Love turns into war.
Troilus and Cressida

The most terrible of all Shakespeare's love stories is
Troilus and Cressida.

The play is a relatively late one, probably three years before
Othello and five years before Antony and Cleopatra. We are back once more with our young couple from Verona, but this time the boy is portrayed as steadfast, while the girl is as inconstant as Romeo. Another difference is the part of the development covered by the text: Troilus and Cressida presents the late consequences of our sad errors instead of the beginning of them.

Troilus and Cressida is based on the Iliad. The scene is Troy at the time approaching the end of the Greek siege. Troilus is the son of king Priam and brother of Paris and Hector. The hero is in his early twenties and violently in love with young Cressida, who is the daughter of the Trojan traitor Calchas.

Troilus is keen, sincere and sensitive. As the play starts, he is finding it difficult to concentrate on the defence of his native city, since he is far more preoccupied with his feelings for his beloved. Regarding the war he thinks it odd that thousands of compatriots have to sacrifice their lives on account of Paris having made off with the wife of King Menelaus of the Achaeans. — Troilus, in other words, is a hero who has a clear understanding of the inner connections between principles, a hero who will be in increasingly dire straits as the story develops.

Cressida is a flirt and reluctant to commit herself. Instead she keeps her admirer at a distance. On the other hand he is helped on by her officious uncle by the name of Pandarus, suggesting a procurer.

She yields at last, however. She then loves as strongly as her friend, she has just not let herself go before. They go to bed together that night, with the same touching pledges as did the youngsters from Verona.

But destiny continues to be cruel. Cressida's father, having defected to the Greek side, has demanded of the Greeks that they get him his daughter for company in exchange for a captive Trojan, and the two lovers therefore find themselves on opposite sides of the front lines. Troilus must personally fetch his loved one and hand her over, and their goodbye is heart-rending. At her arrival as a renegade in the enemy camp she is kissed and courted by the Greek leaders. When Troilus tries to see her the same evening under cover of the “love-performing night”, he is a witness to how a wily Greek, Diomedes, breaks down the changeable Cressida step by step and even makes her give away a little love-token from the previous night with Troilus, to be a pledge of her new allegiance. The trophy is a sleeve from Troilus' garb; and Diomedes triumphs. The next day he will wear the piece of cloth in his helmet as a challenge to all Trojans.

Matters have now gone so far that the young boy in love has had to send his sweetheart to the enemy camp to be seduced, as a move in a war to defend another woman-snatching directed against the wife of King Menelaus. The logic deepens.

The origin of aggressiveness

The story receives yet one more element in the text. For Troilus responds to all this unreasonableness by mustering a heroism in which all his earlier doubts have vanished. His reactions show us another dimension in Shakespeare's thinking. The Trojan hero's private set-backs are the motive force giving him the courage necessary for new clashes. Our understanding of the background of aggressiveness is thereby widened. Furthermore love becomes a mirror image of the contradictions of war. Shakespeare's version of the Trojan campaign turns out to be a merciless exposure of the reality he discerns behind the ideals from the

After seven years of war the Greek camp is completely demoralised. The heroes act separately without leadership. Achilles divides his time between a homosexual friend and a Trojan princess. None of the warriors have a clear picture of the reasons for the hostilities. When Achilles has to repeat Hector's challenge, he has no idea of what it is about!

In order to come up with a match for the meeting with Hector, Ulysses must use cunning. First the pompous Ajax is flattered, in order to influence Achilles in turn. Achilles, the foremost warrior of the Greeks, does not take part in the fight, however, until Hector has killed his favourite Patroclus.

During the duel Achilles behaves like Goliath of the Bible. The giant is taller and heavier than everyone else, and correspondingly brutal. He invites Hector into his tent the night before the fight in order to make him groggy with drink. The next day he tells his men to surround the Trojan with their spears and to try to kill him. Achilles holds back while Hector fights bravely all day. Towards evening the weary Trojan disarms, and the Greek then kills his defenceless opponent in defiance of all rules regarding honourable fighting which both sides profess to respect. This example of fighting is, like Shakespeare's frequently employed ‘play within the play’, an apt illustration of what goes on in the larger world which the miniature reflects; and we remember that the Greeks finally captured Troy not through victory on the battlefield but by trickery after the war was seemingly at an end.

The play spells out Shakespeare's bitter opinion about unjustified war. The Greek struggle against Troy had reached an impasse because of dissension between King Agamemnon and Achilles — a leader and a bully. Of the background for the dissension we learn only that Achilles is getting too big for his boots. The
Iliad itself, however, opens with the story of how the two clashed when Agamemnon was forced to relinquish a mistress he had taken for himself during the campaign, while his own wife was sitting at home expecting him to fight for the honour of Greek womanhood. In return the king forced Achilles to relinquish his own mistress, which in turn made Achilles furious.

In competition with the very best post-war writers from both the first and second world war, Shakespeare shows how disturbed feelings go hand in hand with violent behaviour. The discrepancy between an emotionally distorted perception of life and a more realistic view is illustrated in a scene in which the ridiculous Paris asks Diomedes who most deserves Helen, himself or Menelaus? The Greek replies drily: “He merits well to have her that doth seek her, Not making any scruple of her soilure, ... He like a puling cuckold would drink up The lees and dregs of a flat 'tamèd piece”. The greatest disturbances happen in Ajax, Agamemnon, Achilles and Troilus.

In this manner we are led towards Shakespeare's conclusion. In the first scene Pandarus says that everything in life takes time. The panderer's statement is supposed to express an optimistic philosophy of life, as something meaningful and good. But very early on this faith is shown to have already receded; the whole history of the Trojan war shows that time passing is no guarantee of a harmonious development or outcome. Ulysses realises that when natural order breaks down man is delivered up to greed. On another occasion he likens time to a fashionable host — both live in phenomena that are superficial and ephemeral. On the whole the text reveals an author whose fundamental views are related to the Socratic attitude toward the relationship of morality to understanding: Right conduct requires
an insight into the situation, particularly into the long term consequences of possible action. Such insight leads those who hold it to have different opinions from those who think otherwise. But thinking in a longer perspective is not easy, and the relatively few who do so therefore frequently come to stand alone.

The dramatist as sociologist

Shakespeare wrote
Troilus and Cressida when he was forty years old. This is the stage of life when most people develop an increasing interest in the kind of issues investigated by the play. The text presages anti-militaristic points of view from our own time:

War destroys man by tearing him apart. The shocked Troilus is forced to form an opinion about his beloved, who swears everlasting faithfulness and then lets herself be pulled into bed with a stranger. The Trojan sees no other way out of his desperation than to consider Cressida to be two different women, one belonging to himself and another who has defected to Diomedes. His reasoning yields an early portrayal of a split personality.

The playing of parts is considered. Before the duel Hector with a Trojan party calls at the Greek camp. The visit leads to a series of reflections on the schizophrenia of the game of war. Greeks and Trojans talk together graciously, though at dawn they will be trying to kill each other. Thus politeness is an example of acting. All the pretences of the Greek leaders are taken seriously by Troilus, who pays the price of distress and confusion, while Cressida fulfils the expectation of her as a woman by falling in with whatever her new surroundings want from her.

The strongest example of a personality split is Ajax, who is Greek but is also Priam's nephew. He stands with one foot in each camp, and Hector feels so ambivalent that if Ajax's blood had been divided between his different body parts, he would have liked to attack only those limbs which carried his Greek connection.

Just as interesting is the description of the effects of the circumstances surrounding each individual. Even the thick-skulled Achilles realises that someone who is ignored loses his self-confidence, since nobody can live in total independence of others. Every citizen is accorded a value on the basis of his riches, his position or his contribution, all of which factors receive their force from how his fellows evaluate them. Man derives his importance from those who observe him from outside, and Shakespeare draws up the scenario that has later been continued in Sartre's account of ‘the look’ and ‘the other’.

Next the sociology develops into a consideration of morality. Early in the second act the Trojans disagree about whether to continue the war or not. Troilus gives his reasons for going on:

War needs passion, while reason only attenuates it. Therefore we must reinforce our necessary emotions. The foundation and firmness we must create ourselves, through ‘honour’. Respectable conduct is to be faithful to the choices already made; and everyone is bound by the decisions of the group.

The wife-stealer Paris lends support to two other arguments: firstly, that their native city was united behind him when he abducted Helen; secondly, consideration for the abducted woman. The Trojans would contradict themselves if they tempted her only to send her back home.

Hector and Cassandra disagree. Both bring forward weighty arguments, supported by King Priam. The king points out that Paris enjoys the sweet honey from the wife-stealing while the rest of the citizens only get to taste the gall.

Hector is on the one hand a ferocious and loyal warrior. But he strengthens his father's words. Marriage belongs among the natural orderings of society; Paris has broken it by stealing a wedded wife. Troilus
may be right in saying that we ourselves determine all values, but before a final assessment of such arguments we must consider the trustworthiness of those who voice the arguments. Paris and Troilus are too young to envisage all the consequences. The outcome of Troy's war is completely uncertain. Cassandra underlines the fact that the whole people will perish if the Greeks win.

The attitudes held by Troilus make him vulnerable in times of change. When Cressida lets him down, he rationalises his disappointment by becoming rigidly fixed to the past. Cressida had born witness to her love by being there by his side, and still she let the crude Diomedes persuade her to change her mind.

Shakespeare builds up an opposition between Troilus and the visionary Cassandra. The brother wants to remain faithful to everything that was, while the sister is horrified at the results she can see for the future.

Cressida is rendered faithless through the same events that make Troilus more dependable. The war has, on the other hand, brought the young girl into a position where she has no other support than a father who has already deserted to the enemy. Both Troilus and Cressida fall victims to upheavals outside their control, for with the war the normal order of life breaks down. Troilus worships the bonds of the past in his desperation over Cressida's breach of promise and in fact comes to defend faithfully his brother's worship of Helen's faithlessness.

Our last observations do not reflect any single statement from the text but are rather a summary of developments we witness in several different parts of the play. The complete picture anticipates the insight of our own times into the background for the use of violence.

Personal disappointment creates Troilus' heroic courage. The backlash presents itself in his contradictory feelings towards Cressida, as an early case of the ‘double binding’ we, today, see as an important source of split personalities and violent behaviour. When the schizophrenia of the madhouses is reinforced through external power, the result is the classical villain. He will encounter us in chapters 8, 10 and 11.