First, it's an odd impulse. To dramatize material that includes depictions of the heroic characters from Western culture's foundational works such as Homer's Iliad is cheeky, and this is no cutesy humanizing to make history come alive like the musical 1776. This play is grim, bitter, and nihilistic. Critics baffled about Shakespeare's purpose consider the play "by no means worthy of the grand original" (Asimov 73). Lord Burghley had an Italian translation of the Iliad in his library (Farina 160). Whereas Oxford's uncle Arthur Golding is credited with the English translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, another uncle, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was the first English poet to publish blank verse in his English translation of the second and fourth books of Virgil's Aeneid.
Since the play does the opposite of glorifying the heroes, Shakespeare attacks a certain central matter for England, who traced her roots back to Troy, via Aeneas and his legendary descendant Brutus (hence Britain, the land of Brute, and London's old name of Troia Nova: New Troy). This is his third longest play after Hamlet and Richard III, weighted with long speeches and containing difficult language: Latinate new words and compounds (Wells 214, Goddard, II 2).
This is a true "problem play," alternately labelled a tragedy, history, and comedy in its first appearances, later a satire, though perhaps "the play's bitterness surpasses the limits of satire" (Bloom 328). In any case, Shakespeare was almost always straining the boundaries of these dramatic genres. "These plays were sometimes categorized as 'cynical,' as questioning the possibility of noble or heroic ideals, and as concerned with the less exalted aspects of sexual desire and social critique" (Garber 537). Its place was taken in the First Folio by Timon of Athens, and it was reinserted between the histories and the tragedies with no mention in the Table of Contents (Farina 159). Here, it's more the nihilism or "rancidity" (Bloom 343) that seems to have kept the play, it seems, from ever being performed until the twentieth century. One early edition of the work, prefaced by "A never writer, to an ever reader," claimed it was "a new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar ... [nor] sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude" (qtd. in Goddard, II 1; Ogburn and Ogburn 630; Farina 159). This preface, to the 1609 quarto edition, also refers to the "grand possessors." There was a flurry of suggestion at one time that maybe this was intended not for general performance but for an audience of lawyers, "but Shakespeare's commercial sense renders such argument rather weak" (Bloom 327). Others argue that the messages are the same here as in Shakespeare's unqualified successes, just that here there's no simplistic coating that can satisfy the duller audiences with an easy interpretation. In any case, this one probably traditionally is said to come from around 1601-1602. But one suspects the 1580s after the Dark Lady, Vavasor, and right at the heart of the dark period. In late December 1584, a now-lost play, The History of Agamemnon and Ulisses, was performed by Oxford's Boys (Clark 627; Ogburn and Ogburn 608; Farina 160). Faint traces of euphuism in the play as we have it may come from the earlier time (Anderson 201). That the war had been going on for seven years matches the skirmishes in the Low Countries since 1577 (Anderson 202), with Oxford putting himself forth as a potential Ulysses, essentially pleading for a military post (Anderson 202).
Shakespeare starts messing around with what otherwise would function as a mere, somewhat artificial, convention for scene-setting at some point in his literary career. Henry IV, Part 2 offers the personification Rumor to set the scene -- and naturally Rumor is wrong! Henry V starts with a personified Prologue, and one has a very different reading of the play depending on whether one assumes that the voice is that of the playwright's or not. I think we should be suspicious.
Indeed, here Prologue overtly distinguishes its voice from that "Of author's pen or actor's voice" (24), so what in hell is it? It reduces the Trojan War and the efforts of all its warriors to the wobbly center and almost dismissed matter of Helen sleeping with Paris "--and that's the quarrel" (10). Of interest to postmodernists, here's a free-floating text "acting" on its own volition.
Shakespeare's "extremely modest underestimation of the legendary number" of ships -- sixty-nine? (5) -- is another oddity since the Iliad count totals 1186 and Marlowe acknowledged 1000 (Asimov 75). Note that Greek warriors were "disgorged" from their ships; the play is full of food and illness imagery. And it's all very appropriate to the epic tradition for the play to be "Beginning in the middle" (28) -- in medias res -- but "starting thence away / To what may be digested in a play" (28-29) sounds arbitrary, and the final lines are not as trite as the convention they imitate:
Like or find fault, do as your pleasures are,The audience opinion here is not solicited at all. In fact, reception of the play will be a sort of war!
Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war. (30-31)
Shakespeare may also be sending up Ben Jonson, who began his Poetaster (1601) with an armed prologue attacking rival poet-playwrights. There is "War of the Theaters" material in Hamlet too, written probably not long before this one, but no one knows how far Shakespeare may have intended to take this. (Is this play an allegory with Shakespeare's contemporaries being satirized by their representations as characters in the Trojan War? Even if so, it still must stand on its own somehow.)
The elder Ogburns see the play as emerging from Oxford's disgust at Elizabeth's taking up with Raleigh. Helen is Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 582, 1088), and her irresponsible relationship with Raleigh resembles Helen and Paris, with Troy/New-Troy at risk just so "the enamoured couple may protract their love affair" (Ogburn and Ogburn 609-610). Menelaus would be Leicester, from whom Paris stole Helen (Ogburn and Ogburn 613).
Troilus, one of King Priam's sons and brother to Hector, and a character who is dead before the action begins in Homer's Iliad (Asimov 78), laments his state of lovesickness: "Why should I war without the walls of Troy, / That find such cruel battle here within?" (I.i.2-3): "within" meaning both inside the walls and in his psyche -- in other words, a thematic introduction to the realms of the public and the personal. Love, which in one sense is supposed to ennoble the young warrior, has the opposite effect here (I.i.9-12), unless Troilus is merely railing. Pandarus, who serves as go-between for Troilus and Cressida (Pandarus' niece), offers a culinary metaphor to suggest patience. But note that there is a fusing of lechery and gluttony in the play (Bloom 343). Pandarus, like many others among these legendary figures, is gossipy and cheesy, and Troilus interrupts him with agony about the "open ulcer of my heart" (I.i.53) and the complaint that love has given him many a "gash" as if with a knife. The state is conventional for courtly love, but the language is especially gruesome and extreme.
Note that the contentions do not play out nor are we in the presence of Greeks and Trojans, but rather in a world of English chivalry (Ogburn and Ogburn 617).
Mention made of Cressida's father Calchas' defection over to the Greeks is a vague but grim forewarning. Troilus apostrophizes to the gods.
Tell me, Apollo, for thy Daphne's love,But the allusion is to lust, and we are reminded that Daphne frustrated Apollo's intentions by turning into a tree and thereby becoming inaccessible. The weariness about Helen (I.i.93ff) reflects Oxford's years of glorifying her, but now in 1584 that she has taken up with Raleigh, he has lost interest in the futile efforts (Ogburn and Ogburn 620).
What Cressid is, what Pandar, and what we....
Aeneas reports that Paris was wounded by Menelaus and Troilus makes a lewd joke. "Because Aeneas was viewed as the ancestor of the Romans, he had to be treated with particular care by Western poets. The English had to be even more careful, for they aped the Romans in their search for a glorious beginning" (Asimov 83).
Cressida receives the latest gossip from her manservant Alexander, who reports that Hector (not at all in accord with the reputation he has from Homer et al.) had been chiding Andromache his wife and hitting his armorer, in a snit because Ajax bested him yesterday. Thus "this first glimpse we have of him is about the most unattractive one in the whole play" (Goddard, II 22). Alexander's description of Ajax is peculiar too:
This man, lady, hath robb'd many beasts of their particular additions [i.e., attributes]: he is as valiant as the lion, churlish as the bear, slow as the elephant; a man into whom nature hath so crowded humors that his valor is crush'd into folly, his folly sauc'd with discretion. There is no man hath a virtue that he hath not a glimpse of, nor any man an attaint but he carries some stain of it. He is melancholy without cause, and merry against the hair; he hath the joints of every thing, but every thing so out of joint that he is a gouty Briareus, many hands and no use, or purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight. (I.ii.19-30)"He is not, in the Iliad, of Trojan blood; nor is he a nephew to Hector.... Alexander goes on to describe Ajax and makes him out to be a parody of the picture presented in Homer; as nothing more than a stolid, dim-witted man-mountain" (Asimov 86).
Is this the notion of the Renaissance man gone horrible wrong with non-integration? When we meet Ajax later, he's just a stupid brute, not really all this.
Pandarus joins the gossip and starts pitching Troilus. Cressida holds her own in witty repartee, and the two look outside as the Trojan warriors march by. Pandarus impatiently acknowledges Aeneas, Antenor, Hector, Paris, and Helenus. Then he raves about Troilus. As for the remainder of the Trojans, he says, "Asses, fools, dolts!" (I.ii.241). Apparently Troilus is not yet 23 years old (I.ii.244), and Oxford was 22 when Gilbert Talbot's letter mentioned Burghley's "winking" and not meddling in the Queen's "love-matters" (Ogburn and Ogburn 619). Reference to an April birth (I.ii.180) also points to Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 622).
Cressida secretly sounds attracted to Troilus, but notes,
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing:
Thus "she initiates a play-long debate on the question of 'prizing'" (Hamlin 167). This is "a sequence of maxims, given extra weight by being cast in the form of rhymed couplets and placed at the end of the scene, that suggest calculation rather than commitment" (Wells 217). Does she say this out of her own experience or is she merely uttering a series of platitudes? Interestingly, "Both love objects [Cressida and Achilles] play hard to get" (Garber 538). "What the author is saying is that the problem of lust and the problem of violence, and so of war, are the same problem seen from different angles" (Goddard, II 5).
This prudent advice to maidens to hold off yielding in love so as to keep their suitors eager -- a tactic that seemed to work for Anne Boleyn and has long been a favorite maxim of middle-class mothers with marriageable daughters -- turns out to be advice that Cressida herself will not heed. (Garber 557)
Among the Greeks, Agamemnon reassures the others that there are always set-backs to great undertakings, in this case the passing of seven years of war without progress against Troy. Old Nestor says that oppression proves a man's worth. "If this is the last year of the war, as it must be, then Troy's walls have been standing nine years, not seven -- but that is a small error that makes no difference" (Asimov 89). Oxford may be depicting Leicester through Agamemnon to show he "would be a foolish and simple-minded campaigner and a stale and predictable strategist" (Anderson 202).
Here, we might see Queen Elizabeth in Agamemnon, Burghley as partly Nestor, Leicester as the proud Achilles, Philip Sidney as Ajax, and Oxford as Ulysses (Ogburn and Ogburn 615).
Ulysses' speech next has often been taken as the keystone not only to the philosophy of this play, but to that of Shakespeare and the entire Elizabethan age. In short, Ulysses preaches for social order and hierarchy, which reflect a cosmic order. The divine plan of "degree" must be respected lest discord and chaos erupt. Tillyard insists that this is a representative Elizabethan homily capturing what everyone believed. Skeptics note that if everyone believed it, then why is there a need for such tracts? -- "if the principle of the great hierarchy ... was what everyone believed, the doctrine would not have been so insistently and anxiously propagated by the authorities of that day" (Sutherland & Watts 165). The speech also seems to refer to a heliocentric theory (vs. Copernican) of the solar system, many decades before Isaac Newton showed that "the sun's overwhelming gravitational force did, indeed, keep the planets in their place" (Asimov 95). It may be that William Filbert's theory of geomagnetism, published in 1600, also has had an influence here (Anderson 317). Initially, then, "Ulysses represented de Vere at his most regressive -- an old-school feudalist aghast at the egalitarian and permissive ideals practiced by the Dutch" (Anderson 203).
"To begin with, down even to such a detail as the touch about the beehive, the doctrine is identical with that of that ineffable hypocrite and militarist, the Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V, enough in itself to damn it forever" (Goddard, II 13). Furthermore, "wisdom in Shakespeare is not in the habit of incarnating herself in long moral harangues or weighty philosophical disquisitions" (Goddard, II 13) -- and those who indulge in loquacious rhetoric usually betray themselves soon in action.
The speech does function more like an insistence on the divine right of the status quo; and anarchy is always the nightmare of autocrats (Goddard, 13). Ulysses sounds eloquent if this speech is taken out of context, but only grandiose inside the play; he's a "scurvy politician" (Bloom 331), he represents the state as a Machiavel and a sophist (Bloom 340). And "it is not entirely clear that even Ulysses subscribes to it, however eloquent his public thoughts on the question" (Garber 543; cf. Goddard, II 12). "To 'make a sop' of the Globe is to reduce the audience to tears. Moral and ethical questions will 'lose their names' and become, like the material earth and sea, impossible to tell apart" (Garber 545). "The celebrated speech on 'degree,' in other words, is not Shakespeare's philosophy, nor even really Ulysses' philosophy, but rather a convincing piece of rhetoric that is presented as a truism until, almost immediately in this play, particular events begin to qualify or undermine it.... his resounding speech is political rhetoric and ideology, not disinterested truth" (Garber 546).
Ulysses mentions "appetite, an universal wolf" that will "last eat up himself" (I.iii.121-124), and also uses images of sickness. His diagnosis is that the core of all this disorder is Achilles' habit of lying around all day laughing at Patroclus parodying the rest of the Greek commanders -- and the language is that of stage acting. There's worry that such irreverence and laziness will infect others (I.iii.187). From this point on, Achilles' behavior is attributed to pride, but is it pride that makes one withdraw from war and mock the commanders? Is it love (of Polyxena, a Trojan princess) that would motivate the same? Nevertheless, this is the public opinion, fed them by Ulysses.
Including a moment in this scene (I.iii.223f), "The play is replete with such moments of serio-comic deflation" (Hamlin 171).
Aeneas arrives at the enemy camp and proposes a one-on-one combat between Hector and one of the Greeks. Ulysses realizes that Achilles is intended, but suggests to Nestor that they send the brute Ajax instead, thereby playing productive games with Achilles' pride. "As Nestor is the very personification of the rather tedious wisdom of age, so Ulysses (Odysseus) is the very personification of shrewdness and clever, but not always ethical, strategy" (Asimov 92). In other words, "Having insisted that all the weary warriors should preserve order by respecting the divine hierarchy and its moral basis, Ulysses goes out to rig an important lottery" (Sutherland & Watts 164). The sun metaphor betrays him too (cp. 89f & 369f). The scene ends with Ulysses' self-satisfaction over a plan to manipulate other Greeks.
Greece may be identified with England, and Troy as a combination of the Roman Catholic powers fighting the growth of Protestantism. The two factions in Greece headed by Achilles and Agamemnon are paralleled in England by the factions headed by Leicester and Burghley. (Clark 629)