The Banality of History in Troilus and Cressida

Andrew Griffin
McMaster University

Griffin, Andrew. “The Banality of History in Troilus and Cressida". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 4.1-12 <URL:>.


These ancient representments of times past
Tell us that men have, do, and always run
The self same line of action, and do cast
Their course alike, and nothing can be done
Whilst they, their ends, and nature are the same

—    Samuel Daniel.[1]


History repeats the old conceits, 
The glib replies, the same defeats.

                                                                        —Elvis Costello.[2]


One finds almost the same or similar proverbs, though in different words, in every country, and the reason is that proverbs are born of experience or observation of things which are everywhere alike.

                                                —Francesco Guicciardini.[3]



  1. This paper is, in part, an attempt to come to terms with the conspicuous deployment of proverbs, truisms, sententia and adages in Troilus and Cressida, and with the uncanny sense that so much poetry in the play seems to have been already spoken.  More specifically, I wonder why much of the poetry in Troilus and Cressida seems so hackneyed.  Before Troilus and Cressida sleep together for the first time, for instance, they engage in a tedious exchange:
    Troilus: This is the monstruosity in love, lady: that the will is infinite and the execution confined: that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit.
    Cressida: They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able and yet reserve an ability that they never perform: vowing more than the perfection of ten, and discharging less than the tenth part of one.[4]
    While Harold Bloom finds these observations “extraordinary” and “mordant” and while he argues that Troilus acts here as a “metaphysician of love, or . . . lust,”[5] these lines seem to be “metaphysically” astute only in their ability to diagnose that which is generic and common to the species.  As such a passionate proponent of what is often called “Shakespearean universality,” it’s not surprising that Bloom would latch onto and celebrate these dull truisms; as an attentive reader of Shakespeare, it is surprising that he’d ignore Cressida’s powerfully deflating “They say.”  Both Bloom and Troilus are caught-up in the hyperbolically mystifying rhetoric of desire—“the monstruosity of love,” unbearable slavery, “boundless” yearnings—but Cressida recognizes the banality of these truisms by anchoring them in the faceless body of a proverbial “They.”  “They” say such things because “They” see such things every day, and “They” say such things because such sense is so common that it can’t be anchored to a single body, a single voice, a single brilliantly insightful mind. 

  2. Recognizing the banality of these insights—a banality to which Cressida draws attention—Kenneth Muir, editor of the Oxford edition of the play, glosses this passage with a quotation from Morris A. Tilley’s Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: “79-80 / They say . . . able. / Tilley L570 ‘Lovers’ vows are not to be trusted.’”  Only emphasizing the conventionality of this exchange, the remaining ten lines of dialogue here between Troilus and Cressida require two more glosses provided by Tilley’s Dictionary (“Praise at parting”;[6] “Where many words are the truth goes by”).[7]  Of course, Shakespeare didn’t have access to Tilley’s dictionary, which was published in 1950, but Muir emphasizes for a modern readership the frequency of proverbial speech in the play when he cites this repository of commonplaces another 44 times; he also twice cites Erasmus’ book of adages, Adagiorum Chiliades, and he marks two passages as “proverbial.”  These commonly understood ideas, these proverbial “worn-down words” (OED; pro- prefix 1.i), recur often throughout the play, but more importantly these proverbial understandings of human behaviour either describe what we see on stage or anticipate (as prophecy or curse) the action that’s about to come.  Throughout the play, we see that “In the reproof of chance / Lies the true proof of men” when Troilus refuses to defend Cressida;[8] we see that “In a calm sea anyone can be a pilot” as Troilus’ love is so earnest until trouble appears;[9] we see that “Might overcomes right” as as Hector murders a weaker soldier for a suit of armour or as Achilles and his Myrmidons kill a too-tired Hector;[10] we see that “The falling out of lovers is the renewing of love”;[11] we see that there are “Few words to fair faith”.[12]

  3. Considering that Shakespeare’s grammar school training would have forced him to absorb truisms culled from classical sources, the appearance of such adages throughout Troilus and Cressida is readily explained; what interests me here is that these adages exist alongside dramatic action that affirms the truth of the truisms.  By drawing attention to this proverbiality that works its way through Shakespeare’s play I don’t intend simply to invert Bloom’s formulation and to argue that Troilus isn’t a “metaphysician of love” or that Shakespeare’s play is trite.  Rather, I will argue that Troilus and Cressida’s consistent deployment of generalizing proverbs is central to the ideological and historiographical work that the play performs: the commonplace, the hackneyed, and the trite here serve as an historical principle.  Arguing that the proverbial functions as the ultimate articulation of historical truth in Troilus and Cressida reiterates a critically accepted claim that the play undermines certain ideologically informed early modern historiographical practices which worked to glorify England, London, Elizabeth I and James I by imagining epic Trojan roots and ancestors.[13] But while critics tend to identify the play as historiographically nihilistic, undermining any sense of historical movement, progress or pattern on which England’s epic roots might be founded, I will argue that the play produces a characteristically humanist “politic history”—derived from a logic of exemplarity and proverbiality—according to which early modern London might find in Troy a particularly perverse ancestor.[14] 

  4. The ideological work that Troilus and Cressida performs is most clear when it is read against versions of the Trojan myth that were circulating in early modern England and when contrasted with the ideological work that these versions of the Trojan myth were expected to perform.  As part of a project to develop a sense of English nationhood (or, more accurately, as figures caught in an epistemological, economic, and social shift that produced, as by-product, an emergent sense of national identity) early modern historiographers often followed the thirteenth century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth and cited the Trojan myth as a founding story of the English nation.  Relying for its ideological potency on the inherited cultural capital and epic resonance of the Troy story, Geoffrey completed the story of Aeneas’ journey (from a fallen Troy via Carthage to Rome) with a story of Aeneas’ grandson, Brute.  In Geoffrey’s account, Brute’s journey from Rome to England is modelled on Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Rome and culminates with the founding of Troynovant/London and the inauguration of a monarchical lineage that progresses through King Arthur and concludes—according to Geoffrey’s sixteenth and seventeenth century inheritors—in the now epically-ordained Tudor and Stuart reigns.  While the historical validity of this translatio imperii was occasionally challenged (by Polydore Vergil, for instance) and defended (by John Leland), it more often functioned as simple fact among historians and antiquaries.  While the methods of these historiographers and antiquaries were evolving and producing a more modern sense of historical consciousness, they continued to assume a medieval understanding of historical fact and were encouraged by political considerations to leave intact England’s imagined relation to its epic Trojan past.[15]  Further securing the myth of Troy as a foundation of nationalist rhetoric was a growing humanist historiographical project that simply paid little attention to the quasi-providentialist stories that characterized the English appropriation of the Trojan myth.  With little challenge from most historians, the Trojan myth was readily available for poetic appropriation and reiteration in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: Spenser, for instance, invokes the mythical Trojan foundation of England in his historically uncritical but ideologically potent nationalist project;[16] Jonson and Dekker also rehearse the myth in their scripts for crudely ideological monarchical triumphs through London. 

  5. Keeping in sight the ideological force of the Troy story in early modern England, critics such as Douglas Cole, David Hillman, Heather James, Harry Berger Jr., and Matthew Greenfield argue that Troilus and Cressida works to desublimate and debase this literary historical tradition and the ideological effects that it produces.  By offering the backstory of the Troy legend and by literally embodying (on stage) the figures that serve as epically grand progenitors of the Tudor and Stuart lines, Shakespeare saps the myth of its grandeur.  Instead of staging a heroic Achilles, Shakespeare stages a petulant narcissist; instead of staging a noble Hector, Shakespeare stages a vain prince who perpetuates a bloody war in the name of an admittedly specious honour; instead of staging a wronged Troilus, Shakespeare stages (according to René Girard) a self-indulgent prince who acts only according to the imperatives of a wounded ego.[17]  More radically, Shakespeare’s demystification of the Trojan myth undermines not only the prestige of England’s imagined inheritance, but also the very process of mythmaking and the historiographical assumptions on which it relies.  According to Cole, for instance, the play “seeks to move its audience through a series of shocks of recognition toward a skepticism about the process of myth-making itself.”[18]  Hillman similarly argues that by drawing attention to the grotesque corporeality of these epic heroes—their purulent sores, their obscene appetites and their grotesque cannibalistic desires—Shakespeare undermines the idealist logics on which the translatio imperii relies.[19]  For James, Shakespeare problematizes the process of mythmaking by drawing attention to the ambiguities and contradictions that already lurk in various re-tellings of the story: by juxtaposing the contradictory facts found in the historical record, Shakespeare causes “the united and teleological appearance of the translatio imperii” to break down, and he emphasizes the literariness or artificiality of the myth.[20]  

  6. While these critics rightfully recognize that the play is an affront to mythic historiographies that might recognize Troy as an antitype of early modern London or England, I will argue below that Troilus and Cressida is informed by a humanist historiographical sensibility that is, in some respects, equally “mythic.”  As we see in Leland’s defense of England’s Trojan inheritance, for instance, the mythic framework that Shakespeare undermines in Troilus and Cressida works by absorbing the diachronic unfurling of history into an imagined synchrony: London (as Troynovant) is the re-birth of Troy, so the value, prestige, cultural energy and glory of Troy is imagined to linger in the streets of England’s capital.  For Bacon and other English humanist historiographers influenced by Machiavelli and Guicciardini, the goals of historiography were more modest than the goals set by earlier historians such as Leland who had tried to understand England’s place in a westward-moving translatio imperii or in the story of Christian providence[21]: interested in statecraft and “fashioning gentlemen,” humanist historiographers generally ignored the theology of history and instead pilfered historical records in search of “exemplary” moments that would serve as pedagogical aids.  Following from the humanist preoccupation with utility and the imagined necessary relationship between historiography and the teaching of moral philosophy,[22] these exemplary historical moments were chosen because they were thought to be valuable in the training of statesmen: exemplary moments in the historical record served to illustrate universal historical truths about the nature of human character, the rise and fall of empires, the strengths of previous rulers and the relative merits of absolutist or republican reigns.  (Though these new imagined ends of historiography are more modest, they certainly don’t speak to a remarkable degree of intellectual humility.)  As Arthur Ferguson argues throughout Clio Unbound, this new humanist historiography was limited in its understanding of social history by its sense of transhistorical universality and by its reduction of historical causality to the individual decisions made by individual rulers.[23]  For the humanist historiographer, the truths learned in “Marathon, Pharsalia, Poitiers, and Agincourt”[24] were readily applicable to the cities and towns of sixteenth-century England, and the fall of cities or the decline of empires could be understood as the result of terrible political decisions.  According to the assumptions of humanist historiography, then, London may not be the rebirth of Troy, though its governors could certainly learn something from Virgil about the nature of human behaviour and the problems faced by a city’s governors.[25] 

  7. It’s this sense of transhistorical universality to which I am referring when I claim that humanist historiography shares a “mythic” sensibility with previous historiographies.  In both cases, the diachronic axis of historical change is eliminated, and in humanist historiography the sense of so-called “modern historical consciousness” is ignored for what Ferguson considers a “basically ahistorical rationalism.”[26]  While value-laden providentialism is expunged from the rhetoric of historical inquiry by a humanist historiographical practice, the logic of a “deeper” historical patterning exists residually in this humanist practice in a secularized and rationalized form.  According to the logic of humanist historiography, London may no longer imagine itself as the providentially ordained re-birth of Troy, but the city remains haunted by a spectral ethos that it shares with Troy.  The zero-degree of historical self-understanding is not linked in humanist historiography to a mythopoetic Trojan antitype, but according to this historiographical practice’s fundamental assumptions, both Troy and London can trace a shared essence to the truth (or truisms) of a poorly defined “human nature.”  So at the moment when this mythopoetic Providentialist vision of human history is dismissed by humanist historiographers who open a space for something like human historical agency, this vision of human agency (characterized by choice, wilfulness, the capacity for decision) is dissolved into an abyss of inevitable human nature that plays itself out as and in the historical record.  Strangely, then, if we imagine the human in Burckhardt’s or Bloom’s terms—the human as a hermetically sealed, agented subject—humanist historiography inserts a certain algorithmic code at the core of the human—a code that, as code, undermines any sense of “modern” subjectivity.  A vision of posthumanity becomes clear at the historical moment when the human is expected to emerge, if only briefly, triumphant. 

  8. Ulysses’ speech in 1.3 is a powerful example of my assertion that the play’s understanding of history is informed by a universalising and ahistorical logic that it shares with humanist historiography.  Though the relationship between the play and the Essex rebellion is a fraught issue among contemporary critics who disagree over the allegorical embodiment of Essex (“Is he Achilles, or Hector, or both?”) and over the play’s political sympathies, few disagree that Essex’s rebellion relates to the play in crucial ways, and few disagree that the play is written, at least in part, as a response to the rebellion in which Shakespeare’s Richard II played a small but often discussed part.  Of course, some critics argue that certain historico-allegorical readings of the play—particularly readings of Ulysses’ speech—are strained,[27] but the struggle to find a certain early modern analogue for the world that Ulysses describes is engendered or compelled by the universalising humanist historiographical tenor of the speech itself.  It’s not surprising that the actual nature of the historical analogue is debated—such debates are the stuff of literary historical criticism—but it’s clear that the search for an early modern historical analogue simply takes for granted the humanist understanding of (a)historical truth that Ulysses offers: as the classical Greeks, so the early modern English.  Throughout his speech, Ulysses repeatedly makes the historical swoops from specific to general to specific that characterize the tautological thinking of the humanist historiographer: the specific historical instance is a fact that generates the universal rules according to which the fact can be understood as a concrete embodiment of those rules.   Relying on this tautological circuit, the speech naturally characterizes itself as a pedagogical response to a problem that the Greeks face and it works through a logic of exemplarity to understand why Troy stands and why Hector’s sword still has a master.[28]   Ulysses registers and negotiates this trouble in the particular circumstances, but he does so by appeal to a thesis that relies on a universal and transhistorical truth: Troy fails to fall to the Greeks because “The specialty of rule hath been neglected” in the Greek camp,[29] and because a loss of order dooms all enterprises.   Anticipating subsequent historiographers who will recognize (or have already recognized?) the same scenario as exemplary of the same truths that Ulysses draws here, Ulysses understands his own historical moment as the embodiment of a universalised ahistory: instead of searching the archive of historical fact—there is a dearth of concrete examples, historical or otherwise, in Ulysses’ speech—he takes for granted that his present is itself already exemplary of the set of facts that it proves: “when degree is shaked, / . . . / The enterprise is sick”;[30] when degree is removed, the string of order is “untuned” and “hark what discord follows”;[31] when degree is ignored then “right and wrong, / Between whose endless jar justice resides, / Should lose their names, and so should justice too”;[32] “when degree is suffocate, / Follows the choking”;[33] and so on.  We may be suspicious of Ulysses’ rhetoric because its easy truisms beg suspicions of sophistry and because Ulysses’ vision of order is patently self-serving, but it’s important to notice that regardless of our suspicions, Ulysses seems to diagnose quite accurately the state of the Greek camp and the causes of the Greek martial malaise.  Whether the play asks us hold this authoritarian rhetoric in contempt is beyond the point that I’d like to make here: universalising truisms in Troilus and Cressida seem to be true.  To search for Essex in this speech, then, seems to speak to the power of Ulysses’ rhetoric because it’s a rhetoric that characterizes itself as an effective storehouse of the transhistorically valid.  As on Dardan plains, so in “Marathon, Pharsalia, Poitiers, and Agincourt” and so too in Essex, Elizabeth and early modern England.

  9. But while we might recognize a similarity between Ulysses’ historiographical logic in this speech and the historiographical logic on which humanist historians relied, subsequent moments in the scene emphasize the embarrassing truth of the imagined human nature that serves humanist historiography as a historical principle.  After Ulysses delivers his speech, the Greek council is interrupted by a trumpet’s sennet and by the appearance of Trojan Aeneas in the Greek camp.  Aeneas arrives so that he can deliver a challenge to the Greeks: the war is slow and mostly dull, so Hector has sent with Aeneas a challenge of solo battle to everyone in the Greek camp, though all involved in the display recognize that the challenge is meant for Achilles.[34]  In response to the challenge, Ulysses imagines a plan that will reinstate a sense of order to the Greek camp and will spur the powerful (and powerfully profligate) Achilles to battle.  By choosing Ajax to serve as the exemplary Greek warrior, “distilled / Out of our virtues,”[35] to battle Hector, by publicly celebrating the oafish Ajax instead of the “strong Achilles,” and by insisting that the Greek generalship deny reverence to Achilles, the generals will spur (or spurn) Achilles’ return to battle, order will be restored, and the Greeks will take an advantage.  What Ulysses recognizes and Shakespeare emphasizes here, René Girard will subsequently theorize and argue: the ultimate horizon of historical action in this play, the motive force of history, the final term of any proper historical analysis, is little more than an understanding of human pettiness and petulance.  In the epic history that Shakespeare stages, Achilles will take the field once again and prepare the ground for Troy’s fall and for Rome’s founding, but these actions are driven by a pathetic longing for the “looks of other men.”[36]  While hubris, for instance, may seem somehow worthy of a place in the humanist historical register—it seems like a properly epic flaw—the sense of a woeful insecurity and potent narcissism is hardly the stuff of epic glory.  History remains in Troilus and Cressida—as a humanist historiography demands—the story of universal truths grounded in individual human action rather than in the impersonal forces of a cultural gestalt, but these actions are at best banal and at worst pathological.  The Trojan war is reduced to the culmination of pathetic self-absorption.  The battle between Troy and Greece may be told most accurately as the story of men who weren’t, for instance, loved enough by their mothers.[37]

  10. The sense that epic history is an articulation of individual and universal truths helps to explain the play’s conspicuous deployment of anachronism.  The ahistorical historicism I’ve been describing relies on a strange sense of ontological anachrony:[38] it produces a history without historicity, difference or change.  Against this vision of historical timelessness that the play’s anachronisms seem to “make sense” and become thematically significant.  Recognizing that anachronism in the play is more than accidental, Charnes argues that “the characters are given an awareness of their ‘previous’ existences” and that this anachronistic self-awareness
    surfaces occasionally in overt form, such as Hector’s anachronistic reference, in 2.2.[164], to Aristotle’s Ethics, a work that won’t be written until long after Hector is dead, buried, and converted into legend.  But unlike other plays in which historical figures make ‘unwitting’ references to their own historicity (a strategy of irony that privileges the audience’s metadramatic position), this play afflicts the characters with a historical ‘knowledge’ that contaminates most, if not all, of their verbal intercourse.[39]
    But while Charnes here puts scare-quotes around the “previous” of “‘previous’ existences” to indicate the characters’ awareness of their bizarrely predetermining historico-literary legacies—the sense that they’re running after the idealized image that they have “already” become in the future[40]— perhaps these quotations should work to contain “previous” because the logic of priority and causality doesn’t seem to fit with the problematic temporality of historical timelessness that characterizes the play’s thinking of history.  The repeated anachronistic references to God and the devil—so common in Shakespeare’s plays that deal with pre-Christian cultures—may be “mere” oversights or uncritically deployed habits of poetic convention, but it’s difficult not to be struck when Pandarus, Troilus and Cressida recite a chorus of “Amens”:

    Pandarus: Say ‘Amen.’
    Troilus: Amen.
    Cressida: Amen.
    Pandarus: Amen.[41] 

  11. It’s also difficult not to be struck by the conspicuous biblical echoes throughout the play to which Naseeb Shaheen attends.[42]  It’s also difficult not to be struck by the anachronistic reference to Aristotle that Charnes points out in the quotation above.  Perhaps this reference to Aristotle is the most striking because Aristotle is a philosopher of the naturally, perpetually and inevitably human.   (Unsurprisingly, Aristotle was influential among humanist historians who often characterized their work as a “return” to Aristotle).[43]  These anachronisms seem only to affirm the ahistorical nature of human history that the play stages for us, a human history that’s repetitive and droning, a human history that functions according to the immutable laws of a frustratingly pathetic human nature.  The Bible might echo in Troilus and Cressida, then, because biblical parables simply tell the same stories of human nature that we find neatly packaged in The Iliad and The Aeneid; these are also the same stories readily available in proverbial truths that “They say,” or in the tidily theorized philosophy of Aristotle.  As Samuel Daniel describes this vision of history and historiography in the epigraph to my paper, history, like heaven, is a space in which nothing ever happens because have, do, and always run
    The self same line of action, and do cast
    Their course alike, and nothing can be done
    Whilst they, their ends, and nature are the same.[44]
    Following from this frightening historical logic according to which “nothing can be done,” Daniel draws more explicit conclusions about the historiographical project on the first page of his Collections of the History of England: we don’t need to know, he claims, all that’s happened in the past, “For had we the particular occurrents of all ages, and all nations, it might more stuffe, but not better our vnderstanding.  We shall finde still the same correspondencies to hold in the actions of men: Vertues, and Vices the same . . . the causes of the ruines, and mutations of States to be alike.”  

  12. The disappearance of historicity in the play ultimately helps to make sense of Pandarus’ strange speech that closes Troilus and Cressida.  We might often be jarred at the end of any early modern play in which a character escapes the diegetic reality of the stage to address the audience, call for applause, and moralize, but there’s something stunningly un-jarring about the easy traffic that obtains between Pandarus’ Troy and the imagined audience in the suburbs:[45]
    Good traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths.
    As man as be here of Pandar’s hall,
    Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall;
    Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groands,
    Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
    Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
    Some two months hence my will shall here be made.
    It should be now, but that my fear is this,
    Some gallèd goose of Winchester would hiss.
    Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
    And at that time bequeath you my diseases.[46] 
    Thanks to Pandarus’ speech here, it seems that historiographers no longer need to work to establish a mythic past for London, because that mythic past falls easily from the stage into the eager laps of Pandarus’ “Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade.”  A mythic past, certainly, but it’s not London proper that inherits a Trojan legacy or embodies its cultural energy: the prostitutes, panders and V.D. ridden bodies imagined to roam the streets and theatres of Southwark—outside the walls of Troynovant—are the true inheritors of a Trojan lineage. While King James may no longer wish to find himself reflected in the Trojan myth, it seems that Pandarus has already insinuated himself quite easily into the historically specific guild system of early modern London as he imagines himself part of a panders’ “hall.”  Perhaps at his guild-meetings he encounters an apprenticing version of Middleton’s Allwit from A Chaste Maid in Cheapside?  Perhaps Pandarus, walking through London, recognizes the vital energy of Thersites lurking in the soul Jonson’s Downright, a perpetually irritated soldier who has recently returned from a war on the continent?  This move from Troilus and Cressida to Middleton and Jonson is, I think, apt, because Pandarus seems to imagine that Troy is the city that their city comedies will soon begin to stage and because these comedies—preoccupied with bawdy self-indulgence and appetite—seem to inherit the Trojan essence that Pandarus so eagerly bequeaths.  Epic inheritance becomes here a strangely congenital STD.  But despite the rhetoric of genealogy, inheritance and lineage that Pandarus invokes, the play seems to be reminding us in its unsettlingly determinist vision of history that that the audience doesn’t need to wait for Pandarus’ tragic, impending death before it lays claim to his pathological property (or properties).  Southwark has already inherited its disease because the disease that Pandarus bequeaths is a vulgar human nature that chronically articulates itself, again and again and again, as a historical record populated by bawds, narcissists and venal heroes.  As my epigraph from Elvis Costello suggests, the repetition of history isn’t the epic repetition of toppled cities and glorious battles: it’s the perpetual return of glib replies and the same small, erotic defeats. Perhaps the generic designation of Troilus and Cressida has been the object of so much disagreement because this truth of history seems tragic even though it takes the shape of comic rebirth, or because this comic truth is too easily captured in the grating and terrifying universality of truisms.  “A man is a man.”  Tilley M243.[47] 


[1] Samuel Daniel, “The Tragedy of Philotas,” in  The Whole Workes of Samvel Daniel Esquire in Poetrie (London: Nicholas Okes, 1623), 183.

[2] Elvis Costello,  “Beyond Belief,” from Imperial Bedroom (Rhino/WEA, 1982). 

[3] Francesco Guicciardini, “Ricordi,” in Selected Writings, ed. Cecil Grayson, trans. Margaret Grayson (Toronto: Oxford U P, 1965), 8. 

[4] William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Muir (New York: Oxford U P, 1982), 3.2.72-82. 

[5] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverside Books, 1998), 337. 

[6] Arthur Tilley, ed.,  A Dictionary of Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1950), P83. 

[7] Tilley, A Dictionary, W828. 

[8] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.32-3; Tilley, A Dictionary, C715.

[9] Tilley, A Dictionary, S174; Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.33-4.

[10] Tilley, A Dictionary, M922; Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.115.

[11] Tilley, A Dictionary, F40; Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 3.1.96. 

[12] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.89-90; Tilley, A Dictionary, W828. 

[13] Cf. Matthew Greenfield, “Fragments of Nationalism in Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly 51.2 (2000): 187; Heather James, Shakespeare’s Troy (New York: Cambridge U P, 1997), 29, 32, 89, passim; Douglas Cole, “Myth and Anti-Myth: The Case of Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly 31.1 (1980): 79; David Hillman, “The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48.3 (1997): 296.

[14] From Hayden White, Metahistory: “putative laws (such as ‘Bad money drives out good,’ or even such banal observations as ‘What goes up must come down’) are usually at least tacitly invoked during the course of the historian’s efforts to explain such a phenomenon as, say, the Great Depression or the Fall of the Roman Empire.  The commonsensical or conventional nature of these latter generalizations does not affect their status as the presumed major premises of nomological-deductive arguments by which explanations of events given in the story are provided.  The nature of the generalizations only points to the protoscientific character of historical explanation in general, or the inadequacy of the social sciences from which such generalizations, appearing at an appropriately modified and more rigorously stated form, might be borrowed” (11-12).  

[15] Cf. Arthur B. Ferguson, Clio Unbound: Perception of the social and cultural past in renaissance England (Durham: Duke U P, 1979).  For Ferguson, early modern historians and antiquaries were still far from recognizing the relativizing force of historicity and the potent claims of “social history” on the record of political change, but members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries in the mid-1580s were also coming to relate differently to historical records and were recognizing the significance of more “social” documents (i.e. legal records, Roman coins, Ecclesiastical documents) that prior historians had simply ignored. 

[16] Cf. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. P. C. Bayley (New York: Oxford U P, 1965), 3.9.45-6, 4.11.27-8. 

[17] René Girard, “The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Routledge, 1985), 192.  Heather James makes a valuable, qualifying point: in his challenge to the epic grandeur of the characters that he stages, Shakespeare isn’t wholly innovative.  James recognizes—as did Caxton and Lydgate and Ariosto—that these epic heroes were treated ambivalently even in The Aeneid and The Iliad.  It’s important to recognize, however, that while Virgil and Homer treat these characters ambivalently, their subsequent literary and historiographical appropriations had, as Rosemarie Colie argues, generally flattened the characters and reduced them to emblematic tokens of single traits: “noble Hector,” “strong Achilles,” “wronged Troilus.”   

[18] Cole, “Myth and Anti-Myth: The Case of Troilus and Cressida,” 78.

[19] Hillman, “The Gastric Epic: Troilus and Cressida,” passim

[20] James, Shakespeare’s Troy, 32.  Other critics who make similar observations include Linda Charnes, Una Ellis-Fermor and Harry Berger Jr.  For Charnes, the characters in Troilus and Cressida often seem self-consciously aware of their impending textualizations, and this jarring between their self-experience and the experience of their looming textual identities draws attention to the fabricated quality of all mythic stories.  Ellis-Fermor argues that, in the play, “chaos . . . [is] the ultimate fact of being” (72).  Berger, following Coleridge, makes an interesting and similar point when he claims that the staging of mythic history disrupts any sense of mythic grandeur: the obvious and literal embodiment of mythic characters by actors (the move from rhetorical to mimetic representation) necessarily demystifies them. 

[21] Paying close attention to Bacon as a theorist of history and historiography, Arthur B. Ferguson offers a meticulous account of the rise, methods, habits and assumptions of humanist historicism in Clio Unbound (see esp. pp. 37-50).  Cf. F. J. Levy, Tudor Historical Thought, passim; D. R. Woolf, “The Historian as Counsellor,” in The Idea of History in Early Stuart England (Toronto: U Toronto P, 1990), 141-58. 

[22] Sidney’s famous criticism of historians in The Defense of Poetry is a perfect example of this imagined relationship between historiography and moral philosophy.  For Sidney, historians are poor teachers—even though teaching is their goal—because they are “tied . . . not to what should be but to what is” (32): they can’t readily show, that is, the rewarding of virtue because their only examples are found in a problematically unjust historical record. 

[23] In Shakespeare’s Humanism, Robin Headlam Wells makes a claim similar to Ferguson’s: “If the past had a message for the modern world, that was because human nature if fundamentally the same in all ages” (136). 

[24] Sir Philip Sidney,  A Defense of Poetry, ed. J. A. Van Dorsten (New York: Oxford U P, 1966), 30.

[25] Of course it’s wrongheaded to suggest that we’ve since moved beyond this naïve vision of historical knowledge. For a contemporary rehashing of this humanist understanding of historical universality and literary value, see Peter Berkowitz’s recent review of Theory’s Empire, “Literature in Theory,” in Policy Review 135 (2006), [journal on-line]; available from (accessed 22 August 2006).

[26] Ferguson, Clio Unbound, 59.

[27] For an example of this ambivalence toward certain historico-allegorical readings of the play, see Tony Dawson’s review of Eric S. Mallin’s Inscribing the Time, in Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996), [journal on-line]; available from (accessed 22 August 2006).

[28] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.74-5.

[29] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.77

[30] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.100, 102.

[31] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.108, 109. 

[32] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.115-7.

[33] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.124-5.

[34] Cf. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.317-20.

[35] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.347-8.

[36] Girard, “The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida,” 207.

[37] This deflation of history to the story of individual pathology remains a current if marginalized practice.  Menno Meyjes’  2002 film Max recounts the rise of National Socialism in intra-war Germany and the relationship between a young Hitler and an art-dealer, Max Rothman.  Struggling to find a market for his realist, classically informed sketches, Hitler meets up with Rothman who trades mostly in the pre-surrealist paintings of Grosz and Ernst.  While making gestures to the social space from which National Socialism might causally emerge in 1920s Germany (rampant unemployment, a nationally humiliating war-guilt clause (Article 231) in the Treaty of Versaille, an established tradition of anti-semitism, etc.), the film privileges a sense that National Socialism emerges primarily from the mind of a pathologically insecure Hitler who has a difficult time coping with war trauma, coming to terms with his inner-demons, dealing with women, and making any friends outside a burgeoning community of politicised anti-semites.   Though intentionally glib and reductive, Rothman’s recognition that Hitler had “had a bad war” seems to speak to the truth of history as imagined in Meyjes’ film.  Hitler’s own “bad war” is primarily and causally central to our understanding of history and the Second World War.  It seems as if the film takes seriously Meyjes’ Hitler’s striking and frightening observation (borrowed from Benjamin?) that “politics is the new art,” and that this new aestheticized politics is best understood by plumbing the souls of its artists.    

[38] Perhaps “a-chrony”—the absence of time—would be a more adequate term because it avoids the temporal differentiation of “before” and “after” on which “anachrony” relies.  It’s this sense of “a-chrony” that I aim to invoke here by “anachrony.”   

[39] Linda Charnes, Notorious Identity: Materializing the Subject in Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1993), 76.

[40] For a valuable reading of the historical specificity of subjectively experienced historical belatedness—an act of “anticipatory retrospection”— see Marshall Grossman’s reading of St. George/Redcrosse in The Story of All Things, esp. pp.  41-3.  See also Jonathan Goldberg’s well-historicized discussion of the experience of subjective belatedness in “Shakespearean Characters: The Generation of Silvia” and “Shakespearean Inscriptions: The Voicing of Power” (both reprinted in Shakespeare’s Hand).  

[41] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 3.2.194-7. 

[42] Naseeb Shaheen, “Biblical Echoes in Troilus and Cressida,” Notes and Queries 241.2 / 43.2 (1996): 192-3. 

[43] Ferguson, Clio Unbound, 76.

[44] Daniel, “The Tragedy of Philotas,” 183. 

[45] While many critics argue that Troilus and Cressida was written to be performed as an Inns of Court revel, and while the quarto’s note to the “Eternal reader” (!) suggests that it was never performed at all, Pandarus’ speech here seems to suggest that the play was, in fact, written for performance at a public theatre.  Though the speech seems too bawdy and scathing for the public stage (Muir 8), would Pandarus be able to address his “Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade” at an Inns of Court revel?  If the speech is effective because it speaks to the imagined presence of prostitutes and bawds in the audience, doesn’t their imagined presence suggest the type of audience one might find in the pit at a public theatre in Southwark?  Bloom makes a similar but less tentative argument that Troilus and Cressida was written and performed at the Globe; see Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 327. 

[46] Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 5.10.45-55. 

[47] An early version of this paper was presented in “Shakespeare and the Invention of the Quasi-Human,” a workshop at the 2006 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.   I would like to thank participants of that seminar for their valuable feedback, especially Margaret Owens, Aaron Kunin, Unhae Langis, Doug Eskew, and Lara Bovilsky.  This paper was also improved by valuable feedback from Helen Ostovich. 

Works Cited


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