Study Guide

Troilus and Cressida Art and Culture

By William Shakespeare

Art and Culture

[...] and hither am I come A prologue arm'd, but not in confidence Of author's pen or actor's voice, but suited In like conditions as our argument, To tell you, fair beholders, (Prologue, 22-26)

Shakespeare loves drawing his audience's attention to the fact that we're watching a play. Here, the Prologue talks to us (the "fair beholders") directly and confesses that he doesn't have complete knowledge of what's going to happen in the play. He says he's not in "confidence" of Shakespeare's "pen," which means, the Prologue is not omniscient or "all knowing." But wait a minute. Who cares what the Prologue does or doesn't know? Anyone who knows about the Trojan War or who has read Chaucer's famous poem (Troilus and Criseyde) already knows exactly what's going to happen in this play. Cressida will cheat on Troilus and Achilles will slaughter Hector. Eventually, Troy will "burn" (even though we don't see it in this play). So, Shakespeare knows that we know what will go down. And why does that matter?

[...] our play Leaps o'er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils, Beginning in the middle, starting thence away To what may be digested in a play. Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are: Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war. (Prologue. 27-31)

When the Prologue says we're beginning our story "in the middle" of the action, it reminds us that we're watching a play with some serious roots in the classical literary tradition. As we know, Shakespeare bases most of the Trojan War material in this play on Homer's Iliad, which also famously starts off "in the middle" of things. (The fancy technical name for this is in medias res. It's how writers kick off other epic poems like The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Paradise Lost.)

[...] the bounded waters Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores And make a sop of all this solid globe: (1.3.111-113)

Did you notice the major shout-out to the famous Globe Theater in this passage? During Ulysses' big speech about why social order and hierarchy (a.k.a. "degree") is so important, he says that if you take away social hierarchy, then chaos will ensue and the land and seas (a.k.a. the globe) will become all mushed together. At the same time, there's a reference to the theater and Shakespeare's play-going audience here because the passage also suggests that taking away social hierarchy will make the Globe Theater's audience cry, flooding the theater with their tears. But we seriously doubt that Shakespeare's audience (especially the rowdy "groundlings") would boo-hoo about the loss of social order.

And with ridiculous and awkward action, Which, slanderer, he imitation calls, He pageants us. Sometime, great Agamemnon, Thy topless deputation he puts on, And, like a strutting player, whose conceit Lies in his hamstring, and doth think it rich To hear the wooden dialogue and sound 'Twixt his stretch'd footing and the scaffoldage (1.3.149-156)

Hmm. This is interesting. When Patroclus imitates and makes fun of the Greek leaders like a "strutting player" (a.k.a. an Elizabethan actor), Shakespeare aligns his rebellious behavior with his own stomping grounds, the theater. In other words, Patroclus is doing in his tent exactly what the actors performing Troilus and Cressida are doing on stage—taking infamous warriors, heroes, and lovers from mythology and literature and then "pageant[ing]" them on a stage.

[...] At this fusty stuff The large Achilles, on his press'd bed lolling, From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause; Cries 'Excellent! 'tis Agamemnon just. Now play me Nestor; hem, and stroke thy beard, As he being drest to some oration.' (1.3.161-166)

Patroclus doesn't just act like a "strutting player" because he doesn't have anything better to do. When he makes fun of the Greek military leaders, he's got an audience (Achilles), who applauds and begs for more. Why does that matter? Because Shakespeare has a habit of drawing his audience's attention to the relationship between professional acting and rebellion. Yep. In the 16th and 17th centuries, theaters were associated with rebellion. Elizabethan playwrights and actors could get into a lot of trouble for criticizing and making fun of important political and military leaders (like the monarch) on stage and government officials were always censoring plays. This entire scene is a reminder of that.

They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one (3.2.72-75).

Oh, the irony! Here, Cressida says that all lovers make promises they can't keep. Ah-hem. As we know, Cressida most definitely does not keep her promise to be faithful to Troilus. What's interesting is the way Cressida associates love with "performance," or acting. This sort of makes us wonder if all of Cressida's declarations of love for Troilus are just one big act. What do you think?

PANDARUS
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! Say, amen.

TROILUS
Amen

CRESSIDA
Amen (3.3.199-206)

Remember how we said that Shakespeare knows that we know what's going to happen in his play and that he uses it to his advantage when he puts ironic statements in his characters' mouths? Well, here's a perfect example. When Pandarus says that if Troilus and Cressida break their promise to each other, all future go-betweens should be called "Pandars," all future cheaters should be called "Cressids" and all faithful lovers should be called "Troiluses"? Well, that is exactly what will happen. In fact, by the time Shakespeare wrote this play, it already had happened, because Chaucer made the lovers' story famous in a poem. Yep, this is irony all right.

I like thy armour well; I'll frush it and unlock the rivets all, But I'll be master of it: wilt thou not, beast, abide? Why, then fly on, I'll hunt thee for thy hide. (5.6.27-31)

In the previous passage, we saw that some of Shakespeare's characters (like Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida) live up to their literary reputations. But here, we can see that some characters don't live up to their literary and historic identities. That's because Shakespeare takes some important heroes from mythology and epic literature and turns them into seriously flawed characters. In this passage, we see that Hector isn't exactly the honorable soldier that Homer made him out to be in the Iliad. Hello. He kills a man who is trying to run away from him because he wants the dude's armor. So, even though this play depends on a long literary tradition for its material, Shakespeare often debunks the myths that turned the story of the Trojan War into a heroic epic.

ULYSSES
You shake, my lord, at something: will you go?
You will break out.

TROILUS
She strokes his cheek!

ULYSSES
Come, come.

TROILUS
Nay, stay; by Jove, I will not speak a word:
There is between my will and all offences
A guard of patience: stay a little while. (5.2.50-54)

This is where Troilus and Ulysses watch from a hiding spot as Cressida agrees to become Diomedes' lover. Notice how Troilus is placed in the same position as the audience? We both see and hear Cressida's betrayal from a distance, even though we don't really have much access to her motives or thoughts at this point. The effect of this is that we tend to identify with Troilus, because it's as if we're standing right next to him as he watches Cressida betray him.

The cuckold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now, bull! now, dog! 'Loo, Paris, 'loo! now my double- henned sparrow! 'loo, Paris, 'loo! The bull has the game: ware horns, ho! (5.7.9-12)

When Thersites describes the man-to-man combat between Paris ("the cuckold maker") and Menelaus ("the cuckold"), he describes the action as though it's a bull-baiting contest, an Elizabethan blood sport that involved setting a pack of dogs on a chained bull. (The Elizabethans preferred baiting bears but bears were more expensive and harder to come by. So, you know, they made do.) So, basically, Thersites reduces the epic battlefield to a bull-baiting arena. And another thing: bull-baiting and Elizabethan theater went hand in hand back in the day. That's because bull-baiting contests were held in the same neighborhoods as the theaters. In fact, patrons could make an entire afternoon out of watching a bull-baiting contest and then heading on over to the theater to catch a play. Fun times!