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TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. SHAKESPEARE'S IMMEDIATE
SOURCES. LITERARY JUDGMENT OF THE PLAY.
The date of “Troilus and Cressida” is extremely uncertain, and has been the subject of a good deal of controversy. The play appeared in 1609, under the title of “The Famous Historie of Troylus and Cresseid. Excellently expressing the beginning of their loves, with the conceited wooing of Pandarus, Prince of Lycia. Written by William Shakespeare.”
The poet had as little to do with this lengthy and inaccurate title--for Pandarus was not prince of Lyciaas he had with its appearance in print, which was apparently the work of some enterprising bookseller, who stole the play from its proprietors before it had been acted, and had it printed with a very singular preface, in which the following curious passages occur :
“A never writer to an ever reader. Newes. Eternall Reader, you have here a new play never stald with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar, and yet passing full of the palm comical. ... So much, and such savoured salt of wit is in his comedies, that they seem, for their height of pleasure, to be born in that sea that brought forth Venus. Amongst all, there is none more witty than this; and had I time I would comment upon it, though I know it needs not (for so much as will make you think your testern well bestowed) but for so much worth as even poor I know to be stuffed in it. It deserves such a labour, as well as the best comedy in Terence or Plautus. And believe this, that when he is gone, and his comedies out of sale, you will scramble for them and set up a new English inquisition. Take this for a warning, and at the peril of your pleasure's loss and judgment's refuse not, nor like this the less, for not being sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude, but thank fortune for the scape it hath made amongst you : since, by the grand possessors' will, I believe you should have prayed for it rather than been prayed. And so I leave all such to be prayed for (for the states of their wits' healths) that will not praise it. Vale."
Two points of interest may be disentangled out of this strange rigmarole: first of all, it shows that in Shakespeare's lifetime, admirers were not wanting who appreciated his genius and foretold the glorious destiny that awaited him; and it further teaches us that the poet's works did not belong to him, but were the exclusive property of a company of players, who kept a jealous guard over their monopoly; for the “grand possessors ” of whom the preface speaks were in all likelihood the “King's players,” the company to which Shakespeare belonged and that acted at the Globe Theatre. And this is doubtless the reason of what, at first sight, seems so puzzling—that so small a number of his plays should have been printed by himself and in his lifetime,* and also that the first complete edition of his works only appeared seven years after his death, and was edited by two actors, Heminge and Condell.
Before Shakespeare's “ Troilus and Cressida” Decker and Chettle had written a play under the same title, which was shortly changed for that of “ Agamemnon.” This play is lost, and consequently it would be difficult to say to what extent Shakespeare made use of his immediate predecessors: to discover in the work of a poet, traces of an earlier composition of which absolutely nothing remains to us, belongs to the “grand style” of criticism, and is a fine exercise of mental gymnastics, and
* With the exception of " Troilus and Cressida" and of “ King Lear," none of his plays were separately published after the year 1603.
one in which German athletes excel, but which I confess I feel quite powerless to imitate.
In searching for the immediate sources whence Shakespeare received the materials for his “Troilus and Cressida” we have to distinguish two distinct sets of traditions, one of which relates to the two lovers and the other to the Trojan war. In Shakespeare's time the story of the two lovers had become a household word. It formed the subject of more than one ballad in the sixteenth century, and was one of the most popular stories of the day, so that the names of the three principal personages, Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus, had become proverbial. There can be little doubt that Chaucer's poem principally furnished Shakespeare with his love-plot; and there is not the slightest occasion to suppose that he had a direct knowledge of the original of Benoit de Sainte-More, which had been buried in oblivion for centuries past; and here we must again insist, how admirable is the sure and penetrating instinct with which the poet re-discovered the frank original conception that lay hidden under a heap of alterations, all more or less for the worse.
As to the personages and events of the Trojan war, they were chiefly known to Shakespeare through William Caxton—the first English printer, and who died in 1491,-who, towards the end of the fifteenth century, translated into English the collection of the “Histories of Troy ” of “the venerable man Raoul le Febvre, priest and chaplain to the Duke of Burgundy.” To Caxton the prose writer, may be fittingly added the name of the poet John Lydgate, a monk, and a disciple in poetry of Chaucer's; he flourished about the year 1430, and at the beginning of the fifteenth century translated the then celebrated work of Guido Colonna into verse, under the title of “Troye Book.” So Caxton, we see, translated le Fèvre, and le Fèvre translated Guido, and Guido
translated Benoit who rifled Dares who rifled Dictys; and it was thus that the mediæval traditions of the Trojan war filtered down to Shakespeare. It is to these chivalric romances that belong the stories of Achilles' love for Polyxena, the relationship between Hector and Ajax, the nationality and expatriation of Calchas, Priam's council of war, Hector's visit to the Greek camp, the dream of Andromache, the circumstances of Hector's death, and many other details of more or less importance. It will be sufficient to make one quotation from Caxton, and the scene chosen is that in which Andromache implores her husband not to go forth that day to battle.
“Andromache saw that night a marvellous vision, and her seemed if Hector went that day to the battle he should be slain. And she, that had great fear and dread of her husband, weeping, said to him, praying that he would not go to the battle that day: whereof Hector blamed his wife, saying that she should not believe nor give faith to dreams, and would not abide nor tarry therefore. When it was in the morning, Andromache went to the King Priamus, and to the queen, and told to them the verity of her vision ; and prayed them with all her heart that they would do so much at her request as to dissuade Hector, that he should not in any wise that day go to the battle, etc. It happened that day was fair and clear, and the Trojans armed them, and Troylus issued first into the battle, after him Eneas. . . . And the King Priamus sent to Hector that he should keep him well that day from going to battle. Wherefore Hector was angry, and said to his wife many reproachful words, as that he knew well that this commandment came by her request; yet, notwithstanding the forbidding, he armed him. At this instant came the Queen Hecuba, and the Queen Helen, and the sisters of Hector, and they humbled themselves and kneeled down presently before his feet, and prayed and desired him with weeping tears that he would do off his harness, and unarm him, and come with them in to the hall: but never would he do it for their prayers, but descended from the palace thus armed as he was, and took his horse and would have gone to battle. But at the request of Andromache, the King Priamus came running anon, and took him by the bridle, and said to him so many things of one and other that he made him to return, but in no wise he would be made to unarın him.”
* Dares proceeded from Dictys, Homer, and Philostratus.
This scene fills no fewer than 271 lines in the epic poem of Benoit de Sainte-More.
“When Andromache found she could obtain no grace, neither by bawling nor by her cries, she smote great blows upon her breast with her two fists, and made great mourning and ado, and tore her hair and pulled and tugged.” Here we see the grip of the Middle Ages: Greek beauties never tore themselves to pieces, and were not in the habit of bawling. But a recollection of Homer is evoked further on in Benoit's poem, by the introduction of Hector's little son Astyanax,—a classical detail which one cannot help wishing Shakespeare had reproduced :
“Weeping very tenderly, she takes the child upon her arm and falls at his feet, and then says to him: 'Sire! by this little child begotten of thy flesh, have mercy on the child. Never will he see thee with his eyes if thou goest to join those yonder, of thee he will remain an orphan, cruel-hearted, wild wolf! .... Why wilt thou die so soon? Why wilt thou so soon leave me and him, your mother, your sisters and your father?'s
This is decidedly better, though it would not do to quote Homer immediately after it; or rather, he ought to be quoted, and that without any apology, for such literary comparisons are full of instruction, and a quotation from the “Roman de Troie” may be followed by one from the “Iliad” without any disparagement being intended towards the old Norman trouvère :
“Silent he smiled as on his boy he gazed :
• To me nor sire is left,