Here and there – Shakespeare on Chivalry



The Iliad of Homer ends: ‘So the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.’  The death of Hector marks the end of the play Troilus and Cressida of Shakespeare written more than 2000 years after the Iliad.  This, then, is an enduring myth.  Horses hardly figure in the Iliad, but later they became decisive in war.  The medieval knight on a horse (cheval) was their Panzer tank.  Tales were told about the deeds of knights (chevaliers).  They had their own code – chivalry – and it in turn was a fertile source of myth.

What does the word ‘chivalry’ denote?  ‘The character of the ideal knight, disinterested bravery, honour and courtesy’ (OED).  The word ‘ideal’ suggests that we may be near romance.  There is much romance in the epic tales of chivalry – like those of Arthur and Roland.  They speak of knightly love, and they end in tragedy.  They are also full of blood and guts, but Kenneth Clark in Civilisation got lyrical about it all.  He thought that the age of chivalry now looks ‘infinitely strange and remote’.

It is as enchanting, as luminous, as transcendental as the stained glass that is its glory – and, in the ordinary meaning of the word, as unreal.

That unreality had been revealed by two of the great characters of Western letters.  Don Quixote and Falstaff came to us at about the same time.  Each was a torpedo under the ark of chivalry and knightly love.  Falstaff was a dangerous ratbag, but we have too much of that in each of us to let that put us off a man who makes us laugh so much at our betters – and ourselves.  Don Quixote was dead-set mad, but we have the insight that we all tip-toe around that particular volcano, and the Don comes down to us as kind of off-centre Christ.  These are two of our most loved characters.  You would have to have to be really mad to describe either as ‘disinterested.’

By contrast, Troilus and Cressida is a far more brutal demolition job on chivalry and knightly love, and there is hardly a decent person in it.

So, how does Troilus start?  In the second line we get one of those nuggets that this author puts in our path.  The Greek princes sailed for Troy, we are told, ‘their high blood chafed.’  Those four words tell us the story of this pointless war.  What were they chafed about?  A wife of one of their princes has shot through – with a bloody Asian!  Well, at least that romance was consensual.  When the Greeks get to Troy, Achilles is sulking because his king has pinched his Trojan trophy, a woman that Achilles has taken a shine to – notwithstanding his love for Patroclus (who is here described as a ‘male whore’).  Then our two lovers no sooner get into bed than Cressida is traded for a Trojan prisoner.  And when she gets traded, she starts to enjoy herself sexually far too quickly.  Her uncle, Pandarus, is a pimp who has set up the consummation.  Her father, who is a priest and a traitor, sets up the trade.  Women are just tradeable commodities, handy in bed if your taste goes that way, but otherwise useless.  So much for courtly love.

When Don Quixote could not think of a better way to start a fight, he would demand that his protagonist acknowledge the supreme beauty of Dulcinea (who did not exist).  That is how single combat is set up in this play.  The protagonists go to defend the honour of their ladies  Aeneas, a very unpleasant puppet-master, taunts the Greeks in his challenge saying that unless they accept the challenge, the Trojans will say that ‘Grecian dames are sunburnt and not worth the splinter of a lance.’  The slippery Ulysses pulls the levers so that the mad Ajax goes to fight Hector.  But by this time, Achilles, who is not too bright, realises that his ‘reputation is at stake’ and that his fame is ‘shrewdly gored.’  When he runs into Hector, the two confront each other like ruckmen before the bounce in a grand final.  And when he comes across Hector unarmed, he instructs his version of the Waffen SS to murder Hector in cold blood.  So much for chivalry.

The repudiation of chivalry is express.  Troilus taxes Hector for sparing the lives of vanquished Greeks.  Hector actually uses the term ‘fair play.’  Troilus responds with ‘fool’s play’.  Troilus was dead right.  The unarmed Hector asks Achilles to ‘forgo this vantage’ in vain.  In this play, the ball-tamperers win.  Those who don’t cheat are losers and bloody idiots – and this play has lots of references to fools and idiots.

At the start, we are told that ‘expectation, tickling skittish spirits…sets all on hazard.’  But young Troilus experiences the kind of emptiness felt by young Prince Hal.  He thinks there are fools on both sides.  ‘I cannot fight upon this argument….It is too starved a subject for my sword.’  But when the Greeks offer to call it off if they get Helen back – she presumably not being consulted – Paris and Troilus fall out with their brother Hector.  Hector says Helen is not worth the cost of her keeping.  Troilus refers to that weasel word ‘manhood’ and the most lethal word in the language – ‘honor’.  He then equates worth, or dignity, with value.  Hector asks the kind of question that some of us might ask about our role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

…..Or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason,

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,

Can qualify the same?  (2.2. 115 – 118)

Troilus is a shallow sulk.  He tamely lets Cressida go.  His first concern is that Aeneas does not reveal that he found Troilus in the same house as Cressida so early in the morning.

But Cressida gets what might be called the full Anita Hill treatment.  That unfortunate woman was branded ‘a little bit sluttish’.  When Cressida gets handed over to the Greeks, the big hitters take it in turns to kiss her.  ‘Lewd’ is the word.  Ulysses says:

…..Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body…

……Set them down

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56 – 63)

The last line is scarily modern.  And revolting.  The appalling behaviour of these ageing white males may in part be behind the insight offered to us by Tony Tanner that there ‘is a kind of hapless honesty about Cressida.’  Beside her male elders, including her own family, she comes across like a saint.

This play may be the most brutal repudiation of war outside of Goya.  As you would expect of a classic, it still speaks to us now.

Ulysses and Aeneas are political operatives – manipulators.  Like our shock jocks now, they embody what a wise man called power without responsibility, the ‘prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.  They think that they can manipulate the politicians – by, for example, playing on the hideous vanity of Achilles – and then get the mob to take the bait because they are mostly fools or idiots.

They do all this in a world that has no moral base.  We saw that Troilus equated dignity with value.  Ulysses says that ‘no man is the lord of anything’ until he communicates to others and that he will not know himself until he sees himself realised in the applause of others.  (Just ask yourself if any of this catalogue does not apply word for word to Donald Trump.)

How some men creep in skittish Fortune’s hall,

While others play the idiots in her eyes!

How one man eats into another’s pride,

While pride is fasting in his wantonness.  (3.3. 134 – 137)

In this moral desert – ‘war and lechery confound all’ – the political leaders treat the people with contempt.  It is a measure of the empty vanity of Achilles that he tolerates Thersites, the most crude cynic of our stage, but this nasty clown sums up the play when he says that Achilles is the ‘idol of idiot-worshipers.’

They are of course heavily into spin and fake news.  No sooner is Hector murdered, than Achilles is telling his bodyguard to broadcast that ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’  They even have alternative facts.  When Pandarus and Cressida discuss the complexion of Troilus, Pandarus says ‘to say truth, brown and not brown’ and Cressida says ‘To say the truth, true and not true.’  When Troilus sees Cressida being too fresh too fast with the Greeks, he says that it is not Cressida – at least not his Cressida.  Or as the President of the United States says ‘There is no proof of anything.’  Reality has just gone.

So, this play was written by someone who could have seen at firsthand the heartless inanity of a Trump rally, or the workings in the inner sanctum of an Australian political party.  The play still, therefore, has a lot to say to us.

But it is painfully long.  Cassandra, Pandarus and Thersites are all ghastly to listen to.  For our taste, there is too much word-play of the type that students of rhetoric enjoyed in the early comedies.  And if Qantas plonked Ulysses beside you on a flight to New York, you would want to sue the airline.  The full version of the play is painful in the Wagnerian sense.  The BBC version is repulsive.  This play really is a problem play in production – as difficult for me as Cymbeline.

At the risk of upsetting some, I would suggest that we would enjoy the play a lot more, and take more home from it, if it was cut – say, in half.  For our taste, the play as written breaches the first rule of advocacy – if you have a good point, make it, and don’t bugger it up by banging on.

Since starting this note, I see that I have referred before to the bad press on chivalry in a book about the middle ages.

But the prize for the most appalling hypocrisy must go to the members of the ruling class called knights.  They invented this wonderful code of chivalry about defending the helpless and maintaining the right.  It was almost entirely pure bullshit.  They became mercenaries for hire – the Knight of Canterbury Tales might be a paradigm.  They depended on and lived by violence.  If the Crusades had not been ordained by God, chivalry would have had to invent it to satisfy their lust for blood and booty.  Their crimes against innocent Jews and Muslims are a perpetual stain not just on Christianity, but on humanity at large.  Dante put Saladin in a pleasing part of hell for answering back so handsomely.

Then, after they got home, and whipped their serfs into line, the knights would drift into some dreamy, droopy adolescent puppy love – for another man’s wife, a mother substitute.  If they succeeded in consummating their affair, which we may suspect was almost never, and they got caught, the same code of chivalry would have required them to fight to the death on a point of honour; and, depending on the jurisdiction, and the ripeness of the detection, the guilty wife might have been run through on the spot.

And enfin, do you know what really gets on our wicks about these knights?  Their high blood chafes far too easily.  They had too many tickets on themselves.  That’s why Cervantes and Shakespeare took them down.

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