I've been reading Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," a play with which I was unfamiliar, because it's not one that gets performed much or, I think, read widely (that is to say, assigned as reading from EngLit profs). I have no idea why this is not one of Shakespeare's best known or most performed works. It's a masterpiece, a thing of genius, one of the best plays I've ever read.
I was vaguely aware of the existence of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde but I assumed it was a medieval story put into new clothes by Chaucer; I had no idea it was an addition to Homer's Iliad. Which means that I had no idea Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida" was a sharp parody of Homer, a criticism of stereotypical ideas about ancient Greece, an indictment of heroism worthy of Euripides. Great stuff, I am telling you.
Where to start? How about with the basis of the war, a woman named Helen? Shakespeare's Helen is not the most beautiful woman in Greece, or in Troy, and nobody, neither Trojan nor (with the exception of Menelaus) Greek, actually considers her worth fighting over. Here is Diomedes, a Greek general, to Paris, who stole Helen:
She's bitter to her country: hear me, Paris:High praise indeed, eh? Paris' response is that the Greeks only talk that way about Helen because they are attempting to be wily: wanting the Trojans to think Helen worthless and give her up. But in an earlier scene, Priam and some of his sons do seriously discuss giving Helen back. Hector, Priam's eldest son (and Paris' big brother), says:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight,
A Trojan hath been slain: since she could speak,
She hath not given so many good words breath
As for her Greeks and Trojans suffer'd death.
Let Helen go:Nobody but Paris and Menelaus values the woman, yet on the war goes, because it's an affair of honor. Neither side will yield because questions of machismo, and nothing more, are at stake. The Trojans and the Greeks are alike in that they are petty and prideful; they are alike in that they treat women as tokens to be passed from man to man; they are alike in that they will only go to war when battle will increase their personal esteem. There is no statecraft going on, but plenty of politicking. Honor is nonexistent; pride is what matters, pride and the esteem of others. Ulysses goads Achilles into action by having everyone important ignore him. Ulysses goads Ajax into fighting Hector by implying that Achilles might be a better warrior, though of course Ulysses would never think such a thing; it's those other Greeks who say that. Ajax is a dummy, a big stupid brute, but at heart so are the rest of the heroes in this story. They all just want to kill people and be admired for it. The following exchange between Aeneas and Diomedes, enemies come together under a flag of truce for a moment, should demonstrate the sort of guys-will-be-guys, look-how-cool-I-am mindset of the mighty warriors:
Since the first sword was drawn about this question,
Every tithe soul, 'mongst many thousand dismes,
Hath been as dear as Helen; I mean, of ours:
If we have lost so many tenths of ours,
To guard a thing not ours nor worth to us,
Had it our name, the value of one ten,
What merit's in that reason which denies
The yielding of her up?
AENEAS:Paris gets the punch line at the end. The joke is even bigger than this exchange: Paris never leaves Troy to fight; he spends most of his time in Helen's bed. Everyone comments on it constantly, nobody is at all surprised, even when Helen turns out to be a shallow little strumpet, nothing so like the goddess we might expect. I am delighted that "Troilus and Cressida" turns out to be so very very good. I should not be surprised; it's a later play, written in 1603 or so, after "Hamlet." I think the plays from this period are Shakespeare's best, or at least I think that he was doing his best large-scale thinking during the early 17th century. Or I mean something along those lines.
Health to you, valiant sir,
During all question of the gentle truce;
But when I meet you arm'd, as black defiance
As heart can think or courage execute.
The one and other Diomed embraces.
Our bloods are now in calm; and, so long, health!
But when contention and occasion meet,
By Jove, I'll play the hunter for thy life
With all my force, pursuit and policy.
And thou shalt hunt a lion, that will fly
With his face backward. In humane gentleness,
Welcome to Troy! now, by Anchises' life,
Welcome, indeed! By Venus' hand I swear,
No man alive can love in such a sort
The thing he means to kill more excellently.
We sympathize: Jove, let AEneas live,
If to my sword his fate be not the glory,
A thousand complete courses of the sun!
But, in mine emulous honour, let him die,
With every joint a wound, and that to-morrow!
We know each other well.
We do; and long to know each other worse.
This is the most despiteful gentle greeting,
The noblest hateful love, that e'er I heard of.