This is a very strange play, and I can understand why it is categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” I found it difficult to connect with any one character, and it was not clear who the tragic hero was. Hector dies, but he was not nearly as prideful as Achilles. Only thing close to a tragic flaw that Hector has is he refused to listen to the women who prophesized that something bad would happen to him if he went to fight. Troilus is betrayed by Cressida who gives herself to Diomedes, but they all live. Patroclus dies, but it is almost like a sidenote. Anyway, in spite of all the structural issues, there are some interesting themes that are worth considering.
There is some debate in the play about the contrast between fortune and free will. Early in the play, Nestor embraces the concept of free will over fortune.
In the reproof of chance
Lies the true proof of men: the sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimber’d sides but even now
Co-rivall’d greatness? Either to harbour fled,
Or made a toast for Neptune. Even so
Doth valour’s show and valour’s worth divide
In storms of fortune; for in her ray and brightness
The herd hath more annoyance by the breeze
Than by the tiger; but when the splitting wind
Makes flexible the knees of knotted oaks,
And flies fled under shade, why, then the thing of courage
As roused with rage with rage doth sympathize,
And with an accent tuned in selfsame key
Retorts to chiding fortune.
(Act I: scene iii)
In contrast, Ulysses asserts that fortune plays an important role in human events.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!
(Act I: scene iii)
Pride seems to be another of the key themes in this play, and Achilles is the embodiment of pride. At one point, Ajax and Agamemnon discuss the pride of Achilles, and how it feeds upon itself.
Ajax: Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.
Agamemnon: Your mind is the clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself: pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed, devours the deed in the praise.
Ajax: I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads.
(Act II: scene iii)
In Act V, we see a very bleak assessment of humanity. Thersites comes to the conclusion that men are motivated by two things: war and sex. It is almost a premonition of Freud’s concept of eros and thanatos, that sex and death are the primary drives in human nature.
Lechery, lechery! Still wars and lechery! Nothing else holds fashion. A burning devil take them.
(Act V: scene ii)
This is not my favorite Shakespeare play, but it is not the worst either, in my opinion. While there are some obvious problems with the play, there is enough thought-provoking material there to warrant a read. I am curious, though, whether it would come across better when performed on stage. I will have to keep an eye out for a stage production, and then see for myself.