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MonkeyNotes-Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
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Act II Scene 1 introduces us to Thersites, the professional railer. The seriousness of the debates that precede and follow is underlined by the deliberately offensive Thersites who belongs to the tradition of the licensed fool. He constantly reminds the audience of stark realities, and without being present at the preceding debate scene he has realized that Achilles and Ajax are only instruments in the hands of the Greek leadership.

Act II, Scene 2 or the Trojan Council scene is the next great set piece after the Greek council scene. It has a similar structure, but its matter is different. The Trojans produce a true debate with Priam as a moderator. Hector’s speech, which considers the moral and personal consequences of judgment involved with passion, is strictly coordinate with the speeches of Ulysses in the preceding scene. Both the warrior-statesmen appeal to principles of law - Hector cites the laws of nature and nations, and Ulysses the law by which the universe maintains itself in order. Both of them speak persuasively for the establishment of those principles by which each side ought to conduct itself. Neither in the end manages to live up to the principles which he has outlined the conclusion in this scene is determined by Hector’s decision. This is in order to follow a lesser good than that for which he had argued, just as in Act I, Scene 3, the conclusion is determined by Ulysses’ decision to apply good principles to inferior ends. But the audience is at no doubt about the canons that apply. This is a true debate, in which Troilus is a prominent speaker. He believes that Helen should not be given up and argues persuasively. The interruption of the debate here comes in the form Cassandra who wants the Trojans to give up Helen.


But Troilus mocks her ‘brain-sick raptures’ and rejects Hector’s notion that justice depends on the effects of like: justice, he says, is absolute and not subject to circumstances. His assertion and that of Paris who supports him are rebutted by Hector on the ground that passionate involvement had no place there. Hector argues that Paris and Troilus are too young and impetuous to judge rightly and secondly, that the return of Helen is required by justice. He says that an universal law condemns the policy of Paris; for Helen is indeed wife to Sparta’s king and both natural law and the laws made by man require that she be returned. At this point, Hector hesitates between absolute and relative good, and eventually, opts for the relative good of personal honor, and admits to having sent a challenge to the Greeks.

The Trojan debate is a serious discussion of fundamental issues, political and philosophical. Here the theme is extended to the even more general question of whether the whole war is worth the sacrifices involved. The play seems to ask whether honor and reputation are worth bleeding for, and whether abstract moral and political ideals have any real meaning

Scene 3 brings out the fact that Pride, the chief deadly sin occupies a central position and is mostly the domain of Achilles and Ajax, and by the time of the embassy to Achilles in this act, it is the chief focus.

Prefaced by Thersites and the ‘fool positive’ Patroclus, this absurd scene sees the Greek lords once again enter accompanied by petty jealousies and recriminations. There is a careful analysis of Achilles’ pride by Ulysses, a proud rejection of pride by Ajax and splendid ironic praise of Ajax’s freedom from pride by all the Greeks.

For the first time in Act II, Scene 1, we meet Helen who is revealed as truly unintelligent. We also get an insight into the character of Paris who is portrayed as weak-willed and besotted with Helen - he even refers to her as his ‘Nell.’

After its swift introduction in the first two scenes, the love plot does not return until Act III, Scene 2. When the lovers enter the stage again, their first night together has already been arranged by mutual consent, with Pandarus as the go-between. This is a curious scene, which opens as the play did, with Troilus frustrated and wholly dependent on Pandarus. When the lovers are brought together, they greet with a kiss but say little and the incident lives chiefly in the comments of Pandarus. When the lovers are alone at last, there is a prose ‘wooing’, then Pandarus reenters and the lovers enact a verse ‘wooing.’

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