My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Troilus and Cressida is the ultimate in revisionist history. Shakespeare’s bitter meta-mythical treatment of the Trojan War leaves not one value standing on another. The play’s spokesman is the resentful and omni-intelligent slave Thersites—Homer’s image of the base-born and their anti-heroic raillery—and we know he is the play’s spokesman because no event in the poetic drama challenges his prose judgment of its squalid meaninglessness:
Here is such patchery, such juggling and such knavery! all the argument is a cuckold and a whore; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon.
Whether appropriately or ironically, this loveless and unlovable problem play, with its iconoclastic redaction of western high mythology and culture, holds pride of place in the so-called “Shakespeare Authorship” controversy.
We were reminded of this recently when the neoreactionary thinker Curtis Yarvin came out as an Oxfordian—a believer that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the poems and plays falsely attributed to the grain merchant and theatrical shareholder Will Shakespeare of provincial Stratford. The Oxfordian idea is that Shakespeare’s plays, with their grandeur of vision and nobility of spirit, could not have been written by an avaricious aspirant to the peripheral gentry, but must rather have been composed by a noble courtier concerned with high affairs of state and spirit. While some scorn this theory as “classist”—as in prejudicial toward the poor—the Oxfordians, with their preference for hereditary aristocracy, actually hate the rich. They hate, that is, the idea of a dynamic society where upstarts may rise from nowhere and literally purchase insight with education and then resell it as an entertainment commodity. Such a society tends toward relativism in values; it denaturalizes the hierarchies that supposedly exist in the cosmos. If Shakespeare, the poetic center of our literature, was a capitalist, a bourgeois, then our tradition is founded on no scripture more sublime than a ledger—which is to say, on nothing.
According to James Shapiro’s 2010 study, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, the “Shakespeare Authorship” question is the product of the middle 19th century. No one had seriously questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of the texts attributed to him until then because there was (and remains) no hard evidence that they should. But the gap between the documented life of Shakespeare—a life apparently centered on money, its making, its keeping, its loaning, and its recovery as debt—and the Romantic image of Shakespeare as artistic god proved intolerable to the Victorians. Shapiro also cites the intellectual atmosphere of the 19th century, when both Homer and the Bible had been redacted by newly secular academe into worldly texts written not by inspired bards but by companies of fallible men. Who could blame the readers of the middle 19th century, then, for wanting to turn intellectual scrutiny on the modern bard himself? If Homer didn’t write Homer, why should Shakespeare have written Shakespeare?
Maybe somebody better than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. In the 1840s, the American prodigy Delia Bacon proposed Francis Bacon (no relation) and an illuminated brotherhood of enlightened collaborators as the minds behind “Shakespeare.” These early modern stalwarts of the proto-Enlightenment wrote coded republican dramas against Elizabeth’s tyrannical monarchy, or so proposed Francis Bacon’s American namesake. This theory, however, hinged on a supposed cipher that would decode the plays for their Baconian message, a cipher never discovered or revealed.
With the Baconian theory out of fashion by the 20th century, Thomas Looney proposed the Earl of Oxford as the real Shakespeare in 1920, with almost the opposite ideological motivation as the republican Delia Bacon. A follower of the founding French sociologist Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity, Looney was an anti-liberal working toward a rational, scientific, and collectivist utopian-socialist society. Looney wished to find in Shakespeare’s work not the money-minded avarice and individualism of the bourgeois social-climber from Stratford, but an aristocrat’s fine appreciation for medieval order, an order that, in Looney’s view, anticipated Comte’s utopia. The orderly Oxford, therefore, must have been the plays’ rightful author. According to Shapiro, Looney quoted Ulysses’s famous speech on “degree” from Troilus and Cressida as Shakespeare-Oxford’s own worldview, just as Curtis Yarvin does today. How could a bourgeois individualist from the countryside have written such a paean to a natural hierarchy, a hierarchy his own vaunting ambition so flagrantly transgressed?
In the speech, which comes early in the play, the clever warrior Ulysses argues to Agamemnon and Nestor that the Greeks have not yet prevailed in the Trojan War because they neglect social hierarchy. Allowing puffed-up warriors like Ajax and Achilles to have their own way and mock the military leadership, the Greek captains have capitulated to chaos and individualism, when good and effective societies require a clear and rigorously-enforced idea of who’s in charge. Without this sense of caste, Ulysses argues, all that will be left of a social order is the will to power:
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 every thing 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.
There is a problem with citing this lament as Shakespeare’s own aristocratic philosophy, though. The drama that frames the speech gives no evidence of natural hierarchy. It is, in fact, a drama where appetite, will, and power are the lords of life, subjecting everyone equally to their fortunes. While Shakespeare had a universal enough imagination (and probably a wide enough social experience) to know what a reactionary aristocrat would say, Troilus and Cressida is on the whole just the play we would expect a bourgeois upstart to write. Even Ulysses himself cannot sustain his high vision of natural order. Later in the play, trying to entice the recalcitrant Achilles to stop sulking in his tent and come out to fight the Trojans, he argues that people attain merit not by birth or reputation but by constantly renewed action. As if he were giving advice not to aristocrats but to businessmen, he says, in effect, “if you snooze, you lose,” not to mention, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”:
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
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…
So much, in this frenzied world of will and war, for aristocratic dignity. In any case, Ulysses is a minor character, starring in the subplot of how the Greeks turn the tide against the Trojans. As in the Iliad, this combat comes to its climax when Achilles defeats the Trojan champion Hector. In Shakespeare’s telling, though, this is an entirely sordid and unheroic event. Maddened that Hector has killed his rumored lover Patroclus (his “masculine whore,” as Thersites nastily calls him), Achilles orders his thuggish Myrmidons to surround and slay the unarmed Trojan warrior.
This inglorious battle plays in counterpoint to the titular love story of Troilus and Cressida, a medieval addition to the Trojan cycle most famously treated by Chaucer in the 14th-century romance Troilus and Criseyde. The lovers are Trojans brought together by Cressida’s uncle Pandarus and then separated in a hostage trade when Cressida is sent to the Greek camp in exchange for the able warrior Antenor. Though Cressida vows to be faithful to Troilus upon her departure, she soon betrays him with the Greek warrior Diomedes. In Chaucer’s medieval version, Cressida’s faithlessness leads Troilus to a dying vision where his ascending soul beholds the futility of all earthly desire and the superiority of heaven. For the modern Shakespeare, however, no heaven is in evidence. In love as in war, will is superior to all.
Just as the Greeks argue among themselves about how to defeat the Trojans, so the Trojans deliberate about whether or not they should simply return Helen to Menelaus and end the futile war. Their greatest champion, Hector, argues that they should, whereas Troilus pleads fidelity to their initial desire:
HECTOR. Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost
TROILUS. What is aught, but as ’tis valued?
HECTOR. 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
And the will dotes that is attributive
To what infectiously itself affects,
Without some image of the affected merit.
TROILUS. I take to-day a wife, and my election
Is led on in the conduct of my will;
My will enkindled by mine eyes and ears,
Two traded pilots ‘twixt the dangerous shores
Of will and judgment: how may I avoid,
Although my will distaste what it elected,
The wife I chose? there can be no evasion
To blench from this and to stand firm by honour:
We turn not back the silks upon the merchant,
When we have soil’d them, nor the remainder viands
We do not throw in unrespective sieve,
Because we now are full.
In other words, Hector says that the value of Helen depends on her intrinsic merit, which, in his judgment, is not worth the blood shed over her putative beauty. Like the Ulysses of the degree speech, he rests his case on an order found in nature, upon which social organization should be based: Helen is either worth it or she isn’t. Like the Ulysses of the speech on time, however, Troilus claims by contrast that merit is a matter of individual judgment perpetually renewed—or not—in each moment’s action. For Troilus, who will prove a faithful lover, dignity is a matter of hewing to the initial movement of our will; otherwise, we will become like petulant consumers trying to return items to a seller when we ourselves have besmirched them. But this elevation of subjective judgment over objective merit leaves no intellectual basis for fidelity to any project; if will, power, and appetite are all, then who will hold us to their objects? Later in the play, when Cressida succumbs to the blandishments of her Greek lover under Troilus’s spying eye, she echoes Troilus’s speech to Hector:
Ah, poor our sex! this fault in us I find,
The error of our eye directs our mind:
What error leads must err; O, then conclude
Minds sway’d by eyes are full of turpitude.
She attributes to this fault to women, but the whole occasion of the Trojan War proves otherwise. As Troilus himself testifies to Hector, men, too, are led around by their errant eyes, which we may take as the bodily emissaries of the will as it chooses objects upon which to act. But Cressida didn’t have to betray Troilus’s affections to find this out. Her first monologue, upon being wooed by her old uncle Pandarus as Troilus’s proxy, registers the same idea—and the same idea, too, as Ulysses conveys to Achilles when he tells him he’ll have to keep fighting if he wants to keep his reputation:
Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice,
He offers in another’s enterprise;
But more in Troilus thousand fold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be;
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing:
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
Once again: existence precedes essence. There is no being, only doing. Order gives way to action, and action alone is the index of power. The poet, I may or may not be sorry to say, lives and writes in a bourgeois cosmos, not an aristocratic one. He leaves Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud little more to say.
But there is a reductive bitterness in Troilus and Cressida—it reminds me of 2 Henry IV before it and Timon of Athens after—that leaves this cosmos not just spiritually and politically but also poetically unredeemed. It ends with Pandarus hailing us as pimps and infecting us with some venereal illness, as if to say that life itself is little better than a sexually transmitted disease, contracted solely for pleasure and profit but the sooner ended the better:
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made:
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss:
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeathe you my diseases.
Thersites may speak for the play’s ultimate vision when he declaims, “Nothing but lechery! all incontinent varlets!” but the universal solvent of his critical intellect lacks the sublimity of Hamlet, the wit of Falstaff, or even the inventiveness of Iago. The drama is too dry and iconoclastic, too philosophical, too bare of imagery, to create the visionary nightmare worlds of Lear and Macbeth. The characters, “princes orgulous” and their faithless whores, lack depth or the capacity to change. It ought to have been called Much Ado about Nothing—more so than the real play of that name, which at least was much ado about Beatrice. Troilus and Cressida is like a blueprint for the more impressive structures that are Shakespeare’s true masterpieces, structures ornamented enough that, despite the modern world’s nihilism, aesthetic pleasure and intellectual splendor themselves become reason enough to live.
For some critics, though, aesthetic pleasure and intellectual splendor will never be enough. For the anti-Stratfordians—a company that includes Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud—Shakespeare must have meant something else, must have been someone else. Otherwise, in Pandarus’s cynical farewell we hear the authentic voice of Shakespeare, whose will leaves to posterity a vision of sheer nothingness, an unfit legacy for a civilization aspiring to any kind of decency. Have we have made a pimp’s cri de coeur into our secular scripture?
Other critics believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare but hate him as Shakespeare, a list of luminaries no less bright than the anti-Stratfordians: Tolstoy, Shaw, Wittgenstein. In both cases, the motive is the same. How can this parvenu, this arriviste with his small Latin and less Greek and his almost wholly skeptical and nihilistic worldview, be our greatest poet? George Steiner, in the essay “A Reading Against Shakespeare” (collected in No Passion Spent), speaks for this whole bardoclastic tradition when he pronounces Shakespeare entirely too much of this world to be this world’s central author:
Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’—a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.
It may seem like a fanciful comparison, but for a certain type of orderly temperament, allergic to cash and flesh, having an usurious lender and country merchant for our best poet is as unthinkable as having a nouveau riche real estate mogul with gold-plated toilets serve as the U.S. president—even though in each case the poet’s and president’s “destined ordnance” is to represent the people as they are and not as moralists dream they should be. Because he’s read Hegel and Fukuyama just as he’s read Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Shakespeare makes Achilles tell Ulysses this:
The beauty that is borne here in the face
The bearer knows not, but commends itself
To others’ eyes; nor doth the eye itself,
That most pure spirit of sense, behold itself,
Not going from itself; but eye to eye opposed
Salutes each other with each other’s form;
For speculation turns not to itself,
Till it hath travell’d and is mirror’d there
Where it may see itself.
In the mirror Shakespeare holds up to nature, including his own nature, we see ourselves. But only some of us can tolerate seeing ourselves as clearly as Shakespeare saw the all-too-human personae of the Trojan War. Even my complaint that Troilus and Cressida is over-intellectualized and too sparsely ornamented is a way of wishing to avert my gaze from the glass. Hating the man from Stratford is nothing more than the bourgeoisie’s recoil at its own face in the mirror.