By repeated practice, and with example showing the way, experience constructs an art.
Experience is a weaker and less dignified means: but truth is so great a matter that we must not disdain any method which leads us to it. Reason has so many forms that we do not know which to resort to: experience has no fewer. The induction which we wish to draw from the likeness between events is unsure since they all show unlikenesses. When collating objects no quality is so universal as diversity and variety...Of itself, unlikeness obtrudes into anything we make. No art can achieve likeness (Screech 364-365).
He introduces here the subject he will address in this essay: how it is that we can best gain knowledge given the pervasive variability, both in ourselves and in the world around us, that impedes us from knowing. These lines begin by establishing both the authority and the shortcomings of experience as a means to knowledge. Experience is what steps in to help us know “when reason fails us.” Although Montaigne does call it “a weaker and less dignified means” than reason through which to access truth, he does not discount it; in fact, he later encourages the use of personal physical experience over reason as a means to productive knowledge. At the same time, however, experience is as subject to variability as are reason and, in fact, all of our methods of accessing knowledge. Montaigne has spent the Essais building up our notion of our own partial perspectives, which means that we are necessarily limited in all our higher-level functionings. Experience is no different; it offers us only a basis for greater productive knowledge, not a platform for absolute truth, as we must interpret our experience for it to give us any knowledge. When we interpret experience, we necessarily distort it to a certain extent because we select our interpretation from one of “many forms.”
At this point, Montaigne moves on to the greatest problem with our interpretation of experience: likenesses and unlikenesses. He argues that we prefer to find likenesses, not unlikenesses, between the events that we experience. The problem with that preference is that any likeness we do find cannot be trusted, as “unlikeness obtrudes into anything we make,” for “no art can achieve likeness.” Thus, we greatly distort our experience and any knowledge we gain from it in our eagerness to find likenesses between experiences. That is, we forget or ignore the possibility of distinction and difference between experiences even though those are their most universal qualities. As Montaigne writes:
The multiplicity of our human inventions will never attain to the diversity of our cases. Add a hundred times more: but never will it happen that even one of all the many thousands of cases which you have already isolated and codified will ever meet one future case to which it can be matched and compared so exactly that some detail or some other specific item does not require a specific judgement. There is hardly any relation between our actions (which are perpetually changing) and fixed unchanging laws (Screech 365).
We assume that our actions will match the “fixed unchanging laws” that we set for them, so disfiguring our experience that we lose any potential to gain functional knowledge from it. We are caught between the likeness and the unlikeness of our experience, and we handle it badly:
Just as no event and no form completely resembles another, neither does any completely differ. What an ingenious medley is Nature’s: if our faces were not alike we could not tell man from beast: if they were not unalike we could not tell man from man. All things are connected by some similarity; yet every example limps and any correspondence which we draw from experience is always feeble and imperfect; we can nevertheless find some corner or other by which to link our comparisons. And that is how laws serve us: they can be adapted to each one of our concerns by means of some twisted, forced or oblique interpretation (Screech 370).
We choose to create and adapt laws of similarity to connect our experiences, no matter how tenuous the link. In effect, we falsify our experiences so that we can interpret them as similar, allowing our desire to form rational analogies to remove our chance to develop any true or useful knowledge from our experience.
The main fault in our struggle to form rational analogies is our focus on interpretation. Montaigne argues against such a focus: “All I can say is that you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up” (Screech 367). Not only do so many interpretations remove the truth from our experience, but the laws we use to do so are also faulted. As Montaigne says, “Laws are often made by fools, and even more often by men who fail in equity because they hate equality: but always by men, vain authorities who can resolve nothing” (Screech 373). Rules of interpretation created by necessarily limited man do not provide an authoritative mode of interpretation. Thus, the problems caused by an excess of interpretation are aggravated by the flaws in the method used to interpret.
Given this problem, Montaigne proposes a different method for using experience to gain knowledge. He argues that we have a better chance of forming productive knowledge if we focus on our bodies, rather than on our minds; that is, we are better off examining our own personal experience than attempting to form connections between our experiences and others’ experiences. As he writes, “Whatever we may in fact get from experience, such benefit as we derive from other people’s examples will hardly provide us with an elementary education if we make so poor a use of such experience as we have presumably enjoyed ourselves; that is more familiar to us and certainly enough to instruct us in what we need” (Screech 374). When we examine ourselves, we have the benefit of ultimate authority, whereas we have no authority in anything beyond ourselves. We are completely incapable of moving beyond our bodies and our perspective; thus, those connections that we strive to make between our experience and others’ experience are ultimately useless, as there is no certainty in them. Our own experience is our sole way to garner any useful or productive knowledge: “Were I a good pupil there is enough, I find, in my own experience to make me wise” (Screech 375). All of our knowledge should build from the starting point of our personal experience; this will give us the best knowledge possible, given our innate incapacity to have any certainty beyond ourselves. Any knowledge we possess is necessarily drawn from our physical experience of the world, as we take in everything through our senses and then interpret the input in our minds; thus, the best way for us to understand the world and to act within it is to understand our own experience.
For Montaigne, understanding our experience means understanding our limits and flaws. He lays out for us what we should learn:
When I find that I have been convicted of an erroneous opinion by another’s argument, it is not so much a case of my learning something new he has told me nor how ignorant I was of some particular matter—there is not much profit in that—but of learning of my infirmity in general and of the treacherous ways of my intellect. From that I can reform the whole lump.
With all my other mistakes I do the same, and I think this rule is of great use to me in my life. I regard neither a class of error nor an example of it as one stone which has made me stumble: I learn to distrust my trot in general and set about improving it. To learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing: we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads (Screech 375-376).
When we learn that we cannot trust ourselves, that “we are but blockheads,” we can begin to move toward productive knowledge. For Montaigne, we can only gain knowledge when we recognize our limits in doing so; how we recognize these limits is to learn from our experience of our “infirmity in general and of the treacherous ways of [our] intellect.” If we base all of our knowledge off of a certainty of our contingency, derived from our understanding of our experience, we can achieve productive knowledge, as our judgment will take that contingency into account. As Montaigne writes, “Within me judgement holds the rector’s chair, or at least it anxiously strives to do so. It permits my inclinations to go their own way...without itself being worsened or corrupted. Though it cannot reform those other qualities so as to bring them into harmony with itself, at least it does not let itself be deformed by them: it plays its role apart” (Screech 376).
The only remaining question, then, is what productive knowledge looks like. This is what Montaigne spends the final pages of “On Experience” describing. For him, productive knowledge gives us the ability to live fitting lives; according to Montaigne, this is our ultimate challenge. He writes:
If you have been able to examine and manage your own life you have achieved the greatest task of all. Nature, to display and show her powers, needs no great destiny: she reveals herself equally at any level of life, both behind curtains or without them. Our duty is to bring order to our morals not to the materials for a book; not to win provinces in battle but order and tranquility for the conduct of our life. Our most great and glorious achievement is to live our life fittingly (Screech 415-416).
Accomplishing this “most great and glorious achievement” means that we have an internal focus, managing our own lives through an examination of our experiences and determining from there our proper course of action. Montaigne argues that it is beyond us to strive for order and victory on a scale larger than ourselves; if we have truly productive knowledge, we will recognize our incapacity to do so and will instead focus our attention on ordering our own lives, a far more beneficial use of our time. He tells us that:
It is an accomplishment, absolute and as it were God-like, to know how to enjoy our being as we ought. We seek other attributes because we do not understand the use of our own; and, having no knowledge of what is within, we sally forth outside ourselves. A fine thing to get up on stilts: for even on stilts we must ever walk with our legs! And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.
The most beautiful of lives to my liking are those which conform to the common measure, human and ordinate, without miracles though and without rapture (Screech 425-426).
Thus, the most productive knowledge is self-knowledge, drawn from examining our own experience; it is this knowledge, and this knowledge alone, that will permit us to “enjoy our being as we ought.” Attempting to move outside ourselves is useless because we can never truly do so, limited as we are by our partial perspective. As Montaigne says, we are, and will ever be, “seated, still, upon our arses.” The best we can do is to know and understand ourselves well and to live a life appropriate to that knowledge.
The character of Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida typifies the man who fails to learn from his own experience as Montaigne would have him do. This is interesting considering Ulysses’ role within the play; he is the closest thing to a voice of reason that Shakespeare gives us. Ulysses is characterized by his ability to manipulate situations to achieve his goal, particularly through his use of language. Very early in the play, we see his craftiness come into play as he advises Agamemnon about how to resolve the problem of Achilles’ refusal to fight. He begins with flattery:
Ulysses gives a long speech about the importance of maintaining degree—that is, the importance of respecting the social hierarchy—, which flatters Agamemnon in its suggestion that Achilles’ refusal to obey him is a disruption of the natural order that will cause great chaos. In the final lines of this speech, he cites this disruption as the reason the Greeks have not yet won the war: “To end a tale of length, / Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength” (I.iii.136-137). Ulysses, however, does not believe any of what he says about degree; his entire purpose in his speech is to make Agamemnon amenable to his solution for the Achilles problem. He recognizes what is at the root of the problem: emulation. Achilles is attempting to emulate Agamemnon, which is disturbing the normal chain of power within the Greek camp, rendering it incapable of engaging the Trojans in battle and winning the war. Ulysses also recognizes that the key to resolving the problem, and one of this world’s central facets, is reputation. Achilles has been swept away by his great reputation; if he believes his reputation is in danger, he will fight to save it. Ulysses proposes a plan to this end:
No, make a lott’ry,
And by device let blockish Ajax draw
The sort to fight with Hector; among ourselves
Give him allowance for the better man,
For that will physic the great Myrmidon
Who broils in loud applause, and make him fall
His crest that prouder than blue Iris bends.
If the dull brainless Ajax come safe off,
We’ll dress him up in voices; if he fail,
Yet go we under our opinion still
That we have better men. But, hit or miss,
Our project’s life this shape of sense assumes:
Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes (I.iii.373-385).
Ulysses clearly recognizes the problem and what needs to happen to resolve it, which makes him one of the play’s most clear-sighted characters; however, he is still blind to the lessons of his own experience.
Although Ulysses is arguably the most undeceived, reasonable character in the play, he still does not recognize that he cannot control anything beyond himself. He is exactly that man who will “sally forth outside [himself]” because he “has no knowledge of what is within.” The speeches and plans he makes in the first acts of the play display a certain understanding of the world around him, but they also signal his failure to acknowledge contingency and the potential for unlikeness. He constantly assumes that those around him will respond in a particular manner, which is an assumption that he should not make. He ultimately remains ineffectual because of this assumption, with all his carefully crafted plans coming to naught, a sign that he fails to recognize the limits of his own physicality. Ulysses does not account for the fact that contingency will always intervene. He does not examine his own experience closely enough to realize that he cannot control the actions of others, nor even accurately predict them; rather than building outward from his own experience, Ulysses wrongly believes that he has an innate productive knowledge of the world, a belief that proves completely false.
In the final act of the play, Ulysses pities Troilus and so takes him to spy on Diomedes and Cressida; however, he does not anticipate Troilus’ extreme reaction to what they see. When he finally realizes, too late, that Troilus’ intensity is potentially dangerous, he cannot remedy the problem, even as he tries to sooth Troilus:
You are moved, prince. Let us depart, I pray you,
Lest your displeasure should enlarge itself
To wrathful terms. This place is dangerous,
The time right deadly. I beseech you, go (V.ii.36-39).
Troilus, overcome with emotion, does not listen to Ulysses, instead going into a mad frenzy, fighting without rational thought for the lost Trojan cause. Similarly, Ulysses’ plans to motivate Achilles to fight are preempted when Patroclus dies, which motivates Achilles to fight where the challenge to his reputation did not. Ulysses’ failure to realize his own limits in forming his plans are a sign of his failure to learn from his own experience. His knowledge is ultimately not productive, meaning that it does not help him achieve any of his goals, because he does not have a firm grasp on what he is and is not capable of doing. He does not understand or accept the fact that he cannot move beyond himself—that is, his personal sensory experience—with any certainty, which renders the knowledge that he does possess completely ineffectual. Ulysses’ foiled plans exemplify the lack of productive knowledge Montaigne warns will come from a failure to understand our experience’s limits and to build all of our knowledge from that experience.
VI. Forgotten Equality: Gender Relations, Self-Distortion, and a Lack of Chivalry
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of Troilus and Cressida is its complete lack of chivalry, particularly on Troilus’ and Pandarus’ parts. Again, Montaigne’s Essais explain this ‘problem’ with Shakespeare’s play; in his “On some lines of Virgil,” Montaigne makes the case that we have mistaken our fundamental equality through our consistent disfiguration of one another. He takes as his example the gender ideology that carries a double standard for men and women, using this ideology to stand for any such divisive philosophy. Before discussing gender ideology’s ills, he provides this example of the ideal male/female relationship: “A good marriage (if there be such a thing) rejects the company and conditions of Cupid: it strives to reproduce those of loving-friendship. It is a pleasant fellowship for life, full of constancy, trust and an infinity of solid useful services and mutual duties” (Screech 274). Ideally, husbands and wives have a reciprocal “loving-friendship,” with a shared “trust and an infinity of solid useful services and mutual duties” [italics added]. What Montaigne describes as a good marriage is an equitable partnership, with each person playing an equally important role. In such a relationship, there is no room for the common marital faults he names soon after: “The actions of those husbands who accept the bargain and then show hatred and contempt are harsh and unjust. Equally unfair and intolerable is that fine counsel which I see passed from hand to hand among our women: Serve him like a master: watch him like a traitor” (Screech 275). This description is interesting in that, even in describing injustices, Montaigne maintains male/female equality. Both men and women are at fault for the destruction of the “loving-friendship” necessary for a good marriage because both make mistakes; this is the first introduction we receive to Montaigne’s emphasis on the basic equality of humans, a tie to the likeness/unlikeness conundrum he discusses in “On Experience.”
He then moves on to a discussion of the unfair and disfiguring constraints that gender ideology places upon women. He sets up his list of injustices by condemning those husbands who commit them against their wives: “It has angered me to see husbands hating their wives precisely because they are doing them wrong: at very least we should not love them less when the fault is ours; at very least they ought to be made dearer to us by our regrets and our sympathy” (Screech 276). Montaigne identifies the major problem underlying what he is about to discuss at length: that men demand impossible and contradictory things of women—thereby “doing them wrong”—and then hate them when they are incapable of meeting the unreasonable demands made of them. Men have lost sight of the actuality of women and have imposed an artificial gender divide to maintain power over them. Montaigne does not blame women for their dislike and rejection of custom’s unfair rules that result from this divide:
Women are not entirely wrong when they reject the moral rules proclaimed in society, since it is we men alone who have made them. There is by nature always some quarrelling and brawling between women and men: the closest union between us remains turbulent and tempestuous. In the opinion of our poet [Virgil] we treat women without due consideration (Screech 277).
Although there is “by nature” always going to be conflict between men and women, men have exacerbated this conflict through the “moral rules proclaimed in society,” created solely by men without “due consideration” of women. Women rightly protest the unjust and falsifying expectations imposed upon them, particularly since these expectations are frequently contradictory. Montaigne writes that “We realize that women have an incomparably greater capacity for the act of love than we do and desire it more ardently” (Screech 277). Given this assumption, he continues:
We believe all that and teach all that. And then we go and assign sexual restraint to women as something peculiarly theirs, under pain of punishment of the utmost severity. No passion is more urgent than this one, yet our will is that they alone should resist it—not simply as a vice with its true dimensions but as an abomination and a curse, worse than impiety and parricide. Meanwhile we men can give way to it without blame or reproach.
Those men who have made an assay at overcoming it, employing purely material remedies to cool down the body, to weaken it and to subdue it, have adequately vouched for the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of achieving it. Yet we men on the other hand want our wives to be in good health, energetic, radiant, buxom...and chaste at the same time, both hot and cold at once (Screech 278).
Men acknowledge that women have a greater capacity and desire for sex than they do, yet they demand that women deny this natural state by assigning chastity to them; not only this, but men “assign sexual restraint to women as something peculiarly theirs,” assigning no such restriction to themselves. This sexual self-denial is not only unnatural, particularly for women who—at least according to popular thought at Montaigne’s time—“have an incomparably greater capacity for the act of love” than men, but also impossible, as testified to by men who have “adequately vouched for the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of achieving it.” Thus, men not only demand that women remain chaste, something men themselves have acknowledged as impossible, but also that they remain “energetic, radiant, [and] buxom” at the same time, a complete contradiction to the virginal behavior demanded of them. As Montaigne puts it, men expect women to be “both hot and cold at once,” a demand not only unjust, but also impossible.
This unnatural and unreasonable stipulation finds it roots in nothing more than an exercise in male power (the wish to force upon women the ‘superior’ judgment of men) and a desire to maintain the status quo of lineage: primogeniture. As he writes, “If the ferocity of their desires were not somewhat reined in by that fear for their honour with which all women are endowed, we would all be laughing-stocks” (Screech 281). Such a double standard’s creation disallows the social hierarchy’s change, which traditionally places men in a position superior to women, again disguising human beings’ basic equality through its unjust customs. He writes:
The gods, says Plato, have furnished men with a rebellious and tyrannical member which tries to force everything to submit to its appetite like an animal on the rampage. So too the women have an animal, avid and greedy...(Screech 283)
Let us admit it: there is hardly one of us who is not more afraid of the disgrace which comes to him from his wife’s immorality than from his own; hardly one who is not so amazingly charitable that he worries more about his dear wife’s conscience than he does about his; hardly one who would not rather commit theft and sacrilege—or that his wife were a murderer or a heretic—than to have her be no chaster than he is (Screech 285).
Even though men and women are both rendered equally irrational by their sexual desires, men disregard their own lack of chastity in favor of ensuring that their wives, equally tempted, remain chaste at any cost. Montaigne argues that men completely ignore the sex drive’s inherent equality, misrepresenting themselves as just in committing those same ‘crimes’ that they so vehemently protest in women—a constraint that disfigures woman’s very nature. He further expounds upon this injustice:
We do not weigh the vices fairly in our estimation. Both men and women are capable of hundreds of kinds of corrupt activities more damaging than lasciviousness and more disnatured. But we make things into vices and weigh them not according to their nature but our self-interest: that is why they take on so many unfair forms. The ferocity of men’s decrees about lasciviousness makes the devotion of women to it more vicious and ferocious than its characteristics warrant, and engages it in consequences which are worse than their cause (Screech 286).
The cruel double standard men impose, wherein “we make things into vices and weigh them not according to their nature but our self-interest,” is one in which both the representation and the consequences of the action outweigh its actual value. Once again, the injustice’s root is self-interest; men exaggerate the severity of “lasciviousness” to maintain their power over women, forcing them to become almost inhuman in an effort to meet the unreasonable demands imposed upon them: “The very ideal which men forge of their chastity is ridiculous...To satisfy us they have to be invisible and insensate” (Screech 293-294).
This disfigurement is an example of the custom that Montaigne argues we treat as Nature; he accuses men of this when he writes that “You are not afraid to infringe her [Nature’s] universal and undoubted laws yet preen yourself on your own sectarian and imaginary ones: the more particular, uncertain and controverted they are, the more you devote your efforts to them” (Screech 308). In our infringement of what is natural—in this case, the human beings’ basic equality—we have completely disfigured ourselves, failing, as Montaigne brings up in “On the Cannibals,” to separate our partial knowledge from absolute knowledge. We have refused to truly examine ourselves and acknowledge that the gender divide is an artificial creation designed merely to maintain the power hierarchy, choosing instead to believe that this unnatural and unreasonable double standard is natural and just. As he writes, “The arbitrary laws of your own invention—your own parochial laws—engross you and bind you: you are not even touched by the laws of God and this world” (Screech 308). We have gone so far down the path of denaturing and dehumanizing one another that we do not recognize how far we are from what is actually natural. What is natural, according to Montaigne, is gender equality: “I say that male and female are cast in the same mould: save for education and custom the difference between them is not great” (Screech 329). Any seeming discrepancy between the two is merely a result of artifice, which disguises the actuality of humanity.
In addition to gender ideology, Montaigne uses concepts of language to make his point that we disfigure ourselves. Very early in the essay, he argues for the complete and honest disclosure of thought and deed:
The worst of my deeds or qualities does not seem to me as ugly as the ugly cowardice of not daring to avow it. Everybody is circumspect about confessing, whereas they ought to be circumspect about doing: daring to do wrong is to some extent counterweighted and bridled by the courage needed to confess it. Any man who would bind himself to tell all would bind himself to do nothing which we are forced to keep quiet about (Screech 266).
What Montaigne is saying here is that if we no longer misrepresented our true selves by disguising—or rather, disfiguring—the “worst of [our] deeds or qualities,” we would improve ourselves. If we force ourselves to see and express ourselves as we actually are, instead of how we would like to be, we can move closer to what is natural. Indeed, he writes a few lines later that “If you are to tell of a vice of yours you must first see it and study it” (Screech 266). This relates back to the importance Montaigne places upon knowing oneself in “On Experience”; it is only through accurate and thorough self-examination that we can develop productive knowledge. It does us no good, he argues, to have ourselves mistaken for the image we present: “Are people talking about you if they honour you for valour when you are really a coward? They mistake you for somebody else...Men who misjudge what they are like may well feed on false approval: I cannot. I see myself and explore myself right down into my inwards; I know what pertains to me” (Screech 268-269). There is no point in receiving this false approval; failing to recognize and to express our faults is just a way for us to falsify ourselves further. Instead, we must examine ourselves and present ourselves to the world as we truly are, allowing us to have that productive knowledge that Montaigne argues can only come from knowing ourselves.
Montaigne also cites euphemism, particularly sexual euphemism, as a way for us to disfigure ourselves. We exclude a highly important and highly basic part of our mental activity from our conversation when we euphemize our sexual discussions, which is a further falsification:
The genital activities of mankind are so natural, so necessary and so right: what have they done to make us never dare to mention them without embarrassment and to exclude them from serious orderly conversation? We are not afraid to utter the words kill, thieve or betray; but those others we only dare to mutter through our teeth. Does that mean that the less we breathe a word about sex the more right we have to allow it to fill our thoughts?
It is interesting that the words which are least used, least written and the least spoken are the very ones which are best known and most widely recognized. No one of any age or morals fails to know them as well as he knows the word for bread. They are printed on each one of us without being published; they have no voice, no spelling. It is interesting too that they mean an act which we have placed under the protection of silence, from which it is a crime to tear it even to arraign it and to judge it. We dare not even flog it except by paraphrasis and similitude. A criminal is greatly favoured if he is so abominable that even the laws think it illicit to touch him or to see him: he is freed by the beneficence of his condemnation and saved by its severity (Screech 269).
Thus, we betray our true selves when we refuse to discuss sex, or any other subject, without the aid of “paraphrasis and similitude,” masking activities that are actually “so natural, so necessary and so right” that they are “best known and most widely recognized.” Essentially, the use of euphemism is an exercise in artifice. We have created a false and unnatural standard of decorum that we have imposed upon our conversation, rendering unacceptable the unadorned discussion of a completely natural activity that occupies a significant amount of our time and thought. Montaigne would argue that we have created similarly unnatural standards in many facets of our lives, such as in the gender ideology that so severely disfigures women, which disallows us from being ourselves. If we can let go of those perverted standards that constrain us, standards that are derived from a fear of others’ wills and desires, we can access accurate self-knowledge. This, in turn, will allow us to see that we are more alike than different, which is not possible in a society so constrained and falsified. As Montaigne writes, “What we need is moderation” (Screech 313). If we can moderate ourselves, instead of going to those extremes that completely pervert us, we will be able to examine ourselves and recognize the fact of our limited perspective, enabling us to gain productive knowledge, which is, for Montaigne, the ultimate goal.
The irrational gender ideology and problems with euphemism Montaigne describes in his essay are played out in the gender relations in Troilus and Cressida, particularly in Cressida’s plight throughout the play. Cressida is, in fact, the epitome of the woman treated “without due consideration” (Screech 277). Her situation is extraordinarily difficult, as none of the major male figures in her life display any of the traditional chivalry. Pandarus, her uncle and supposed guardian, does not fulfill his obligation to protect her honor. Rather, to gain social power, he panders her off to Troilus, who in turn offers her no proposal of marriage or any form of security—nothing, in fact, beyond a few moments of passion, as all of his love words to her are nothing more than euphemisms for his lust. As a nearly-powerless female, she has nothing other than her wiles and her appearance to rely upon to ensure her own safety in this unjust circumstance, which only worsens when she is sent to the Greek camp. In effect, Cressida is disfigured by the treatment given her by the men in her life, who serve her with Montaigne’s gendered double standard that fails to acknowledge the basic equality between men and women, rather than the chivalry we would expect from a Trojan War story.
We first encounter the interaction between Cressida and Pandarus in the second scene of the play. Almost immediately, he tries to convince her of Troilus’ merits, so that she will willingly accept his advances and thereby benefit Pandarus’ own aims:
[Pandarus] Let them take
heed of Troilus, I can tell them that too.
[Cressida] What, is he angry too?
[Pandarus] Who, Troilus? Troilus is the better man of the
[Cressida] O Jupiter! there’s no comparison.
[Pandarus] What, not between Troilus and Hector? Do
you know a man if you see him?
[Cressida] Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him.
[Pandarus] Well, I say Troilus is Troilus (I.ii.56-65).
Pandarus compares Hector to Troilus and esteems Troilus the “better man of the two,” quickly building him up to the point where he says “Troilus is Troilus” instead of “Hector is Hector,” which actually has much greater significance. Cressida, fully aware of what her uncle is trying to do, sarcastically plays along when she says “O Jupiter! there’s no comparison,” subtly mocking Pandarus’ attempts to attract her to Troilus. Their exchange continues in this ironic vein, including an evaluation of each of Priam’s sons as he passes by, until Pandarus finally becomes frustrated with Cressida’s guarded responses:
[Pandarus] You are such a woman a man knows not at
what ward you lie.
[Cressida] Upon my back, to defend my belly; upon my
wit, to defend my wiles; upon my secrecy, to defend
mine honesty; my mask, to defend my beauty; and you,
to defend all these; and at all these wards I lie, at a
[Pandarus] Say one of your watches.
[Cressida] Nay, I’ll watch you for that; and that’s one of the
chiefest of them too. If I cannot ward what I would not
have hit, I can watch you for telling how I took the blow,
unless it swell past hiding, and then it’s past watching (I.ii.252-263).
Here, Cressida explains why she must always be on her guard, even with her supposed protector. If she is not careful, her reputation, which is all she has to rely on, will be lost; she will “swell past hiding” with pregnancy if she allows her uncle to force her to take “the blow” of Troilus’ affections. She is forced into a position of always having to defend herself, even against the man who is supposed to be her protector, a fact which she acknowledges when she says to him: “I’ll watch you for that; and that’s one of the / chiefest [watches] of them too.”
Cressida’s awful position comes more fully to light at the second scene’s close, in a short soliloquy she delivers after Pandarus leaves her:
Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice
He offers in another’s enterprise;
But more in Troilus thousandfold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be.
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing;
Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows nought that knows not this:
Men price the thing ungained more than it is;
That she was never yet, that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungained, beseech.
Then, though my heart’s content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear (I.ii.275-287).
We discover that Cressida, in fact, already loves Troilus. Yet, she explains, she refrains from showing that love because of the expectations men have for women. As she says, “Men price the thing ungained more than it is.” Men quickly lose interest in women who submit to their advances; her best way to maintain Troilus’ interest, and thus protect herself, is to continue playing hard-to-get as long as possible. Cressida must disfigure herself, disguising her true feelings and desires, in order to survive in a world where she, as a woman, is subject to the whims of the unchivalrous men who control her—namely, Pandarus and Troilus. The only way for her to maintain her precarious position is to ensure that Troilus, and thus Pandarus, continues to be interested in her, which means that she must subject herself to the male expectation of coyness in her dealings with him. This maintains her reputation, but not her honor; she must compromise her honor (an exact connection between word and deed) to keep up her reputation (others’ perception of her). She must sacrifice her internal truth for the sake of her external appearance.
When Cressida and Troilus meet in the third act, we see even further the iniquity of Cressida’s position. He speaks to her in absolutes, subtly suggesting a limitless image that she cannot possibly meet:
O! that I thought it could be in a woman—
As, if it can, I will presume in you—
To feed for aye her lamp and flames of love;
To keep her constancy in plight and youth,
Outliving beauty’s 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 winnowed purity in love (III.ii.153-162)
He will “presume” in her this eternal love and constancy that his own “integrity and truth” cannot hope to meet. Again, we see the male/female double standard being put into action. We also see Montaigne’s point about euphemism enacted in Troilus’ words; he cites her “winnowed purity in love,” but his merely lustful actions fail to match his words’ honorable timbre. He distorts his intentions in using such language, something we see throughout Troilus and Cressida. Honor and chivalry have become euphemisms for the base desires of men, which furthers the unfairness of Cressida’s situation because it renders her incapable of relying upon Troilus’ and Pandarus’ promises to her. Cressida herself comments outright upon this inequality when she speaks to Troilus:
Hard to seem won; but I was won, my lord,
With the first glance that ever—pardon me:
If I confess much you will play the tyrant...
Why have I blabbed? Who shall be true to us
When we are so unsecret to ourselves?
But, though I loved you well, I wooed you not;
And yet, good faith, I wished myself a man,
Or that we women had men’s privilege
Of speaking first (III.ii.113-115, 120-125).
She declares again the need to hide her love from Troilus to prevent him from playing “the tyrant,” and she also overtly comments upon the disfiguration that comes as a result of such a need, asking “Who shall be true to us / When we are so unsecret to ourselves?” In asking this question, Cressida makes the exact point Montaigne makes in “On some lines of Virgil”: that we cannot find any true self-knowledge when we distort ourselves. If even we are untrue to ourselves, there can be nothing left to accurately portray us, either to ourselves or to the world outside ourselves. Cressida’s final sentence here directly acknowledges the inequality between men and women. She wishes that she were a man, with “men’s privilege / Of speaking first” so that she might be free to stop disfiguring herself by expressing her true feelings without fear of the consequences. Cressida is very aware of the divide she creates within herself in her effort to meet the impossible standards of behavior set for her. She admits as much to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you; / But an unkind self, that itself will leave / To be another’s fool” (III.ii.143-145). She cannot be completely true to herself in her interactions with him because that would be too risky; instead, she distorts herself to maintain his interest in her, her only assurance of security as he has offered her no proposal of marriage. The only oath they take, found at the end of the scene, is to remain true to one another, but this is no real guarantee of security for her. Cressida’s lack of certain safety for herself is why she behaves the way she does when she reaches the Greek camp.
Cressida’s behavior at the Greek camp is to continue playing the game of self-distortion in order to maintain her safety. Although she has moved out of Troy, she has not moved out of the male/female double standard’s realm and must therefore continue disfiguring herself to obtain security in her new environment. After her encounter with Diomedes, she comments once more on the internal divide she has been forced to create within herself:
Troilus, farewell. One eye yet looks on thee,
But with my heart the other eye doth see.
Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find,
The error of our eye directs our mind.
What error leads must err. O, then conclude
Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude (V.ii.109-114).
Although she still loves Troilus, she must adapt to her new circumstances and protect herself as best as possible, which means submitting to Diomedes. She bemoans again the plight of the female sex, and says that “What error leads must err,” which can be interpreted to mean that the “error” of society’s double standard leads women to “err” in their behavior, disfiguring themselves to meet the dehumanizing standards Montaigne cites in his essay. In this way, Cressida’s plight exemplifies the negative results of such standards, and of the men’s euphemism, which show a marked lack of chivalry on the part of the men in the play; she is forced to distort herself, essentially dividing in two, in order to play the game and maintain her safety in a society characterized by unrealistic male expectations for women.
The implications of Shakespeare’s decisions in writing Troilus and Cressida are multiple. The nature of pre-Darwinian skepticism is to appear whenever there is a dogma to be countered; in this case, Shakespeare’s and Montaigne’s skepticism is put to work to fight the idealistic dogma that both authors see overwhelming Europe—idealizing a way of life that is not necessarily superior. Having been influenced by Montaigne’s skeptical Essais, Shakespeare chooses to use drama, a form wherein satirical criticism is literally acted out by the characters, and the Trojan War, a traditionally heroic tale here rendered completely the opposite, to enact his own skepticism. Thus, Shakespeare’s ‘problem play’ is not really problematic at all; it is merely his way of expressing, in a Montaignian fashion, the problems he sees in Elizabethan society.
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1 The prologue is particularly interesting when considered in light of the almost drastically different language of the prologues of some of his other plays. The prologue in Henry V could not be more different than that of Troilus and Cressida. The prologue’s speaker in Henry V, rather than being a depraved figure like Pandarus, is instead a Chorus who appears multiple times throughout the play. Simply having such an authoritative speaker lends an aura of grandeur and importance to the events that are to follow, an aura that is markedly lacking in Troilus and Cressida. The Chorus speaks about the events that will follow in heroic terms, building up the gloriousness of the war through his highly-ornamented language—language of the high style. The first sentence of the Prologue is enough to show us how great an event this must have been: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention, / A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” (Prologue 1-4). This is quite a distinction from the understatement of Troilus and Cressida’s prologue’s nonchalant description of the Trojan War, which begins: “In Troy there lies the scene” (Prologue 1). Whereas the Chorus in Henry V calls upon a “Muse of fire” and various members of royalty, immediately equating the events of the play with a regalness, and even a certain god-like quality, the Prologue in Troilus and Cressida merely gives us perfunctory, factual detail. While the events of Henry V are given greatness from the beginning, the Trojan War is downplayed into nothing more than a chance occurrence, suggesting that Shakespeare is trying to accomplish a very particular goal with this play: to break down traditional assumptions of knowledge.
The Prologue from Romeo and Juliet is also quite different than that of Troilus and Cressida. The Prologue in Romeo and Juliet is designed to direct the sympathies of the audience, a characteristic that is lacking in the Troilus and Cressida prologue. The adjectives Shakespeare uses in the Romeo and Juliet prologue clearly tell the members of the audience what they are supposed to feel. The first line, “Two households, both alike in dignity,” begins this process of leading the audience (Prologue 1). They are supposed to have no bias towards one house or another, but rather to consider them equal in merit, as they are “both alike in dignity.” A few lines later, the Prologue tells of the “misadventured piteous overthrows” of Romeo and Juliet. Again, the adjectives direct the audiences’ feeling; they are to pity and sympathize with Romeo and Juliet’s plight (Prologue 6). Other descriptive aspects of the prologue also determine the audience’s sentiments. The audience receives descriptions of the “fearful passage of their death-marked love” (Prologue 9) and how “civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (Prologue 4). In giving his audience an emotionally-charged synopsis of events, Shakespeare directs his audience, telling them how they are supposed to feel at different moments; for example, they are to feel the fear and loss of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths and the shame and waste of the families’ violent feud. Troilus and Cressida’s prologue has no such charged descriptions. The facts of the story are presented with no additional adjectives, leaving the audience completely undirected. This element of the prologue functions to further Shakespeare’s point by forcing us to interpret the play on our own. The contrast with Romeo and Juliet’s prologue makes the lack of emotional and interpretive leading very pronounced, again suggesting that Shakespeare intends for this play to function as a reminder of how much we cannot know.