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Shakespeare's Wisest Play: Exploring the Virtues of Troilus and Cressida

From Studies in Shakespeare by Richard Grant White, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Probably no play of Shakespeare's, probably no other play or poem of a high degree of merit, is so much neglected as "Troilus and Cressida" is. I have met intelligent readers of Shakespeare, who thought themselves unusually well acquainted with his writings, and who were so, who understood him and delighted in him, but who yet had never read "Troilus and Cressida." They had, in one way and another, got the notion that it is a very inferior play, and not worth reading, or at least not to be read until after they were tired of all the others, a time which had not yet come. There seems to be a slur cast upon this play, the reason of which is its very undramatic character, and the consequent non-appearance of its name in theatrical records. No one has heard of any actor's or actress's appearance, even in the last century, as one of the personages in "Troilus and Cressida." Its name has not been upon the play-bills for generations, though even "Love's Labour's Lost" has once in a while been performed. Hence it is almost unknown, except to thorough Shakespearean readers, who are very few; fewer now, in proportion to the largely increased leisurely and instructed classes, than they were two hundred years ago, much to the shame of our vaunted popular education and diffusion of knowledge. And yet this neglected drama is one of its author's great works; in one respect his greatest. "Troilus and Cressida" is Shakespeare's wisest play in the way of worldly wisdom. It is filled chock full of sententious and in most cases slightly satirical revelations of human nature, uttered with a felicity of phrase and an impressiveness of metaphor that make each one seem like a beam of light shot into the recesses of man's heart. Such are these:
In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men.
Act I. Sc. 3.

The wound of peace is surety,
Surety secure; but modest doubt is call'd
The beacon of the wise.
Act II. Sc. 2.

What is aught, but as 't is valued?
Act II. Sc. 2.

'T is mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god.
Act II. Sc. 2.

A stirring dwarf we do allowance give
Before a sleeping giant.
Act II. Sc. 3.

'T is certain greatness once fall'n out with fortune
Must fall out with men too; what the declined is
He shall as soon read in the eyes of others
As feel in his own fall ; for men, like butterflies,
Show not their mealy wings but to the summer;
And not a man, for being simply man,
Hath any honour.
Act III. Sc. 3.
Besides passages like these, there are others of which the wisdom is inextricably interwoven with the occasion. One would think that the wealth of such a mine would be daily passing from mouth to mouth as the current coin of speech; and yet of all Shakespeare's acknowledged plays, there are only two, "The Comedy of Errors" and "The Winter's Tale," which do not furnish more to our store of familiar quotations than this play does, rich though it is with Shakespeare's ripest thought and most splendid utterance.

The undramatic character of "Troilus and Cressida," which has been already mentioned, appears in its structure, its personages, and its purpose. We are little interested in the fate of its personages, not merely because we know what is to become of them, for that we know in almost any play which has an historical subject; but the play is constructed upon such a slight plot that it really has neither dramatic motive nor dramatic movement. The loves of Troilus and Cressida are of a kind which are interesting only to the persons directly involved in them; Achilles's sulking is of even less interest; and the death of Hector affects us only like a newspaper announcement of the death of some distinguished person, so little is he really involved in the action of the drama. There is also a singular lack of that peculiar characteristic of Shakespeare's dramatic style, the distinction and discrimination of the individual traits, mental and moral, of the various personages. Ulysses is the real hero of the play, the chief, or at least the great, purpose of which is the utterance of the Ulyssean view of life; and in this play Shakespeare is Ulysses, or Ulysses Shakespeare. In all his other plays Shakespeare because of the vividness of his imagination, and because he was putting into a dramatic form old tales and plays in which the characters of his personages were already outlined so lost his personal consciousness in the individuality of his own creations that they think and feel as well as act like real men and women other than their creator, so that we cannot truly say of the thoughts and feelings which they express that Shakespeare says thus or so; for it is not Shakespeare who speaks, but they with his lips.

But in Ulysses, Shakespeare, acting upon a mere hint, filling up a mere traditionary outline, drew a man of mature years, of wide observation, of profoundest cogitative power; one who knew all the weakness and all the wiles of human nature, and who yet remained with blood unbittered and soul unsoured, a man who saw through all shams and fathomed all motives, and who yet was not scornful of his kind, not misanthropic, hardly cynical except in passing moods. And what other man could this be than Shakespeare himself? What had he to do when he had passed forty years but to utter his own thoughts when he would find words for the lips of Ulysses? And thus it is that "Troilus and Cressida" is Shakespeare's wisest play. If we would know what Shakespeare thought of men and their motives after he reached maturity, we have but to read this drama. Drama it is, but with what other character who shall say? For, like the world's pageant, it is neither tragedy nor comedy, but a tragicomic history, in which the intrigues of amorous men and light-o'-loves and the brokerage of panders are involved with the deliberations of sages and the strife and the death of heroes.

The thoughtful reader will observe that Ulysses pervades the serious parts of the play, which is all Ulyssean in its thought and language. And this is the reason, or rather the fact, of the play's lack of distinctive characterization. For Ulysses cannot speak all the time that he is on the stage; and therefore the other personages, such as may, speak Ulyssean, with, of course, such personal allusion and peculiar trick or difference as a dramatist of Shakespeare's skill could not leave them without. For example, no two men could be more unlike in character than Achilles and Ulysses; and yet the former, having asked the latter what he is reading, he, uttering his own thought, says as follows, with the subsequent reply:

Ulyss. A strange fellow here
Writes me: "That man, how clearly ever parted,
How much in having, or without or in,
Cannot make boast to have that which he hath,
Nor feels not what he owes but by reflection,
As when his virtues shining upon others
Heat them, and they retort that heat again
To the first giver."

Acini. This is not strange, Ulysses.
The beauty that is borne here in the face
The bearer knows not, but commends itself
To others' eyes ; nor doth the eye itself,
That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself,
Not going from itself ; but eye to eye oppos'd,
Salutes each other with each other's form,
For speculation turns not to itself
Till it hath travell'd and is mirror'd there
Where it may see itself. This is not strange at all.
Act III. Sc. 3.
Now these speeches are made of the same metal and coined in the same mint; and they both of them have the image and superscription of William Shakespeare. No words or thoughts could be more unsuited to that bold, rude, bloody egoist, "the broad Achilles," than the subtle, finely penetrative reply he makes to Ulysses; but here Shakespeare was merely using the Greek champion as a lay figure to utter his own thoughts, which are perfectly in character with the son of Autolycus. Ulysses thus flows over upon the whole serious part of the play. Agamemnon, Nestor, AEneas, and the rest all talk alike, and all like Ulysses. That Ulysses speaks for Shakespeare will, I think, be doubted by no reader who has reached the second reading of this play by the way which I have pointed out to him. And why, indeed, should Ulysses not speak for Shakespeare, or how could it be other than that he should? The man who had written "Hamlet," "King Lear," "Othello," and "Macbeth," if he wished to find Ulysses, had only to turn his mind's eye inward; and thus we have in this drama Shakespeare's only piece of introspective work.

But there is another personage who gives character to this drama, and who is of a very different sort. Thersites sits with Caliban high among Shakespeare's minor triumphs. He was brought in to please the mob. He is the Fool of the piece, fulfilling the functions of Touchstone, and Launce, and Launcelot, and Costard in other plays. As the gravediggers were brought into "Hamlet" for the sake of the groundlings, so Thersites came into "Troilus and Cressida." As if that he might leave no form of human utterance ungilded by his genius, Shakespeare in Thersites has given us the apotheosis of blackguardism and billingsgate. Thersites is only a railing rascal. Some low types of animals are mere bellies with no brain. Thersites is merely mouth; but this mouth has just enough coarse brain above it to know a wise man and a fool. And the railings of this deformed slave are splendid. Thersites is almost as good as Falstaff. He is of course a far lower organization intellectually, and somewhat lower, perhaps, morally. He is coarser in every way; his humor, such as he has, is of the grossest kind; but still his blackguardism is the ideal of vituperation. He is far better than Apemantus in "Timon of Athens," for there is no hypocrisy in him, no egoism, and, comfortable trait in such a personage, no pretence of gentility. For good downright "sass" in its most splendid and aggressive form, there is in literature nothing equal to the speeches of Thersites.

"Troilus and Cressida" is also remarkable for its wide range of style; because of which it is a play of great interest to the student of Shakespeare, who here adapted his style to the character of the matter in hand. The lighter parts remind us of his earlier manner; the graver are altogether in his later. He did this unconsciously, or almost unconsciously, we may be sure. None the less, however, is the play therefore valuable in a critical point of view, but rather the more so. It is a standing and an undeniable warning to us not to lean too much upon any one special trait of style in estimating the time in Shakespeare's life at which a play was produced. Moreover, it illustrates the natural course of style development, showing that it is not only gradual, but not by regular degrees; that is, that a writer does not pass at one period absolutely from one style to another, dropping his previous manner and taking on another, but that he will at one time unconsciously recur to his former manner or manners, and at a late period show traces of his early manner.

Strata of his old fashion thrust themselves up through the newer formation. "Troilus and Cressida" is so remarkable in this respect that the chief of the absolute-period critics, the Rev. Mr. Fleay, has been obliged to invent a most extraordinary theory to account for it. His view is that there are three plots interwoven, each of which is distinct in manner of treatment, and, moreover, that each of these was composed at a different time from the other two. He would have us believe that the parts embodying the Troilus and Cressida story were written not only in Shakespeare's earliest manner, but in his earliest period, those concerning Hector in his middle period, and the Ajax parts in the last. That these three stories were interwoven is manifest; but they came naturally together in this Greek historical play, for it is that, and their interweaving was hardly to have been avoided; the manner of each is not distinct from that of the other, although there is, with likeness, a noticeable unlikeness.

But the notion that therefore Shakespeare first wrote the Troilus and Cressida part as a play, and then years afterward added the Hector part, and again years afterward the Ajax and Ulysses part, seems to me only a monstrous contrivance of an honest and able man in desperate straits to make his theory square with fact. As to detail upon this subject, I shall only make one point. Tag-rhymes, or rhymed couplets ending a scene or a speech in blank verse or in prose, are regarded by the metre-critics (and within reason justly) as marks of an early date of composition. Now in "Troilus and Cressida" these abound. It contains more of them than any other play, except one or two of the very earliest. The important point, however, is that these rhymes appear no less in the Ulysses and Ajax scenes of the play than in the others, a sufficient warning against putting absolute trust in such evidence.

How to cite this article:
White, Richard Grant. Studies in Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1887. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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