Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shakespeare's Wasteland: Troilus And Cressida

Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure For

Measure were classified in the nineteenth Century as “problem”

plays, i.e. plays about a social or moral problem, because none of the

traditional categories—comedy, tragedy, history—seemed to fit. Then,

in the twentieth, people began to refer to Troilus as an experimental

play because, it seems, no one could figure out what its problem was.

Too nihilistic for comedy and too sleazy for tragedy, Troilus is more

comical than sad, but too sad and too realistic for farce. The gusto with

which it reduces noble sentiments to sleaze and romance to bawdry,

deliberately trashing two major literary traditions, epic and romance,

seems especially puzzling. Why might Shakespeare have wanted to

call literature itself, or a very large part it, into question?

In her excellent introduction to the play in the Riverside edition of

Shakespeare’s plays and poems, Ann Barton remarks that Troilus and

Cressida is Shakespeare’s most Euripidean play. It may be his only

Euripidean play: Shakespeare is answering the same question that

Euripides had been asking himself almost two thousand years earlier,

as he was writing Hecuba, The Trojan Women, and Iphigenia at Aulis:

How would one have to present these stories if they were to be thought

of as being enacted not in the mythical past, outside of history, but in

a realistic, contemporary (i.e. late fifth century BC) political context, by

the same kind of men (not Homeric heroes but Athenian politicians)

who were competing for fame and power in the affairs of the Athenian

polis? We can see what Euripides thought of these men and the distinctly

un-Homeric political world they were busy in from the way he

answered this question: it was a low, dishonest, hypocritical world

with politicians to match. Shakespeare seems to have asked the same

question and come to a similar conclusion as he was reading George

Chapman’s translation of the Iliad and thinking about Chaucer's tragicomic

romance, Troilus and Criseyde.

Shakespeare must have thought: there’ll never again be another

Achilles or another Iliad. The cold lucidity, objectivity, bitterness, and

absolutely impartial pity of Homer’s tragic poem, is not possible or natural

in an age like this: the seventeenth century—or (as he might have

thought, had the phrase existed) the modern age, for that was what

was beginning to stir in the late sixteenth century as the ancient, feudal

order was falling apart.

It would not have seemed to most thoughtful people, living at the end

of the sixteenth century, that Europe was going though anything so

hopeful as a “Renaissance,” or as positive as a “Reformation,” i.e. the

process of reform that Martin Luther tried to set in motion, in 1517,

when he said that the Papacy had become so corroded by errors and

corrupted by money that its authority was no longer legitimate.

‘Reform’ was not the right word for what actually happened: the splintering

of Christianity into many warring sects.

England went from being Catholic to Protestant to Catholic to

Protestant in less than twenty-five years: from the Act of Supremacy

in 1534, when King Henry VIII took control of the English Church for

reasons that had nothing to do with reform (Henry wanted to divorce

his first wife, Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Ann Boleyn, and

the Pope was not being helpful) to the death of Henry’s and

Catherine’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, in 1558. In that same year,

Elizabeth, the Protestant daughter of Henry and Ann, became Queen,

and England became irrevocably Protestant. These changes in Church

governance and doctrine were not easy; civil war was averted, but not

by much. Then, under the very real threat of Catholic power in Spain

and France, England became, in Shakespeare’s lifetime (1564-1616)

something like a police state.

The loss of a single Church and a single source of spiritual truth

was such a catastrophe to spiritually sensitive people as we, now,

habituated to a world of many equally legitimate religions, cannot easily

imagine. John Donne’s questions (c. 1617) have a modern sound:

Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bright and clear.

What! is it She, which on the other shore

Goes richly painted? or which rob’d and tore

Laments and mournes in Germany and here?

Sleeps she a thousand, then peepes up one yeare?

Is the selfe truth and errs? Now new, now outwore?

Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore

On one, on seven, or on no hill appeare?

War, then as now, was a constant presence—like the plague. All wars

in those days (throughout the sixteenth century and much of the seventeenth)

were wars of religion, as Catholics and Protestants fought

themselves finally to an exhausted standoff. These wars, as one might

expect when each side views the other as infidels, in league with the

devil, were especially vicious.

We owe the the religious freedom that we take for granted today to

that standoff: if you wanted freedom for your own sect, you had to

grant it to others. One only compromises with those whom one cannot


Other changes were occuring with terrible speed. Turning, once

more, to the poetry of John Donne:

Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,

For every man alone thinkes he hath got

To be a Phoenix, and that then can bee

None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.

The mythical Phoenix was a beautiful, solitary bird that lived in the

Arabian desert and reproduced itself every five hundred years. When

it was time for its mortal body to die, it would consume itself in fire,

rising renewed from its own ashes to start another long life. To be like

the Phoenix is to be not only immortal but unique, an absolute individual;

there could never be anyone else like you. We take it for granted

that people are like the Phoenix in that respect: every person is unique,

an individual, and that, furthermore, every person has certain rights

simply by virtue of his or her humanity. That idea was still taking

shape in 1600. For a thousand years, everyone had been locked into

the great chain of vassalage that constituted feudal society—everyone

from Pope to peasant being the vassal and therefore owing allegiance

to someone higher up. Your identity was determined by your place in

the feudal order; you had no other identity, unless you had a lot of

power. But things change. Certain painters and sculptors of the Italian

Quatrocento, for instance, began to speak and work for themselves

and not necessarily for their patrrons; no longer mere craftsmen, they

became Artists, personages in their own right. No one could intimidate

Michaelangelo. When Martin Luther and Henry VIII declared that they

no longer owed allegiance to the Pope, they were on the crest of a very

large historical wave.

And then there was Machiavelli, whose little book, The Prince (Il

Principe, 1513) told us in perfectly clear, factual, vernacular Italian,

not the Latin of elite scholarship and debate, what everyone sort of

knew but couldn’t or wouldn’t have said: that politics is inherently and

necessarily amoral; that states, as we say nowadays, have interests,

not morals.

Taken all in all, those were interesting and difficult times. For better

or for worse, they made us what we are today.

Things change, we say with a shrug, accepting the inevitability of

change—big changes, historic change—as if it were part of the natural

order of things. We may not like the way the historic wind is blowing

but we know that it will probably keep on blowing no matter what or

how we think about it. No one in the sixteenth century thought about

history in that way, as a process, pattern or principle of long-term

social, political, or economic change. History was not an abstraction,

but a type of book containing a story or chronicle of people and events

in the past: important people, important events. The only person who

seems to have had something like a modern sense of history was

Shakespeare. In support of this claim, I point to the deliberate trashing

of literary conventions and traditions that occurs in Troilus and

Cressida. Only someone who had an intuitive sense of how the historic

winds were blowing would have or could have written this play.

Here, then, is a brief outline of Troilus and Cressida, which is a conflation

of Homer’s Iliad and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The play

(unlike Homer’s poem) does not begin with the wrath of Achilles,

which is never mentioned, but with two councils of war: the Greeks are

trying to figure out how to get Achilles, whose idleness and insubordination

are beginning to infect others, to end his strike (which is

never well explained) and return to the fighting; meanwhile, the

Trojans are trying to decide whether or not to end this disastrous war

by giving up Helen. Absolutely not says Troilus, a son of Priam, who

is in love with Cressida (the daughter of a man, Calchas, who has

deserted to the Greeks): to admit that we were wrong from the first in

conniving at Paris’s adultery would dishonor us all. Hector disagrees:

if it was unjust to take Helen from her husband, it is unjust to keep

her. Hector is unable to stick to this morally unassailable argument

because he agrees, with Troilus, that honor trumps every other consideration.

So, as if to outdo Troilus in chivalry, Hector sends a challenge

to the Greeks offering to prove in judicial combat that his wife is

“wiser, fairer, truer” than any of the Greek women. Ulysses, the brains

of the Greek army, tries to use this challenge to shame Achilles into

ending his strike, by rigging the lottery so that not he but slow-witted

Ajax will be chosen to fight with Hector. Meanwhile, Troilus’s assignation

with Cressida is being arranged by her uncle, Pandarus. What

they don’t know is that the Greeks, as a favor to Calchas, have offered

to trade one of their prisoners, Antenor, for his daughter. So, early in

the morning of the great contest between Ajax and Hector, which is

also the morning after Troilus and Cressida have spent their first and

only night together, the delegation arrives to return Antenor and escort

Cressida to the Greek camp, who, as soon as she arrives, starts kissing

everyone in sight and is taken into protective custody as the future

mistress of Diomed.

The Ajax-Hector duel is aborted after a few strokes because it turns

out that they are distant cousins. The truce that had been struck for

the sake of the duel and prisoner-exchange becomes the occasion for

a big party, and Troilus, guided by Ulysses, finds a vantage point from

which to observe Cressida caving in to the tough, no-nonsense


The next day the war resumes. Patroclus, Achilles’ friend and perhaps

something more, is killed, but not by Hector. So, the death of

Patroclus, not the scheming of Ulysses, is what gets Achilles back into

the war. Surrounded by his pack of Myrmidons, Achilles ambushes

Hector and kills him. The play ends with Troilus hot on the trail of

Diomed, and Pandarus wearily complaining of the diseases he has

acquired as a bawd, presumably by sampling his wares.

There is more reasoning going on in Troilus and Cressida, from more

different points of view, than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays, and

such reasoning is always either flawed, ineffective, or irrelevant. The

audience, however, is left to figure this out for itself, which is one reason

why the play feels modern. The play does not (or Shakespeare

does not) endorse any one definition or criterion of rationality; there

is no single voice of reason in this play. Nor does it possess a coherent

moral vocabulary—one that people actually live by. There’s much

talk about honor, but no one knows what it means. Moral confusion,

therefore, is the order of the play, as it is in the real world. Out of that

confusion emerges Thersites, who can only comment on what he sees

without offering any coherent moral vision or principles of his own.

Dryden’s and Pope’s mock-heroic satires preserve the sound and

integrity of the Homeric or Virgilian epic style in order to measure how

far the modern world has fallen, how mean and small it seems by comparison.

It is an effect that Reuben Brower, in his book on the poetry

of Alexander Pope, calls allusive irony. Shakespeare makes no use of

it. We never hear echoes of the authentic Homeric or Chaucerian style

in Troilus and Cressida. Shakespeare does not invite us to read or

reread those poets: that was then, this is the decadent now. A new,

coarser sensibility is, seemingly, at work in Shakespeare’s play.

Achilles, the greatest hero of classical antiquity, has been transformed

into something gross and rank, a cowardly, sybaritic thug, an epicurean

murderer. Chaucer’s Troilus, an idealized lover straight out of

Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose (c. 1237) has been turned into

a self-regarding sensualist, an epicure in love who waxes lyrical not

on the subject of the woman he loves, Cressida, but on his own lust

while making a fetish of honor.

Chaucer’s Pandarus, whose role as humorous go-between is necessitated

by the innocence or timidity of the lovers (without him there'd

have been no poem, since, left to their own devices, or lack of them,

these lovers would never have gotten together) becomes in this play a

coarse, simple-minded bawd who isn’t really needed at all.

The case of Chaucer’s Criseida is complicated. Though

Shakespeare’s play coarsens her, as it coarsens everything else, it does

not go as far in this direction as it might have. According to popular

tradition (traceable perhaps to Robert Henryson’s fifteenth century

poem, Testament of Creseyde) Criseida was nothing but a slut.

Shakespeare’s Cressida, crushed by the casual brutality of the war, is

thoroughly pitiable.


Unlike the chivalrous Trojans, the Greeks are indifferent to the claims

of honor. Winning is all they care about, and that is the subject of their

council of war when we meet them for the first time. They are trying

to figure out why their campaign has bogged down. As we listen to

their speeches, we begin to understand, as they do not, why they have

been unable to capture Troy: they are so encumbered by their own

humbug and bombast that their impotence on the battlefield comes as

no surprise. Even (the real) Achilles couldn’t turn this bunch into a

winning team. Yet, while none of their arguments have any bite or clarity,

neither do they, like those of the Trojans, cancel each other out. Slowly,

heavily loaded down as they are by turgid rhetoric and irrelevant

philosophical machinery, they advance toward a conclusion and a plan

of action—a devious, unnecesarily complicated plan which would have

delighted Polonius, but a plan. It does not accomplish its purpose, but

it could have. 

Agammemnon opens debate with one of the most bombastic speeches 

in all of Shakespeare:


What grief hath set these jaundies o’er your cheeks?

The ample proposition that hope makes

In all designs begun on earth below

Fails in the promised largeness. Checks and disasters

Grow in the veins of actions highest rear’d,

As knots, by the conflux of meeting sap,

Infects the sound pine and diverts his grain

Tortive and errant from his course of growth. I.3.9

Failure, in other words, is normal and natural in human affairs; 

things never go the way one thinks or hopes they will; the more 

ambitious the scheme, the more likely it is that whatever can go 

wrong will go wrong. And then this explanation, which explains 

nothing, hits a recalcitrant fact, a knot. For Agammemnon knows 

nothing about trees: the knots one sees in a board are not places 

where something has gone wrong, distorting the normal growth 

of the tree and weakening it (try splitting a log full of knots!), 

but places where its branches naturally grew before it got sawed up 

for lumber. No Homeric hero would have been so ignorant.

He does have a point, however, and after a while, with much alliterative

pomp, he gets to it: the difficulties they’ve been having are merely

The protractive trials of great Jove

To find persistive constancy in men,

The fineness of which metal is not found

In Fortune’s love....

But in the wind and tempest of her frown,

Distinction, with broad and powerful fan,

Puffing at all, winnows the light away,

And what hath mass or matter, by itself

Lies rich in virtue and unmingled. 1.3.30

Nestor who speaks next, reduces that verbiage to a pithy phrase, “In

the reproof of chance/ Lies the true proof of men,” but is unable to

apply it to their particular situation because he can’t remember what it

means and has no better grip on facts or logic than Agammemnon

does. His elaborate maritime metaphor, which runs on for more than

ten lines, proves nothing beyond the indubitable fact that large ships

are less vulnerable to bad weather than small boats. Nor does the fact

that bovines or other herd animals are more likely to be afflicted by

biting insects in fine weather than by the occasional tiger, say anything

to the purpose about the appearance versus the reality of “valour.”

The rest of his speech is, if possible, even less coherent.

We expect, and get, something more intelligent from Ulysses (also

known to readers of the Iliad as Odysseus), who is always referred to

by Homer as wise, crafty, many-sided, a man who thoroughly understands

the ways of gods and men. Shakespeare’s take on this man is

that he is not only long-winded but too-clever-by-half.

Troy, yet upon his basis, had been down,

And the great Hector’s sword had lack’d a master,

But for these instances.

The specialty of rule hath been neglected...

In other words, discipline has collapsed. Ulysses could have stopped

right there but prefers instead to put on a bravura display of his

rhetorical and (as he understands the word) philosophical powers. In

the following lines, he gives us the conventional wisdom of the time

about the way the natural and civil orders are connected. Just as the

planets should stay in their assigned orbits, in obedience to the

authority of the sun, so we people need to stay in our own respective

places or ranks. Look what happens when the planets get out of line—

all kinds of mischief is let loose here on earth. The key word here is

“degree” by which Ulysses means one’s rank or position in a hierarchical


The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center

Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office, and custom, in all line of order....

But when the planets

In evil mixture to disorder wander,

What plagues and what portents, what mutiny!

What raging of the sea, shaking of earth!

Commotion in the winds! Frights, changes, horrors

Divert and crack, rend and deracinate

The unity and married calm of states

Quite from their fixure!....

The natural order that we observe in the heavens is more than an

analogy for civic order: disorder up there can cause disorder and all

manner of disaster here below. What Ulysses really wants to talk

about, though, are the human consequences of human meddling with


Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark what discord follows! Each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy....

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead;

Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong

(Between whose endless jar justice resides)

Should lose their names, and so should justice too!

Then every thing includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite,

And appetite, an universal wolf

(So doubly seconded with will and power)

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,

This chaos, when degree is suffocate,

Follows the choking,

And this neglection of degree it is

That by a pace goes backward with a purpose

It hath to climb. The general’s disdain’d

By him one step below, he by the next,

That next by him beneath; so every step,

Exampled by the first pace that is sick

Of his superior, grows to an envious fever

Of pale and bloodless emulation,

And ’tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,

Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,

Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength. I.3.137

Most people in 1604 would have found Ulysses’ ideas acceptable—he

is, as I say, giving us something like the conventional wisdom of the

time on these matters. It is pretty clear, however, that neither Ulysses

nor anyone else in the play takes them seriously. These ideas about

‘degree’ are never referred to again, by anyone, and have no effect on

anyone’s actions. Ulysses is talking flapdoodle, Mark Twain’s word

for speech that is impressive, irrelevant and distracts attention from

the problem: in this case the collapse of authority and discipline in the

Greek army.

When discipline collapses in an army that has not been defeated in

battle, it is usually a sign of incompetent leadership. Since the audience

has already taken the measure of Agamemnon and Nestor, why

isn’t Ulysses more direct? Not, I think, for the usual reason, fear of

offending one’s superior. The reason is more subtle: no one in this

play, except Thersites, is able to call anything by its right name.

Ulysses doesn’t talk flapdoodle because he is trying to be politic, but

because he can’t talk anything else.

For a crucial instance of the impotence of reason, consider the argument

about Helen in II.2, which we have already referred to. Nestor

has offered the Trojans a deal: if you will return Helen, we will forgive

you for all the trouble you have caused us. This is not much of a deal:

what would prevent the Greeks from accepting the restitution of Helen

and declining to lift their siege? But that practical and obvious objection

is not raised (nor is it in the Iliad, when Hector proposes, in Book

3, to let Paris and Menelaus settle their differences man to man and

put an end to the war.) Hector says that Helen should be returned

because she is not worth what it is costing Troy in lives to keep her; to

which Troilus, outraged by this argument, responds by rejecting the

idea that Helen’s value can be measured at all: because the honor of

Priam is in question and honor is an absolute good, the value of Helen

cannot be measured. She is priceless. And because Troilus (not unreasonably)

associates reason with reckoning and measurement, his outrage

is turned, in accents that remind us of Hotspur, against reason


Nay, if we talk of reason,

Let’s shut our gates and sleep. Manhood and honor

Should have hare hearts, would they but fat their thoughts

With this cramm’d reason; reason and respect

Make livers pale and lustihood deject. II.2.50

Troilus’s argument is reasonable, or coherent, if you accept his passionately

held premises about honor (premises which, like Hotspur, he

is unable or unwilling to examine) and if you forget, as he has, that

he has already declared that Helen is not worth fighting for: “I cannot

fight upon this argument;/ It is too starved a subject for my sword.”

(I.1.89). This is a man who is indifferent to contradiction and will say

whatever it takes to win an argument. That gives him an advantage

over Hector who, as it turns out, shares his premises and like him has

never tried to think them through. The strain of unaccustomed intellectual

exercise shows in Hector’s pompous syntax when, challenged

by Troilus’s deceptively simple question, he tries to do so:

Hector. Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost

The keeping.

Troilus. What’s aught but as ’tis valued?

Hector. But value dwells not in particular will,

It holds his estimate and dignity

As well wherein ’tis precious of itself

As in the prizer. ’Tis mad idolatry

To make the service greater than the god,

And the will dotes that is attributive

To what infectiously itself affects,

Without some image of th’ affected merit. II.2.60

We have already encountered this turgid, unnecessarily convoluted

style at the Greek council of war (which, in the play, precedes this

Trojan debate). Hector is trying to say that things have value independently

of the values we put on them and it is unreasonable to worship

something that is actually of little value as if it were precious. But

that’s too simple and too direct. Besides, he doesn’t believe it himself,

at least as it applies to Helen; his mind is divided against itself, for he

is as passionately committed to the honor of Troy as Troilus is. Forced

to choose between honor and the practical wisdom as well as morality

of keeping Helen, he chooses honor. In fact, he has already declared

himself by sending a challenge to the Greeks, daring one of them to

meet him in single combat:

If there be one among the fair’st of Greece

That holds his honour higher than his ease...

That loves his mistress more than in confession

With truant vows to her own lips he loves,

And dare avow her beauty and her worth

In other arms than hers—to him this challenge!

Hector, in view of Troyans and of Greeks,

Shall make it good, or do his best to do it:

He hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer,

Than ever Greek did couple in his arms... I.3.276

Nothing could be more unhomeric than this. Honor for the Homeric

hero was not an abstraction; it had tangible rewards. According to

Zeus’ son Sarpedon, in Book 12 of the Iliad, those who win glory in

battle can not only expect “greater store of meates and cups ....goodlier

roofs, delightsome gardens, walks, more lands and better” but

political power as well (12.311-323 in Chapman's translation). Paris

and Menelaus, when they fight it out in Book 3, do not fight for honor,

except incidentally, but to see who will possess Helen, the cause of this

conflict. Hector’s challenge (in Troilus and Cressida) is, by comparison,

a bit of chivalric bravado which serves no purpose but to relieve his

boredom with a “dull and long continued truce.” (I.3.262) No ulterior

motive appears from anything he says. He might, for example, be

assuming that Achilles will step forward to answer his challenge,

which is how Achilles reads it (II.1.130), and is willing to gamble on

killing him, thereby eliminating the most formidable of the Greek warriors.

Ulysses also thinks that Hector’s challenge is aimed at Achilles,

and it is natural that such a schemer should think so. What you see

and hear from Hector is what you get, however. Unlike Achilles, and

the Greeks generally, he is open-hearted and generous to a fault.

And there is a fault (as both Troilus and Achilles tell him, for different

reasons). Gentleman that he is, he is unable to square his feelings

about honor with his knowledge of what is just.

Nature craves

All dues be rend’red to their owners: now,

What nearer debt in all humanity

Than wife is to the husband? If this law

Of nature be corrupted through affection,

And that great minds, of partial indulgence

To their benumbed wills, resist the same,

There is a law in each well-order’d nation

To curb those raging appetites that are

Most disobedient and refractory.

If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,

As it is known she is, these moral laws

Of nature and of nations speak aloud

To have her back return’d. Thus to persist

In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,

But makes it much more heavy. II.2.188

He knows, without a doubt, that the abduction of Helen was unjust and

that keeping her is indefensible. His argument is unanswerable. Yet, he

allows the claims of honor to trump those of justice and morality.

Hector’s opinion

Is this in way of truth; yet, ne’er the less,

My spritely bretheren, I propend to you

In resolution to keep Helen still,

For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence

Upon our joint and several dignities. II.2.193

Hector’s U-turn here is surprising until we begin to understand that

this is a play about a world that lacks a consistent ethics or coherent


Though honor is the only moral imperative or ideal that does any

work in this play, it never does much to lift people out of their low,

mean, appetitive selves. The trouble with honor is not that it is, as

Ulysses carefully explains to Achilles, inherently mortal and temporary,

subject to losses of memory and vulnerable to calumny and competitors;

as this play demonstrates, in all sorts of ways, honor is an

unreliable, even treacherous substitute for virtue, compassion and

intelligence. We see what it practically comes down to when Paris

protests against Hector’s proposal that Helen be returned to her husband:

What treason were it to the ransack’d queen,

Disgrace to your great worths, and shame to me,

Now to deliver her possession up

On terms of base compulsion! II.2.153

To be a man of honor means not knuckling under to any threat of

force whatsoever. To be forced to submit to the will of another, even if

that other is telling the truth or asserting an indisputably just claim, is

base and therefore, for a gentleman, unendurable.


The sickness of Homer’s Achaeans is real, a lethal plague sent by

Apollo as punishment for Agammemnon’s arrogant and insulting

behavior toward Apollo’s priest, Chryses. This series of events leads

with seeming inevitability to the great quarrel between Agammemnon

and Achilles and the former’s arrogant and insulting behavior toward

the latter, who thereupon refuses to fight any longer and withdraws to

his tent.

The sickness that afflicts Shakespeare’s Greeks and Trojans alike is

not a disease, and therefore treatable, but an emptiness, an absence of

respect for rational thought (i.e. thought that makes the absence of

contradictions a virtue). I don’t think Troilus and Cressida is a cynical

play however. Cynicism is a disbelief in the possibility of virtue, and

disbelief is a form of belief. This is a play about people who have no

coherent moral beliefs.

The play feels modern because it takes the impotence of reason as

well as virtue for granted, and because it exploits the fact that words,

actions and intentions rarely match up in the real world. Noble words,

in Troilus and Cressida, are generally subverted by ignoble motives

and actions, and virtuous intentions are easily negated by unforeseen


But disease, as Thersites keeps suggesting—and Pandarus, in his

epilogue, openly reveals—is also a literal possibility. Syphilis (or the

pox) is endemic in bawdry, which is what promiscuous relationships

are in danger of collapsing into. “In all Cupid’s pageant,” says Troilus,

trying to assuage Cressida’s sincere and perfectly understandable

reservations, “there is presented no monster.” (III.2.2) But there is

one, as William Empson acutely remarks. “The real monster that gibbers

behind that lovely phrase of Troilus is Pandarus’s [syphilitic]


Marriage is mentioned only once, by Hector in his argument with

Troilus, and not very vigorously defended. Paris and Helen are not

married (of course) and neither Troilus nor Cressida, the star-crossed

lovers of this play, talk about it at all (marriage is the first thing that

Juliet wants Romeo to be clear about), which is not surprising since

that simple, prudent, fact—marriage— would have made the plot

unworkable: Cressida could not have been traded for Antenor and sent

over to the Greek side had she been married to Troilus. This tale is

about courtly, not married, love.

Chaucer’s Criseyde has a good reason for not wanting to marry Troilus:

she’s been married before and knows what husbands are like. She

likes the freedom she has as a widow and is in no hurry to give it up.

She listens to her uncle, Pandarus, and agrees to look kindly on Troilus

because she accepts the convention of courtly love according to which

it was possible for a man to die of love, and she is frightened.

(Rosalind, in As You Like It, thinks that’s all delightful nonsense—or

outright lies: “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten

them, but not for love.”) What if she were blamed? She is alone in

Troy. Having been abandoned by her father, she has no one but her uncle, Pandarus, to protect her—and now here he is, urging her to take a lover. She agrees to be nice to Troilus and let him talk to her and that’s all she agrees to. 

She thinks the relationship can remain asexual and ideal, and Troilus 

(Chaucer’s Troilus) who is not a seducer, is equally naive. There matters 

would have remained (in Chaucers’s poem) absent Pandarus. These lovers 

have so little libido and so little animal cunning that they have to be pushed 

into each other’s arms. Like the lovers Yeats refers to (in Adam’s Curse), 

they are “so much compounded of high courtesy” that they’d have been 

perfectly content to do nothing but “sigh and quote with learned 

looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books.” They are not allowed to

pursue that “idle trade” however: Pandarus pushes them—tricks

them—into each other’s arms and the rest is (literary) history.

By the time Shakespeare took up the story, it had become pretty well

established that Criseyde was nothing but a strumpet, but he never let

a source or a tradition tie his hands. Had he wished to do so, he could

have duplicated the delicate balance that Chaucer consistently maintains

in his relations with his most unfortunate heroine. And for a time

he seems to be doing so. His Cressida is a witty, wary, sophisticated

young woman whose experience of love and men has not been happy.

That fact is brought out in her conversation with a doltish Pandarus,

early in the play (1.2)—but we are given no reason to doubt the sincerity

of her declaration: “Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and

day/ For many weary months.” (III.2.111) Or the good faith of her

pledge of fidelity:

If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,

When time is old and hath forgot herself,

When water-drops 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, or wolf to heifer’s calf,

Pard to hind, or step-dame to her son,

Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,

“As false as Cressid. III.2.191

Here’s dramatic irony indeed! At first one might feel that by forcing

Cressida to belie herself in the very act of pledging her undying love,

Shakespeare is taking unfair advantage. The case is otherwise, I think.

The fact that Cressida has no idea how soon her situation will change

irretrievably for the worse makes her an object of pity, not derision.

She would not be talking this way if she were as shallow and trivial as

Helen is shown to be. By allowing her to use language richly and

authentically reminiscent of Shakespeare’s own, in his sonnets, he

underlines her sincerity and deepens the pathos of this moment.

Yet her fall is so sudden and so hard that we are almost forced to

doubt, or at least forget, the sincerity of this declaration. She arrives in

the Greek camp, preceded by a trumpet-call, intended by Ajax to

announce the arrival of Hector, defender of the honor of Trojan womanhood,

but there is no answer and Hector does not appear. A moment

of dead silence ensues. Then Cressida steps out on the stage accompanied

by Diomedes, and this juxtaposition of hooting trumpet and

Cressida, who immediately prances around kissing everybody,

can’t help but be satiric. A little later, the point is made again. As

Cressida and Diomedes leave the stage, Hector enters preceded, evidently,

by another flourish on the trumpet (though there is no stage-direction

to this effect), for at this moment, there is a chorus of voices

from those on stage shouting, “The Trojan’s trumpet,” which is virtually

indistinguishable from “the Trojan strumpet” (IV.5.64).

The transformation of Cressida is surprising enough, but the fact

that she is being hooted at by the play itself makes the scene especially

stunning. It’s as if this quite sufficiently mock-heroic play had suddenly

taken a fancy to burlesque-hall farce. Empson’s analysis is

pointed in the right direction at least: “The incident is nonsense, surely, as character-study; it is not the Cressida who was embarrassed by her own 

tongue in the love scenes who could achieve this change of front without a

brief period of self-torture... the reason we have this fearfully

striking joke about it here is that Cressida is somehow parallel

to public affairs and this is her one public occasion.” That is to say, 

this is the moment when the two plots, the private Troilus-Cressida 

love story and the public business of the war (and Ulysses’ scheme to 

get Achilles out of his tent and back into the fighting),

come together. But Empson is not very clear about why the play

is inventing these “fearfully striking” jokes at Cressida’s expense.

When his analysis of Thersites’ puns on “general” turns out not to

explain much, he decides there must be something wrong with the

play: “it makes puzzles which even if they can be unravelled cannot

be felt as poetry.” But there is no great mystery here. Hector

as well as Cressida is the butt of the jokes in IV.5. Though the joke 

necessarily includes her, it is really directed at Hector’s (and the Trojan’s)

absurd chivalry. The sight of Cressida flouncing in and kissing everyone,

except Ulysses, publicly settles the question that Hector’s challenge

had raised about the honor of Trojan womanhood before he can

arrive to defend it, and mocks, as well, the general fixation on honor

that characterizes everyone in both camps—or everyone but Thersites,

who reduces the war to a lecherous squabble over Helen’s “placket.”

It is surprising, nevertheless, that Shakespeare should be so obviously

willing not only to abandon Cressida but publicly mock her in

order to make a point about honor. Shouldn’t she be granted a

moment, at least, of agony? Must I take back what I have just said

about Shakespeare not letting his hands be tied by his sources? Well,

yes and no. By treating Cressida in this way, Shakespeare is saying, in

effect, that the expectations of his audience leave him no room for

nuance or maneuver: his audience expects and wants a strumpet and

a strumpet it shall have; it wouldn’t appreciate anything else.

The fate of Cressida is inseparable from the darker, bitterer mood that

begins to settle over the play as the partying ends, the war resumes

(for no particular reason) and the reductionist views of Thersites, for

lack of better, begin to prevail. The vision of an orderly cosmos

invoked by Ulysses is not even a distant memory. No one believes in

that hierarchical cosmos and the ordered hierarchy of goods it implies.

The Greeks have a general, Agammemnon, but no idea of the general

good, the good of all, much less a higher good. (That seems to be point

of Thersites’ puns on “general” at the beginning of 2.1.) The Trojans

have their sense of honor, but that’s all it is, a sense or sensibility

without an ethics. Like the Greeks, they have no concept of a higher

good, or even a common one. This play shows us a decadent world, no

longer sustained by its moral or literary traditions.

Sensibilities in this decadent world are apt to be excessively coarse,

as is the case with Pandarus and Helen, or excessively refined as we

shall see in a moment in our analysis of Troilus. Achilles, the most

decadent character of all, is both excessively refined and coarse at the

same time.

Homer’s Achilles is horrifying when he gets going, a merciless and

virtually superhuman killing machine. But that’s not all he is. He is a

complex, many-sided man. As the great poem shows us in a variety of

ways, he is a complete gentleman according to the standards of

Homer’s world and, what is more, the most thoroughly intelligent man

in either army. Both of these qualities are brought out at the end of Homer’s

poem, in the finely nuanced courtesy with which he receives Priam,

when, sent by the gods (their one humane gesture), that unhappy

king comes to ransom his son’s body. Such a delicately balanced scene

would have been completely out of place in Shakespeare’s play, and he

knew it. That, he might have said, is just the point.

Shakespeare’s updated Achilles is also intelligent, and he might

pass for a gentleman according to Elizabethan standards, but he is

also as ugly a character as Shakespeare ever invented, a murderous

epicure and thug who has an appetite and a taste for killing but is too

cowardly to do it himself. Homer’s Achilles would never have

ambushed Hector and left the actual killing to his hirelings, nor would

it have been remotely possible for him to have said, smacking his lips

and sheathing his sword after Hector is safely dead, “My half-supped

sword, that frankly would have fed,/ Pleased with this dainty bait,

thus goes to bed.” (V.9.20) That remark is not Homeric but

Shakespearean; inconceivable in the Homeric world, it is entirely possible

in ours.

Ulysses, who considers himself to be a pretty good judge of men,

badly misjudges Achilles, whom he addresses as a “great and complete

man.” Ulysses’ memorable words, to Achilles, on the perishability

of memory and honor are great but incomplete:

Time hath, 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. Perseverance, dear my lord,

Keeps honor bright; to have done is to hang

Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail

In monumental mock’ry. Take the instant way... III.3.153

Good deeds? Honor is never identified with good deeds in this play.

Good deeds, for Ulysses, are merely scraps, fed into the maw of this

insatiable monster of ingratitudes, Time. Honor is more like armor,

which is kept bright and free of rust by continuous use; any use, any

purpose. “Take the instant way,” says Ulysses, and Achilles takes him

at his word. No one, in the moral wasteland of this play, ever says that

honors dishonorably won are shameful.

Achilles has no sense of shame and no one else does either. It does

not occur to Ulysses, for example, that the scheme he hatches for

maneuvering Achilles back into action is not only dishonest but inherently

destructive of that very degree that holds the cosmos and the

army together. Winning for Greeks and Trojans alike is not the main

thing, it is the only thing. That end justifies any means.

Chaucer’s Criseyde is acutely conscious of her isolation and vulnerability

in Troy after her father has gone over to the other side, and she

is attracted to Troilus because (for one thing) she needs someone more

powerful than her uncle, Pandarus, to protect her and look after her

interests. Shakespeare’s Cressida is obviously a more experienced

lover and woman of the world than Chaucer’s and her experience has

coarsened her: she is, as becomes clear in her remarks to her uncle on

the subject of Troilus and in soliloquy, damaged goods. When she wittily

evades Pandarus’ attempts to draw her attention to Troilus, he

complains, half admiringly, “You are such another woman! One

knows not at what ward you lie,” to which she responds, accepting his

fencing terminology, “Upon my back to defend my belly, upon my wit

to defend my wiles, upon my secrecy to defend my honesty, my mask

to defend my beauty, and you to defend all these; and at all these

wards I lie, at a thousand watches.” (I.2.255) The fencing metaphor

comes naturally because all her life, like any other woman in a society

dominated by men, she has been besieged. No city and few women

are able to hold out indefinitely against relentless assault and hopeless

odds. Sooner or later she will have to make the best deal she can.

Cressida knows all about it and one of the things she knows is that her

power will only last as long as she seems unattainable.

Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing:

Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.

That she belov’d knows naught that knows not this:

Men prize the thing ungain’d more than it is.

That she was never yet that ever knew

Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.

Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:

Achievement is command; ungained, beseech. . . 1.2.293

As the highly compressed syntax seems to suggest, these maxims

have been distilled from experience—experience that fails her when

she has to deal, alone, with tough, brutish Diomed.


Chaucer’s Troilus, thinking he is immune to the darts of love, is

inclined to make fun of the suckers who have taken Cupid’s bait. Not

only has he never been in love before but, incredibly, has never even

experienced the pangs of lust. He is totally inexperienced when he sees

Criseyde for the first time. Stunned, he retires to his rooms to suffer

and die in solitude. (Chaucer’s Troilus, like Tom Sawyer, has read the

right books and knows how these things are supposed to be done.)

And there he would have remained, and died, if his humorous friend

Pandarus hadn’t come along and pried the secret out of him. It is all

very proper, all quite according to the etiquette of courtly love.

Shakespeare’s Troilus is also a neophyte, and there the resemblance

ends. There are no rules; he is not part of a tradition; and he is not the

least bit interested in Cressida as a person. He is only interested in

himself and to an extraordinary degree: he is not only self-regarding

in his love but self-consciously so. That truth about him is made clear

right from the start, in the first scene, as he and Pandarus talk past

each other, the one in poetry and the other in prose. The scene is more

important for the radically different sensibilities it juxtaposes than for

the scanty information it provides.

Having got himself suited up for battle, Troilus changes his mind;

he no longer has the heart for it. The war within is worse—more

cruel—than the other one.

Call here my varlet, I’ll unarm again.

Why should I war without the walls of Troy,

That find such cruel battle here within?

Each Trojan that is master of his heart,

Let him to field, Troilus, alas, hath none.

Pan. Will this gear ne’er be mended?

Tro. The Greeks are strong, and skilful in their strength,

Fierce to their skill, and to their fierceness valiant,

But I am weaker than a woman’s tear,


Tamer than sleep, fonder than ignorance,

Less valiant than the virgin in the night,

And skilless as unpractis’d infancy.

Pan. Well, I have told you enough of this. For my part, I’ll not

meddle nor make no farther. He that will have a cake out of the

wheat must tarry the grinding. I.1.15

These two men don’t seem to be talking about the same thing. Troilus

is preening his sensibilty as he tells us most poetically why he can’t

fight, while Pandarus, who is all practicality and has no sensibilty at

all, is telling him to be patient: your loaf of bread has to be made

before it can be eaten. The facts are sufficiently obvious, however:

Troilus is restless because the seduction of Cressida is not going as

swiftly or as smoothly as he had expected. Pandarus seems to have

told him that he will have to wait a little longer to get into Cressida’s

bed, and he responds by pouting prettily and striking noble attitudes.

While Pandarus pushes his bread-making metaphor about as far as he

decently can, and even a bit further, Troilus remains in his role,

according to the rituals and conventions of courtly love, as a man of

refined sentiments and feelings:

Tro. Still have I tarried.

Pan. Ay, to the leavening, but here’s yet in the word

“hereafter” the kneading, the making of the cake, the heating

the oven, and the baking; nay, must stay the cooling too, or ye

may chance burn your lips.

Tro. Patience herself, what goddess e’er she be,

Doth lesser blench at suff’rance than I do.

At Priam’s royal table do I sit,

And when fair Cressid comes into my thoughts–

So, traitor, Then she comes when she is thence!

Pan. Well, she looked yesternight fairer than ever I saw her

look, or any woman else. I.1.31

The interjection at line 29 is purely conventional. The lover is not supposed

to be able to think for a second of anything but the name and

face of the woman he loves, so when the syntax of a sentence that is

heading off in a different direction implies a momentary lapse in the

lover’s attention, he has to jump in to correct or apologize for it. Such

niceties are wasted on Pandarus, who thinks he is merely being invited

to share Troilus’ admiration for Cressida. Troilus continues, overlooking

Pandarus’s irrelevant interruption:

I was about to tell thee—when my heart,

As wedged with a sigh, would rive in twain,

Lest Hector or my father should perceive me,

I have (as when the sun doth light a-scorn)

Buried this sigh in wrinkle of a smile,

But sorrow that is couch’d in seeming gladness

Is like that mirth fate turns to sudden sadness.

Pan. And her hair were not somewhat darker than

Helen’s—well, go to!—there were no more comparison

between the women! But for my part, she is my

kinswoman; I would not, as they term it, praise her, but

I would somebody had heard her talk yesterday as I did.

I will not dispraise your sister Cassandra’s wit, but— I.1.47

And so on. That “wrinkle of a smile” is a nice touch, and Troilus

knows it, for he tries to go himself one better in the sententious couplet

that follows, which only manages to sound deep while saying


The contrast of style and sensibility draws attention to itself, but

what we make of it is up to us. Is Pandarus too stupid or too crass to

appreciate the delicacies of Troilus’s poetry? Or are these delicacies not

only irrelevant but a form of high-minded mendacity? Or both? While

Pandarus may be thick and crass, he is also honest—that is, he is honest

because he’s not smart enough to be anything else. I prefer the

homespun practicality of his bread-making metaphor to Troilus’s poetic

flights because it seems to me that while Troilus is sincere he is also

blowing a certain amount of smoke. Like most of the other men in the

play, Troilus will go to great lengths to avoid having to call things by

their right names. Only lower class people do that, clowns like

Pandarus or wretches and (virtually) professional fools like

Thersites—or the caddish Diomed who, as a professional soldier is in

between, neither a gentleman nor a commoner.

How does one know what the right name is? Reason alone cannot

answer this question. It is a moral problem and has therefore nothing to

do with logic or epistemology. Like wisdom it has to be learned but can

not be taught. And it says something important about how Shakespeare

viewed the state of European civilization in the early seventeenth century

that none of the beautiful people in this play is willing to connect

what he knows with what he feels long enough to see, as Diomed clearly

understands, that Helen is not worth fighting for.

That basic truth is made unmistakably clear when, in III.1,

Pandarus visits Paris and Helen in order to ask them to front for

Troilus while he spends the night with Cressida. I know of no other

scene of Shakespeare’s which captures with such precision the tone of

shallow badinage and boring off-color humor that probably passes for

wit among the idle rich in upper-class or courtly circles everywhere

and at all times. Helen is not an absolutely worthless person, just shallow,

trivial, banal. The truth about the face that launched a thousand

ships and razed the topless towers of Ilium is that it is just a face.

Unlike Cleopatra who is a woman of real wit and intelligence, Helen is

just another boring, empty-headed society tart.

Troilus and Cressida are several cuts above Paris and Helen, but

deeply flawed nevertheless. As we have already seen, neither possesses

any capacity for self-knowledge. Cressida, like most of us perhaps,

does not understand how weak she is. Yanked out of Troy and

thrown back on her own resources among the “merry Greeks,” she

collapses, morally.

Troilus starts out as a sexual esthete and epicure with a sensibility

that can turn sows’ ears into silk purses. That’s his signature trick

through much of the play.

Now here he is, doing what comes naturally to many men,

ennobling his desire without much regard for its object, Cressida:

Pandarus. Have you seen my cousin?

Troilus. No, Pandarus, I stalk about her door,

Like to a strange soul upon the Stygian banks

Staying for waftage. O, be thou my Charon,

And give me swift transportance to those fields

Where I may wallow in the lily-beds

Propos’d for the deserver! O gentle Pandar,

From Cupid’s shoulder pluck his painted wings

And fly with me to Cressid!

Pandarus. Walk here i’th orchard. I’ll bring her straight. III.2.15

Troilus’s image of himself, as a soul waiting for ‘waftage’ to the lilybeds

of Hades, would have been immediately understood by

Shakespeare’s audience as a fancy allusion to a commonplace sexual

metaphor (dying=reaching sexual climax). But Troilus’s sensibility

isn’t quite up to the task of transmuting lead into gold. The clumsy

word “waftage” begins to break the spell, and that bestial “wallow”

ruins it. The image of an oaf like Pandarus tricked out in Cupid’s

painted wings is so incongruous that it ought to be, but isn’t, a joke.

There is a person waiting for Troilus on the opposite “Stygian

bank,” on the other side of the river Styx, but her personality is not

important. Cressida’s name appears at the end of this speech, not the

beginning; in the ecstatic anticipations that follow, she disappears


I am giddy; expectation whirls me round;

Th’imaginary relish is so sweet

That it enchants my sense; What will it be,

When that the wat’ry palates taste indeed

Love’s thrice-repured nectar? Death, I fear me,

Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine,

Too subtile, potent, tun’d too sharp in sweetness,

For the capacity of my ruder powers.

I fear it much, and I do fear besides

That I shall lose distinction in my joys,

As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps

The enemy flying. III.2.29

Erotic narcissism can not go much further than this. 

Troilus’ love for Cressida is never anything but confused, lust 

estheticized, but he cannot admit that fact and continue to think well 

of himself. When the ugly fact of Cressida’s transformation cannot be denied. 

he’d rather pin the blame on reason than reason his way out of his confusion.


Confronted by the fact of Cressida’s weakness or treachery or

opportunism (he doesn’t even try to make distinctions), Troilus refuses

to believe it. He thinks he has stumbled upon an inexplicable and

outrageous paradox, as his eyes and ears tell him one thing, his reason

another. Since his Cressida could not have betrayed him so quickly,

this wanton person can’t be she even though he knows otherwise.

This she? No, this is Diomed's Cressida.

If beauty have a soul, this is not she;

If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies,

If sanctimony be the gods’ delight,

If there be rule in unity itself,

This is not she. O madness of discourse,

That cause sets up with and against itself!

Bi-fold authority, where reason can revolt

Without perdition, and loss assume all reason

Without revolt. This is, and is not, Cressid!....

Instance, O instance, strong as Pluto’s gates,

Cressid is mine, tied with the bonds of heaven;

Instance, O instance, strong as heaven itself,

The bonds of heaven are slipp’d, dissolv’d and loos’d,

And with another knot, five-finger tied,

The fractions of her faith, orts of her love,

The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics

Of her o’er-eaten faith, are given to Diomed. V.2.167

A man who despises rational discourse as much as Troilud does ought to

be gratified, not outraged, when he discovers that reason alone cannot

settle matters of fact. Nor should he claim, when the facts become

undeniable, that madness must be lurking at the heart of rational discourse

itself. (Here we observe that in showing the triviality of

Troilus’s mind, Shakespeare reveals the originality and power of his

own.) What we in the audience may not understand, as we observe

Troilus writhing in denial, is that his unappetizing problem has landed

in our laps. We need to understand, as he does not, that the “if”

clauses with which he begins his diatribe are not necessarily true; as

the Player King in Hamlet says, all vows of eternal fidelity are inherently

perishable. There is no “rule in unity itself”, nothing to prevent

faith or loyalty from falling apart into “fractions,” “orts,” “scraps,”

“bits,” and “greasy relics” like the after-dinner leavings of a swinish


No one can control her fate. The force of painful circumstances and

the fear of worse can be such as to shake anyone loose from his or her

most passionately sincere vows, oaths or promises. Moreover, the

vows of Troilus and Cressida were not sealed by the bond of heaven;

marriage, for these two, was never part of the deal, not in

Shakespeare’s play and not in Chaucer’s courtly romance.


Shakespeare’s Thersites, like Homer’s, is a commoner but also something

more. He despises authority because, as he perfectly understands,

it is not founded on superior intelligence or virtue, but superior

power. He never actually utters that subversive thought, partly

because his own wit does not run in that direction—he is not a

philosopher or even an intellectual—and partly because he doesn’t

have to: that thought is implicit in the play.

Since he, as a commoner, is powerless, he has no choice but to live

by his wits, and that way of life has given his wit a narrow but laserlike

intensity. Wit for Hamlet and the Elizabethans generally includes

all the workings of the mind; not just cleverness but intelligence,

learning, wisdom. Cleverness and quickness of apprehension is what

wit comes down to for Thersites, and wit in this sense of the word is

the only quality he respects. Cleverness, a kind of grim humor and a

capacity for moral outrage of a highly specialized kind are the only

qualities he posesses. So he understands immediately what Ulysses is

up to and watches his scheme unfold, as he watches everything, with

perfect contempt. What draws his contempt is not Ulysses’ underhanded

methods but their obviousness, their lack of “wit.” He despises

Ajax, Achilles and Patroclus because they are not as smart as he is;

they let themselves be taken in by Ulysses’ rigged lottery.

Why, as the one character who generally sees things as they are, is

he given nothing better to do than to gloat, gleefully, from the sidelines?

Why is he literally marginal to the action of the play? Because

the limitations of Thersites’ mind and role (he is incapable of taking in

the piteousness of Cressida’s fall) are of the essence of this untragic


Like Diogenes and the cynics who came after him, Thersites has

nothing to tell us about virtue and vice that we do not already know.

(People, says Samuel Johnson, need more often to be reminded than

informed.) The purpose of philosophy, for the ancient cynics, was to

show people how to distinguish between the false goods and values of

the social and political world, and the only true good which is virtue:

to see things as they are, to call them by their right names, and be virtuously

self-sufficient while surrounded by corruption. There was only

one way to do that in the ancient pre-Christian world: by living on its

margins. Having renounced the world and its ways (from which, as

proletarians for the most part, they were already excluded), the ancient

cynics took up lives of voluntary poverty as wandering beggars and

teachers. Thersites, therefore, is an appropriately marginal character.

Wisdom, intelligence or even common-sense have no part to play in

this, Shakespeare’s Wasteland. Thersites, like Eliot’s Tiresias, can only

be a passive observer. He is not a prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness,

for he has no gospel to bring us, no message of spiritual redemption.

The sickness of this world is inherent, spiritual and therefore


The characteristic action of this disenchanting play is diminishment.

The heroes of the Iliad shrink before our eyes into very ordinary people;

Helen turns into a society tart; the grace, innocence and humor of

Chaucer’s Troilus is lost or corroded. What remains is small, mean,

ugly. No one transcends the sleazy world of the play; no one, not even

Hector or Ulysses is immune to its corrosive wit. Shakespeare, however,

seems to have reserved some meed of tragic pity for Cressida, the

one person in the play who has no illusions about herself, her honor,

or her impossible situation as a sexual object and trophy, to be

bartered, fought over and judged according to rules made by men and

imposed on women.

The play ends, not tragically or comically or romantically, but with

a whimper—but only after first trashing the very idea of dramatic illusion.

First, Troilus makes a final appearance for the sole purpose of

cursing and beating his old pal, Pandarus:

Hence, broker, lackey! [Strikes him.] Ignominy, shame

Pursue thy life, and live aye with thy name!

[Exeunt all but Pandarus]

Then Pandarus, complaining wearily and hopelessly, steps out of his

role in the play (as Troilus’s curse almost forces him to do), in order to

address his fellow Pandars in the audience:

Pandarus. A goodly medicine for my aching bones!

O world, world, world! Thus is the poor agent despis’d!....

Good traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths:

As many as be here of Pandar’s hall,

Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall;

Or, if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,

Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.

Brethern and sisters of the hold-door trade,

Some two months hence my will shall here be made...

Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,

And at that time bequeath you my diseases.

Who’s he talking to? Are we all Pandars in one way or another or only

some of us? The question, I suppose, is still open.