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We know that during the squabble between Marston and Johnson that has now come to be dignified with the title 'war of the theatres', Shakespeare came to be associated with Marston's side of the argument, because in the university play the Return from Parnassus, Part 2, we are told that Shakespeare has become involved in the controversy over Poetster:
"O that Ben Johnson is a patient fellow, he brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him betray his credit. (p. 27)"
As these lines are spoken by 'Will Kemp' we can assume the comment is intended to be highly partial, but it makes it clear that Shakespeare joined in, or was thought to have joined in, the controversy. I have already mentioned the reference to poetaster in the Prologue to Troilus Cressida, but there is nothing in the play itself that explains the reference to Shakespearean purge Jonson. It seems more likely that 'Kemp' here is referring to Shakespeare not as playwright, but as player for around this time the Chamberlain's Men were staging Dekker's contribution to the quarrel, satiromastix (Alfar, 2003). Presumably Shakespeare was in the cast of this play and might well either have impersonated Jonson in the part of Horace or played the part of Tucca, who is the chief 'purger' of Horace in the play.
The plays staged at Paul's were mostly comic satires, at which the boys were particularly adept and the satiric tone of Troilus and Cressida, especially with the addition of its epilogue, would make the play suitable for the Paul's repertoire. Troilus is the one play of Shakespeare that shows the unmistakable influence of Marston. Both playwrights, at the time of its writing, were under attack from Ben Johnson as comedians who do not 'put the snaffle in their mouths who cried we never punish vice in our interludes' and therefore had considerable identity of purpose, but no doubt Shakespeare also felt that to hold at least the fashionable part of his audience he needed to take account of Marston's current popularity. Shakespeare's choice of subject is nit itself remarkable, not only because other public companies had staged plays about Troy, but because Troilus and Cressida reflects concerns that are central to Shakespeare's interest in history.
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The epic trilogy of the Henry VI plays has as its central theme the breakdown of order in the society where individualism is rife. The central theme of Troilus and Cressida both looks back at the social disintegration recorded in the Henry VI plays, and forwarded to King Lear in depicting a society in terminal decline. The general feeling that the world was in its dotage and would shortly be ended is common among Shakespeare's contemporaries. That the King himself shared the view is evident from the concluding lines of his dialogue:
Philomatbes: ... I pray God to purge this cuntrie of these divellishe practices [of witchcraft]: for they were never so rife in these partes, as they are now.
Epistemon: I pray God that so be to. But the causes are over manifest that makes them to be sorife. For the graete wickedness of the people on the one parte, procure this horrible defection. Whereby God justile punisheth sinne, by a greater iniquitie. And on the other part, the consummation of the worlde, and our delivarence draw neare, makes Sathan to rage the more in his instruments, knowing his kingdom to be neare an ende.
The robust Ben Jonson can be equally lugubrious when he contemplates the world in its dotage:
"and no wonder if the worlds, growing old, begin to be infirme: Old age it selfe is a disease. It is long since the sick world began to doate and talke idly: Would she had but doated still; but her dotage is now broke forth into a madnesse, and become a mere phrency." (301-5).
Even Heywood, in spite of the greater respect for the heroic in his play, still describes the world of Homer as an age of iron, the last, degenerate age before the final dissolution of the world. It is characteristic of Shakespeare's humanism, however, that he associates such a collapse into disorder more readily with the pagan worlds of Troilus and Lear than with Christendom. The war of the Roses is brought to an end by 'God, and Saint George, Richmond, and Victory' when the providential reign of the Tudors is established. Both Lear and Troilus in contrast end on notes of desolate uncertainty. Shakespeare had plenty of justification in his source material for seeing the ancient world in this light. Discussions of the sources nearly always concentrate on the narrative material that Shakespeare found and used, but Shakespeare must have been at least as interested in his authors' interpretations of the stories. Chaucer's great palinode, which has Troilus looking down from heaven and meditating on the vanity of the world, would not have gone unmarked (Aristotle, 1987):
"And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokying down he caste."
For Troilus the world about us is constituted by what you will. Neither Troilus nor the disorientated Albano have the last word in their respective play, but the problem of shifting values in an unstable world is a central preoccupation of both of them. Troilus and Cressida too has a central image the dominance of clothes as an image of man's mutability, as when Troilus continues his argument that we must stick to the opinions we are committed to by an analogy with buying soiled silks and Thersites sums up 'opinion' as a leather jerkin that may be worn on both sides (264-5). In Shakespeare's play the imagery of clothes becomes part of the action when Hector takes off his armour during battle to contemplate the rich trappings of the soldier he has just slain:
"Most putrefied core, so fair without,
Thy goodly armour thus hath cost thy life." (V, Viii, 1-2).
Palmer rightly invokes the gospels here (Mathew 23:27), but the ultimate irony is that Hector himself loses his life at this very moment. Like Spenser's Red Cross Knight, he has been distracted by earthly shows into taking off the armour of his righteousness. The only way of dealing with Troilus' story after Shakespeare's conquest of the European theatre would therefore be that of restoring to its broadly 'comic' and 'romantic' dimension - that is, of going back to Chaucer or to the medieval versions in general. Neo-classicism, however, dislikes blends of different genres and is generally uninterested in medievalism. By the time Romanticism comes on to the stage, Shakespeare has become too exclusively central in the European imagination. Only the Verdi of Il trovatore or, much later, of Falstaff could have produced a satisfactory mixture of comic, tragic, and romantic. Berlioz, who composed monumental and magnificent Les Troyens and knew Shakespeare's works well, avoided the Troilus and Cressida episode to concentrate on Troy's fall and the Aeneas-Dido story.
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This widespread lack of interest in the Troilus theme may be due not only to the problems raised by Shakespeare's play but also to more generous reasons. Antiquity, as we have seen, did not develop the theme of Troilus' love story not only because it was primarily interested in Troilus' 'function' - his death as a sign of Troy's fall - but also because it already had plenty of illustrious mythological plots of love, betrayal, and death. The European eighteenth and nineteenth centuries create their own models of 'adultery' of 'triangles' and the problems they involve. Why should anyone be interested in a distant Cressida when he or she has a contemporary, fascinating Emma Bovary to explore? If, then, Cressida is no longer so appealing, what about Troilus? Troilus may be a 'pattern of love' in medieval and renaissance and how with a mixture of effrontery, pride, shyness, and frustration shows that he intensely desires what every Trojan dreams of - herself. She provokingly asks Troilus if he would like to embrace her. He rejects her offer. Immediately afterwards, Paris finds the two together and at first threatens to kill Troilus if he embraces Helen. When, however, he himself allows his younger brother to do it, Troilus, already on the point of rushing towards the lady, suddenly stops (Aristotle, 1987). The Trojan senators approach. Paris invites Troilus to embrace Helen before them and thus become famous. Troilus says he prefers to remain unknown and poor. 'Either you embrace her before them, I embrace her before you', Paris continues defiantly, but he is interrupted by Helen, who kisses him and simultaneously declares that her kiss was destined for Troilus.
The figure of Troilus, once more an andropais as in antiquity, sums up the entire meaning of the play. His irresistible infatuation for Helen is Troy's blind rapture before that face which is Venus and Beauty. If love between Paris and Helen is over, it is replaced by this ecstatic-aesthetic frenzy of a whole town, Troy, and her namesake, Troilus. Erotic delirium coincides with nationalistic pride and furor bellicus - the most passionate advocate of Helen and of the war is the poet Demokos. But Helen is not merely beauty and love, an ideal image or a symbol. There is, as she says to Hector, a deep relationship between this weakest of women and the future. She sees events that are to come as grey or colored shadows, and she 'chooses' the colored ones - or, and this is the same thing, they simply happen. Helen is 'life as it takes place', she represents the hypostasis or incarnation of what people call 'destiny.'