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Of all the ‘problem plays’, Troilus and Cressida is the richest in imagery. Its satire and irony are powerful and its concern with the maneuvers of mighty antagonists as they move towards inevitable mutual destruction is full of significance for the modern world.
Appetite is a central concern in the play. Both honor and sexual gratification are greedily sought. Pandarus portrays the whole process of courtship in terms of baking and cautions Troilus against burning his lips. At the other extreme, Ulysses depicts the all-devouring nature of gross appetite as ‘an universal wolf.’ In the paradox, which is typical of the play: appetite is so all- consuming that it devours itself. As Thersites says of Troilus and Diomedes, when he loses sight of them on the battlefield: ‘I think they have swallowed one another. I would laugh at/that miracle; yet in a sort lechery eats itself.’
The process of disintegration throughout the play also involves breaking things down into constituent parts and then comparing them in terms of weight, size and speed. The feature of number, division and parts appears as early as the Prologue: the Grecian princes who set off for War number ‘sixty and nine’, and Troy is described as Priam’s six-gated city. The features of number, division and separation are epitomized in the most significant speeches of the play. Nestor is willing to fight Hector whose youth is in ‘flood’ with his own ‘three drops of blood.’ Cassandra cries ‘Lend me ten thousand eyes, /And I will fill them with prophetic tears.’ Troilus talks of Helen as the woman whose price has launch’d above a thousand ships.’ These divisions are often closely linked with the food imagery and that of cooking, eating and regurgitating.
Troilus anticipating the consummation of his love with Cressida says: ‘The imaginary relish is so sweet /That it enchants my sense: what will it be/When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed /Love’s thrice-repured nectar?
But his use of food imagery is more characteristic of the play when he experiences betrayal by Cressida - here, her love is visualized as leftover.
‘The fractions of her faith, orts of her love, /The fragments, scraps, the bits, and greasy relics/Of her o’er-eaten faith are given to Diomed.’
Subtle, delicate imagery connects key elements in the play. Early on, Alexander tells Cressida how Hector has been so angered by being knocked down in battle by Ajax that he can’t wait to get back into action.
First, there is a comparison between the labor that forms part of the life-giving process of producing food with the life-destroying activity of War. Second, there is the image of flowers weeping at the prospect of mutilation and death. The flowers weep in anticipation of what will happen just as Cassandra invites the Trojans to weep before Troy is destroyed. Frequently, future events are predicted or visualized and in the latter case, the future imaginatively becomes the present, as when Cassandra describes Hector’s death to him before he sets out to fight on the fateful day.