Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"You are too bitter to your countrywoman"

I've been reading Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," a play with which I was unfamiliar, because it's not one that gets performed much or, I think, read widely (that is to say, assigned as reading from EngLit profs). I have no idea why this is not one of Shakespeare's best known or most performed works. It's a masterpiece, a thing of genius, one of the best plays I've ever read.

I was vaguely aware of the existence of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde but I assumed it was a medieval story put into new clothes by Chaucer; I had no idea it was an addition to Homer's Iliad. Which means that I had no idea Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" was a sharp parody of Homer, a criticism of stereotypical ideas about ancient Greece, an indictment of heroism worthy of Euripides. Great stuff, I am telling you.

Where to start? How about with the basis of the war, a woman named Helen? Shakespeare's Helen is not the most beautiful woman in Greece, or in Troy, and nobody, neither Trojan nor (with the exception of Menelaus) Greek, actually considers her worth fighting over. Here is Diomedes, a Greek general, to Paris, who stole Helen:
She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death.
High praise indeed, eh? Paris' response is that the Greeks only talk that way about Helen because they are attempting to be wily: wanting the Trojans to think Helen worthless and give her up. But in an earlier scene, Priam and some of his sons do seriously discuss giving Helen back. Hector, Priam's eldest son (and Paris' big brother), says:
Let Helen go:
Since the first sword was drawn about this question,
Every tithe soul, 'mongst many thousand dismes,
Hath been as dear as Helen; I mean, of ours:
If we have lost so many tenths of ours,
To guard a thing not ours nor worth to us,
Had it our name, the value of one ten,
What merit's in that reason which denies
The yielding of her up?
Nobody but Paris and Menelaus values the woman, yet on the war goes, because it's an affair of honor. Neither side will yield because questions of machismo, and nothing more, are at stake. The Trojans and the Greeks are alike in that they are petty and prideful; they are alike in that they treat women as tokens to be passed from man to man; they are alike in that they will only go to war when battle will increase their personal esteem. There is no statecraft going on, but plenty of politicking. Honor is nonexistent; pride is what matters, pride and the esteem of others. Ulysses goads Achilles into action by having everyone important ignore him. Ulysses goads Ajax into fighting Hector by implying that Achilles might be a better warrior, though of course Ulysses would never think such a thing; it's those other Greeks who say that. Ajax is a dummy, a big stupid brute, but at heart so are the rest of the heroes in this story. They all just want to kill people and be admired for it. The following exchange between Aeneas and Diomedes, enemies come together under a flag of truce for a moment, should demonstrate the sort of guys-will-be-guys, look-how-cool-I-am mindset of the mighty warriors:
AENEAS:
Health to you, valiant sir,
During all question of the gentle truce;
But when I meet you arm'd, as black defiance
As heart can think or courage execute.

DIOMEDES:
The one and other Diomed embraces.
Our bloods are now in calm; and, so long, health!
But when contention and occasion meet,
By Jove, I'll play the hunter for thy life
With all my force, pursuit and policy.

AENEAS:
And thou shalt hunt a lion, that will fly
With his face backward. In humane gentleness,
Welcome to Troy! now, by Anchises' life,
Welcome, indeed! By Venus' hand I swear,
No man alive can love in such a sort
The thing he means to kill more excellently.

DIOMEDES:
We sympathize: Jove, let AEneas live,
If to my sword his fate be not the glory,
A thousand complete courses of the sun!
But, in mine emulous honour, let him die,
With every joint a wound, and that to-morrow!

AENEAS:
We know each other well.

DIOMEDES:
We do; and long to know each other worse.

PARIS:
This is the most despiteful gentle greeting,
The noblest hateful love, that e'er I heard of.
Paris gets the punch line at the end. The joke is even bigger than this exchange: Paris never leaves Troy to fight; he spends most of his time in Helen's bed. Everyone comments on it constantly, nobody is at all surprised, even when Helen turns out to be a shallow little strumpet, nothing so like the goddess we might expect. I am delighted that "Troilus and Cressida" turns out to be so very very good. I should not be surprised; it's a later play, written in 1603 or so, after "Hamlet." I think the plays from this period are Shakespeare's best, or at least I think that he was doing his best large-scale thinking during the early 17th century. Or I mean something along those lines.

11 comments:

  1. The answer to you beginning "why" is that the play is too hard. It is reserved for Advanced Shakespeare Studies.

    Chaucer's poem is, unsurprisingly, excellent, with a particularly sublime ending.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess. It seems pretty straightforward to me. But I suppose the parodic elements would be lost on a reader who doesn't know The Iliad.

      I loved the ending speech, I must say. "What's this dishonorable courtly society lead to? Sexually-transmitted diseases. Don't blame the pimps. The end."

      Delete
  2. Yes, I think there is too much to teach around the play. Few undergraduates will have any of the background.

    My understanding is that the best guess is that this play was written for a small, courtly audience, not for Shakespeare's usual popular theater. It is possible that Shakespeare's text, as opposed to a rewritten version, was not staged until the 20th century.

    Chaucer's approach is quite different.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. O the callow youth of today.

      I read that this was written to be performed for law students, a small and not courtly audience. There are some legal jokes and law term puns, but you also see that in the gravedigger scene of "Hamlet," so who knows? The original edition of the play claimed that it had never been performed. Or maybe that was the second edition, a couple of years later; I forget.

      We may have the Chaucer around the house. I'll have to go exploring.

      Delete
    2. Law students, that's right, I have read that, too.

      Delete
  3. Even as I dash hither and thither between bed and bath in the tropics -- take note of my posting today at Beyond Eastrod -- I will follow your lead by revisiting Shakespeare's play; in fact, as I hear the Porter knocking at the door (which I hope is not Death's door, but symptoms suggest the possibility), I think I ought to revisit many of Shakespeare's plays. Thanks for the Rx and catalyst.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can never go wrong with Shakespeare. Take care of yourself down there in Costa Rica, Tim.

      Delete
  4. how can i say this: i dislike this play. pandarus is irritating and cressida is not very bright. troilus is a dolt. i understand that estimation of literary worth shoudn't be based on personal prejudices but in some cases(this one) a nontechnical approach may convey more that an analysis. no wonder that it is considered one of william's more inferior efforts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pandarus is supposed to be irritating, lecherous, short-sighted. Cressida is supposed to be shallow (she is another version of Helen), and Troilus is supposed to be blind to her real personality, caught up in his image of himself as a courtly knight (he is another version of both Menelaus and Paris). The Greek generals have the same faults (Ulysses is a shifty back-room pimping politician just like Pandarus). The Trojan heroes the same sort of collection of dolts in armor (Hector treats warfare as a game, a sport, taking a break in the final battle to sit and cool down, during which foolish moment he is cut down by Achilles' Myrmidons, who then spread the word that Achillies himself killed Hector). These are the points of the play, which makes it a superior play, Shakespeare's biting commentary on heroes and idealized love. If you make the heroes into typical Greek heroes, you have Homer's Iliad, which Shakespeare is telling us is a pack of propaganda. Agamemnon frets and struts, signifying nothing, etc. Maybe I enjoyed this play so much because I read Thucydides a couple of months ago. Shakespeare's Greeks are very much like Sophocles' Greeks in "Ajax." No, this is a great play, a real masterpiece.

      Delete
  5. I'm so glad you like this play: for a long time, I was wondering whether i was the only one! It gets my vote for Shakespeare's most underrated work.

    But it will never achieve much popularity. It's the most bitter of his plays, the most angry. There's a battle in the final act, but nothing is resolved: the battle is still raging at the end. And the final lines are given to the loathsome Pandarus, who bequeaths his "diseases" to us, the audience. We are given the elements of a tragedy, but denied a catharsis.

    Troilus strikes me as not too far from a Renaissance prince. He is, at the start, a lovelorn young man, yearning for the woman beyond his reach. And, like Hamlet, he is very much an idealist, shocked by the failure of those around him to live up to his ideals. When Hector suggests ending the pointless war and returning Helen, it is Troilus who opposes: they have to fight on, he insists, for the sake of honour. Of course, his idealism is very badly crushed, and he never quite recovers. But even this idealism is not, perhaps, quite as it seems. When news comes that he and Cressida must be parted, his sole concern is not what will befall Cressida in the enemy camp, but, rather, that Cressida must not betray him. And it is a shocked response on Cressida's part at this point that he doesn't really love her at all: what he loves is not the person, but the "concept" of love, the "concept" of honour.

    I think this is a tremendous play!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess I can understand the 18th-century aversion to this play, with Shakespeare mocking the classical Greeks, who all of Europe claimed as the bedrock of European culture. But it's a masterpiece, really a great work. Because nobody ever mentions it except as "one of the other plays WS wrote," I assumed it was going to be marginal, but it's one of the best things he wrote, and my excitement just got stronger and stronger as I read the thing. (I read it when I did because we'd been watching the BBC miniseries of Olivia Manning's "Fortunes of War," and a production of "Troilus and Cressida" is mounted in Bucharest just before the German army rolls in. "I didn't know Shakespeare wrote a play about Troy," I said.)

      But you're probably right, it's too bitter and angry a play for the world, too hard an edge to Shakespeare's humor. Pandarus is truly repulsive; the placement of his speech at the end of the play makes it seem as if it is he who carries away the victory, the victory of debauchery, the victory of meaninglessness.

      I do think WS was continuing in "Troilus" ideas he began to work with in "Hamlet," about honor and idealism. No character in "Troilus" combines idealism with sensitive intelligence in the manner of Prince Hamlet, though. Even Hector succumbs to his own pride. What a brilliant, brilliant play.

      Delete