Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Shakesblogging: Troilus and Cressida

What I love about this play: Perhaps “love” is the wrong word, because this is a sordid, unpleasant play, one that I haven’t actually felt much desire to return to. But I’m kind of fond of it because it was my edge-of-adulthood play – one of the many that I read for the first time in freshman Shakespeare, and the one that really resonated with an eighteen-year-old who was starting to get complexity and grey areas.

I was also having my first encounter with real, raw misery, in the person of a roommate who drank too much, slept most of the day, and habitually woke me up when she came in crying at two a.m. I felt like I ought to be sympathetic, but I just wasn’t. In retrospect, I think a lot of her alienation had to do with class and culture; she had been the top student at a tiny high school in rural Virginia, but she was far out of her academic and social comfort zone in college, and knew it. By the time we’d been in college a month, her side of the room was a clutter of dead flowers, empty Zima bottles, and pizza boxes filled with cigarette ash; I had to tiptoe in and out of the room between classes, and I resented it. When I think of Cressida, I think of my roommate: a kid who makes bad choices, but who has been dealt a worse lot, thrust into an alien world and told that she ought to be grateful for it.

Anyway, this is a play that relentlessly tears down the mystique of war, of the classical heroes, and, especially, of romance. In the first scene, Troilus exclaims, “Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair, / When with your blood you daily paint her thus.” Hector will later call her “a pearl / Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships, / And turn’d crown’d kings to merchants” – a nice little echo and reversal of Marlowe; this is beauty that cheapens men rather than immortalizing them.

Also, props to the ending for its sheer audacity: the only Shakespearean tragedy (and yes, I do think it’s a tragedy) that ends not with some sort of cleansing and redepmtion, but rather with an embittered Troilus chewing out Pandarus, who delivers an epilogue about brothels and syphilis and indicts the audience:

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 bequeath you my diseases.

Whew. Pandarus just barely slips in a reminder that the conventional epilogue appeals to the audience’s goodwill, and then turns it into a massive “Fuck all of you.” I have to wonder whether this was ever actually delivered, and if so, in what spirit the audience took it.

Favorite memory: “Ulysses just doesn’t get it.”

My freshman Shakespeare prof said this one day, in the sort of voice that makes five rows of heads snap up, as he asked us to turn to the speech about degree.

We’d learned a very ordered, Tillyard-inflected version of How The Universe Works In Shakespeare in high school, and this was the first time anyone had suggested to me that perhaps Shakespeare didn’t entirely believe this particular party line. Click. A whole new world of possibilities.

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