DRAMAS OF LUST: PART I
<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
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
"'Twas one that loved me better than you will,
But, now you have it, take it."
"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
One or two incidental difficulties must be settled before we pass to a
"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
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
"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."