I have spent most of this week working on the text and history of Troilus and Cressida in preparation for a couple of classes I had to teach on Wednesday and Friday. Although this is one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays that I saw on stage and one that subsequently I must have seen at least half a dozen times, I’ve never had reason to study it before. It’s a stinker.
Its stage and publication history during Shakespeare’s life time is, to put it mildly, a bit of a mystery. In fact, there is no real evidence that it ever was acted, although I have to say that I can’t see Shakespeare spending three or four months writing a play that was never going to see the stage – he needed the money. Granted, the first title page for the 1609 Quarto states that this is a play performed at the Globe by the Kings’ Men, but that was almost immediately pulled and a second title page prepared that claimed it had never been acted by anyone and was all the better a play for it. Was there some reason why Shakespeare’s Company preferred not to be associated with this most enigmatic of texts? I think there probably was.
One of the aspects of the play that makes it such a difficult study is the language. At times it can seem almost impenetrable. Shakespeare uses more neologisms in this text than in any other as well as frequently employing words that he never uses again. Many of these words start with the prefix un which means that to understand them in context the reader/listener has to first compute the positive meaning of the root vocabulary and then negate it. By the time you’ve done that, especially if you’re listening, the argument has moved on and you’ve missed the next section of what is being said. Add to this the tortuous syntax which can stretch over as many as a dozen lines and the likelihood of your remembering what the beginning of a sentence was about by the time you get to the end of it is pretty remote. This is further complicated by the fact that the characters so often talk in abstractions rather than getting straight to the point. Take the beginning of Act 1 Scene 3. Agamemnon and Nestor between them take fifty-five lines to say nothing more than that adversity is often a test of character. That’s all. I didn’t need even fifty-five letters, let alone fifty-five lines. Language isn’t being used to reveal, but to conceal – oh and to make the speaker sound cleverer than he (and in this play it almost invariably is ‘he’) really is. Does that remind you of any one?
My own feeling as I work my way deeper into the text and context of this play is that Shakespeare was having a go at the politicians of the time. One of the major source texts, George Chapman’s translation of several of the books of the Iliad, was dedicated to the Earl of Essex who, as you will know if you’ve studied the history of the period, was a controversial figure. Despite having been the country’s darling in the late 1590s, he eventually overstepped the mark, attempting to overthrow Elizabeth in February 1601 and as a result losing his life. Chapman, writing in 1598, likens Essex to Achilles, whom he sees as the hero of the Iliad. By late 1601, when this play was most probably written, it was almost certainly politic to make Achilles the far less attractive figure that we see in Shakespeare’s interpretation, especially as the Company had been lucky to escape severe censure after staging Ricard II with its deposition scene, the night before Essex’s rebellion. However, it isn’t Achilles who has the worst of these mind-bending speeches; it is the other members of the Greek camp, Agamemnon, Nestor and of course, Ulysses.
Ulysses in particular is set in opposition to Achilles and if we translate that in terms of the Elizabethan Court then we have to see Ulysses as representative of the chief opponents of Essex, namely the father and son, William and Robert Cecil. By the time that this play was written William Cecil had died, but his place as Elizabeth’s chief minister had been taken by his son, who would go on to serve James I in a similar role, continuing in that office well past the 1609 date of the Quarto with the two title pages. And if we look at the portrait that Shakespeare draws of Ulysses then we can see why the Company might have felt that being so publicly associated with the play in print was not a particularly good idea.
If people know anything about the Ulysses of Troilus and Cressida then it is the speech he makes in Act 1 Scene 3 about degree, about hierarchy, and about the way in which the world only functions if people know their place and behave according to it. It sounds so good that for years critics treated it as if this was Shakespeare himself offering us his view of the way in which the world should be ordered. The problem with this is that the next thing we see Ulysses doing is rigging a vote so that Ajax, definitely a couple of rungs below Achilles, who don’t forget has a goddess for a mother, is promoted above him as the greatest warrior the Greeks can put forward to fight Hector. In other words, like politicians down the ages, he says one thing and then does another. Pointing this out while Cecil was still in office was probably not the most politic thing that Shakespeare had ever done, especially not when you consider that the Court and its officers had the right to remove the Company’s license and throw them off the city’s stages.
Many of the students have complained that even after seeing a good staged version of the play they have still been unable to follow the scenes in the Greek camp. In fact one of them even asked me if this was where the phrase it’s all Greek to me came from. I am trying to comfort them by suggesting that Shakespeare probably didn’t intend that they should understand the half of it and that if they saw it in a modern setting with the characters spouting the same words in a recognisably political setting they would know precisely what to infer and that in this instance at least, actions speak louder than words.