Shakespeare and the Last Trojan Woman
Concidit virgo ac puer.
Bellum peractum est.-- Seneca, Troades
Throughout Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Thersites' bitter cry echoes and reechoes: "Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion" (5.2.194- 95). It is a cry from which Shakespeare scholars long turned in disgust, dismissing Troilus and Cressida as vicious and cynical, a cruel misrepresentation of both Homer's heroic warriors and Chaucer's courtly lovers. For commentators who have turned to Troilus and Cressida in the aftermath of twentieth-century wars, the play has become a "great dispute about the sense and cost of war, about the existence and cost of love"; its action seems "all part of the game of war" and its arguments "all ceremonies of rededication to the code that maintains the war." On the eroticized battlefields and in the militarized bedchambers of Troilus and Cressida, we have come to see the bleak and violent sexuality our world has bred from martial pomp and circumstance. 1
Yet Shakespeare's "great dispute about the sense and cost of war, about the existence and cost of love" rises from the traditional discourse of the Trojan War. Even in its earliest literary formulations, the "matter of Troy" was distant and mythical, without fixed ideological content. When, in the later tradition, Rome and London fancifully traced their ancestry to the vanquished Trojans rather than the victorious Greeks, they could celebrate neither the rape of Helen nor the fall of Troy as a nationalistic exploit of martial prowess. Nor had the legends ever fully silenced the voices of the Trojan women. Even through the mediated texts of Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Chaucer, the Trojan women speak of contradictions in the narrative and dramatic representation of war. This "matter of Troy" is the prehistory of Troilus and Cressida. It is not by devaluing but by assimilating it that Shakespeare arrives at his bitter appraisal of "wars and lechery."