Troilus and Cressida, Essay Example
To be discussed in the following pages is Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and a number of reasons go into the selection of it. On one level, this is a play often overlooked in the Shakespeare canon, even though it is packed with exquisite language and psychological, if not philosophical, meaning; consequently, it deserves deeper inspection. Secondly, there is a strangely “experimental” quality to it, as though Shakespeare were using elements of Greek legend only to explore human instincts and patterns of destiny. His character here are fully realized, yet they are also highly symbolic; the title characters alone represent the tragic courses love takes when it is held as a different value by the lovers. Lastly, it is arguable that the play’s timing goes very much to its widely explored themes of human nature and the cycles of humanity’s larger efforts. All of these aspects may be examined through applying Aristotle’s six elements of drama, which will in turn reveal the richness and complexity of Troilus and Cressida.
In terms of plot, Troilus and Cressida is not easily defined. The action is observable and follows a linear trajectory, just as the familiar background of the Trojan War offers a landscape open to passions, conflict, and motivations of all kinds. As the prologue makes clear, Shakespeare is jumping into the middle of a complicated struggle. It briefly refers to the pivotal element of Helen, but it is more intent on simply referring to a general state of chaos: “On one and other side, Trojan and Greek/ Sets all on hazard” (Shakespeare, I, I, 21-22). There will be betrayals, plots, and all the expected behind-the-scenes maneuvers of war, certainly, and this all appears to be a metaphor for what was feared in England at that time. It is believed that the play was written in 1602, and this was a remarkable year for the British. After long decades of rule, Elizabeth was dying and, even though the succession of James I was expected, it is probable that uncertainty gripped the nation (Houlbrooke 42). It was not only that the new king, James, would bring great change merely by transfer of power and by, for the first time sine Henry VIII, presenting a man on England’s throne; there was every reason to fear that religious turmoil would create in England civil wars as they did in France. In Elizabeth’s time, the Protestant nation had seen an increasing Catholic presence in England, threatening the nation’s stability in an age when church and state were one. Then, James was something of a “wild card” here. While ostensibly Protestant, he made it very clear in his progress into his new nation that he honored the beliefs of his mother, the Catholic Mary of Scotland (Fraser xxx-xxxiii). Given the religious strife occurring throughout Europe, then, it is probable that the nation’s mood was tense, and Shakespeare then offers England a glimpse of states in the nightmare of political struggle. Put another way, in an era where the future was greatly uncertain, the plot of Troilus and Cressida presents how passions very removed from strictly political ones may undo a nation, just as they demand investigation as guiding human forces themselves.
With regard to characters, the play is marked by an extraordinary element common in all of Shakespeare, in that even stock characters are fully realized as human beings. His genius here is nothing short of remarkable, and it is equally notable that Shakespeare is largely unconcerned with keeping any traditional images intact. Achilles, for example, is generally regarded as a great warrior and a hero of Greek myth. Shakespeare eagerly destroys the concept by creating layers more linked to reality. It is not that he is strictly out to tear down heroes; rather, he cannot help but explore real, human likelihoods in such scenarios. With Achilles, this translates to a striking awareness of his own presence and his own reaction to it. The Greeks desperately need his valor and status and Achilles, knowing this, despises them for it (Charnes 87). Then, there is the shocking portrayal of Achilles as inclined to lounge with Patroclus, his lover, addressed by Thersites as: “His masculine whore” (V, i, 16). Also, if Shakespeare gives traditional virtues more to Ulysses and Agamemnon, he is unsparing even in creating a Ulysses more frustrated by incompetence than classically virtuous. Whether the intent is to definitely portray all men, legendary warriors or otherwise, as multifaceted and less than perfect, it nonetheless serves to remind audiences that no man’s actions may be what they appear to be. In an England facing a potentially troubled future and taking on a new monarch, the lesson was certainly timely.
Aside from this using dimension to reveal multiple flaws in heroic men, Shakespeare broadens his canvas to address more fundamental issues in Troilus and Cressida. It is interesting to see in Cressida herself how Shakespeare adds so much dimension to a woman who would likely be, in another author’s hands, a stock adulteress. Cressida is, in fact, as confused by her own nature as she is powerless to resist it, as in her remarks to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you/ But an unkind self, that itself will leave/ To be another’s fool” (III, ii, 146-148). She is not actually out to betray Troilus, but something of a victim of a nature she herself finds disturbing. In no uncertain terms, Cressida understands that she will betray the man who loves her, and not for any reason she can begin to identify (Charnes 78). It may be that, here, Shakespeare is seeking to present alternative ways of viewing unfaithful women, or affirming that tragic ends to love affairs are never as straightforward as they seem. Certainly, Troilus is also not blindly accepting of Cressida as corrupt. He understands very well that she is flawed: “If beauty have a soul, this is not she” (V, ii, 137). Nonetheless, his love persists, and this troubles him as much as Cressida’s awareness of her betrayal unsettles her. He is pushed, in a sense, to then question the nature of love, and whether or not the quality of the beloved should dictate its being: “The question is whether one can love such objects” (Bloom 103). All of this creates a scenario that both affirms Shakespeare’s power to deal with contemporary issues and refutes it. In character after character, Shakespeare addresses the elements of his world and his society simply because he never fails to pursue universal, if unanswerable, truths. In defining the people of his era, he defines all people.
Aristotle’s element of thought may be specifically traced in the work of a lesser playwright, but it is inextricably linked to character in Shakespeare, and consequently virtually impossible to isolate. Is Hamlet, for instance, about the futility of revenge, the repercussions of guilt, or how one man’s obsession can destroy the lives of all around him? So, too, is Troilus and Cressida never expressive of a unifying thought or theme, simply because fully realized characters are too complex to be so confined. This fact notwithstanding, a thought that dominates Troilus and Cressida is very much a modern concern, as it is one important through all ages: how desire for power ultimately brings destruction (Desmet, Sawyer 37). More exactly, an emphasis in the play is on the seemingly inevitable and disastrous consequences of ambition, whether it is aimed at glory in warfare or in winning a woman’s love. This is all the more evident when these very ambitions collide, as when Ulysses introduces Troilus to Cressida’s unfaithfulness. His savage exploitation of Troilus here brings into play thought that must have bearing on his own, warlike ambitions; namely, what makes a thing worthy of being wanted or loved. In contrasting the ideas and feelings of Ulysses and Troilus, then, Shakespeare offers a powerful statement on the limitations of humanity. For Ulysses, it is acceptable that women cheat because he has not witnessed his beloved cheating; for Troilus, it is the end of all reason (Bloom 102). The knowledge then demands that he question the value of anything, including the war to which he had committed. Similarly, there is the unspoken issue of Ulysses’ own desires raised. In layer upon layer, Shakespeare presents thought in the play as a self-generating process, and one incapable of not encompassing further thought.
As concerns Aristotle’s elements of diction, music, and spectacle, only a few words need stating. The music, in fact, lies in the language, as it does in most of Shakespeare. This occurs in ways far beyond the rhythms of the meter he uses because, as a poet unlike any other, he forges brief remarks that are stunning in lyricism and a kind of musicality. There are certainly instances where the effects are deliberate: “Half heart, half hand, half Hector comes to seek/ This blended knight, half Trojan and half Greek” (IV, iv, 85-86). Even when the meter and the alliteration is so powerful, however, there is a sense of naturalness, or an absence of artifice. This is language that is unaffected because it is purely poetic, and emerging from the fullness of the characters. Music is evident as well in the rises and falls of the action, which element relates to spectacle. Shakespeare notoriously refrains from presenting actual spectacle because, as an artist, he understands that greater effect is achieved by creating the relationship between the audience and whoever is acting as chorus. Battle plans, as well as battles, do not occur in fields, but in tents, which adds a vividness to the intensity actual spectacle could not. Then, there is something of a symphonic quality to Act V, when Ulysses and Troilus spy and comment on Diomed’s seduction of Cressida. Brief sentences and staccato phrases fly between these pairs, and it is difficult to imagine a dramatic scene more inherently musical. In all of these latter elements, it may be safely surmised that Shakespeare was appealing to the theatrical appetites of his own audiences, just as he was dramatically exploring characters and motives in new and profound ways.
Troilus and Cressida is typically a play passed by, when Shakespeare’s great works are considered. Nonetheless, it reveals all the qualities prized in his more popular plays, from an uncanny perception of character to exquisite language. In terms of Aristotelian elements, it is something of an embarrassment of riches, as even Shakespeare’s lack of actual spectacle creates opportunities going beyond what spectacle may offer. It is also reasonable to speculate that, given the crucial time in which the play was written, Shakespeare turned to the Trojan War only as template, to reveal to his country how even the most committed passions can lead to disaster, and that the lesson in love Troilus learns from Cressida’s infidelity is one that could apply to a misguided love of a single faith. More importantly, he reveals to his audiences that ambition, and of any kind, is never by any means a direct or valid affair, and it is likely that this also was a point he wished to make as England underwent its change in dynasty.
Bloom, A. Shakespeare on Love and Friendship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.
Charnes, L. Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.
Desmet, C., & Sawyer, R. Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.
Fraser, A. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Print.
Houlbrooke, R. A. James VI and I: Ideas, Authority and Government. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. Print.
Shakespeare, W. Troilus and Cressida. New York: Doubleday, 1974. Print.
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