Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

SHAKESPEARE: Troilus and Cressida

In many of Shakespeare’s plays we see love triumph over hate. For example, the Montague and Capulet families hated one another but the love between Romeo and Juliet proved stronger than any family feud. In many of Shakespeare’s plays we see good triumph over evil. Macbeth is a good example of this type play. Macbeth hatches a plan to kill King Duncan and become king himself. But it’s a short-lived success and the play winds up with Macbeth’s own death. Troilus and Cressida isn’t a play of triumph. In real life love doesn’t always triumph over hate and good doesn’t always triumph over evil. Shakespeare knows this. King Lear and Othello are perfect examples of how things don’t always turn out so well. And so it is in this play. Things don’t turn out so well. Troilus and Cressida pledge their eternal love to one another. But once they’re separated Cressida doesn’t prove to be as faithful as Juliet was to Romeo, or Cordelia and Kent were to King Lear, or as Desdemona was to Othello. Cressida’s love for Troilus just sort of melts away when she meets the Greek hunk Diomedes. No triumph of love over hate here. It’s just the mundane story of a young girl’s love interests being diverted from one young lover to another. And there’s no triumph of good over evil here either. Hector is clearly one of the good guys in this play. Here’s a short exchange between Pandarus and Cressida: PANDARUS: That's Hector, that, that, look you, that; there's a fellow! Go thy way, Hector! There's a brave man, niece. O brave Hector! Look how he looks! there's a countenance! is't not a brave man? CRESSIDA: O, a brave man! PANDARUS: Is a' not? it does a man's heart good. Look you what hacks are on his helmet! look you yonder, do you see? look you there: there's no jesting; there's laying on, take't off who will, as they say: there be hacks! CRESSIDA: Be those with swords? PANDARUS: Swords! anything, he cares not; an the devil come to him, it's all one: by God's lid, it does one's heart good. But Hector is caught up in the Trojan War. The crux of the problem in the Trojan War is Helen. What to do about Helen? The Greeks want her back and the Trojans refuse to give her up. Why? Because of pride on both sides. The Greeks want her back to restore their honor. They don’t want other guys just swooping in and stealing away their womenfolk. The Trojans maintain that Helen came willingly and she loves Paris more than she loves that half-barbaric husband, Menelaus. They feel like they need to protect Helen out of honor. And since neither side will give in, war breaks out. The ancient Greek poet Homer handles this story in the tight straight-forward Greek manner. He tells about these events in poetry and includes battle scenes, campfire dinners, everyday conversation and much more. Shakespeare handles the story like a master Elizabethan dramatist. He actually has three plots going on here: the love story between Troilus and Cressida set against the bigger backdrop of the love story between Paris and Helen set against the even bigger backdrop of the war between Greece and Troy. Good stories always involve tension. In this play there’s a great deal of tension between lovers. Helen wasn’t faithful to Menelaus and Troilus learns the hard way that not all women are as faithful as Andromache is to Hector. There’s also a great deal of tension between the two warring armies and even more tension within the armies themselves. Hector is the pivotal character because he’s the older brother of Troilus and also the cousin of the Greek warrior Ajax. Hector tries hard to protect his Trojan family against the onslaught of the Greek invasion. In the end it’s not enough. Homer portrays the defeat of Hector as a trick by the gods. Shakespeare portrays the defeat of Hector as a sneaky trick by Achilles to kill an unarmed man. So the lovers are not triumphant and the good guys don’t win. What are we to make of all this? Life goes on. Fools always muddle through somehow. Agamemnon is a fool to offer to command Achilles; Achilles is a fool to be commanded by Agamemnon… But Shakespeare is nobody’s fool. Only the Bible and Homer stand higher in Western literature and culture.


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