If beauty have a soul, this is not she;
If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies,
If sanctimony be the gods' delight,
If there be rule in unity itself,
This is not she. O madness of discourse
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bifold authority, where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt. This is and is not Cressid.
My students react very strongly to the fact that Shakespeare derived most of his plots from established sources. They have been admonished about plagiarism for years, and now they find that the "greatest author of all time" was nothing but a plagiarist? But they do not know (as most of us don't) the original Leirs and Macbeths, who are mere legends out of which Shakespeare wrings high tragedy. His reimaginative power is more obvious in Troilus and Cressida, which repurposes a much more famous story--the Trojan War--but instead of elevating it, Shakespeare makes it nasty, pathetic, and human; he drags it into the mud.
King Nestor complains that Achilles, making unflattering imitations of the Greek warriors, "sets Thersites," his cynical slave, "To match us in comparisons with dirt." His complaint seems to strike Shakespeare himself, who emphasizes the most unlikeable traits in the Greek and Trojan heroes: Achilles is a petulant brat; Ulysses an unscrupulous politician; Diomedes a vulgar philanderer; Helen a bimbo; Ajax an idiot; Nestor a decrepit old man. At the outset of the play, Achilles, the Greeks' greatest warrior, has refused to fight, entertaining himself instead with his "masculine whore" Patroclus. The Trojan Hector issues a challenge that can only be met by Achilles, but Ulysses and Nestor scheme to have Ajax answer it instead, reasoning that a triumphant Achilles is worse than an indigent one:
ULYSSES: What glory our Achilles shares from Hector,
Were he not proud, we should all share with him;
But he already is too insolent,
And it were better parch in Afric sun
Than in the pride and salt scorn of his eyes
Should he scape Hector fair...
If the dull brainless Ajax come safe off,
We'll dress him up in voices; if he fail,
Yet we go under our opinion still
That we have better men. But, hit or miss,
Our project's life this shape of sense assumes:
Ajax employed plucks down Achilles' plumes.
Absent, of course, is any conception of how the challenge affects the war aims; no one in Troilus and Cressida cares about anything or anyone beyond themselves.
The parallel story follows Troilus, a Trojan prince, and his love for Cressida, whose father has abandoned the city and defected to the Greeks. He arranges a union with her through Pandarus, a sort of comedic Friar Lawrence, but worries about her fidelity to him when she is suddenly used as a bartering chip and and traded to the Greeks for a captured warrior:
TROILUS: I cannot sing,
Nor heel the high lavolt, nor sweeten talk,
Nor play at subtle games--fair virtues all,
To which the Grecians are most prompt and pregnant.
But I can tell that in each grace of these
There lurks a still and dumb-discursive devil
That tempts most cunningly. But be not tempted.
CRESSIDA: Do you think I will?
But something may be done that we will not,
And sometimes we are devils to ourselves
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency.
There is both a truth and an evasion in those lines, which sound like the excuses of a politician caught at the brothel: "Something may be done that we will not."
The relationship turns out to be rotten on both sides. Troilus has no real regard for Cressida beyond lust; once they've spent the night together he basically rushes out the door, hustling her back into bed. Once he has possessed her, his jealousy is only inflamed when she is taken away, like a child's regard for a toy.
For her part, Cressida turns out to be exactly as Troilus fears. There is a remarkable scene in which Cressida enters the Greek camp, and is kissed in turn by each of the warrior-kings. It seems--I hope this isn't too strong--like the prelude to a date-rape, until Cressida reveals a willing playfulness:
ULYSSES: May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?
CRESSIDA: You may.
ULYSSES: I do desire it.
CRESSIDA: Why, beg two.
What's happened here? The Cressida of Act I is clever and playful but also prudent, refusing to reveal her fondness for Troilus because she knows that "Men prize the thing ungained more than it is." Her willingness to flirt with the Greek kings seems to contradict this, but Troilus and Cressida is about the impossibility of pinning down the substance and identity of a human being. Troilus, spying on Cressida as she gives away the scarf he has given her as a love-token to the Greek Diomedes, frets, "This is and is not Cressid." But is there any other way to respond to a external system of valuation than to keep changing? No one has a constant identity in Troilus and Cressida, because no one has intrinsic value. Hector, the most heroic of the Trojans, argues otherwise:
But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein 'tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.
And yet, Hector himself vacillates between identities, at one point arguing that Helen should be returned and then arguing the opposite; mercifully letting his opponent Achilles live and then hunting down an unidentified Greek for his brilliant armor. The characters of the play, as boldly detailed as they are, have no constancy and therefore their only value is "in the prizer." The war itself is an illustration of this; as Troilus says, "Helen must needs be fair / When with your blood you daily paint her thus." Why is Helen valuable? Because we fight over her. The brokenness of that logic is not hard to perceive.
The result is a vision of humanity that is venal, commodified, and bleak. The only character that recognizes this is the slave Thersites, who wanders around heaping scorn on every Greek and Trojan, and on the war itself. But Thersites himself is a vulgar coward, and makes for an uncomfortable authorial proxy. You may agree with me that human nature is pathetic and nasty, Shakespeare seems to say to us, but that doesn't make you not a part of it.
It's not hard to see why Troilus and Cressida fails to be as well-loved as, say, Romeo and Juliet. Its principal goal is to rob us of our legends, to make them look as ugly and trivial as our own lives. It's a systematic hollowing-out of the Troy legend. The result is (as many have noted, including Jonathan Gil Harris in his afterword to the Folger edition) a very modern-seeming play. Troilus' agony as he tries to make sense of Cressida's infidelity reminds me of nothing more than The Good Soldier's John Dowell, looking for sense in his dead wife's affair and coming up empty.