To myself Troilus and Cressida is, with Henry VI, Part I, the most mysterious among the Shakespearean plays. Here we find, if Will wrote it, or had any hand in it, the greatest poet of the modern world in touch with the heroes of the greatest poet of the ancient world; but the English author’s eyes are dimmed by the mists and dust of post-Homeric perversions of the Tale of Troy. The work of perversion began, we know, in the eighth century before our era, when, by the author of the Cypria, these favourite heroes of Homer, Odysseus and Diomede, were represented as scoundrels, assassins, and cowards.
In the Prologue to the play (whosoever wrote it) we see that the writer is no scholar. He makes the Achaean fleet muster in “the port of Athens,” of all places. Even Ovid gave the Homeric trysting~place, Aulis, in Boeotia. (This Prologue is not in the Folio of 1623.) Six gates hath the Englishman’s Troy, and the Scaean is not one of them.
The loves of Troilus and Cressida, with Pandarus as go-between, are from the mediaeval Troy books, and were wholly unknown to Homer, whose Pandarus is only notable for loosing a traitor’s shaft at Menelaus, in time of truce, and for his death at the hand of Diomede. The play begins after the duel (Iliad, III) between Paris and Menelaus: in the play, not in Homer, Paris “retires hurt,” as is at first reported. Hector has a special grudge against the Telamonian Aias. As in the Iliad there is a view of the Achaeans, taken from the walls by Priam and Helen; so, in the play, Pandarus and Cressida review the Trojans re-entering the city. Paris turns out not to be hurt after all.
In Act i. Scene 3, the Achaeans hold council, and regret the disaffection of Achilles. Here comes Ulysses’ great speech on discipline, in armies, and in states, the gradations of rank and duty; commonly thought to be a leaf in Shakespeare’s crown of bays. The speeches of Agamemnon and Nestor are dignified; indeed the poet treats Agamemnon much more kindly than Homer is wont to do. But the poet represents Achilles as laughing in his quarters at Patroclus’s imitation of the cough and other infirmities of old Nestor, to which Homer, naturally, never alludes. Throughout, the English poet regards Achilles with the eyes of his most infamous late Greek and ignorant mediaeval detractors. The Homeric sequence of events is so far preserved that, on the day of the duel between Paris and Menelaus, comes (through AEneas) the challenge by Hector to fight any Greek in “gentle and joyous passage of arms” (Iliad, VII). As in the Iliad, the Greeks decide by lot who is to oppose Hector; but by the contrivance of Odysseus (not by chance, as in Homer) the lot falls on Aias. In the Iliad Aias is as strong and sympathetic as Porthos in Les Trois Mousquetaires. The play makes him as great an eater of beef, and as stupid as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Achilles, save in a passage quite out of accord with the rest of the piece, is nearly as dull as Aias, is discourteous, and is cowardly! No poet and no scholar who knew Homer’s heroes in Homer’s Greek, could thus degrade them; and the whole of the revilings of Thersites are loathsome in their profusion of filthy thoughts. It does not follow that Will did not write the part of Thersites. Some of the most beautiful and Shakespearean pieces of verse adorn the play; one would say that no man but Will could have written them. Troilus and Cressida, at first, appear “to dally with the innocence of love”; and nothing can be nobler and more dramatic than the lines in which Cressida, compelled to go to her father, Calchas, in the Greek camp, in exchange for Antenor, professes her loyalty in love. But the Homeric and the alien later elements — the story of false love — cannot be successfully combined. The poet, whoever he was, appears to weary and to break down. He ends, indeed, as the Iliad ends, with the death of Hector, but Hector, in the play, is murdered, while resting unarmed, without shield and helmet, after stripping a suit of sumptuous mail from a nameless runaway. In the play he has slain Patroclus, but has not stripped him of the armour of Achilles, which, in Homer, he is wearing. Achilles then meets Hector, but far from rushing to avenge on him Patroclus, he retires like a coward, musters his men, and makes them surround and slay the defenceless Hector.
Cressida, who is sent to her father Calchas, in the Greek camp, in a day becomes “the sluttish spoil of opportunity,” and of Diomede, and the comedy praised by the preface-writer of a quarto of 1609, is a squalid tragedy reeking of Thersites and Pandarus, of a light o’ love, and the base victory of cruel cowardice over knightly Hector. Yet there seemed to be muffled notes from the music, and broken lights from the splendour of Homer. When Achilles eyes Hector all over, during a truce, and insultingly says that he is thinking in what part of his body he shall drive the spear, we are reminded of Iliad, XXII, 320–326, where Achilles searches his own armour, worn by Patroclus, stripped by Hector from him, and worn by Hector, for a chink in the mail. Yet, after all, these points are taken, not from the Iliad, but from Caxton’s popular Troy Book.
Once more, when Hector is dead, and Achilles bids his men to
Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,”
we think of Iliad, XXII, 390–393, where Achilles commands the Myrmidons to go singing the paean
“Glory have we won, we have slain great Hector!”
The sumptuous armour stripped by Hector from a nameless man, recalls his winning of the arms of Achilles from Patroclus. But, in fact, this passage is also borrowed, with the murder of Hector, from Caxton, except as regards the paean.
It may be worth noting that Chapman’s first instalment of his translation of the Iliad, containing Books I, II, and VII-XI, appeared in 1598, and thence the author could adapt the passages from Iliad, Book VII. In or about 1598–9 occurred, in Histriomastix, by Marston and others, a burlesque speech in which Troilus, addressing Cressida, speaks of “thy knight,” who “SHAKES his furious SPEARE,” while in April 1599, Henslowe’s account-book contains entries of money paid to Dekker and Chettle for a play on Troilus and Cressida, for the Earl of Nottingham’s Company. 250 Of this play no more is known, nor can we be sure that Chapman’s seven Books of the Iliad (I, II, VII-XI) of 1598 attracted the attention of playwrights, from Shakespeare to Chettle and Dekker, to Trojan affairs. The coincidences at least are curious. If “SHAKES his furious SPEARE” in Histriomastix refers to Shakespeare in connection with Cressida, while, in 1599, Dekker and Chettle were doing a Troilus and Cressida for a company not Shakespeare’s, then there were TWO Troilus and Cressida in the field. A licence to print a Troilus and Cressida was obtained in 1602–3, but the quarto of our play, the Shakespearean play, is of 1609, “as it is acted by my Lord Chamberlain’s men,” that is, by Shakespeare’s Company. Now Dekker and Chettle wrote, apparently, for Lord Nottingham’s Company. One quarto of 1609 declares, in a Preface, that the play has “never been staled with the stage”; another edition of the same year, from the same publishers, has not the Preface, but declares that the piece “was acted by the King’s Majesty’s servants AT THE GLOBE.” 251 The author of the Preface (Ben Jonson, Mr. Greenwood thinks, 252) speaks only of a single author, who has written other admirable comedies. “When he is gone, and his comedies out of sale, you will scramble for them, and set up a new English Inquisition.” Why? The whole affair is a puzzle. But if the author of the Preface is right about the single author of Troilus and Cressida, and if Shakespeare is alluded to in connection with Cressida, in Histriomastix (1599), then it appears to me that Shakespeare, in 1598–9, after Chapman’s portion of the Iliad appeared, was author of one Troilus and Cressida, extant in 1602–3 (when its publication was barred till the publisher “got authority”), while Chettle and Dekker, in April 1599, were busy with another Troilus and Cressida, as why should they not be? In an age so lax about copyright, if their play was of their own original making, are we to suppose that there was copyright in the names of the leading persons of the piece, Troilus and Cressida?
Perhaps not: but meanwhile Mr. Greenwood cites Judge Stotsenburg’s opinion 253 that Henslowe’s entries of April 1599 “refute the Shakespearean claim to the authorship of Troilus and Cressida,” which exhibits “the collaboration of two men,” as “leading commentators” hold that it does. But the learned Judge mentions as a conceivable alternative that “there were two plays on the subject with the same name,” and, really, it looks as if there were! The Judge does not agree “with Webb and other gifted writers that Bacon wrote this play.” So far the Court is quite with him. He goes on however, “It was, in my opinion, based on the foregoing facts, originally the production of Dekker and Chettle, added to and philosophically dressed by Francis Bacon.” But, according to Mr. Greenwood, “it is admitted not only that the different writing of two authors is apparent in the Folio play, but also that ‘Shakespeare’ must have had at least some share in a play of Troilus and Cressida as early as the very year 1599, in the spring of which Dekker and Chettle are found engaged in writing their play of that name,” on the evidence of Histriomastix. 254 How that evidence proves that “a play of Troilus and Cressida had been PUBLISHED as by ‘Shakespeare’ about 1599,” I know not. Perhaps “published” means “acted”? “And it is not unreasonable to suppose that this play” (“published as by Shakespeare”) “was the one to which Henslowe alludes”— as being written in April 1599, by Dekker and Chettle.
If so, the play must show the hands of three, not two, men, Dekker, Chettle, and “Shakespeare,” the Great Unknown, or Bacon. He collaborates with Dekker and Chettle, in a play for Lord Nottingham’s men (according to Sir Sidney Lee), 255 but it is, later at least, played by Shakespeare’s company; and perhaps Bacon gets none of the 4 pounds paid 256 to Dekker and Chettle. Henslowe does not record his sale of the Dekker and Chettle play to Shakespeare’s or to any company or purchaser. Without an entry of the careful Henslowe recording his receipts for the sale of the Dekker and Chettle play to any purchaser, it is not easy to see how Shakespeare’s company procured the manuscript, and thus enabled him to refashion it. Perhaps no reader will fail to recognise his hand in the beautiful blank verse of many passages. I am not familiar enough with the works of Dekker and Chettle to assign to them the less desirable passages. Thersites is beastly: a Yahoo of Swift’s might poison with such phrases as his the name and nature of love, loyalty, and military courage. But whatsoever Shakespeare did, he did thoroughly, and if he were weary, if man delighted him not, nor woman either, he may have written the whole piece, in which love perishes for the whim of “a daughter of the game,” and the knightly Hector is butchered to sate the vanity of his cowardly Achilles. If Shakespeare read the books translated by Chapman, he must have read them in the same spirit as Keats, and was likely to find that the poetry of the Achaean could not be combined with the Ionian, Athenian, and Roman perversions, as he knew them in the mediaeval books of Troy, in the English of Lydgate and Caxton. The chivalrous example of Chaucer he did not follow. Probably Will looked on the play as one of his failures. The Editor, if we can speak of an Editor, of the Folio clearly thrust the play in late, so confusedly that it is not paged, and is not mentioned in the table of the contents.
“The Grand Possessors” of the play referred to in the Preface to one of the two quartos of 1609 we may suppose to be Shakespeare’s Company. In this case the owners would not permit the publication of the play if they could prevent it. The title provokes Mr. Greenwood to say, “Why these worthies should be so styled is not apparent; indeed the supposition seems not a little ridiculous.” 257 Of course, if the players were the possessors, “grand” is merely a jeer, by a person advertising a successful piracy. And in regard to Tieck’s conjecture that James I is alluded to as “the grand possessor, for whom the play was expressly written,” 258 the autocratic James was very capable of protecting himself against larcenous publishers.
250 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, pp. 358–362.
251 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, pp. 491–494.
252 Ibid., p. 495.
253 Ibid., pp. 358–360.
254 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 361.
255 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 360.
256 Ibid., p. 358.
257 The Shakespeare Problem Restated, p. 495, note I.
258 Ibid., p. 494.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57