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Dramatic Form in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Updated on April 21, 2009

In the ‘Preface’ to his adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, Dryden identifies pity as the emotion chiefly engaged by the tragic genre. He goes on to observe that ‘it is absolutely necessary to make a man virtuous, if we desire he should be pitied [p.383]’.1 Although later in the ‘Preface’ Dryden allows that no man is entirely virtuous or without flaws, he nonetheless divides people roughly into the good and the bad. When a bad character suffers ‘terrible […] misfortune [p383]’, ‘we are glad […] that poetical justice is done upon him [p383]’. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida subverts many of the conventions of the tragic genre, but its first departure from custom is to not divide characters into those who should be pitied and those who somehow deserve to be done over by poetical justice.

The play blurs the distinction between good and bad by substituting it for a distinction between Greek and Trojan; and though the legend that Britain was ‘colonized by descendents of King Priam’ might have made a contemporary audience biased toward the Trojan side, Shakespeare shows it no favour above the Greek.2 Although the Greek camp is more formal than the Trojan castle, this is a superficial disparity, and it is certainly not one that can influence a decision as to which side is ‘right’; both are made up of individuals who act according to their own motives and principles rather than a shared code of conduct, and for this reason neither side can be collectively judged. Alexander’s description of Ajax as a mass of contradictory qualities that work against each other and put everything ‘out of joint [I,ii,28]’ is a metaphor for both the Greek and Trojan forces, which are ineffective because they have no cohesion. The moral and military factions give way to a loose collection of individuals, all of whom, on individual judgement, are neither overwhelmingly virtuous nor despicable. Hector and Achilles are great warriors, but one is vain, the other selfish; Troilus is genuine and openhearted, but naïve; Pandarus is good natured, but encourages his niece a little too enthusiastically: ‘which bed, because it shall not / speak of your pretty encounters, press it to death [III,ii,207-208]’. Even Thersites – who is bitterly cynical and whose vitriolic insults are fired off randomly at whoever crosses his path – is not hateful. He is an irritant, but he cannot take any significant action – when challenged by Hector he cannot even fight and die – and he cannot effect or harm the play’s world and its inhabitants; he deserves nothing more than to be ‘lost in the / labyrinth of [his] fury [II,iii,1-2]’. 

On such uncertain ground an audience might look for tragic conventions to help them understand the play; but there is no ‘poetical justice’. Hector’s ignoble death is blackly ironic after his many speeches about the importance of honour, but there is no satisfaction to be taken from the event, nor does it represent any special retribution. It is a mockery of poetical justice’s neatness; he is killed like an animal immediately after the lapse in his honour that leads to him hunting a man for his marvellous armour, his ‘hide [V,vi,32]’. Such a punishment is massively out of proportion. In a war it is inevitable that people should die, and Hector’s status as a hero is built upon his battle prowess, his talent for killing. But at the same time it is difficult to feel any special, tragic pity for Hector. He has broken his own vainglorious moral code by killing the armoured man, by breaking the rules of ‘play [V,iii,43]’, and his death is perversely fitting. For directors of Troilus and Cressida it is difficult to decide whether this moment should be played as darkly comic. This problem and others of its kind are at the heart of Shakespeare’s skewed take on the tragic genre. 

When Hector changes his mind in the course of one short scene from recommending, ‘Let Helen go [II,ii,17]’, to forcefully arguing that she should be kept because the Trojans’ ‘joint and several dignities [II,ii,193]’ demand it, the reversal could be interpreted as humorously self-concerned. But Hector’s about-turn is not simply egotism. Honour is only valuable to Hector as others perceive it in him; man ‘cannot be anything […] unless others recognise him as such’.3 When Hector allows Achilles to break from combat, sparing his opponent despite the seven year history of their rivalry, he does so out of prideful concern for ‘fair play [V,iii,43]’. And later, when the stage empties and there are no eminent men to judge him, it takes nothing more than a magnificent suit of armour to turn Hector from notions of fair and equal combat. His honour is vanity. It is conceit that makes Hector ignore the warnings of Cassandra, and it is pride that drives him toward his eventual demise. The important difference between Hector and Shakespeare’s other tragic figures is that his flaw has not been exploited. There is no Iago or Lady Macbeth driving him to destruction, so there is less scope for tragic pity.  

Troilus is also an atypical tragic hero: his narcissism is even worse. Although his jumbled rhapsodies to Cressida indicate budding obsession, it is not until his lover’s departure that Troilus’ conceit is truly revealed. When Cressida is bargained over to the Greek side, Troilus shows exceptional restraint: ‘Is it so concluded? [IV,ii,66]’. This does not call into question the authenticity of his love – it is powerful enough to cause his garbled outpourings – but it does throw a new light on the nature of that love and the circumstances that caused it. His love for Cressida is a ‘mad idolatry [II,ii,56]’ which directs all passion toward a Platonic ideal, one that ‘admits no qualifying dross [IV,iv,9-10]’ and that is mostly imaginative: ‘Th’ imaginary relish is so sweet / That it enchants my sense [III,ii,19-20]’. Troilus perceives Cressida’s unfaithfulness – viewed through a curtain of hyperbole: ‘by hell and all / hell’s torments, / I will not speak a word [V,ii,45-47]’ – as a tragic event not because he is upset to lose her to Diomedes – earlier he was stoic: ‘No remedy [IV,iv,55]’ – but because his perception of Cressida as the perfect woman is broken and he can no longer sustain his imagined version of her. Troilus needs to believe in something.4 The gods are absent from the play except in rhetoric that is pompous or ridiculous, and Ulysses’ speech on degree significantly does not mention the divine as a force of order presiding over ‘this chaos [I,iii,125]’. The war is ‘too starved a subject [I,i,95]’ to break Troilus’ self-absorption, and he must find something else to fixate upon. This explains the apparent unreasonableness of his judgement of Cressida:  

 Sith yet there is a credence in my heart,
 An esperance so obstinately strong,
 That doth invert th’attest of eyes and ears;
 As if those organs had deceptious functions,
 Created only to calumniate. [V,ii,120-125]

Troilus’s realisation that his will can dupe his senses is the play’s most important insight, but it is not one he can benefit from. Later he replaces his ideal of Cressida with his ideal of Hector, substituting revenge for love, and perpetuating his illusory world. The ease with which he switches between these two obsessions questions whether his emotions were ever real, and whether any emotion born of idealism is true when ‘hot deeds is love [III,i,131]’, or as Sartre put it centuries later, ‘feeling is formed by the deeds one does’.3 Joyce Carol Oates notes the play’s ‘existential insistence upon the complete inability of man to transcend his fate’, but more insidious is the play’s implication that people become unable to change – to transcend themselves – because of their pretensions.5 Emotions that are play-acted and emotions that are vital are ‘hardly distinguishable one from another’, both to an onlooker and to the person experiencing them.3 Troilus is trapped in his perception of himself as a tragic hero, a person wronged: ‘Why tell you me of moderation? / The grief is fine, full, perfect [IV,iv,2-3]’. He is so enamoured with high drama and emotion that he can freely change the direction of his passion and let ‘loss assume all reason [V,ii,145]’. Troilus goes one better than Hector: he does more than bring about tragedy; he imagines his own.

In his book Innocent Victims, R.S. White claims the ‘grain of bitterness [35]’ in Troilus and Cressida is nothing new, because ‘in all his tragedies […] [Shakespeare] is inviting us to feel anger and disgust at dominant attitudes of society [35]’.6 This holds for Othello, where the hero is infected with Venice’s vanity, and Titus Andronicus, where corruption is everywhere, so too for King Lear and Richard III where hierarchies warp those who enter into them, but the statement is not valid in the existentialist reality of Troilus and Cressida. As Sartre remarked: ‘reality alone is reliable’; society is at the mercy of its basic human needs.3 By the end of the play no character has acted out the tragic convention of the final transcendence before death, the last restoration. What remains is not the glorious words of the noble dead, but the prosaic realities of disease, food and war. Pandarus’ final address assures there is no way out: ‘I’ll sweat and seek about for eases, / And at that time bequeath you my diseases [V,x,54-55]’. The play cannot be seen as corrective satire because it offers no alternative, and it is a long way from the self-importance of traditional tragedy. When the Prologue comes to the audience ‘not in confidence / Of author’s pen or actor’s voice [23-24]’, it is to say there is nothing outside the play’s world, which is a miniature version of our own, and that events and characters cannot be contained within the rigid guidelines of genre.  


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