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MonkeyNotes-Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
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Themes

Value, worth and honor

The crucial debate scene in Act II, Scene 2 focuses sharply on these central Themes. Honor is a central concept that is probed, and the play insists on separating the various standards of honor. Honor is above measurement and Hector asserts the primacy of honor over life but carelessly fails to recognize the dependence of others on his life. For Achilles, his chief antagonist, honor can be put on and off like a suit of armor depending on the circumstances. The Trojan appetite for honor is so insatiable that seven years of destruction and the prospect of annihilation cannot quell their ardor.

Authority, hierarchy, decision making and the consequence of these decisions for society and for particular individuals

This is brought out especially in Ulysses speech on ‘degree’ which insists on the importance of hierarchies, the gradual toppling over of which in the Greek camp has lead to the current impasse. In the play, Shakespeare implies that the consequences of human action and inaction and not fate or destiny caused the inexorable slide into destruction for the Trojans. Indeed, Troy mirrors Ulysses’ picture of the ordered social hierarchy where the common man, Pandarus’ ‘porridge after meat....crows and daws’ must endure mass slaughter because of the lack compassion, wisdom and will of their leaders. Shakespeare enables us to witness the process of the calamity and perceive the consequences of the decisions of the Trojan council for lesser mortals.

The conflict between appearance and reality

An attractive exterior often gives way to an unattractive interior. The great hero Achilles resorts to murder when he is incapable of defeating his enemy in a fair fight. On occasion, this aspect is emblematic: the soldier in sumptuous armor whom Hector pursues and kills, turns out to be diseased. The glittering armor covers a rotten body, just as heroic language covers a rotten cause - the idea of honor overpowers the widespread distaste for the ostensible cause of the War; and the idea of romantic love obscures lechery. Nothing is what it seems.


Sex

Two faithless women who are fought over, enjoyed and abused are at the center of the Trojan War. Helen who is perceived variously as a whore, as left over scraps of food, as a devalued commodity, and Diomedes’ evaluation of her is annihilating. Troilus has to endure the agony of watching Cressida’s betrayal. But women are both sex objects and symbols and Troilus is prepared to risk his arm to regain a besmirched love token, while the very existence of Troy is gambled through the retention of Helen. Love and lechery features powerfully, and throws up serious questions about sexual attraction and desire.

Identity and kinship

Almost every character in Troilus and Cressida is identified in terms of kinship. Even the illegitimate Margarelon and Thersites emphasize the kinship network and the one man who relinquishes his place in this pattern, Calchas, loses his identity.

Time

The theme of Time is significant in the play. Hector perceives time as an arbiter in his dispute with Ulysses. Ulysses claims that his prophecy ‘is but half his journey.

Here time is seen as neutral and standing outside the bustle of human affairs. When Hector embraces Nestor who ‘has so long walk’d hand in hand with Time,’ he is put in touch with the past through a man who is capable of making a direct comparison between him and his grandfather. Ulysses in attempting to persuade Achilles to fight warns that time erases past achievements and that only present actions count. ‘O let not virtue seek to envious and calumniating time.’

Here Time is active, eagerly seeking to destroy. Time constitutes a major concern of the play. It is seen as one of the key concepts in the human imagination: an abstract tool that becomes a protean character on life’s stage. A demon of the imagination and an impregnable enemy, it can only be defeated through the immortality of fame or procreation and much of Ajax and Achilles’ yearning for glory on the battlefield can be attributed to it.

Time is relative. We seek immortality in a world, which affords only fleeting existence. All monuments decay and collapse but that is not a reason for despair. Rather it should provoke a recognition that Time is not a single element or concept. It is both, an expression of the imagination and a practical tool to be used in the process of living. One result of the play’s time technique is the domination of Thersites who seems at times to speak for the play.

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