Why Everyone is Wrong About Shakespeare, or A Review of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA by William Shakespeare

I once attended an open air performance of William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.  The production was excellent but, twice, familiar pop and jazz songs were played in their entirety for the cast to dance and gyrate to. My standard procedure during this kind of thing is to read about the cast in my program. I was able to do this during the first song but, by the time of the second, it was far too dark out. Usually, I prefer being absorbed when I’m at the theater but this distraction proved profitable. It helped me realize the REAL reason Shakespeare was such a great writer.
That should be obvious, right? Until this production, I would have assumed so. Not anymore. Few highly regarded authors bring forth such strong yet strangely confused opinions. On the one hand, there are people who revel in Shakespeare and are tediously fond of declaring that no one else measures up. Yet many of these admirers focus almost entirely on Shakespeare’s happier comedies. The savagery and bare-knuckle politics of many of the tragedies and histories hold little interest for them. To them, Shakespeare is a kind of early fantasist, providing a pleasant Renaissance-y escape from the modern world, complete with winking bawdy humor.
On the other hand, one also meets those who loath Shakespeare or take delight in cutting him down to size. For these folks, the very existence of the first group provides them with an excuse to rarely attend or read one of Shakespeare’s plays. They see Shakespeare as a conservative institution that, if it is to survive, needs to be made relevant. This group is deeply uncomfortable at a Shakespeare production that doesn’t chop and twist the play into their vision of transgressive art. As long as it does, they can relax and declare the performance “fresh,” and “daring” despite the fact that such practices have been the norm since at least the mid 1980s. Perhaps you sense a “plague on both their houses” tone here? Well, the logical question to throw at someone like me would be, “So what does make Shakespeare great?” I can only say I’ve found my answer in Troilus and Cressida.
Troilus and Cressida has baffled commentators for generations. It depicts an episode from the Trojan War yet it is devoid of heroism or sacrifice. The ancient Greek heroes, illustrious figures like Achilles and Ajax, are shown as selfish, idiotic, treacherous and cruel. The titular love story is shallow and swiftly falls apart. The theme of the play is deadly serious. Near the end, one of the few (relatively) friendly characters is brutally killed. The tone, on the other hand, is quite a different matter. One critic said this tone reminded him of a comic opera. For a modern audience, it may feel closer to watching a satirical cartoon like The Simpsons or Family Guy.  I can honestly say I have rarely laughed so much while reading as when I first read Troilus and Cressida.  In the end, there really is no resolution to the play. Bad deeds go unpunished, traitors face no justice and the war grinds on and on. All this is topped off by an atmosphere of decadence and seediness that made many in my audience shift uncomfortably in their seats and mutter in annoyance.
For years, the play was denigrated or ignored. The Romantics and, even more, the Victorians had elevated Shakespeare to divine status. Gods don’t write plays like this.  Troilus came into its own after World War I and is frequently read as an anti-war statement. There is much speculation among scholars about the play’s genesis. The sheer wildness of Troilus and its risque qualities (it is the only play of Shakespeare’s to explicitly mention homosexuality) has led some to believe that it was written for a private performance, causing Shakespeare’s usual fears about censorship to relax.
Even though Troilus is no longer taboo as it was in the nineteenth century, there is still an aura of oddness around it. People wonder, how could Shakespeare write something like that? I remember thinking so when I first read the play and was new to the serious study of Shakespeare. What struck me at the production I attended, as I was reintroduced to the play after having been immersed in Shakespeare for some time, was that Troilus is far more representative of Shakespeare than most so-called Shakespeareans would have us believe. The impact of Troilus and Cressida is, in fact, similar to the impact of most of his works. More obvious and unbridled, to be sure, but not substantially different. The key element is the same.
What is that key element? I have read countless views on what made Shakespeare so great such as glorious poetry, “infinite variety,” stunning inventiveness, etc. He certainly had all these things but so have many other great authors. What usually sets Shakespeare apart is his ruthless, infinite skepticism.
This is why Shakespeare is so dangerous to so many people. And that is why he is kept so close and distorted so completely. With the authorities, many schools especially, it is fairly obvious: Shakespeare is dangerous because he regularly exposes authority as a sham. The heroes of Greece are bloodthirsty fools and hypocrites. Kings Richard II and Edward IV, the undoubted, god-appointed rulers of England, are pathetic and corrupt losers. Parents frequently behave like children, the crucial difference being they have the power to inflict pain and misery. Two of the most famous examples would be the feuding parents in Romeo and Juliet and Desdemona’s racist father in Othello.  Even more striking are Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing, who denounces his loyal, saintly daughter as a whore on the basis of flimsy gossip and Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who would rather see his daughter dead than married to a decent man he didn’t pick for her. It is as clear as day why those in positions of power would want to disguise Shakespeare, smothering him in the robes of the establishment, the thing you need to learn, the pillar of all that is holy, virtually guaranteeing that the young will turn up their noses to him and miss his stinging exposure of the lies that prop up so many of those in charge.
But why do revolutionaries avoid Shakespeare? The answer can be found in a speech in Troilus and Cressida, a play one would think would delight all rebels with its gleeful mockery of the powerful:
Ulysses: How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogeneity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree stand in authentic strength?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too. (Act I, Scene iii)
When Troilus was revived by anti-imperialist director William Poel, he removed these lines. How could he not? Reading them, one can almost hear the cries of “Reactionary!” from the politburo. Peter Brook was a great director but he believed in radicalism, modernism and transgression. When he produced his historic version of King Lear, he removed most of the lines celebrating Cordelia’s kindness and the evil Edmund’s words of regret at the play’s finale. A true rebel cannot get sentimental about filial devotion. Depictions of a proto-Nietzschean villain wanting to do right in his last moments are not transgressive. Yet Shakespeare knew these things are as real as the ugly, brutal side of life. To deny any of these aspects of life, or to ignore the holes in them, would be a form of rock-solid faith, faith Shakespeare never had.
So Shakespeare is of no use to the revolution either. King Henry IV, who overthrows the divinely sanctioned and catastrophic Richard II, is little better than a glorified mobster, his reign pockmarked by civil war. The lovable, drunken transgressor Sir John Falstaff is a dangerous, leech-like predator. The Emperor Augustus may be cold and ruthless but would anyone want to live under his joyful, life-affirming rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII, neither of whom shows the slightest capacity or desire to govern so much as a daycare center, let alone a vast empire? Even a truly well-intentioned and cautious rebel like Marcus Brutus in Julius Caesar (a play that strikes me as the best clue we have to Shakespeare’s political feelings) leaves matters far, far worse than he found them. Shakespeare’s skepticism of rebellion and transgression, no less snarky or inconvenient than his skepticism of authority and power, could never coexist with Che Guevara t-shirts. Those who casually call for social upheaval without thinking for a second what it will mean to millions of innocent people will find Shakespeare’s nit-picking the ultimate literary buzzkill. However much Shakespeare might have admired the rebellious spirit, his eyes were wide-open to its real world consequences. Shakespeare was no rebel so he can never really be cool.
All of this can be found in the works of other writers and it is sometimes lacking in Shakespeare, especially when English patriotism comes into the picture. Deifying people does them no favors. Still, I’ll say this much: rarely, so far, have I found such intense skepticism as consistent in an author’s works as I have in the writings of William Shakespeare. Whatever else he was, he was a man utterly unimpressed with easy answers. And you’ll excuse me if I prefer what he serves up without the side order of Beyonce.

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