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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, September 11, 2017

THE TOILS OF TROILUS

In MYTHOS AND MODE PT. 3, I spoke of three principal ways in which a given work failed to achieve the combative mode despite having some of the requisite elements, and I used one Shakespeare play as an example of each of the three. One way was exemplified by TITUS ANDRONICUS, which had both the necessary narrative and significant elements but simply chose not to resolve the conflict in a combative manner: I might call this the "diffuse type." Another path was exemplified by HAMLET, which had the narrative elements but not the significant ones relating to character-dynamicity, while the last was exemplified by CORIOLANUS, which had the significant elements but not the narrative ones. The third choice is one in which the main character and his enemy possess great dynamicity and seem to be building to a major combative resolution, but chose to frustrate that potential.

I recently reread TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, a play written about three to five years before CORIOLANUS. I remembered nothing about the play from whenever I last read it. Yet I decided, given my earlier statements on Shakespeare's proclivities for fictive violence, that I should re-read it, at least partly because the play's actions takes place during the action of the Trojan War. According to one source, the classic work most associated with that conflict, Homer's ILIAD, had not been fully translated into English when the Bard wrote his play. Thus it's hard to know if he knew more than generalities about parts of Homer's plot-action. Further, neither of the characters in the title-- two young Trojans in love (hmm, that sounds strange)-- appears in Homer. Both were born from medieval accretions to the main tale, accretions continued by authors ranging from Boccaccio to Chaucer, and since the story had proved popular in Shakespeare's time the Bard apparently chose to try his hand at the legend.

(Note: although Cressida does not appear in Homer, she's probably derived from the character Chryses, a prophet's daughter claimed by Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces battling Troy. When circumstances make it necessary for Agamemnon to return Chryses to her father, he then swipes another "spoils of war" female from his subordinate warrior Achilles, and this leads to Achilles' famous reluctance to continue pressing the fight against the warriors of Troy.)

TROILUS has two plot-threads. One, dealing with the Trojan lovers, demonstrates no more narrative potential for the combative mode than does ROMEO AND JULIET. The other is nothing less than the quintessential combative moment of THE ILIAD: the duel between Achilles and Hector that, in Homer, marks the beginning of the end for Troy.  Toward the end of the play, main character Troilus does take the field and fights a warrior or two,  but he really has nothing to do with Shakespeare's (probable) attempt to one-up Homer by destroying the integrity of the Achilles-Hector battle. Here's a prose translation of the relevant scene from Homer:


Now, the fine bronze armour he stripped from mighty Patroclus when he killed him covered all Hector’s flesh except for one opening at the throat, where the collarbones knit neck and shoulders, and violent death may come most swiftly. There, as Hector charged at him, noble Achilles aimed his ash spear, and drove its heavy bronze blade clean through the tender neck, though without cutting the windpipe or robbing Hector of the power of speech. Hector fell in the dust and Achilles shouted out in triumph: ‘While you were despoiling Patroclus, no doubt, in your folly, you thought yourself quite safe, Hector, and forgot all about me in my absence. Far from him, by the hollow ships, was a mightier man, who should have been his helper but stayed behind, and that was I, who now have brought you low. The dogs and carrion birds will tear apart your flesh, but him the Achaeans will bury.’

And now here's Shakespeare's reworking:


ACT V SCENE VIII Another part of the plains.
[Enter HECTOR]
HECTORMost putrefied core, so fair without,
Thy goodly armour thus hath cost thy life.
Now is my day's work done; I'll take good breath:
Rest, sword; thou hast thy fill of blood and death.
[ Puts off his helmet and hangs his shield behind him ]
[Enter ACHILLES and Myrmidons]
ACHILLESLook, Hector, how the sun begins to set;5
How ugly night comes breathing at his heels:
Even with the vail and darking of the sun,
To close the day up, Hector's life is done.
HECTORI am unarm'd; forego this vantage, Greek.
ACHILLESStrike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.10
[HECTOR falls]
So, Ilion, fall thou next! now, Troy, sink down!
Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain,
'Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.'

So, in essence, Shakespeare undercuts all the glory and honor associated with the great duel-- though, to be sure, Homer seems quite aware of the innate brutality of the war itself-- and makes Achilles into a honorless dog who orders his personal guards, the Myrmidons, to chop down Hector when the latter has partly doffed his armor.

There's a lot of other support for the notion that Shakespeare meant to vilify the very idea of Classical Greece's idea of heroes and their heroic deeds, but I don't mean to explore that here. My main concern is to locate this Shakespeare play within the sphere of the playwright's handling of violent conflicts, and thus I find that TROILUS AND CRESSIDA follows the same pattern as CORIOLANUS, of which I wrote:

CORIOLANUS was my choice for a play that had the potential for the significant combative value, in that its opposed characters Coriolanus and Aufidius were both portrayed as exceptional warriors seen lusting to kill each other at the play's outset.  However, because the play's plot does not end with a combat between these two well-matched characters, CORIOLANUS is not combative in the narrative sense.
I'll forego further comment on the play, except to say that it strikes me as a play in which the writer's desire to satirize something he didn't like-- in this case, the general macho swaggering of the Greeks, and even Troilus's male chauvinism-- but without managing to bring any of his satirical characters to the semblance of life. By comparison, CORIOLANUS is much more successful on a roughly similar theme. The Roman general of the play's title is also something of an egotistical butthead, but he's a much more nuanced character than any of those in TROILUS AND CRESSIDA.

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