War for a Placket

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Troilus and Cressida’s commonly-named ‘problems’ all appear first in the play’s prologue, in which Shakespeare displays them for his audience. Before I address those problems and how they are revealed within the prologue, however, I think it apt to look at Montaigne’s “On the Cannibals,” an essay that serves as his own sort of prologue in terms of its introduction of his central ideas, as that will enable us to better understand why those problems appear.

In “On the Cannibals,” Montaigne tells us that we should “be similarly wary of accepting common opinions; we should judge them by the ways of reason not by popular vote” (Screech 79). The “common opinions” of which he speaks are those opinions that are presented as fact, rather than presented as an individual judgment distorted by personal bias. Almost immediately, Montaigne introduces an idea that is central to not only this essay, but to all the Essais: that absolute and partial knowledge are not the same thing. He sets a clear distinction between “popular vote,” the Western trend of custom-informed judgment that masquerades as complete truth, and “the ways of reason,” the acknowledgment of judgment as informed by custom and, thus, partial. He continues to develop this distinction by introducing our narrator, or, rather, the narrator whose account Montaigne will convey to us. He describes the narrator as “a simple, rough fellow—qualities which make for a good witness” (Screech 82). Here he begins to define what constitutes a reliable description: that is, one not influenced by personal judgment but rather characterized by a certain observational indifference. He sees a danger in those people who actively put their particular bias into their accounts:

...those clever chaps notice more things more carefully but are always adding glosses; they cannot help changing their story a little in order to make their views triumph and be more persuasive; they never show you anything purely as it is: they bend it and disguise it to fit in with their own views. To make their judgement more credible and to win you over they emphasize their own side, amplify it and extend it. So you need either a very trustworthy man or else a man so simple that he has nothing in him on which to build such false discoveries or make them plausible, and he must be wedded to no cause. Such was my man... (Screech 82).
Montaigne further establishes the reliability of his source over others by developing the distinction between Nature and custom. For Montaigne, the only complete truth lies with Nature, which can never be accessed by the constantly “becoming” human race that will always be limited by a partial perspective. There are, however, varying degrees of this limitation. Although his narrator may be no closer to accessing absolute knowledge than anyone else, he is less likely to actively bias his account, being a “simple” man who does not have enough exposure to custom for it to influence his narrative. The danger Montaigne sees in other people is that they have come to mistake their partial perspectives for absolute. These are Montaigne’s “clever chaps,” who cannot help but put their own interpretations into what they describe, altering it with their own judgment. Any account we receive from those who cannot see that they are biased by their customs cannot be completely accurate because it will necessarily be mediated and falsified. Montaigne, however, establishes the less-judgmental character of his narrator, thereby giving credibility to what he is about to tell us: his will be a reliable description because it comes from a source that is completely incapable of coloring his account with custom. Although he does not overtly acknowledge the mediated nature of his own writing, Montaigne does not pretend that its content is absolute; he structures his Essais in such a way as to make it clear that they are his personal thoughts, yet he makes it equally clear that he has no motive for biasing them in any particular direction.

The argument that Westerners are blind to the heavy influence conventional bias has on them also comes up in an earlier section of the essay. Montaigne writes:

Now, to get back to the subject, I find (from what has been told me) that there is nothing savage or barbarous about those peoples, but that every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to; it is indeed the case that we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason than the example and form of the opinions and customs of our own country. There we always find the perfect religion, the perfect polity, the most developed and perfect way of doing anything! (Screech 82).
Here, he quite clearly states that “we have no other criterion of truth or right-reason” than “customs.” This is precisely the problem Montaigne wants to bring to our attention: we do not recognize how strongly our customs influence our knowledge. We carry the solipsistic belief that what we ‘know’ is absolute truth when, in fact, it is merely our truth. He designates this belief as dangerous since it leads to a perversion of the absolute truth that exists beyond our limited selves.

Montaigne argues that European society has corrupted Nature, thereby perverting its judgment and knowledge and secluding itself from actuality. Near the beginning of “On the Cannibals,” Montaigne writes:

Those ‘savages’ are only wild in the sense that we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course: whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage. It is in the first kind that we find their true, vigorous, living, most natural and most useful properties and virtues, which we have bastardized in the other kind by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes (Screech 82-83).
Here, he explains how we have corrupted Nature, secluding ourselves from actuality. For Montaigne, human knowledge is always positional. It is never possible to know absolutely because our perspectives are always limited by the particular lens through which we view the world; that is to say, our access to perfect knowledge or truth is denied by our personal prejudices. Our knowledge is completely sensory; it comes from our bodily senses and is then interpreted by our minds, which, for Montaigne, are intrinsically connected to our bodies. Thus, the version of actuality we perceive is subject to any number of factors, including circumstance, physiology, and personal belief, making our knowledge necessarily imperfect and limited. Since we cannot know absolutely, Montaigne argues, we must at times rely upon custom. The difficulty arises when we confuse custom and Nature; the problem for Montaigne is that what we see as Nature is, in reality, custom. This is clear in his writing about “fruits,” which serve as a metaphor for knowledge: “...we call fruits wild when they are produced by Nature in her ordinary course: whereas it is fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order which we ought to call savage.” In our minds’ interpretations, we have mistaken something completely artificial—societal custom—for an absolute and useful Nature. Our confusion precludes us from having any functional knowledge, as we cannot gain anything useful or true from something so artificial. As he writes, “it is in the first kind [Nature] that we find their true, vigorous, living, most natural and most useful properties and virtues, which we have bastardized in the other kind [custom] by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes.” Thus, we have perverted our knowledge and secluded ourselves from actuality, or whatever part of it we can access from our limited perspectives, through our misinterpretations.

Montaigne’s concept of knowledge is ironic in that it requires a constant acknowledgement of its incompleteness. The truest knowledge we can possess, for Montaigne, is the understanding that our knowledge can never be absolute. What we perceive as truth is always unique to us and to our perspectives, and even our perception of what is true is subject to change as our perspectives change. It is only when we acknowledge this fact that we can begin to develop functional knowledge and connect with actuality, partial as that connection may be. What Montaigne argues in the preceding quote, however, is that we have failed to acknowledge the limited nature of our perceptions. Rather than recognizing as perfect and absolute that which comes from Nature, that which we can never fully access, we recognize as perfect and absolute our own versions of truth, the “fruits” that we have “artificially perverted” and “bastardized” to our “corrupt tastes.”

The argument Montaigne makes in his “On the Cannibals” is manifested in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In the play, we see the same problems Montaigne diagnoses lived out in the misguided and egotistical characters and their interactions. Troilus and Cressida’s Prologue introduces the inverted nature of its ‘heroic’ tale and begins to show some of the parallels that exist between the Essais and the play. Both Montaigne and Shakespeare suggest that the world as Europeans see it is not really how the world is, but rather an image they have created for themselves from their own custom-driven prejudices. In other words, they pride themselves on what is in reality nothing more than a creation of their own perspectives. Just as Montaigne suggests that Europeans have come to recognize their personal truths as absolute truth, so Shakespeare suggests a revision of that viewpoint by satirizing one of the great heroic events: the Trojan War.

The Prologue explains that the play begins in medias res, just as Homer’s epic does; however, the similarities between the two end there. Rather than an ideal world wherein the chivalric and heroic codes are epitomized, the Prologue introduces us to a world of near anarchy, wherein all is stagnant. The fact that the play begins in medias res signifies its stagnancy; we arrive in the middle of a lull in the action and leave just as it begins to pick up again. The prologue, like the rest of the play and Montaigne’s Essais, is written in the middle style, rather than the high style we would expect of a heroic epic. Already, Shakespeare is outraging convention. The brusque, compendious description of events Shakespeare gives in the prologue indicates the mock heroism of the play; in contrast to the empirical indifference of Montaigne’s source, the Prologue has a callous indifference to the traditionally great significance of the events he introduces—rather than an indifference for accuracy’s sake, we have here an indifference for irony’s sake. Shakespeare’s Prologue tells the audience to “Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are” (Prologue 30). He is completely apathetic about how the audience interprets the play, giving us no guidance for how to respond to its events, something Shakespeare usually has his Prologues do. 1

Shakespeare’s prologue introduces a world of equivocal meaning; we are forced to interpret the play for ourselves partially because the Prologue himself has no understanding of the play’s meaning. He tells us that he is “come, / A Prologue armed, but not in confidence / Of author’s pen or actor’s voice” (Prologue 22-24). Meaning in this world is so arbitrary that even the Prologue cannot grasp it, and, in a world with no progress or action, we have nothing to do but interpret. In creating such a world, Shakespeare satirizes our idea that we can have absolute knowledge. Here, our ability to determine the significance of events is nothing more than chance, for the Prologue follows his command to “do as your pleasures are” by saying, “Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war” (Prologue 30-31). The suggestion here is that meaning itself is decided by chance, rendering us incapable of having any absolutely correct interpretation. This uncertainty of interpretation also renders us unable to categorize the play within any particular genre; contrary to most of Shakespeare’s plays, this Prologue does not lay out the events of the play in an indication of the genre—a lack probably due, at least in some part, to its scarcity of action. We are left without any knowledge of whether we are watching a tragedy or a comedy, a question that remains unresolved even at the end of the play; once again, “’tis but the chance of war.”

The world introduced by the Prologue is one of chance, far from the concrete and transparent world of the heroic. The Prologue tells us that “Now expectation, tickling skittish spirits, / On one and other side, Trojan and Greek, / Sets all on hazard” (Prologue 20-22). Everything is “on hazard”; nothing is secure or concrete, and anything can happen. What goes on in this world is as ambiguous as the Prologue, who is, as he tells us, “suited / In like conditions as our argument” (Prologue 24-25). A world so full of chance occurrences does not carry with it the same moral force as exists in the heroic world of Homer’s epic. Rather than being transparent and predictable, based on the principles of chivalry, the world Shakespeare creates is one full of corruption and competition, where anything can happen. In this world, Shakespeare exemplifies Montaigne’s argument that our limited perspectives cannot account for everything. The Prologue tells us that the events of the play are nothing more than chance occurrences—“the chance of war”—which can have multiple outcomes. This prologue does not allow us to presume to know absolutely; it forces us to acknowledge that we interpret things through our own bias, doing “as [our] pleasures are.”

Although Shakespeare himself does not specify which character should speak the prologue, it is telling that most directors choose Pandarus (who also speaks the epilogue). The character Pandarus is entirely dishonorable in his actions. He is Cressida’s guardian, charged with protecting her and maintaining her virtue; instead, he makes a deal with Troilus and gives her away for his own benefit. Despite the fact that the audience does not know his entirely despicable nature when they hear the prologue, the fact that he, a highly disreputable character, speaks the prologue further deflates the glory of the Trojan War. As the events of the play unfold, the audience’s understanding of the world Shakespeare creates is colored by their realization of Pandarus’ treacherousness. Rather than rising from the degraded beginnings of the prologue, the rest of the play follows suit: characters that we expect to be heroic are inconstant, arrogant, and at times downright wretched. The world void of all human morals that Shakespeare creates in the prologue carries through the rest of the drama.

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