressida this time, unlike in Chaucer, and her father Calchas, a defector to the Greeks, seems indifferent to her arrival. Her pledge to Diomedes is a bitter tactical move designed to save herself from becoming one of the “sluttish spoils of opportunity,” in the words of that fine fellow Ulysses. In light of the chaotic movement of the play and Troilus’ character, Cressida’s resignation and compromise with circumstance seems far more realistic than Troilus’ cloddish tantrums–although Troilus’ breakdown while Thersites jeers at him does contain genuine pathos. No, Cressida didn’t have to give Diomedes Troilus’ sleeve, but Shakespeare consciously weakened the case against Cressida (also by having her affair with Troilus last for hours rather than months, as in Chaucer).
And then there is Thersites on the Greek side. Thersites is pretty insufferable. At first he may seem like the truth-teller of the Iliad, but soon reveals himself to be far less. In the Iliad, he was clearly a threat. Moses Finley observed that Homer wouldn’t have bothered having Thersites speak out and be smacked down if what he said weren’t dangerous to the warrior caste. In Shakespeare, Thersites is ridiculed, beaten on, but generally tolerated, because he is defanged. His words have no bite, no matter how much he tries to give them. The deeper he digs himself into ridicule and cynicism, the more impotent he becomes. Not that he even seems to care about making a difference. Unlike his somewhat more decorous Trojan counterpart, Pandaraus, who turns from bawd to malevolent force over the play, Thersites just rants from the bleachers, amusing himself but no one else.
I think he is meant to be the point of identification for smug audiences who think themselves above it all, who want to laugh at the archaic heroics of Hector as well as the dumb romance of Troilus and Cressida (ably assisted by Shakespeare portraying them rather badly). But Thersites represents a dead end as much as Hector does. Both signify polar positions, dignity and cynicism, in a world that is too chaotic and stupefied to justify either.
So what do I see as the ultimate purpose here? A play that is designed to tempt the viewer with cynicism and then throw it back in its face. Yes, be apathetic and say a pox on all their houses, yes, be like Thersites. And look at who you’ll be: a prude, sex-hating and joyless, unable to affirm anything, ignored by everyone. This is what makes the play so apt today, because while it was just confusing to earlier audiences, recent productions have embraced Thersites’ position to the hilt, not realizing that a certain race-to-the-bottom critical mindset that refuses to endorse any clear values, lest they then be trumped by the next subversion, will produce nothing that any one will ever care about.
Yet when Cressida is led away to become a sex slave for the Greeks, some care has survived, that despite the hardened cynicism of nearly everyone, you would have to be a monster to embrace Thersites’ or Ulysses’ points of view. So maybe that is the challenge Shakespeare set himself: to trivialize things as much as possible and then at the end say, “Look, I still made you care.” It hasn’t always worked, judging by how hard people have come down on Cressida, but it works on me. The fatuous “True Troilus” and “False Cressida” speeches are an analogy for that goal–that even in light of the linguistic nonsense and exaggerated silliness of True and False made by Troilus and Cressida, we still aren’t willing to give up the very robust distinction between truth and falseness, and so even this very cynical and sophistic play has left us still giving them some affirmation.