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MonkeyNotes-Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
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Notes

This brilliant scene of double eavesdropping has been called ‘the most complex scene in all Shakespeare’s works.’ What distinguishes Act V, Scene 2 is its unusual staging in which Diomedes and Cressida are watched by Troilus and Ulysses, and all four are observed by Thersites who in turn is viewed by the entire audience. Shakespeare needs Thersites to provide a third comment on the wooing and for most of the scene, he is not really concerned with Troilus and Ulysses. Thersites’ responses in this scene are not wholly those of a detached commentator. Sometimes he seems to derive a kind of sexual excitement, like that of a voyeur, from what he sees.

The marked formalism of the staging emphasizes the exemplary nature of the wooing action while allowing it to remain naturalistic - at least until Cressida makes her farewell, in rhyming emblematic fashion. Eavesdropping is a device used more often in comedy than in tragedy, especially when a character gives himself away to the very persons he wants to deceive. Here all the attention is on Troilus and his tragic experience. But even this is not represented without some deflating commentary. Ulysses fails to understand Troilus’ anguish, and Thersites only sees its absurd side. One of the eavesdroppers, Troilus himself is the subject of satiric comment by Thersites.


Ulysses attracts no satire but serves as a further commentator upon Troilus though one of whose advantage Troilus is aware. The audience enjoys the advantage of two wholly opposite ways of apprehending. It can respond as fully as it chooses to the emotional and metaphysical tensions of Troilus’ experience while seeing constantly before it, the visible evidence for the structure of an argument. The simultaneous presence of both points of view gives the scene its comic as well as its painful character. There is nothing like this scene in the rest of the plays by Shakespeare.

Cressida is revealed as only another instance of the wrong value put by men on things - the play is concerned with the false ideals she is expected to embody and with the discovery that she is not able to support this role. Such a discovery can be tragic and comic at the same time. It is comic for those who have never believed in the original valuation, and have been looking forward to the moment of enlightenment, but tragic for him who has put all his trust in an ideal partly of his own making, and who suddenly finds himself cruelly deceived.

Troilus, since he cares more for principles than for persons, cannot help seeing a whole sex embodied in one woman: to see her as woman is to see all perfections potentially within her; and hence he must turn to the whole question of identity to help himself. This is a very difficult speech, because although it attempts to use the language of logic and the methods of rhetoric, it is primarily concerned with giving utterance to an intolerable state of feeling. It is easy to mock Troilus as both Ulysses and Thersites do in their different ways, but that is to fail to understand that he is examining the unbearable consequences of having pledged his truth to what is now known to be false.

The audience actually witnesses Cressida’s fall and there is something pathetic and painful in Troilus’ agonized attempts to understand what he has seen. The tortuous rhetoric that combines strained logic and overwhelming emotion is very different from the other tragedies.

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