“War for a Placket”: Montaigne’s Skepticism and Shakespeare’s Troy
I. The Critics’ Responses to ‘The Problem Play’
With its clearly unique form of critique, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida has long presented a problem for Shakespearean literary critics. Piero Boitani, editor of The European Tragedy of Troilus, speaks to the general academic consensus when he writes that “Shakespeare’s play is so problematic that it conditions all subsequent versions and even determines the apparent death of the story in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (vi). Oscar James Campbell explains one of the play’s primary problems, that it does “not have the conventional form of comedy, tragedy, or history” (187). Troilus and Cressida cannot be accurately placed into any of the three traditional categories, as it contains elements of all three with, of course, a satirical twist. Colin N. Manlove lays out the further problems with the text:
Troilus and Cressida is even more directly philosophical than Hamlet, with frequent debates on the nature of such impersonal topics as value, time and order; as a part of this the portrayal of the opposition of mind and body is more overtly conceptual. It is of a piece with this greater impersonality that the issues in the play are rarely moral, and there is little sense of conscience, even from Cressida. There is more stress, too, on the causes of human behavioural difficulties than concern with the unfolding of those difficulties in action; we follow not one but a number of central figures and societies, and have to trace the features common to them. The process is more analytic than dramatic... (50)
What we have here, then, is a play that is more conceptual than dramatic, that essentially goes nowhere, and that takes traditionally heroic characters and removes from them all sense of morals. It is, as Hendrik Röhrman writes, “A world which has become entirely stagnant and which, though it still contains valuable and noble inhabitants, forces them into a position of defence; a world in which what should bind men together have become debatable...indeed our modern Thersites-world” (6). What are we to do with a play that breaks so completely with both general literary tradition and Shakespeare’s own usual writing? In an attempt to explain Shakespeare’s motives and inspiration for writing Troilus and Cressida, critics have turned to a multitude of sources.
Some authors have looked to the changing facets of Elizabethan life to pinpoint Shakespeare’s motivation. Raymond Southall, in his article “Troilus and Cressida and the Spirit of Capitalism,” explains the appearance of Troilus and Cressida as based upon the emergence of capitalism and the resulting marketplace society. Southall delves heavily into the consumption imagery found throughout the play—both in the realm of buying and selling and in the realm of eating—and ultimately comes to the conclusion that:
In the play, Shakespeare’s implicit conception of society is that of medieval humanism...The integrity of this use of medieval social theory can be appreciated if it is borne in mind that the theory reflects medieval social life, feudalism; that form of living had been corrupted and was doomed...Shakespeare concentrates our attention upon an area of life, and that the most intimately human, in which the spirit of capitalism works without hope of redemption (231-232).
While the play is certainly laden with such consumption imagery—and Shakespeare does clearly critique a society that renders everything mere commodity—Southall’s analysis does not take into account anything beyond this imagery or the Elizabethan economy. An economic analysis of this sort does not explain Shakespeare’s decision to, in essence, demoralize a heroic tale or to render the world he creates stagnant. Agostino Lombardo, while accounting for more facets of Elizabethan life in his “Fragments and Scraps: Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida,” still leaves those same questions unanswered. He claims that “It [Troilus and Cressida] is clearly rooted in the crisis in English society the historical and political emblem of which is James I’s succession to Queen Elizabeth, the Stuarts to the Tudors, although its wider context is of course the decline of the aristocracy, the rise of the merchant class and the bourgeoisie, the explosion of religious tensions and the beginnings of a new science and philosophy,” drawing upon more aspects of Elizabethan life than does Southall (213). Lombardo comes to the conclusion that Troilus and Cressida can be explained in primarily linguistic terms; he argues that the contemporary social setting provoked Shakespeare to establish “a new kind of language,” which emerges in Troilus and Cressida (216). While Shakespeare may very well have been influenced by the “crisis” in English society, such an influence does not justify the sharp division between Troilus and Cressida and Shakespeare’s other works—a division that seems to be present for that particular play alone—nor does it account for its themes of depravity. Those critics who look to the shifts in English life for illumination cannot explain the singular nature of Troilus and Cressida’s satire, style, or subject matter.
Other critics have turned to Shakespeare’s English contemporaries to explain the mystery of Troilus and Cressida. Virgil L. Whitaker, in “Still Another Source for Troilus and Cressida,” argues in favor of a strong influence by Robert Greene’s Euphues His Censure to Philautus, published in 1587, particularly in the Trojan council scene. Whitaker himself, however, acknowledges the tenuous nature of this connection, writing that “the evidence that Shakespeare knew Greene is less than definitive. But the possibility that Euphues His Censure to Philautus provided material for the Trojan council scene seems to me to amount to strong probability” (107). Even if Whitaker is correct about Greene as one of Shakespeare’s sources, his argument provides no solutions for anything beyond the single Trojan council scene and does not account for anything beyond the factual material of even that scene, giving no explanation for the play’s generally-acknowledged problems. Oscar James Campbell, in his Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, argues that Troilus and Cressida’s particular brand of satire can be explained by way of the “comicall satyres” of Ben Jonson and John Marston. Campbell claims that “Shakespeare successfully adapted to his purpose when constructing Troilus and Cressida” “the conventions, established by these two innovators” (viii). Again, however, this is a somewhat questionable connection, given that it is based solely upon literary “conventions”; Campbell claims only that Shakespeare “adapted” their forms, a tie that is insubstantial at best and does not truly explain the incongruous nature of Troilus and Cressida, particularly given the fact that its satire is not always comical. Again, Campbell leaves central questions unanswered, offering no explanation as to why Troilus and Cressida is generally stagnant or why its characters are so devoid of any moral consideration.
W.B. Drayton Henderson’s “Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ Yet Deeper in its Tradition” attributes great influence to Lydgate’s Troy Book. Although Henderson discusses “Shakespeare’s possible use of other authors: Chapman’s Homer, Caxton of course, a humanist unnamed for the moment who might have set Shakespeare’s hand to accent his takings as he does,” “principally Lydgate and his Troy Book are [his] subject” (127-128). Arguing that Troilus and Cressida presents a “distinct Philosophy of Values,” Henderson bases his argument primarily upon the connection between the events presented in the Troy Book and the events portrayed in Troilus and Cressida (128). Robert K. Presson, in his Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida & the Legends of Troy also names Chapman’s translation of Homer as one of Shakespeare’s sources, in addition to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Presson writes that “The dramatist’s debt to the incomplete 1598 edition of Homer is manifest, I think, in the central situation, in the episodes, in narrative flavor, theme or conception, and in characterization” (141). He also notes that “Shakespeare’s version of the Troilus-Cressida plot is closer to Chaucer’s than it is to any account of the story before 1602 which has survived” (107). Although Henderson and Presson are quite right to ascribe influence to these authors, particularly to Chaucer and to Chapman’s Homer, there are distinct differences between the works that still leave aspects of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida unexplained. While Shakespeare’s version imitates Chaucer’s satirical version of the Troy narrative, it does not have the same transcendent closure. In Chaucer’s poetry, Troilus dies and ascends to the heavens, realizing his mistakes, and the narrative closes with an injunction to the reader to devote himself to God. Shakespeare’s version, with its abrupt and inconclusive finale, differs sharply from such a moralizing close; Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida ultimately goes nowhere, while Chaucer’s rendering makes clear progress. Similarly, Chapman’s translation of Homer (published in part in 1598, five years before Troilus and Cressida) differs from Shakespeare’s version in that it presents the traditionally and genuinely heroic tale of Troy, with none of the criticism and satire that pervade Shakespeare’s play. Thus, while Shakespeare may have derived characters and plot points from Chapman’s Homer and some of his satirical devices from Chaucer’s poetry, these works do not fully account for the ‘problem’ of Troilus and Cressida.
What, then, can account for this ‘problem’? Some critics come close to explaining the play by focusing on the issues it deals with. Hendrik Rörhman, in The Way of Life, argues that the play is about living rightly. He cites the major issue of Troilus and Cressida: “In other words, in spite of his [Hamlet’s] superior brain, he is incapable of solving the problem of how to live. Now it is exactly this question which is, I believe, of crucial importance in Troilus and Cressida (75).” He begins by citing critics as far back as Shakespeare himself, arguing that, “The important point to emphasize is, I suggest, whether it is possible to distinguish between the what I surmise to be not much more than factual cynicism, the cynicism we might say of representation, of Shakespeare’s mediaeval predecessors and the intrinsic cynicism of his own play” (64). Although Röhrman does not fully admit to such a distinction, he is right, at least, to bring up its possibility, a possibility forgotten by those authors who explained Troilus and Cressida’s cynicism based solely upon that of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan peers. His final point, “That Shakespeare is dealing with a whole world, that Troilus and Cressida is a major canvas,” concerned with not only bringing down the Greeks, but the Trojans as well, acknowledges once again this distinction between Shakespeare and his peers and names something central to explaining the play—that is, Shakespeare’s determination to critique the entire world he creates, not merely a portion of it, which goes at least some way toward explaining the nature of Shakespeare’s satire (78). Colin N. Manlove, in his The Gap in Shakespeare: The Motif of Division from Richard III to The Tempest, explains Troilus and Cressida as an examination of the divide between mind and body, tying that division to a division between thought and action. Without mentioning the source of the compulsion to complete such an examination, Manlove centers the play on these themes; this offers some reason for the play’s stagnant and demoralized character, although it still leaves us without the motivation for such a complexion. Finally, Linda Charnes, in her Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare, presents issues of identity as central to the play, which, similarly to Manlove, offer partial answers to some of Troilus and Cressida’s major questions without the benefit of a potential motivation.
Without seeming to realize it, Röhrman, Charnes, and Manlove have identified what I will argue is a key to unlocking Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: Michel de Montaigne’s Essais. Although Charnes mentions Montaigne in the first two pages of her article, he is then left out of the rest without serious consideration as a source. Yet those themes that Röhrman, Charnes, and Manlove identified as central to Troilus and Cressida—issues of living rightly, of the divide between mind and body, and of identity—are the basis of Montaigne’s Essais. Through a careful analysis of the major themes of several of Montaigne’s essays and how those themes are exemplified in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, I will contend that the unknown source of inspiration for this anomalous work was Montaigne, whose essays were published in English by John Florio in 1603, the same year Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida. The timing of this publication, in conjunction with Shakespeare’s almost certain familiarity with Chapman’s Homer and Chaucer’s poetry, provide the answer to the question of Shakespeare’s motivation in writing Troilus and Cressida. All the major ‘problems’ of the play—its stagnancy, its demoralization of a heroic tale, its lack of single genre, and its focus on concept over drama—can be explained by way of its comparison with the major themes of Montaigne.
II. The Prologues: Shakespeare’s ‘Problems’ and Montaigne’s Answers