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MonkeyNotes-Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
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Notes

The Trojan council scene is the next great set piece after the Greek council scene in Act I, Scene 3. Like the Greek debate scene to which it corresponds in form and function, the Trojan council scene is built on the pattern of: discussion/interruption/resumption or fresh topic/change of course by a major speaker, but its matter is different.

The Trojan council scene derives from what had become by Shakespeare’s time, a standard topic for academic dispute: namely, was it better that Helen should be kept, or that she should be returned? Unlike the Greeks therefore, 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 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.


The first part of the Trojan debate, although it is partly animated by being a family dispute, raises a major question: Hector who uses a good deal of heavyweight and clumsy vocabulary, assumes a value for Helen, and judges her unworthy as a motive for action.

Shakespeare is a master of verbiage in this play and the way language is used, gives the audience an insight into the characters. Troilus’ high-flown language wants to soar, but keeps crashing heavily to earth. Contemplating the idea of kingship, his mind reaches vaguely for glorious images, but can only come up with one that suggests corpulence - ‘a waist most fathomless.’ When he reaches love, the ‘theme of honor and renown’, he stumbles into those unfortunate images of luxury, staling, digestion and trade.

Contrary to what Hector believes, Troilus inquires how far, an objective valuation is possible in any conditions. His point is that the intrinsic value of any object must be first determined and that the determination is itself a matter of uncertainty. His error consists in using an example where the intrinsic and the attributed values must necessarily be inextricably confused. ‘I take today a wife’ is the perfect hypothesis for a man defending personal judgments but has only a distant connection with the case of Helen. Besides, his whimsical Petrarchanism is muddied by the accidental double entendres - The image of the noble Paris sailing to Greece where ‘he touch’d the ports desir’d’ is just one of his slips.

Troilus believes that the more the emotions are involved, the more is the whole man concerned in the act of choice; and that is proper to the risk involved in marrying, even though time might subsequently alter one’s feelings. He invokes honor to help justify his argument, and is right as far as his example goes. One cannot pledge oneself to a woman in marriage and then renege as that would be dishonorable. But honor in that sense has nothing to do with Helen. The only honor, which involves the Trojans is the honor of keeping her by force of arms. It is worth noting that Shakespeare’s sly slipping in of Paris’ peculiar use of ‘fair rape’ and ‘ransack’d queen, which characterizes his empty lasciviousness, which undercuts all the high rhetoric. But the rhetoric of the debates is not insincere, even though inspiring achievement does not support it. Despite his naive idealism, Troilus is a prominent speaker in the Trojan debate, and he appears to convince even Hector.

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