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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Troilus and Cressida–Statecraft

There is a love story in Troilus and Cressida – two young people fall in love and are separated; but this is far from Romeo and Juliet indeed.  Cressida is exchanged for a Trojan prisoner a la Israel-Hamas, perhaps is not the fair, loving, innocent, and principled woman Troilus thinks her to be, but coy at best, opportunistic, and a ‘loose woman’ at worst.

In any case, the play is not about the young lovers nor about love, but about statecraft, the debate between reason and honor (passion), the ends vs. the means, the crafty Greeks vs. the principled Trojans.  As such it is perhaps Shakespeare’s most intellectual and overtly philosophical play, and perhaps because he had doubts about its popularity, never produced it. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, and supports and consolidates my return to Shakespeare after 40 years.  I felt, approaching 70, that pure history and a socio-political analysis of current events, were of diminishing returns; and that drama and other artistic interpretations would be more relevant and valid.  This assumption is validated over and over again.  I was fascinated by the Histories and their exploration of  ambition, power, wealth, and influence and how, as Jan Kott has suggested, that if you laid them out chronologically you would find the human nature behind them all.   

I was amazed by the psychological insights of the Tragedies – Shakespeare learned from Machiavelli, anticipated Nietzsche and Freud and wove psycho-dynamics into history. Once I got past the cross-dressing, gender antics, and histrionics of the Comedies, I appreciated again (after the Histories especially), the way women are always able to equal or surpass men even within restrictive social environments.

Troilus and Cressida, a ‘problem play’ as Bloom categorizes it is intriguing and compelling because of its discussion – and discussion is the correct term because this is a very windy play – of statecraft, valor vs. practicality, the ends vs. the means ( As Kenneth Palmer in the older Arden edition of the play [cited by Nuttall in Shakespeare the Thinker] gave the basic answer: it is only the Trojans who consider ethical ends; the Greeks are cynically concerned with means only) rationality vs. passion.  These issues are not separate, although some more tenuously linked than others, and the play as a whole complements the earlier Histories which were less nuanced. 

Ulysses is the ‘hero’ of the play, although by default.  Troilus is an incompetent, hesitant lover, more concerned about Cressida’s honor and integrity than sex or love.  His concerns turn out to be right, although this conclusion has nothing to do with his prudish insistence on truth and honor, which reflect in general terms the philosophy of the Trojans who value action, especially in defense of honor.  Achilles is a hothead and a dope, with no realization whatsoever that he is being played by Ulysses (the Greek palace plot is to entice Achilles out of the bed of his male lover and in to battle).  Ulysses tries snubs, engineers even dumber Ajax to fight Hector, thus humiliating the proud and self-centered Ulysses, and blackmails Achilles by confessing his knowledge of Achilles’ tryst with an enemy princess.

Hector is a could-be hero.  At least he tries to cool the imprudent ardor and war-fever of Troilus; but he capitulates to the Trojan ideal of honor.  Nestor is too old to be a hero of anything.  So, it is Ulysses who is the default hero – he never fights, but plots and spies; pontificates, but with intelligence, and one suspects that even though the Greeks win the war, he will manage.

Ulysses has many laden passages where he reflects on philosophical subjects particularly as they regard statecraft.  The Greeks are concerned with winning, and Ulysses sees the importance of order, discipline, cohesiveness, and singularity of purpose.  He is a Machiavellian character, one who leaves the romance of honor at the door, and is a purely modern political character.  One of his oft-quoted passages is on the importance of discipline and order:

But when the planets

In evil mixture to disorder wander,

What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,

What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,

Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,

Divert and crack, rend  and deracinate

The unity and married calm of states

Quite from their fixture? O, when degree is shaked,

Which is the ladder of all high designs,

The enterprise is sick.

Bloom (The Invention of the Human), in his best liberal mode, comments:

Ulysses represents the state, its values and interests; he is the idea of order at Troy, the Contract with Greece, in the Gingrichian sense.  His three great speeches….would qualify him to head the Republican Party…Frankly a Machiavel, Ulysses nevertheless is more than a superb sophist.

Bloom quotes Ulysses to justify this observation:

Strength should be the lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead;

Force should be right, or rather right and wrong,

Between whose endless jar justice resides,

Should lose their names, and so should justice too;

Then everything includes in itself 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 himself up.

Ulysses is not only Machiavel in this passage but a pre-devotee of Nietzsche, and therefore my hero.

A more subtle but perhaps more insightful observation on war is Ulysses statements about mind/rationality vs. the action of war.  He criticizes Achilles for being totally dominated by the act of aggression and killing without respecting the intellectual underpinnings of conflict.  The passage also illustrates the age-old conflict between civilian planning and military execution:

They tax our policy [rational planning] and call it cowardice,

Count wisdom as no member of the war,

Forestall prescience, and esteem no act

But that of hand.  The still and mental parts

That do contrive how many hands shall strike

When fitness call them on, and know by measure

Of their observant toil the enemies’ weight -

Why, this hath not a finger’s dignity.

They call this bed-work, mapp’ry, closet-war;

So that the ram that batters the wall,

For the great swinge and rudeness of his poise,

They place before his hand that made the engine,

Of those that with the fineness of their souls

By reason guide his execution.

Ulysses plotting is Machiavellian and timeless: he knows that Achilles is key to Greek victory, but Achilles is indifferent, indolent, and happy in the arms of his lover.  Ulysses knows that Ajax is as vain and full of himself as Achilles, and he engineers a way for Ajax to fight Hector.  If Ajax wins, Achilles will join the war because of pride.  If Ajax loses, Greece will be able to say that they had held their best back, and Achilles will be spurred to battle.  This is in fact what happens. Ulysses is also a great spymaster, and knows how to use information to his advantage, a la Washington.  He blackmails Achilles by stating that he knows that he, Achilles, is sleeping with the enemy.

The debates of statecraft are not just within the Greek domain.  There is a great debate about whether or not to return Helen to the Greeks and end the war.  Hector, at least at first, is very practical.  We should return her, he says.  Hector says:

But value dwells not in particular will;

It holds his estimate and dignity

As well wherein ‘tis precious of itself

As in the prizer.  ‘Tis mad idolatry

To make the service greater than the god…

She’s not that special.  Troilus counters with: Why negate the abduction of Helen by Paris – a blow to the pride of the Greeks – when holding her gives the Trojans a psychological advantage if nothing else. Besides – and this is the real point – we would lose face and honor if we returned her.

Not so, says Hector, who feels that this line of reasoning is simply masking youthful exuberance for valor:

Paris and Troilus, you have both said well;

And on the cause and question now in hand

Have glozed, but superficially; not much

Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought

Unfit to hear moral philosophy.

The reasons you allege do more conduce

To the hot passion of distempered blood

Than to make up a free determination

‘Twixt right and wrong…

The point is that although the Greeks are always considered the plotters, the practical, and the logically devious, the Trojans are thinking in the same way.  Helen has no real value, only relative; and as we see later in the play, so does Cressida.  Of course she will be traded for a Greek officer.  It furthers our ends.  Besides, Hector comes around to Troilus’ side in the end.  So Shakespeare expounds on many essential themes of war, but confuses them.  There is some consistency – Ulysses never wavers – but the arguments of the Trojans are flashy.  Hector, known to be among the most valiant and courageous of the Trojans inexplicably lets Achilles off the hook in a duel, only to be murdered by him and his cronies later in the play.  Hector cannot decide who he is.

The relationship between Troilus and Cressida does not exist in and for itself, as in Romeo and Juliet, but reflects the theme of sexuality confounding politics.  As I have mentioned above, neither Helen and Cressida are exactly virginal, innocent women; and their ‘transfers’ are germane only to the political plot.

Similarly, Troilus’ ambivalence towards Cressida reflects the reason vs. passion/honor theme of the play.  There is no love poetry a la Romeo or the Comedies.  Troilus is obsessed with Cressida’s honesty (virginity) and the moral value of her love – just as he is concerned with the moral, valorous stance of his country against the Greeks:

Troilus: …But alas,

I am as true as truth’s simplicity,

And simpler than the infancy of truth.

Cressida: In that I’ll war with you.

Troilus: O virtuous fight,

When right with right wars who shall be most right!

No sex from Troilus; although has very badly underestimated Cressida on this score, and quickly burns with jealousy for Diomedes, a very confident male lover of Cressida, and wonders what happened.  At the end of their first meeting, rather than vow eternal love and devotion, Troilus and Cressida seal their relationship with a pact of fidelity and honesty:

Pandarus: Go to, a bargain made; seal it; seal it; I’ll be the witness.

There are some other philosophical considerations in the play, especially metaphysics – i.e. does one exist outside the perspective of others?  No, says Ulysses, and therefore there is absolutely no reason to have overweaning pride.  Another, the inexorable movement of time according to which past events are soon forgotten – another reason to give up appearances, pride, and pretense.

I liked the play, less so than many others because it is the least juicy and human of all the plays, more preachy and intellectual; but because of this philosophical inquiry which is not academic but relevant to war, it is fascinating.

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