Troilus and Cressida
This is one of the most loose and desultory of our author’s plays: it rambles on just as it happens, but it overtakes, together with some indifferent matter, a prodigious number of fine things in its way. Troilus himself is no character: he is merely a common lover; but Cressida and her uncle Pandarus are hit off with proverbial truth. By the speeches given to the leaders of the Grecian host, Nestor, Ulysses, Agamemnon, Achilles, Shakespeare seems to have known them as well as if he had been a spy sent by the Trojans into the enemy’s camp—to say nothing of their being very lofty examples of didactic eloquence. The following is a very stately and spirited declamation:
Ulysses. Troy, yet upon her basis, had been down,
And the great Hector’s sword had lack’d a master,
But for these instances.
The specialty of rule hath been neglected.
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre,
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet, Sol,
In noble eminence, enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other, whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad. But, when the planets,
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents? what mutinies?
What raging of the sea? shaking of earth?
Commotion in the winds? frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture! O, when degree is shaken,
(Which is the ladder to all high designs)
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
(But by degree) stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Would lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength would be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son would strike his father dead:
Force would be right; or rather, right and wrong
(Between whose endless jar Justice resides)
Would lose their names, and so would Justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite (an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power)
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last, eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking:
And this neglection of degree it is,
That by a pace goes backward, in a purpose
It hath to climb. The general’s disdained
By him one step below; he, by the next;
That next, by him beneath: so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation;
And’tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness lives, not in her strength.
It cannot be said of Shakespeare, as was said of some one, that he was ‘without o’erflowing full’. He was full, even to o’erflowing. He gave heaped measure, running over. This was his greatest fault. He was only in danger ‘of losing distinction in his thoughts’ (to borrow his own expression)
As doth a battle when they charge on heaps
The enemy flying.
There is another passage, the speech of Ulysses to Achilles, showing him the thankless nature of popularity, which has a still greater depth of moral observation and richness of illustration than the former. It is long, but worth the quoting. The sometimes giving an entire extract from the unacted plays of our author may with one class of readers have almost the use of restoring a lost passage; and may serve to convince another class of critics, that the poet’s genius was not confined to the production of stage effect by preternatural means.—
Ulysses. Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion;
A great-siz’d monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past,
Which are devour’d as fast as they are made,
Forgot as soon as done: Persev’rance, dear my lord,
Keeps Honour bright: to have done, is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For Honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast; keep then the path,
For Emulation hath a thousand sons,
That one by one pursue; if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forth-right,
Like to an entered tide, they all rush by,
And leave you hindmost;—
Or, like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Tho’ less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours:
For Time is like a fashionable host,
That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’ hand,
And with his arms out-stretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: the Welcome ever smiles,
And Farewell goes out sighing. O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was; for beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time:
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
That all, with one consent, praise new-born gauds,
Tho’ they are made and moulded of things past.
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye,
Than what not stirs. The cry went out on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again,
If thou would’st not entomb thyself alive,
And case thy reputation in thy tent.—
The throng of images in the above lines is prodigious; and though they sometimes jostle against one another, they everywhere raise and carry on the feeling, which is metaphysically true and profound. The debates beween the Trojan chiefs on the restoring of Helen are full of knowledge of human motives and character. Troilus enters well into the philosophy of war, when he says in answer to something that falls from Hector:
Why there you touch’d the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected,
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds.
The character of Hector, in the few slight indications which appear of it, is made very amiable. His death is sublime, and shows in a striking light the mixture of barbarity and heroism of the age. The threats of Achilles are fatal; they carry their own means of execution with them.
Come here about me, you my Myrmidons,
Mark what I say.—Attend me where I wheel:
Strike not a stroke, but keep yourselves in breath;
And when I have the bloody Hector found,
Empale him with your weapons round about:
In fellest manner execute your arms.
Follow me, sirs, and my proceeding eye.
He then finds Hector and slays him, as if he had been hunting down a wild beast. There is something revolting as well as terrific in the ferocious coolness with which he singles out his prey: nor does the splendour of the achievement reconcile us to the cruelty of the means.
The characters of Cressida and Pandarus are very amusing and instructive. The disinterested willingness of Pandarus to serve his friend in an affair which lies next his heart is immediately brought forward. ‘Go thy way, Troilus, go thy way; had I a sister were a grace, or a daughter were a goddess, he should take his choice. O admirable man! Paris, Paris is dirt to him, and I warrant Helen, to change, would give money to boot.’ This is the language he addresses to his niece; nor is she much behindhand in coming into the plot. Her head is as light and fluttering as her heart. It is the prettiest villain, she fetches her breath so short as a new-ta’en sparrow.’ Both characters are originals, and quite different from what they are in Chaucer. In Chaucer, Cressida is represented as a grave, sober, considerate personage (a widow—he cannot tell her age, nor whether she has children or no) who has an alternate eye to her character, her interest, and her pleasure: Shakespeare’s Cressida is a giddy girl, an unpractised jilt, who falls in love with Troilus, as she afterwards deserts him, from mere levity and thoughtlessness of temper. She may be wooed and won to anything and from anything, at a moment’s warning: the other knows very well what she would be at, and sticks to it, and is more governed by substantial reasons than by caprice or vanity. Pandarus again, in Chaucer’s story, is a friendly sort of go-between, tolerably busy, officious, and forward in bringing matters to bear: but in Shakespeare he has ‘a stamp exclusive and professional’: he wears the badge of his trade; he is a regular knight of the game. The difference of the manner in which the subject is treated arises perhaps less from intention, than from the different genius of the two poets. There is no double entendre in the characters of Chaucer: they are either quite serious or quite comic. In Shakespeare the ludicrous and ironical are constantly blended with the stately and the impassioned. We see Chaucer’s characters as they saw themselves, not as they appeared to others or might have appeared to the poet. He is as deeply implicated in the affairs of his personages as they could be themselves. He had to go a long journey with each of them, and became a kind of necessary confidant. There is little relief, or light and shade in his pictures. The conscious smile is not seen lurking under the brow of grief or impatience. Everything with him is intense and continuous—a working out of what went before.—Shakespeare never committed himself to his characters. He trifled, laughed, or wept with them as he chose. He has no prejudices for or against them; and it seems a matter of perfect indifference whether he shall be in jest or earnest. According to him, ‘the web of our lives is of a mingled yam, good and ill together’. His genius was dramatic, as Chaucer’s was historical. He saw both sides of a question, the different views taken of it according to the different interests of the parties concerned, and he was at once an actor and spectator in the scene. If anything, he is too various and flexible; too full of transitions, of glancing lights, of salient points. If Chaucer followed up his subject too doggedly, perhaps Shakespeare was too volatile and heedless. The Muse’s wing too often lifted him off his feet. He made infinite excursions to the right and the left.
—He hath done
Mad and fantastic execution,
Engaging and redeeming of himself
With such a careless force and forceless care,
As if that luck in very spite of cunning
Bade him win all.
Chaucer attended chiefly to the real and natural, that is, to the involuntary and inevitable impressions on the mind in given circumstances: Shakespeare exhibited also the possible and the fantastical,—not only what things are in themselves, but whatever they might seem to be, their different reflections, their endless combinations. He lent his fancy, wit, invention, to others, and borrowed their feelings in return. Chaucer excelled in the force of habitual sentiment; Shakespeare added to it every variety of passion, every suggestion of thought or accident. Chaucer described external objects with the eye of a painter, or he might be said to have embodied them with the hand of a sculptor, every part is so thoroughly made out, and tangible: Shakespeare’s imagination threw over them a lustre
—Prouder than when blue Iris bends.
Everything in Chaucer has a downright reality. A simile or a sentiment is as if it were given in upon evidence. In Shakespeare the commonest matter-of-fact has a romantic grace about it; or seems to float with the breath of imagination in a freer element. No one could have more depth of feeling or observation than Chaucer, but he wanted resources of invention to lay open the stores of nature or the human heart with the same radiant light that Shakespeare has done. However fine or profound the thought, we know what was coming, whereas the effect of reading Shakespeare is ‘like the eye of vassalage encountering majesty’. Chaucer’s mind was consecutive, rather than discursive. He arrived at truth through a certain process; Shakespeare saw everything by intuition, Chaucer had great variety of power, but he could do only one thing at once. He set himself to work on a particular subject. His ideas were kept separate, labelled, ticketed and parcelled out in a set form, in pews and compartments by themselves. They did not play into one another’s hands. They did not react upon one another, as the blower’s breath moulds the yielding glass. There is something hard and dry in them. What is the most wonderful thing in Shakespeare’s faculties is their excessive sociability, and how they gossiped and compared notes together.
We must conclude this criticism; and we will do it with a quotation or two. One of the most beautiful passages in Chaucer’s tale is the description of Cresseide’s first avowal of her love:
And as the new abashed nightingale,
That stinteth first when she beginneth sing,
When that she heareth any herde’s tale,
Or in the hedges any wight stirring,
And, after, sicker doth her voice outring;
Right so Cresseide, when that her dread stent,
Opened her heart, and told him her intent.
See also the two next stanzas, and particularly that divine one beginning
Her armes small, her back both straight and soft, &c.
Compare this with the following speech of Troilus to Cressida in the play.
O, that I thought it could be in a woman;
And if it can, I will presume in you,
To feed for aye her lamp and flame of love,
To keep her constancy in plight and youth,
Out-living beauties outward, with a mind
That doth renew swifter than blood decays.
Or, that persuasion could but thus convince me,
That my integrity and truth to you
Might be affronted with the match and weight
Of such a winnow’d purity in love;
How were I then uplifted! But alas,
I am as true as Truth’s simplicity,
And simpler than the infancy of Truth.
These passages may not seem very characteristic at first sight, though we think they are so. We will give two, that cannot be mistaken. Patroclus says to Achilles;
—Rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold,
And like a dew-drop from the lion’s mane,
Be shook to air.
Troilus, addressing the God of Day on the approach of the morning that parts him from Cressida, says with much scorn:
What! proffer’st thou thy light here for to sell?
Go, sell it them that smalle seles grave.
If nobody but Shakespeare could have written the former, nobody but Chaucer would have thought of the latter.—Chaucer was the most literal of poets, as Richardson was of prose-writers.