In Olivia Manning’s wonderful Balkan Trilogy set in World War II Bucharest, Guy Pringle, most lovable of extroverts, decides to do an amateur production of Shakespeare. He chooses Troilus and Cressida. It’s so accessible to the ex-pats and legation folks that I think, well, how hard a play could it be?
So here I am at the beginning of Troilus and Cressida:
In Troy there lies the scene. From isles of Greece
The princes orgulous, too much arugula in that salad last night their high blood chafed
Have to the port of Athens sent their ships,
Fraught with the ministers and instruments piano needs tuning
Of cruel war. Sixty and nine, that wore
Their crownets regal, Does Gwen have any more of that Crown Royal from th’ Athenian Bay
Put forth toward Phrygia; Phrygian mode, which one is that and their vow is made
To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures immures. immures. immures?
The ravished Helen, Menelaus’ queen,
With wanton Paris sleeps; and that’s the quarrel.
To Tenedos they come, isn’t that a ski resort?
And the deep drawing barks do there disgorge
Their warlike fraughtage. I’ve always liked that word fraught Now on Dardan’s plains does that have something to do with the Dardanelles?
The fresh and yet unbruised Greeks do pitch
Their brave pavilions. Priam’s six gated city
Dardan and Timbria, Helias, Chetas, Troien,
And Antenonidus — with massy staples need to go to Office Depot before that coupon runs out
And corresponsive and fulfilling bolts, bolts, Frankenstein
Stir up the sons of Troy.
Now expectation, tickling skittish spirits
On one and other side, Trojan and Greek,
Sets all on hazard. Those fires in Colorado sounded horrific And hither am I come,
A prologue armed, but not in confidence
Of author’s pen, or actor’s voice, but suited
In like conditions as our argument,
To tell you (fair beholders) that our play Does Derek Jacobi do this part?
Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
Beginning in the middle, starting thence away
To what may be digested in a play.
Like, or find fault; do as your pleasures are.
Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war. That’s a cool line ok what was all this about?
And so–this is not Shakespeare anymore, this is the rest of my blog post–I begin, not in confidence, to borrow a phrase. I have learned something on this, my sixth play of this project. I have learned to approach the verbiage of Shakespeare the way I do the crowds at the Folk Life festival. I let the words carry me along while I get used to the feel, the smell, the noise, the rhythm, and the texture until something emerges that piques my interest and pricks my understanding. I read three columns of speeches in Troilus and Cressida before I realized, “Oh, ok. They’re planning to roust Achilles from his pouting by promoting Ajax. Got it.”
I am hazy on The Iliad but that hardly matters because Shakespeare has turned the Greek myth inside out. Achilles, sulking in his tent with a male lover, is a symptom of the disarray and the low morale of the Greek camp. Ulysses has a celebrated speech when he details the way life is ordered in the Elizabethan cosmos. When the hierarchy is upset, apparently one ends up with Achilles lying around with his lover and unwilling to fight. (When I came upon this speech in my Pelican Shakespeare I found margin notes from my days as an English major. Huh. I don’t remember reading this.)
Then over in the Troyan (he doesn’t call it Trojan) camp the gang is considering why this blasted war has gone on for seven years. “Helen is the quarrel,” they conclude. They agree they really ought to give her back because they are in the wrong, but then amidst a lot of posturing about honor and renown, they decide they won’t.
Enter Thersites, a jester-type character who hasn’t had a wash in several years and whose mouth is as filthy as the rest of him. He pretty much farts in the general direction of both camps and declares that the war is being fought for “a whore and a cuckold.” After a while I got used to Thersites as being not only the most disgusting piece of work in the play but also as the only one who tells the truth. And he has some great insults.
Briefly: Cressida is a Greek woman who is pimped over to Troilus on the Troyan side by her Uncle Pandarus and from his name we get the word pander. She turns out not to be trusted and Troilus goes from being love-sick to being what we would today call in denial. By the end of the play, Cressida has been returned and Achilles has his henchmen murder an unarmed Hector, the great hero of the Iliad. The play ends with the Troyans mourning over the mashed-up body of Hector. Whereupon Pandarus, distraught, tells us he is going to carry-on his pimp trade in the “hold-door” establishments–the brothels-and his is the disturbing last line of this play about war:
. . . I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.
So yeah. Creepy. But here are some lines I liked:
*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. (I, iii)
*The amity that wisdom knits not, folly may easily untie. (II, iii)
*a sleeping giant (II, iii)
*Ajax: An all man were of my mind
Ulysses (aside): Wit would be out of fashion (II, iii)
*Generation of vipers (III, i)
*This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit. (III, ii)
*Pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride. (III, iii)
*Those wounds heal ill that men do give themselves. (III, iii)
*Lechery, lechery; still wars and lechery. . . (V, iii)
Here are few of Thersites’(tamer) insults:
“Idol of idiot-worshippers.”
“not so much brain as ear-wax.”
“that stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese, Nestor”
This is such a bitter, cynical play that I think what the hey, I’ll do King Lear next!