Shakespeare      Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works
- The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets
- The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots
- Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works - Site Map - More ...
 [Shakespeare Quotes]     
 Home > Life of Shakespeare >

Prev | Next | Contents


<i>Troilus and Cressida</i>

"He probed from hell to hell Of human passions, but of love deflowered His wisdom was not...."

--<i>Meredith's Sonnet on Shakespeare</i>.

With "Hamlet" and his dreams of an impossible revenge Shakespeare got rid of some of the perilous stuff which his friend's traitorism had bred in him. In "Othello" he gave deathless expression to the madness of his jealous rage and so cleared his soul, to some extent, of that poisonous infection. But passion in Shakespeare survived hatred of the betrayer and jealousy of him; he had quickly finished with Herbert; but Mary Fitton lived still for him and tempted him perpetually--the lust of the flesh, the desire of the eye, insatiable, cruel as the grave. He will now portray his mistress for us dramatically--unveil her very soul, show the gipsy-wanton as she is. He who has always painted in high lights is now going to paint French fashion, in blackest shadows, for with the years his passion and his bitterness have grown in intensity. Mary Fitton is now "false Cressid." Pandarus says of her in the first scene of the first act:

"An her hair were not somewhat darker than Helen's--well, go to--there were no more comparison between the women."

Mary Fitton's hair, we know, was raven-black, but the evidence connecting Shakespeare's mistress with "false Cressid" is stronger, as we shall see, than any particular line or expression.

"Troilus and Cressida" is a wretched, invertebrate play without even a main current of interest. Of course there are fine phrases in it, as in most of the productions of Shakespeare's maturity; but the characterization is worse than careless, and at first one wonders why Shakespeare wrote the tedious, foolish stuff except to get rid of his own bitterness in the railing of Thersites, and in the depicting of Cressida's shameless wantonness. It is impossible to doubt that "false Cressid" was meant for Mary Fitton. The moment she appears the play begins to live; personal bitterness turns her portrait into a caricature; every fault is exaggerated and lashed with rage; it is not so much a drama as a scene where Shakespeare insults his mistress.

Let us look at this phase of his passion in perspective. Almost as soon as he became acquainted with Miss Fitton, about Christmas 1597, Shakespeare wrote of her as a wanton; yet so long as she gave herself to him he appears to have been able to take refuge in his tenderness and endure her strayings. But passion in him grew with what it fed on, and after she faulted with Lord Herbert, we find him in a sonnet threatening her that his "pity-wanting pain" may induce him to write of her as she was. No doubt her pride and scornful strength revolted under this treatment and she drew away from him. Tortured by desire he would then praise her with some astonishing phrases; call her "the heart's blood of beauty, love's invisible soul," and after some hesitation she would yield again. No sooner was the "ruined love" rebuilt than she would offend again, and again he would curse and threaten, and so the wretched, half-miserable, half-ecstatic life of passion stormed along, one moment in Heaven, the next in Hell.

All the while Shakespeare was longing, or thought he was longing for truth and constancy, and at length he gave form and name to his desire for winnowed purity of love and perfect constancy, and this consoling but impalpable ideal he called Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia. But again and again Miss Fitton reconquered him and at length his accumulated bitterness compelled him to depict his mistress realistically. Cressida is his first attempt, the first dramatic portrait of the mistress who got into Shakespeare's blood and infected the current of his being, and the portrait is spoiled by the poet's hatred and contempt just as the whole drama is spoiled by a passion of bitterness that is surely the sign of intense personal suffering. Cressida is depicted as a vile wanton, a drab by nature; but it is no part even of this conception to make her soulless and devilish. On the contrary, an artist of Shakespeare's imaginative sympathy loves to put in high relief the grain of good in things evil and the taint of evil in things good that give humanity its curious complexity. Shakespeare observed this rule of dramatic presentation more consistently than any of his predecessors or contemporaries--more consistently, more finely far than Homer or Sophocles, whose heroes had only such faults as their creators thought virtues; why then did he forget nature so far as to picture "false Cressida" without a redeeming quality? He first shows her coquetting with Troilus, and her coquetry even is unattractive, shallow, and obvious; then she gives herself to Troilus out of passionate desire; but Shakespeare omits to tell us why she takes up with Diomedes immediately afterwards. We are to understand merely that she is what Ulysses calls a "sluttish spoil of opportunity," and "daughter of the game." But as passionate desire is not of necessity faithless we are distressed and puzzled by her soulless wantonness. And when she goes on to present Diomedes with the scarf that Troilus gave her, we revolt; the woman is too full of blood to be so entirely heartless. Here is the scene embittered by the fact that Troilus witnesses Cressida's betrayal:

"<i>Diomedes.</i> I had your heart before, this follows it.

<i>Troilus.</i> [<i>Aside.</i>] I did swear patience.

<i>Cressida.</i> You shall not have it, Diomed, faith you shall not; I'll give you something else.

<i>Diomedes.</i> I will have this: whose was it?

<i>Cressida.</i> It is no matter.

<i>Diomedes.</i> Come, tell me whose it was?

<i>Cressida</i>. 'Twas one that loved me better than you will, But, now you have it, take it."

The scene is a splendid dramatic scene, a piece torn from life, so realistic that it convinces, and yet we revolt; we feel that we have not got to the heart of the mystery. There is so much evil in Cressida that we want to see the spark of goodness in her, however fleeting and ineffective the spark may be. But Shakespeare makes her attempt at justification a confession of absolute faithlessness:

"Troilus, farewell! one eye yet looks on thee, But with my heart the other eye doth see. Ah! poor our sex! This fault in us I find, The error of our eye directs our mind."

This is plainly Shakespeare's reflection and not Cressida's apology, and if we contrast this speech with the dialogue given above, it becomes plain, I think, that the terrible scene with Diomedes is taken from life, or is at least Shakespeare's vision of the way Mary Fitton behaved. There's a magic in those devilish words of Cressida that outdoes imagination:

"'Twas one that loved me better than you will, But, now you have it, take it."

And then:

"Sweet, honey Greek, tempt me no more to folly:"

The very power of the characterization makes the traitress hateful. If Mary Fitton ever gave any gift of Shakespeare to Lord Herbert, the dramatist should have known that she no longer loved him, had in reality already forgotten him in her new passion; but to paint a woman as remembering a lover, indeed as still loving him, and yet as giving his gift to another, is an offence in art though it may be true to nature. It is a fault in art because it is impossible to motive it in a few lines. The fact of the gift is bad enough; without explanation it is horrible. For this and other reasons I infer that Shakespeare took the fact from his own experience: he had suffered, it seems to me, from some such traitorism on the part of his mistress, or he ascribed to Mary Fitton some traitorism of his own.

In sonnet 122 he finds weighty excuse for having given away the table-book which his friend had given to him. His own confessed shortcoming might have taught him to exercise more lenient judgment towards his frail love.

But when Shakespeare wrote "Troilus and Cressida" a passion of bitterness possessed him; he not only vilified Cressida but all the world, Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles, Ajax; he seems indeed to have taken more pleasure in the railing of Thersites than in any other part of the work except the scourging of Cressida. He shocks us by the picture of Achilles and his myrmidons murdering Hector when they come upon him unarmed.

One or two incidental difficulties must be settled before we pass to a greater play.

"Troilus and Cressida" has always been regarded as a sort of enigma. Professor Dowden asks: "With what intention and in what spirit did Shakespeare write this strange comedy? All the Greek heroes who fought against Troy are pitilessly exposed to ridicule?" And from this fact and the bitterness of "Timon" some German critics have drawn the inference that Shakespeare was incapable of comprehending Greek life, and that indeed he only realized his Romans so perfectly because the Roman was very like the Briton in his mastery of practical affairs, of the details of administration and of government. This is an excellent instance of German prejudice. No one could have been better fitted than Shakespeare to understand Greek civilization and Greek art with its supreme love of plastic beauty, but his master Plutarch gave him far better pictures of Roman life than of Greek life, partly because Plutarch lived in the time of Roman domination and partly because he was in far closer sympathy with the masters of practical affairs than with artists in stone like Phidias or artists in thought like Plato. The true explanation of Shakespeare's caricatures of Greek life, whether Homeric or Athenian, is to be found in the fact that he was not only entirely ignorant of it but prejudiced against it. And this prejudice in him had an obvious root. Chapman had just translated and published the first books of his Iliad, and Chapman was the poet whom Shakespeare speaks of as his rival in Sonnets 78-86. He cannot help smiling at the "strained touches" of Chapman's rhetoric and his heavy learning. Those who care to remember the first scene of "Love's Labour's Lost" will recall how Shakespeare in that early work mocked at learning and derided study. When he first reached London he was no doubt despised for his ignorance of Greek and Latin; he had had to bear the sneers and flouts of the many who appraised learning, an university training and gentility above genius. He took the first opportunity of answering his critics:

"Small have continual plodders ever won, Save bare authority from others' books."

But the taunts rankled, and when the bitter days came of disappointment and disillusion he took up that Greek life which his rival had tried to depict in its fairest colours, and showed what he thought was the seamy side of it. But had he known anything of Greek life and Greek art it would have been his pleasure to outdo his rival by giving at once a truer and a fairer presentation of Greece than Chapman could conceive. It is the rivalry of Chapman that irritates Shakespeare into pouring contempt on Greek life in "Troilus and Cressida." As Chapman was for the Greeks, Shakespeare took sides with the Trojans.

But why do I assume that "Troilus and Cressida" is earlier than "Antony and Cleopatra?" Some critics, and among them Dr. Brandes, place it later, and they have some reason for their belief. The bitterness in "Troilus and Cressida," they say rightly, is more intense; and as Shakespeare's disappointment with men and things appears to have increased from "Hamlet" to "Timon," or from 1602 to 1607-8, they put the bitterer play later. Cogent as is this reasoning, I cannot believe that Shakespeare could have painted Cressida after having painted Cleopatra. The same model has evidently served for both women; but while Cleopatra is perhaps the most superb portrait of a courtesan in all literature, Cressida is a crude and harsh sketch such as a Dumas or a Pinero might have conceived.

It is more than probable, I think, that "Troilus and Cressida" was planned and the love-story at least written about 1603, while Shakespeare's memory of one of his mistress's betrayals was still vivid and sharp. The play was taken up again four or five years later and the character of Ulysses deepened and strengthened. In this later revision the outlook is so piercing-sad, the phrases of such pregnancy, that the work must belong to Shakespeare's ripest maturity. Moreover, he has grown comparatively careless of characterization as in all his later work; he gives his wise sayings almost as freely to Achilles as to Ulysses.

"Troilus and Cressida" is interesting because it establishes the opinion that Chapman was indeed the rival poet whom Shakespeare referred to in the sonnets, and especially because it shows us the poet's mistress painted in a rage of erotic passion so violent that it defeats itself, and the portrait becomes an incredible caricature--that way madness lies. "Troilus and Cressida" points to "Lear" and "Timon."

Prev | Next | Contents

     Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works - The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets - The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots - Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works
- Study Guide - About Us - Privacy Policy - Site Map - More ...

Buy Books at and Save!