Troilus and Cressida examines the connection between public and private life by exploring the relationship with the values of war and love in the conflicting ideas of the Greeks and Trojans, the war between whom hinges upon a private argument. The personal, romantic idealism of Troilus that extends into his public life, and is reflected in the Trojan values of honour and virtue, which dictate their conduct in war. The contrasting ideas and values on the Greek side are undermined from within by personal considerations: ideas of self-image and petty grievances.
Troilus idealizes love, but his aspirations, as expressed in the imagery in his language, appear to be too abstract for its physical gratification. For Troilus the lover, the physical act of love must necessarily be subordinate to the contemplation of it and the reason for this must lie either in his immaturity or in Cressida’s inability to assure him of her devotion.
Troilus sees Cressida as an ethereal being, so the ‘imaginary relish’ of ‘love’s thrice-repurèd nectar’ cannot be matched in reality because it is ‘too subtle-potent’ for the ‘ruder powers’ of the body (III,2). Yet it is through the body, through sensual gratification with all its limitations, that Troilus seeks fulfilment. The fundamental weakness of his idealism is best expressed by Troilus himself when he tells Cressida: ‘This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit’ (III.2) – which is the intrinsic argument of the play. Troilus’s idealistic goals must remain forever unattainable, because of the limitations of finite existence through which they must seek expression. It is because his sensual instincts cannot find identification with his intangible ideals, that Troilus’s language and method of reasoning manifests so many incongruities, and these inevitably extend into his public debates.
Troilus’s flaw lies in his tendency to deny the sensual basis of his idealism, upon which his values of honour and judgement are founded. These values are consistently maintained, despite the convincing challenges of Hector, who first of all brings the question of ‘value’ itself, so integral to the war, into public debate. Hector contends that the degree of action should be relative to the intrinsic merits of the motivating force behind it. In terms of human life already claimed by this war, Helen’s worth has clearly been overestimated. By an objective evaluation, she has proved to be ‘not worth what she doth cost the holding’ (II.2) and should therefore be yielded up to her husband, thus bringing an end to the war.
Contrarily, Troilus believes value to be subjectively conferred; Helen’s value having been multiplied by the fact that the Greeks prized her enough to have ‘launched above a thousand ships’ (II,2). Consequently, she has become a ‘theme of honour and renown,/A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds’ (II.2). Such idealistic reasoning fails to take into account that the subject in question is actually a woman whose value has been destroyed by the very dishonourable way in which she was stolen from her husband, or, as Paris succinctly puts it: ‘the soil of her fair rape’, which dishonour can only be redeemed ‘in honourable keeping her’ (II,2). In this way, the arguments of Troilus and Paris, propounding an honour that is based on subjective measurement or sensual impulse, overpower the arguments of Hector, which have all the weight of balanced logic behind them. The connection between the private love theme and the war is at one point brought under scrutiny by Hector when he questions the source of Troilus’s reasoning: ‘Is your blood/So madly hot that no discourse of reason,/Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause/Can qualify the same?’ (II,2), but Troilus does not rise to the challenge, and Hector does not press the advantage.
This scene, showing the internal dissention of the Trojans contrasts in both tone and mode of conduct with the scenes depicting the internal conflicts on the Greek side, which has been reduced to inaction by petty disputes or ‘sickness’. Ulysses, in his speech on ‘degree’, explains the connection between public order and private conduct, maintaining that proper order, or political orthodoxy, should emulate natural laws and is achieved by a precise balance of judgement and reason. Should this balance, or ‘degree’, be upset at any point then, in universal terms, chaos must ensure and in political terms, anarchy.
In the Greek camp, authority and leadership have been subverted by Achilles and, to a lesser extent, by Ajax – both of whom are valued for their prowess on the battlefield – who mock and deride their leaders and refuse to participate in the common cause. Ulysses’ speech prefigures the weakness of Trojan values as are implicit in Troilus’s arguments. As Ulysses explains and Troilus illustrates, the disruptive form is passion, which, if uncontained, sways judgement and leads to disorder, because passion or appetite…
…an universal wolf
So doubly seconded by will and power
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself (I,3).
Not unlike Troilus, Achilles is motivated by sensual passions, as implied by Ulysses’ description of him:
Holds in his blood such swoln and hot discourse
That ‘twixt his mental and his active parts
Kingdom’d Achilles in commotion rages
And batters down himself’ (II,3).
This description of Achilles (which echoes his ‘degree’ speech) is not unlike Hector’s accusations that the reasons Troilus and Paris give ‘do no more conduce/To the hot passion of distempered blood…’ (II,2). Thus, public order has been destroyed through personal passions on the Greek side and personal passions determine public action on the Trojan side.
The solution for the Greeks is to stir Achilles into useful action, but Ulysses’ arguments, asserting absolute values as the model for public conduct, challenge his own philosophy. To Achilles, he becomes more politic than philosophical, claiming that there are no absolute values, for ‘Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all/To envious and calumniating time’ (III,3). This statement, which belies both his own and Hector’s assertions, proves that both sides are similarly motivated, the war being nothing more than a public excuse for the gratification of personal appetite – or as Thersites puts it about ‘a cuckold and a whore’ (II,3).
Appropriately, it is Troilus who takes up this theme further, after witnessing Cressida’s betrayal of the impossible promise he exacted of her: ‘If there be unity in rule itself,/This was not she’ (V,2); or so Troilus must believe, because the Cressida he has just observed cannot be reconciled with the ideal image of Cressida existing in his heart and mind, and he denies the truth of what he sees: ‘this is, and is not, Cressid’ (V,2). In finally recognising that his idealism is flawed, Troilus must conclude that either he is insane or that the integrity of the universe is flawed, because Cressida’s inconstancy refutes his principles. However, what this realisation amounts to in Troilus is merely an exchange of emotions; his private grief now becoming the motivating force of his public action. Without love, all that is left for him is to kill or be killed.
Public and private values become further confused before the end of the play, with Troilus mocking Hector’s notions of ‘fair play’, which prevents him striking an opponent when down (V,3), which is precisely how Achilles murders Hector, inciting further rage in Troilus; and in Hector’s ‘mad idolatry’ (II,2) of a suit of armour, which turns him into a passionate killer, hunting a man for his hide (V,6), and which leads up to his ignominious end. In his final speech, Cressida appears to have been forgotten in the more urgent desire for revenge on the ‘great-sized coward’, Achilles (V,10).
The external force of war has the power to distort reality and compromise the thoughts and actions of those involved in it. War undermines life and devalues it to an extent that its effects are not felt only in the public field of action, but extend into the private life of the individual. The same human failures cause havoc in both public and private. When, like Troilus, the soldier and lover are one and the same, then the themes of love and war must inevitably complicate the public and private lives of the individual and all involved.
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Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School. She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction. You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com
Shakespeare, W., Troilus and Cressida, Penguin Classics (2013)
Barker, S. (Ed), Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, Palgrave (2005)
Troilus and Cressida, Casebook Series, MacMillan (1976)
Knowles, R., Shakespeare’s Arguments with History, Palgrave MacMillan (2002)
Troilus and Cressida (Free e-book version)
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