Troilus and Cressida: It Gave Pander a Bad Name
According to Karl Young in The Origin of Troilus and Criseyde, the couple’s romance dates to Le Roman de Troie, a poem about the fall of Troy written by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, a Frenchman living at the time of and in the continental lands of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He didn’t make up the characters, but Sainte-Maure conjured the tragic love.
Next to chronicle and alter the story was Italian Giovanni Boccaccio in his poem Il Filostrato, and his account influenced Chaucer’s version, Troilus and Criseyde. Shakespeare got the story from Chaucer and altered and darkened it.
Trying to classify this play evidently is problematic, but it looks easy to me: It’s tragedy, and not a great one at that. The end is dissatisfying. As far as I can tell, the biggest contribution of the story of Troilus and Cressida (even before Shakespeare) was to add a troublesome word to our vocabulary: panderer. It comes from the role Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, plays in bringing the couple together for one night.
Troilus and Cressida is set in the final days of Troy. When the plays begins, Cressida’s father, seeing Troy’s coming doom, has already defected to the Greeks, leaving his daughter—conveniently for the story—behind. Apparently disloyalty is a family trait.
The mighty Trojan Hector is busy challenging the Greeks to send their best fighter to take him on. The Greek’s greatest fighter, Achilles, is refusing to come out of his tent to fight, smitten by love of his own reputation and deeds and seemingly in the middle of a one-man work stoppage.
Troilus, Hector’s brave brother, is smitten by the second most beautiful woman in Troy (and maybe she’s more lovely than the renowned Helen). Cressida is attracted to Troilus, and Pandarus brings the couple together. Cressida swears loyalty, ever-lasting love, etc. to Troilus, but they wake to learn the Greeks have offered a swap, trading captive and great Trojan general Antenor for Cressida. The very agent, Diomedes, sent to bring Cressida to the Greeks seduces Cressida, who falls amazingly quickly. Shakespeare makes sure Troilus witnesses her disloyalty with his own eyes.
The question that is never adequately answered is why Cressida does what she does. She seems a pawn of the men around her and the cause of what they do. Helen plays the same role in the larger story of the Trojan War. Both women are merely objects to worship, to covet, to win. Yet it is clear from dialogue that both women are intelligent, witty, cleaver.
Shakespeare gives us no resolving justice to Cressida’s disloyalty, and to add to the play’s acrid flavor, Achilles finally comes out of his tent and kills Hector, not in brave fair battle, but by sending in his skillful, loyal Myrmidon to kill an unarmed Hector, while Achilles watches in safety. Achilles claims “the kill” and desecrates the Trojan’s body, all of this foreshadowing the coming fall of Troy.
Cynical and misogynistic might best describe this play. Instead of love that endures separation and hardship, instead of heroic battle, Shakespeare gives us sworn love easily surrendered and anticlimactic and anti-heroic battle death. The play seems to be pro-Troy (maybe that’s just because it lost the war), against pride and mocks bravery, courage and classical Greek and Trojan legends.
I could have passed on reading Troilus and Cressida. I’m classifying it as a tragedy play—the first I’ve read in my quest to read all of Shakespeare by the Bard’s 450th birthday—and I’m giving it one Bard:
Quotes I like (for various reasons):
Pandarus: He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.
Agamemnon: Call them shames, which are, indeed, naught else but the protractive trials of great Jove to find persistive constancy in men?
Nestor: In the reproof of chance lies the true proof of men
Nestor: Even so doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide in storms of fortune
Ulysses: Then everything includes itself in power, power into will, will into appetite; and appetite, an universal wolf, so doubly seconded with will and power, must make perforce an universal prey, and last eat up himself, …this chaos, when degree is suffocate, follows the choking.
Hector: Modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise
Hector: ‘Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god
Troilus: We turn not back the silks upon the merchant when we have soil’d them
Troilus: Is she [Helen] worth keeping? Why, she is a pearl, whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships and turn’d crown’d kings to merchants.
Ulysses: The amity that wisdom knits not, folly may easily untie.
Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow?
Agamemnon: He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed devours the deed in praise.
Ajax: I hate a proud man as I hate the engendering of toads.
Ulysses: He is so plaguy proud that the death of it tokens cry, No recovery.
Pandarus: Fair be to you, …and to all this fair company! Fair desires, in all fair measure, fairly guide them!—especially to you, fair queen! Fair thoughts be your fair pillow! Helen: Dear lord, you are full of fair words.
Pandarus: Sweet queen, sweet queen; that’s a sweet queen, I’ faith. Helen: And to make a sweet lady sad is a sour offence.
Helen: Let thy song be love: this love will undo us all.
Troilus: I am giddy; expectation whirls me round. The imaginary relish is so sweet that it enchants my sense: what will it be, when that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed love’s thrice-repured nectar? Death, I fear me; swooning destruction; or some joy too fine, too subtle-potent, tun’d too sharp in sweetness, for the capacity of my ruder powers; I fear it much
Pandarus: Words pay no debts, give her deeds
Troilus: Fears make devils of cherubims; they never see truly.
Cressida: They that have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters?
Cressida: Where is my wit? I know not what I speak.
Ulysses: Pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride
Achilles: Not a man, for being simply man, hath any honour; but honour for those honours that are without him as place, riches, and favour, prizes of accident as oft as merit: which when they fall, as being slippery standers, the love that lean’d on them as slippery too, do one pluck down another, and together die in the fall.
Ulysses: Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d as fast as they are made, forgot as soon as done: perseverance, dear my lord, keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail in monumental mockery.
Patroclus: Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves
Thersites: A plague of opinion!
Troilus: Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency.
Thersites: Thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol of idiot worshippers
Cressida: Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude.
Thersites: Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion
Andromache: Do not count it holy to hurt by being just: it is as lawful, for we would give much, to use violent thefts, and rob in the behalf of charity.
Hector: Life every man holds dear, but the dear man holds honour far more precious dear than life.
Finally, Cressida and Pandarus proclaim their own destinies:
Cressida: If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth, when time is old and hath forgot itself, when waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy, and blind oblivion swallow’d cities up, and mighty states characterless are grated to dusty nothing; yet let memory from false to false, among false maids in love, upbraid my falsehood! When they have have said—as false as air, as water, wind, or sandy earth, as fox to lamb, as wolf to heifer’s calf, pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son; yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood, as false as Cressid.
Pandarus: Go to, a bargain made: seal it, seal it; I’ll be the witness. Here I hold your hand; here my cousin’s. If ever you prove false one to another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name, call them all Pandars; let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers between Pandars!
Next Up: Timon of Athens