Troilus and Cressida appeals to the iconoclastic and sceptical temperament of the contemporary era. Its anxieties about the problems of locating stable values and meanings, and its distrust of the claims of military and political authority, have obvious applications to the personal and public crises of today. ‘ Discuss this statement in relation to Shakespeare’s play. Troilus and Cressida was probably written around 1602, although scholars are not entirely sure of the exact date. Around the time of its creation, the play was not widely performed, and was not rediscovered until the beginnings of the 20th century.
In modern times, however, it has received more critical attention and more performances than in all of its previous history. This could be, as the statement stresses, due to the fact that many parallels can be drawn between the concerns raised by Shakespeare and issues raised by modern social commentators and the media. Indeed, in his own time Shakespeare communicated concerns about the rapid change of his own era through what is described by R. A. Foakes as the parody of the grand Homeric legend of the Trojan War’. Critics have generally labelled Troilus and Cressida as one of the problem comedies’, or dark comedies’.
These plays are characterised by comedy woven with satiric commentary, and also tinged with tragedy. Firstly the problems of locating stable values and meanings’ shall be dealt with. One of the most highly prized values of the warriors’ of the Trojan War is that of honour and chivalry. The closest thing in the play to a truly chivalric and heroic figure is most probably Hector, described by Nestor as follows; When thou hast hung thy advanced sword in i’th’air, Not letting it decline on the declin’d, That I have said to some my standers-by Lo, Jupiter is yonder, dealing life!
So, Hector is portrayed as a godlike figure on the battlefield. We should also note that he deals in life rather than death. However, Shakespeare injects satire into the proceedings by subverting the notion of a true hero. The majority of the males in the play are shown to be chivalric only in their extravagant language, while in action they are anything but. For example, in Act 2 Scene 2, the Trojans debate as to whether or not to return Helen back to the Greeks. Troilus thinks that this should be done, because Helen is a theme of honour and renown’.
Hector, knowing that it is wrong to keep her, agrees with Troilus, but then proposes to keep her anyway; “For tis a cause that have no mean dependence upon our several dignitaries. ” So, Hector is shown to be more concerned with reputation rather than what is morally correct. There are countless examples of actions such as these throughout the play. Near the end, Hector goes out to battle purely for the kill rather than for the moral reasons. Characters such as Hector, Ulysses and Achilles would be familiar to Elizabethan audiences due to Homer’s The Iliad, which praises values such as patriotism and chivalry.
Here, Shakespeare removes all kind of dignity from these stock characters, placing them in a futile war in a valueless world. Achilles is shown to be even worse than Hector, spending large amounts of time sulking and complaining. Indeed, he is only roused into action when Ulysses reminds him of what the consequences could be for his reputation. Achilles comments; “I see my reputation is at stake, My fame is shrewdly gor’d. ” (III, iii. 227) At the end of the play, Achilles encounters Hector unarmed, and in a despicable act, orders his followers to kill Hector while he is not ready to fight.
So, values such as morality, honour, heroism and chivalry are turned upon their head by Shakespeare’s use of satire, and also the juxtaposition of words and deeds of the soldiers. This idea has great relevance to modern times, where the media and social commentators have long bemoaned the instability of traditional values and morality. Perhaps the rise of capitalism in the beginnings of the 17th century prompted Shakespeare to voice some of these concerns through the play. There are many references to the idea of value in Troilus and Cressida.
The concept of women as commodities in the play also relates to this. However, all value seems to be relative in Troilus and Cressida. An object is only ever like’ something else; everything is compared. Perhaps this could be commentary upon the beginning of globalisation in Shakespeare’s time. Mass markets were starting to form, and Britain was attempting to put itself at the forefront of trading opportunities. There is a famous quote from the play in which Troilus remarks, when thinking of Cressida; “Her bed is India, there she lies, a pearl:
Between our Ilium and where she resides, Let it be called the wild and wandering flood; Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark. ” (1. 1. 102-6) Troilus’ use of words here is of great interest. He describes Cressida as a pearl’, an obvious materialistic object, and also describes himself as a merchant’. Here he not only succeeds in being distinctly unromantic, but also places a value upon Cressida, as if she were an object to be bought and sold.
One interesting quote from Troilus is also follows; What’s aught but tis valued? ” (II. ii. 52) This would tie in with earlier parts of the play involving Pandarus, who Troilus first approaches concerning Cressida. Pandarus acts as little more than a pimp in setting the two up, and his bawdy use of language reinforces this. Helen is another female in the play upon which a value is placed. In truth, she is little more than a trophy wife’ for Paris, and the only scene in which she appears degenerates into absurdity through Shakespeare’s use of bawdy language.
Helen is also presented as a commodity, and it could also be said that she is raised above her worth, and is turned into a fetish object’. However, this cannot be seen as totally the fault of the females, as it seems that they are forced into these roles by the conventions of a patriarchal culture, which, it could be argued, still exists today. Act 2 Scene 2 is important again here. Hector does little more than conduct an economic assessment of the war in terms of common lives and royal ones. Priam describes the war as this cormorant war’.
The cormorant is noted for it’s greed, and so connections with concern over capitalism are already being formed. Value is discussed in terms of common’ men and royalty, and it becomes apparent that Shakespeare is attempting to comment upon Elizabethan concerns over capitalist expansion. Once again, this can be easily applied to crises’ of today, with concern over the delicate balance of global markets, the loss of stable values in favour of the acquisition of hard currency. So, it is easy to relate the historical events of the start of the 17th century with that of the 21st century.
Another good example of an event such as this would be the Copernical revolution. In a famous speech in Act 1 scene 3, Ulysses gives a diagnosis of the Greek army’s problems. He does this by talking of his belief in the Elizabethan doctrine of world order where; “The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre, Observe degree, priority, and place” (I. iii. 85-6) Ulysses believes that this should be applied to the army, in that people should be true to their roles, and there should be a correspondence between order in the universe and order of state.
This is placed in a heavily ironic context. Around the time of the plays creation, people were already questioning the validity of such an order and, in turn, absolute obedience to royal power. Indeed, the Copernican revolution was already beginning to take place, and so we can see that this was a time of great upheaval in political, scientific and financial contexts. Today, science is still causing us to think and rethink the way in which we perceive the world, and ourselves. Troilus and Cressida is very applicable in this respect.
So, it is my belief that the statement in question is quite true in that the issues raised by Troilus and Cressida are still applicable to contemporary society. Robin Headlam Wells described the play as; “a story of love’s betrayal set against the background of a futile war waged by proud and childish men whose analytic powers have outstripped their common sense”. Criticisms such as these could still be applied to modern day situations. Other parallels that could be made with modern times could be the image of an inactive and futile war based upon high ideals (of which there have been two this century).
Also, comparisons can be made between the bickering and disagreement between the higher ranks of the Greek and Trojan armies and the similar actions of modern day politicians. The leaders in both eras also seem to be more susceptible to corruption and scandal. The role of Thersites as a satiric commentator could be translated into that of the modern day media. Indeed, the modern day media could be summed up (unintentionally) in a quote from him; “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion” (V. ii. 193) In short, Troilus and Cressida has a much greater story to tell than a romance and comedy.