Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida in 1602, after the execution for treason of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in the protracted final years of Elizabeth I. With the death of Essex a phase of Shakespeare’s life came to an end. When the Earl staged an abortive coup in 1601, one of his co-conspirators was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Another co-conspirator was Shakespeare himself, since his company had staged one of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II, with its controversial deposition scene, two days before the rising at the behest of the Earl’s supporters. After that performance Shakespeare stopped writing English history plays for over a decade. It’s hardly surprising, then, if the Greek history play he wrote the following year has an air of bitter retrospection, inverting the triumphalist rhetoric of Henry V – the final play in the Second Tetralogy, which refers to Essex as the heroic ‘general of our gracious empress’ – in an amazingly tortuous and orotund prologue.
Troilus and Cressida is Shakespeare’s long farewell to English history, and to the particular history of England under Elizabeth. It concerns itself with the question of the ‘indirect, crook’d ways’ by which the past gets written, and with the function of history as theorized by the humanist education system that shaped Shakespeare’s mind. Its chief target is the humanist claim that you can draw general principles or rules from the disconnected fragments and wilful distortions of conflicting historical narratives. I’d like to suggest that this concern was already implicit in his choice of topic – Troilus, Cressida, the war over Helen – and that he and his audience would have approached it with a strong sense of their own complicity with the notoriously treacherous dispositions of the ancient Greeks.
In Tudor times the Trojan War was bound up with English history. The English traced their ancestry to Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, who founded a city as great as the city state of Aeneas’ birth: Troynovant or New Troy – later rebranded as London – in the land of Albion – later rebranded as Britain. It was easy, too, for Elizabethans to connect the Trojan War with recent history. Like the Essex rebellion, the Trojan war was an internecine conflict, with relatives on both sides taking arms against each other; the motive of the war was a woman; it involved a tangled web of betrayals; and one of its central figures was Achilles, who had been linked with Essex by the poet George Chapman in his 1598 translation of seven books from Homer’s Iliad. Chapman’s translation is dedicated to ‘the most honoured now living instance of the Achilleian virtues eternized by divine Homer’, the soldier-earl, and this sentence transforms Robert Devereux into an instructive example of the kind historians and poets seek to supply when penning their texts. At the same time, Chapman argues in his prefatory epistle that poets are more reliable than historians – or indeed their living subjects – in offering exemplary nourishment for the soul, that is, the moral and intellectual life of the mind. In the real world, Chapman contends, the soul is trapped in what he calls ‘the scum of the body’, that ‘wormeaten idol’ which invariably fails to manifest the soul’s ‘excellency’ – or worse still, contrives through its actions to ‘murder and bury her’. Great poems, on the other hand, like those of Homer, offer the perfect bodily vehicle for the soul, communicating its qualities as no human actions can, and resurrecting past heroes with a few well chosen syllables. As a result, ‘the lives of […] poets’ can be seen as the heroes’ ‘earthly Elysiums, wherein we walk with survival of all the deceased worthies we read of; every conceit, sentence, figure and word being a most beautiful lineament of their souls’ infinite bodies’. If this is so, then the Earl of Essex – who at the time of writing still occupied the ‘wormeaten idol’ of his living body – could never have represented Achilles as accurately as Homer’s verse does; and it was only one year later that the Earl’s Achillean virtues found themselves buried, so to speak, in the dismal failure of his campaign against the Irish (1599). Those who remembered Chapman’s dedication, then, would have seen the irony in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Achilles, whose body is verbally infested with so many diseases by the satirist Thersites. Once Achilles, always Achilles – so long as Achilles is merely a verbal rather than a corporeal construct, and hence not subject to old age, lack of fitness, or infectious diseases of body and mind.
Despite Chapman’s praise of poets, Homer’s account of the Trojan War was viewed with distrust in early modern England. The war, in fact, was the perfect example of the untrustworthy nature of history itself, since there were so many competing versions of what happened, each weighted in favour of one of the warring sides, each accusing the other camp of inventing lies to support their cause. The versions of Homer and Dictys of Crete were said to be biased towards the Greeks, while Virgil and Dares the Phrygian sided with the Trojans. There were even suggestions from serious historians, such as Polydore Virgil, that all accounts of the Trojan War had been fabricated, and that the ancient history of Britain was therefore entirely fanciful. The body of evidence, then, as well as the bodies of the people who took key roles in the ten-year siege, was subject to corruption, and the question of whether the exemplary function of history was damaged or enhanced by its fabricated elements was fiercely debated in the sixteenth century.
The proto-novelist Geoffrey Fenton gives one of the most detailed accounts of the uses of history in early modern England. In the preface to his story collection Certain Tragical Discourses (1567) he states that like all arts, narratives of the past contain embedded in their particular details ‘certain special principles and rules for the direction of such as search out their disposition’, and that the responsible reader’s task is to extricate these general ‘precepts’ from the specific examples scattered so liberally through their pages. In the process the reader makes use of the past to plan for the future, on the presumption that ‘the nature of man in all ages, although the singular persons be changed, remaineth still one’, so that consequences of the same action or situation will be always and everywhere the same.
The point of reading history, then, is not so much to know what happened as to anticipate what will happen, in the interest of constructing policies. The ‘chief gain derived of such travail,’ he writes, ‘is in that we shall see set forth good and wholesome lessons of all sorts, whereof we may take to ourselves and benefit of our country such as we like to follow; and which presents to us the true picture and report of such enterprises as had both sinister beginnings and much worse endings’. In a well-written history, ‘good and wholesome’ actions must be made alluring – we need to like to follow them – while ‘sinister’ actions must be made repellent; something which, as Philip Sidney points out, is not always the case in authentic records. Unlike Sidney, however, Fenton seems to believe that the archives always show virtue rewarded and viciousness punished – that’s one of the general ‘rules’ he’s extracted from history. He acknowledges that ‘description figurative’ as used by poets has been readily accepted by many thinkers as a fine substitute for true history, but asserts that we are far more inclined to emulate our ancestors than to mimic invented figures with no connection to us. Truth is always preferable to feigning, and truth always yields instruction, because it comes from God.
The problem with the Trojan War is that it’s neither wholly fictional nor wholly factual, so that the truth of it can’t easily be located. For some commentators its hybrid nature as part fact, part fiction is unproblematic. Writing in 1531, the humanist Sir Thomas Elyot defines history much as Fenton does, as a record of past events which can be used to supplement our personal experience, and he considers the question of whether it’s true to be largely irrelevant to this function. ‘Admit that some histories be interlaced with leasings [lies]’, he writes,
why should we therefore neglect them, since the affairs there reported nothing concerneth us, we being thereof no partners, nor thereby […] may receive any damage? But if by reading the sage counsel of Nestor, the subtle persuasions of Ulysses, the compendious gravity of Menelaus, the imperial majesty of Agamemnon, the prowess of Achilles, the valiant courage of Hector, we may apprehend anything whereby our wits may be amended and our personages be more apt to serve our public weal and our prince, what forceth us [what does it matter] though Homer wrote leasings?
Eliot here suggests that we need not bother about the accuracy of Homer’s account of the Trojan War because modern Englishmen have no stake in it – they are ‘thereof no partners’. As we’ve seen, he’s being disingenuous, since the myth of Britain’s Trojan origins meant that the Tudor regime, at least, might be said to have had a stake in whether or not the story of their forebears had been made up. In 1600 an expert in heraldry, William Segar, wrote a passage that neatly summarizes some of the difficulties with Eliot’s position:
True it is […] that many enterprises in times past attempted and achieved above the expectation of men, are now thought rather fabulous than faithfully reported: either because we that now live did not know, or see them, or that ignorant men cannot conceive how they might be done, or that want of courage doth disable them to take the like actions in hand. […] And who so shall well consider how difficult a thing it is to write an history of so great truth and perfection, as cannot be controlled, will easily excuse these writers that have taken in hand matter so far from our knowledge and understanding. For like unto all other men, moved with love, hate, profit, or other private passion, they are either willing or ignorantly induced to increase or extenuate the actions and merits of those men, of whom their histories have discoursed. Howsoever that be, I verily think the acts and enterprises of Ulysses, Aeneas, Hector, and other famous captains […] were indeed of notable men, and some of their doings such, as writers have made mention.
Segar here presents us with a historical record that is always subject to the vicissitudes of ‘love, hate, profit or private passion’, where historiography is always ‘controlled’ – a word that could mean either ‘censured, criticized’ or ‘censored, kept in check’ – and where writers are always exaggerating or excusing the behaviour of the men they favour. If some of the deeds of the Greek and Trojan heroes were authentic, which ones were they? It’s important to know the answer if we’re to use their actions and those actions’ consequences as a means of planning our future enterprises.
Another way in which the Trojan War is mixed is in the examples it contains. These are divided along gender lines: men represent ideals to be followed, women vices to be shunned. But surely a man’s particular qualities can’t be disengaged from the larger project in the interests of which he chooses to use them? It’s all very well to say that Agamemnon is the perfect example of an enlightened general, or that Ulysses is the model counselor, or Achilles the ultimate warrior – but each of these men has undertaken a ten-year war to retrieve a woman who is widely cited as the ultimate example of infidelity and its consequences. And what if the judgement of women recorded by history is itself profoundly unsafe? Throughout the sixteenth century there’s a tradition of defending women like Helen and Cressida – especially the latter – as having been traduced by the faithless historians mentioned by Segar. In the much-reprinted poetry collection A Paradise of Dainty Devices (1576), for instance, Troilus tells Cressida that she has become an example to all women of the effects of what he calls ‘caterwauling’ (sleeping around like a lustful cat), and Cressida replies with a counter-accusation of her own:
No gadding moods, but forcéd strife,
Compelléd me retire from Troy:
If Troilus would have vowed his wife,
We might have dwelt in former joy.
If Troilus had simply married Cressida, in other words, or fought to keep the woman he loved, she wouldn’t have been forced to seek the protection of his Greek enemy, Diomedes; and she adds that she has been misrepresented by tradition largely thanks to Troilus’s willingness to blacken her name. Shakespeare’s Lucrece (1594) is equally conscious of her dependence on the untrustworthy narratives of men for the example she will be deemed to have set for other women. Her urgent task after her rape by Tarquin is to pass on an accurate speaking picture of herself to future generations: she hates the idea of being fictionalized, transformed into a distorted image which is rendered convincing by the scraps of evidence from which it’s partly assembled. Her body is one such scrap of evidence, and she pleads with the personified Night to keep it concealed:
Make me not object to the tell-tale day.
The light will show, charáctered in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;
Yea, the illiterate, that know not how
To cipher what is read in learned books,
Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks.
As she seeks some answer to the question of how to transmit the brutal facts of her rape to her husband and the world in general, she finds herself looking at a painting of the siege of Troy, where she instantly recognizes the exemplary heroes, Ulysses and Ajax – though both seem a little ambiguous as moral examples:
In Ajax and Ulysses, O what art
Of physiognomy might one behold!
The face of either ciphered either’s heart;
Their face their manners most expressly told:
In Ajax’ eyes blunt rage and rigour rolled,
But the mild glance that sly Ulysses lent
Showed deep regard and smiling government.
The most puzzling image in the picture, however, is the treacherous Sinon, the Greek whose pretended defection to the Trojan side helped convince Priam to bring the wooden horse within the city walls. Sinon seems to be the direct opposite of exemplary, in that his appearance completely obscures his disposition:
But, like a constant and confirméd devil,
He entertained a show so seeming just,
And therein so ensconced his secret evil,
That jealousy itself could not mistrust
False-creeping craft and perjury should thrust
Into so bright a day such black-faced storms,
Or blot with hell-born sin such saint-like forms.
In this disconnect between his appearance and his treacherous behaviour Sinon confirms Lucrece’s experience of the rapist Tarquin, whose appearance disastrously misled her into trusting him. From now on, she declares, she will always assume that beautiful looks can only serve as the index of a vicious mind. At this early stage in Shakespeare’s career, in other words, Troy is already associated with the problem of assigning values to a man or woman on the basis of a reading of those ‘wormeaten idols’, their bodies. It’s also linked with the problem of extracting general ‘principles and rules’, in Fenton’s phrase, from particular examples: even after Lucrece has identified Sinon the general rule she derives from his looks is scarcely a credible one. Add to this that the best known account of Sinon’s treachery occurs in a version of Troy narrated by a biased poet, Virgil, and the relationship between the particular and the general, the example and the precept, is plunged into crisis by the ambiguities of Trojan history.
When Shakespeare opened his Trojan history play, then, with a prologue who wears full body armour because he has no confidence in ‘author’s pen or actor’s voice’, and when that prologue ends his speech with the couplet ‘Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are; / Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war’ – I suggest that the Elizabethan audience would have found itself in familiar territory. The competing versions of the Trojan War demonstrate exactly this: that the outcome of any particular conflict, and the factional bias of its poets and chroniclers, determines the general moral lessons it is deemed to impart. And the play that follows is given over to an extended analysis of the mechanics of making examples out of men and women in a time of crisis.
In the play, examples are made in different ways depending on your gender and the moral and political priorities of the side you’re on. At the centre of this version of the Trojan War are two women: Cressida, who is deemed exemplary by Troilus in particular, and Helen, who is theoretically deemed exemplary by both Greeks and Trojans but is also the topic of heated debate in Troy over the current status of her exemplarity. Both are valued, it seems, only for their beauty, so that their exemplary function is limited and questionable (is bodily beauty a value or merely a trigger for erotic desire?). In fact a third woman is fought over during the play, but it would be easy to forget her presence in it. In the second scene we hear that Hector is angry because he has been humiliated on the battlefield by Ajax, and his reaction to the humiliation is to lose his temper with his wife – and hence to jeopardize his own exemplary status: ‘He chid Andromache, and struck his armourer’, as Cressida’s servant tells her. In the following scene, however, he sends a challenge to the Trojan camp which proclaims Andromache to be the most exemplary woman of all, and urges the Greeks to fight him in single combat if they disagree. Aeneas, who brings the challenge to the Greeks, expresses it thus:
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.
This kind of challenge is of course familiar from chivalric romance, but in the context of the matter of Troy it is problematic: if Andromache is so much better than any Greek lady, past or present – and if a Greek challenger is prepared to fight on the basis that his own lady is supreme – what precisely is the war about? Moreover, Andromache – who was rebuked by Hector before he issued the challenge – quickly disappears as a motive for the single combat; and when we see her again it’s once more as the target for her husband’s wrath. She tries to make him change his mind over fighting on a day of ill omen, and his response is to say: ‘Andromache, I am offended with you. / Upon the love you bear me, get you in’. Clearly Hector’s reputation as a man of war is always his first priority, and the women he fights for are always and only ever the excuse for combat, the context in which Hector’s own exemplarity can best be displayed.
Troilus, by contrast, consistently identifies Cressida as lying at the heart of his system of values – as the centre of his world. This too, however, is problematic, since his image of her is entirely imaginary. His description of her in the first scene makes this patently obvious:
O, that her hand
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach; to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of ploughman!
If the whiteness of Cressida’s hand makes other whites seem black as ink, the term ‘white’ has lost all meaning – and the argument that black is white was the classic instance of chop-logic or sophistry as taught in Elizabethan schools. Again, if her skin is so soft it makes a cygnet’s down seem harsh then the term ‘softness’ no longer has a function; while if the ‘spirit of sense’, which is the faculty by which we convey sense impressions to the brain, has lost its sensitivity, then we can no longer distinguish one thing from another by touch. This view of Cressida, Troilus says to Pandarus, is not merely true – it falls short of truth; so that truth itself would seem to be both imaginary and inaccessible through the senses. There’s no chance at all, of course, that any woman could live up to this kind of hyperbole, and sure enough at the point when Troilus finally sleeps with Cressida his main concern is that she won’t match his expectations – the onanistic fantasies with which he has satisfied himself during their courtship. This, at least, is one interpretation of his speech before their union:
Th’imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense. What will it be
When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice-repuréd nectar? Death, I fear me;
Swooning destruction; or some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers.
In other words, Troilus fears he will be unable to feel the delights of sex about which he has been fantasizing for so long. His private fantasies are the zenith of his sex life, and sexual action can only be a disappointment by comparison.
Cressida herself is fully aware that it’s the male imagination that makes women exemplary, and that women have no agency in the process (apart from Lucrece, of course, whose technique of doing so is hardly appealing). She holds Troilus off as long as she can, as she informs the audience:
Women are angels, wooing.
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.
Helen, too, has good reason to know that she is a construct of the male imagination. Troilus points this out, unaware that his words ironically underscore the fantastic nature of his image of Cressida; ‘Helen must needs be fair,’ he tells his Trojan compatriots, ‘When with your blood you daily paint her thus’. The painting here is that of cosmetics, an art form that stood for deceit in Elizabethan culture; so Troilus is suggesting that Helen is not what the Greeks and Trojans make her out to be – that she is, in fact, made up in another sense. Troilus’ rival Diomedes has a similar view of her:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Troyan hath been slain; since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Troyans suffered death.
Here Helen’s painted body has become carrion – another ‘wormeaten idol’, in Chapman’s phrase – hideously overwhelmed by the male corpses who have fought to uphold the myth of her exemplarity. The association of her with cosmetics and rotting flesh suggests that she is ageing, like the late portraits of England’s queen, so that the one quality that’s been ascribed to her, bodily beauty, is fading fast. The Trojan debate over her value in the play’s second act therefore focuses on time: if she was deemed worth taking from her husband in the first place, she must of necessity be deemed worth keeping seven years later. Hector objects that her value cannot be determined by a ‘particular will’ – presumably that of Paris – but must instead be inherent in her if she’s to be kept; he’s therefore in favour of giving her back, since ‘doing wrong extenuates not wrong, / But makes it much more heavy’. Troilus and Paris, on the other hand, insist that the ‘will’ that imputed value to her was a general one. But the upshot of the debate is a rejection on Hector’s part of the philosophical principles for which he’s been arguing; he dismisses what he claims is ‘truth’, that Helen is worthless, and chooses to retain her because ‘’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities’. A general rule – that two wrongs don’t make a right – is supplanted by a different kind of generality: that the collective honour of the Trojans would be impugned by any belated admission they were wrong; and thus the myth of Helen’s exemplarity is prolonged for another three years. The scene makes it plain, if it wasn’t already, that the Trojan War is not about women but about men, and that the women who are its ostensible motive are essentially male inventions.
Men’s exemplarity, meanwhile, would seem to be yet more unstable than women’s. Distinguishing one man from another is a difficult matter; in the second scene, for instance, Pandarus fails to distinguish Troilus at a distance from his brother Deiphobus – a mistake Cressida takes great pleasure in mocking; and later Aeneas finds it hard to tell Agamemnon apart from his fellow Greeks, despite repeated heavy hints from the general himself. This difficulty explains the Greek insistence that the purpose of their continued siege of Troy is to establish the difference between heroes and ordinary men; it takes something as calamitous as a war to separate the masculine wheat from the effeminate chaff. Agamemnon’s anonymity also identifies the source of the problem he faces within his camp: that of insubordination. The general is simply not sufficiently distinguished to take his place at the head of a military hierarchy – and this is not just the fault of Achilles, who refuses to recognize Agamemnon as his general. The same attitude is spreading through the lower orders, with the result that Agamemnon can no longer be seen as generally representative of his people. His exemplary status as the ideal general is therefore at risk, and he responds – on the advice of Ulysses – by hatching a plot to undermine Achilles’ reputation, in turn, as the exemplary warrior. Agamemnon, then, agrees to undermine a hierarchy in a bid to restore a hierarchy, to discredit an example in a bid to restore his own exemplarity; a situation which, as Ulysses points out in his great speech on order, erases the distinction between right and wrong by erasing the basis on which such distinctions are made. The scene in which all this takes place, the third in the play, contains, I think, not a single mention of the woman who is ostensibly at the centre of the Trojan War; so in this way too the hierarchy of values has been undermined. The Greeks are clear, then, about their real motive in fighting the war: to achieve distinction; but they are also clear about the extreme difficulty of obtaining and retaining such distinction – and contribute to this extreme difficulty by their willingness to destroy each other’s reputations.
The Trojans make Helen central to their cause, though they betray their real priority as being their honour. The Greeks put their honour squarely at the centre of the conflict, while admitting that it’s badly tarnished. The Trojans look to the past for justification of their present commitment to retaining Helen. The Greeks look to the future to justify their long campaign, and take every chance they can get to bequeath a positive image of themselves to their descendants. The Trojans pride themselves on their consistency – what we valued once, Troilus insists, must always be valued. The Greeks don’t care about being consistent so long as they come out of it smelling of roses. But the Trojans are not consistent, whatever they claim. Troilus swiftly loses interest in Cressida after a single night of pleasure: ‘Sleep kill those pretty eyes’, he tells her next morning as he arms for battle, and Cressida sees at once that her prophesy has been fulfilled: ‘You men will never stay,’ she complains as she tries to dissuade him. Hector, who has a reputation for sparing unarmed men, forgets it completely when he sees a fine suit of armour on a fleeing enemy; and we’ve already seen how consistent he is when it comes to women. The Greeks and the Trojans, in other words, are indistinguishable, and it’s the duel between Hector and Ajax that points this up. The duel ends before it’s begun because it turns out that the ox-like Greek is partly Trojan. ‘Were thy commixtion Greek and Trojan so,’ Hector tells him,
That thou could’st say ‘This hand is Grecian all,
And this is Troyan; the sinews of this leg
All Greek, and this all Troy; my mother’s blood
Runs on the dexter cheek, and this siníster
Bounds in my father’s’; by Jove multipotent,
Thou should’st not bear from me a Greekish member
Wherein my sword had not impressure made
Of our rank feud.
But Ajax is neither one thing nor another, and neither are the warring armies between which he is so evenly divided. Cressida, too, is neither one thing or another, as Troilus finds; ‘This is and is not Cressid,’ he tells himself when he catches her with Diomedes; and even at this point he seems reluctant to let go his fantastic image of her as the touchstone by which the value of everything else is to be measured. Human beings, it seems – whether actual or fantastical – are not the best material to fashion simplistic examples out of. There is too much ‘commixtion’ in them, as Hector puts it. They are too subject to change, through time, through shifting moods, through illness, desire, the chance of war, and basic rottenness. Thersites nails it when he verbally spreads venereal disease throughout both factions: ‘Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! […] A burning devil take them!’ The exemplary bodies Shakespeare has given us are already falling to pieces before this curse can take effect.
The process of making history, meanwhile, is best summed up by the death of Hector. Achilles finds himself too out of shape to defeat him man to man, and like Ulysses decides to deal with the problem by trickery. He orders his personal guard, the Myrmidons, first to isolate Hector on the battlefield, then to murder him. Having done so, the Myrmidons raise the cry ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain’. A general murder becomes a particular triumph, and the two opposing versions of the Trojan War are brought into being: the version we’ve seen, in which Hector is murdered, and the version favoured by Homer, in which he’s killed by Achilles’ prowess. Neither history, nor the examples drawn from history, could ever look simple again after Shakespeare penned this episode. But then these things hadn’t looked simple for decades, thanks in part to the conflicting versions of the tale of Troy. The death of Essex may have brought this home to Shakespeare; and Shakespeare’s version of the death of Hector bequeathed his unease with the processes of making history to men and women in the twenty-first century. In the age of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage I suspect we share it.