I know it was foolish of me, but I tried to finish reading “Troilus and Cressida” last night.
I managed to get to the end of Act 1.
So I had left off immediately after learning that for some reason Shakespeare had combined Aias and Teukros, right? Well, as soon as I started reading again, then there’s another horrible bombshell, because he starts describing the man’s personality, and accuses him of literally having every possible vice and character flaw. (Seriously: the line reads that there is “no attaint but he carries some stain of it.”)
As I am quite the fan of Aias–he’s my second favorite (lol, that’s appropriate) after Patroclos (well, that part’s new)–that already ticked me off. Yes, he’s always described as speaking slowly, but slow of speech is not the same thing as slow of wit! And one of the most common epithets used to describe Aias is “great-hearted” because he’s so gentle of spirit, kind of heart, and generally awesome! When Helen is on the wall identifying all the Greeks for Priam, Aias is singled out as being the most handsome man there, and in ancient Greece, “handsome” encompassed all mental virtues as well as physical ones. (Literally. They used the same word for “good” as for “handsome” and about half a dozen other positive traits…which is probably both why Athene wanted the golden apple, because the word for beautiful was also the word for “good” in a number of other contexts. Also why they thought Alexander/Paris was a good choice to be the judge, because they mistook his fair face for a fair mind.)
Anyway, I struggled on past the egregious assault on Aias’ character, and kept going, and apart from balking at the idea that Troilos managed to live to the age of 23, I mostly had no other problems with the rest of that scene.
But then the Trojans left the stage and the Greeks came out.
Oh. My. God.
It’s hard to describe what that did to me. It’s one thing to see Hollywood abusing Greek myths, because Hollywood is generally abusive to source material unless the creator is alive and present and ready to sue them for screwing it up. (Okay, that was slightly unfair, I admit.) But William Shakespeare, revered as one of the greatest writers of all time, many of whose plays I dearly love….seeing him mutilate this source material that’s so dear to my heart…!
Actually, it brings up the very good question of why the heck I would put myself through this agony, and I don’t really have an answer.
(Unless I do end up doing my thesis on how the portrayal of myths have changed across time, because if I do, and if I focus on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclos, then both Chaucer and Shakespeare would be important steps. (Though I don’t know, off-hand, if Patroclos is in Chaucer’s version. But even if he isn’t, that in itself is relevant.))
Now, don’t get me wrong. There was actually one moment after the Greeks came out that I liked, which I’ll get to below. But…only the one.
Because we quickly got to what I presume will be the Greek sub-plot of the play. Odysseus explained that there was a morale problem among the troops, and that it was because of Achilles, who stays in his tent all day with Patroclos. That would be fine and dandy if this was the tenth year, and the reason was because Agamemnon had taken Briseis away. That is, after all, how the story goes. But no, this is only the seventh year of the war, and Briseis isn’t even listed on the dramatis personae at the front. (The annoying thing about it being the seventh year is that I won’t get to see Pandaros die. He was totally freakin’ annoying me. But at least I can savor his death in the Iliad, which is a fairly nasty one, too, a fact I can enjoy since it’s him. He was, after all, always hateful.) Anyway, no, the reason–according to Shakespeare’s “Ulysses”, who I hope is pulling an Athenian stage Odysseus and lying through his teeth for his own nefarious reasons–that Achilles is hanging out in his tent all day is because Patroclos is performing insulting imitations of the elder kings to amuse him.
I just about rage-quit the play then and there.
Because Patroclos is the nicest guy in the entire war! He’s even nicer than Hector! He’d never say or do anything to offend the old or the powerful or the inoffensive! (He would, I think, insult Thersites, because who wouldn’t?) Yes, he mocks his enemies in battle, but trash talking is normal and they all do it. (And some of Hector’s trash talking had a much nastier edge to it than Patroclos’. Uh, assuming he didn’t realize that last victim of his was Hector’s half-brother. Then saying that stuff about him was rather cruel, considering he was, essentially, saying it to Hector.) In fact, I doubt it’s an accident that the two nicest of the young warriors in the Iliad are also the two whose deaths form the emotional crux of the story. Though that does say rather terrible things about Greece in the Archaic Age…
Really, the only reason I intend to eventually go back and finish the rest of the play is that there were a couple of places where the language Odysseus–sorry, “Ulysses”–used implied that Shakespeare knew that Achilles and Patroclos were lovers, so I want to see how that plays out, if it ever goes beyond the subtext level, et cetera.
Okay, so moving past my whiny complaints, let me get to the part that I liked. As soon as the Greeks come out, Agamemnon and Nestor begin talking about how they’re having so much trouble in the war. Then we get the following speech from Odysseus:
Thou great commander, nerve and bone of Greece,
Heart of our numbers, soul and only spirit
In whom the tempers and the minds of all
Should be shut up, hear what Ulysses speaks.
Besides th’applause and approbation
The which most mighty for thy place and sway,
And thou most reverend for thy stretched-out life,
I give to both your speeches, which were such
As Agamemnon and the hand of Greece
Should hold up high in brass, and such again
As venerable Nestor, hatched in silver,
Should, with a bond of air strong as the axle-tree
On which heaven rides, knit all the Greekish ears
To his experienced tongue, yet let it please both
Thou great, and wise, to hear Ulysses speak.
So we get through that whole lengthy speech, and he’s just saying “let me talk now,” right? Followed by Agamemnon somewhat snippily telling him to speak, with the implication of “did you think I asked you out here without wanting your advice?” That made me crack up for a rather surprising reason: I had Odysseus do something similar in my novel. Of course, my Odysseus doesn’t have such beautiful poetic diction, because I’m not a very good writer. (At least I’m honest, right?) But there was just something about the notion that I had unwittingly done something that Shakespeare had done centuries ago that made me feel good. But then, as Marlon said, “Happy feelings gone!”
Anyway, just to be doing, I want to quote myself, too. The context is the hoplon krisis, the debate over who will receive the armor of Achilles, and the chapter is in first-person narration by Aias. (The whole novel is like that; every chapter has a different narrator. It’s kind of more a long sequence of vignettes than a proper novel.)
“It is a most difficult task to guess what man will be of most use to these combined forces in our desperate effort to regain Helen, fair Queen of Lacedaemon, from the Trojan barbarians,” Odysseus begins, “and I do not envy those who will be asked to make this decision. But if I may humbly state my case, I hope I will be given leave to speak.”
All that was just the introduction?
“He just asked you to,” Diomedes says. He’s angry. He must want the armor, too. But he doesn’t want to compete with both of us. Or just one of us.
Odysseus is favored by Athene. I have no divine patron. Am I doomed to lose for that?
So, essentially, as soon as I got to the last line of “Ulysses”‘ speech in the play, I found myself quoting myself and saying “All that was just the introduction?” Arrogant, I know, but….sometimes a girl just can’t help herself.
(In defense of my novel, let me hasten to point out two things. One, it’s not always in the present tense. It just depends on the events of the chapter, and the fate of the narrator at the end. Two, the staccato sentence structure in the narration is peculiar to Aias. No one else’s narration is like that. But since the ancient authors all say he speaks slowly, I wanted to indicate that somehow, and giving him short, simple sentences seemed to make more sense than just repeating that he speaks slowly.)