Pandarus and Cressida (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 2). Engraving after Henry Corbould.

We are perennially curious about what Shakespeare can teach us about our own world, hoping to find instruction and solace in his plays, poems, and exemplary turns of phrase.

Recently, this curiosity has produced a score of tweets and articles speculating about Shakespeare’s productivity during periods when the plague ravaged London, guessing at how he would have responded to the coronavirus, and considering what his works might teach us about surviving a pandemic.

In the almost-forgotten time before COVID-19, we were more preoccupied with what Shakespeare would think of Donald Trump. From absurd speculation about how Shakespeare would approach impeachment to more oblique musings about the politics of his plays, critics have been especially concerned about which Shakespearean tyrant Trump most resembles. Richard III? Leontes? King Lear himself?

But the Shakespearean setting that most mirrors our own is, I think, in Troilus and Cressida, one of the playwright’s most ruthlessly demystifying works. Indeed, the play was rarely staged until the twentieth century, when it belatedly found a wider audience.

The play doesn’t feature a tyrant at all — just rooms full of cynical power players for whom facts don’t matter and “truth isn’t truth.” Though Shakespeare likely didn’t write Troilus and Cressida in quarantine, the drama nevertheless ends in disease and death.

The play’s main plot is set against the background of the Trojan War and follows the Trojan prince Troilus’s pursuit of Cressida, the brief consummation of their love, and Cressida’s eventual betrayal. The play is laced with discussions about the course of the war over Helen, which has dragged into its seventh year with no end in sight. Despite the devastating loss of life it has caused, the leaders of both camps perversely refuse to give up the conflict. The final speech of the play, spoken by a sick man, predicts lingering disease, figurative and literal.

One of the most modern elements of Troilus and Cressida is its concern with political rhetoric. The play shows a particular interest in a rhetorical technique that Quentin Skinner has termed “rhetorical redescription.” This is a device meant to strengthen an argument by turning a potential vice into an apparent virtue — for example, praising someone who intentionally offends by calling him forthright and honest (“He tells it like it is!”). Early modern critics of rhetoric feared the power and persuasiveness of this technique: “The danger,” as Skinner puts it, “was said to be that of opening up a world of complete moral arbitrariness, a world in which there might be no possibility of agreeing about the application of evaluative terms, and no possibility in consequence of avoiding a state of unending confusion and mutual hostility.”

The dangers of rhetorical description become clear in the play’s Trojan Council, where King Priam and his sons Hector, Troilus, Paris, and Helenus gather to debate whether they should send Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, back home to the Greeks. Her return to Sparta (where she had been the king’s wife, before Paris of Troy abducted her) would constitute a Trojan surrender but would also prevent further loss of time, expense, and life. Hector, seconded by Helenus, argues that Helen “is not worth what she doth cost / The holding.” The Trojans have already sacrificed thousands of lives for her, but many thousands more can and should be preserved by sending Helen home.

It’s no surprise that Paris, Helen’s paramour, disagrees. But we might at least expect Troilus to take Hector’s side. After all, only one act earlier he was denouncing the “fools on both sides” and complaining that the argument over Helen was “too starved a subject for my sword.” And yet, with full knowledge of the loss of life it will entail, Troilus in this scene sides with Paris.

Troilus is aware that his position is inconsistent. But when Helenus sensibly points out to Troilus that his argument is indefensible, Troilus simply accuses him of cowardice. He goes further by flatly dismissing logical reasoning as a valid method for deciding the question at hand: “Nay, if we talk of reason, / Let’s shut our gates and sleep.” He appeals instead to “manhood and honor,” and proceeds to mount an argument about the relative nature of value: According to Troilus, Helen is imbued with value primarily because the Trojans have gone to such great lengths to capture and hold her. Much like stocks, Helen remains a valuable commodity only so long as the Greeks and the Trojans collectively agree that she is worth dying for. Even when Priam’s daughter Cassandra, the famous prophetess, enters to proclaim Troy’s imminent destruction and the “mass of moan to come,” Troilus won’t budge.

The politicians in the Trojan council are at an impasse. Hector thinks Helen not worth the cost in human life, while Paris and Troilus insist that sending her back would be humiliating. They disagree even on the terms of the debate. What constitutes “value” or “honor”? What was (or is) the nature of Helen’s “fair rape”? Are Cassandra’s desperate warnings the “high strains / Of divination” or ” “brainsick raptures”? The play implies that the abduction of Helen was wrong; that continuing to sacrifice Trojan lives for Paris’s pleasure and Troilus’s glory is immoral; and that Cassandra, labelled insane by the other characters, is the only person in the play who speaks truth.

But in the Trojan council, this is all a matter of perspective. Truth is determined by what you can justify, and the members of the council can apparently justify anything.

Hector believes that nothing about Troilus’s position is reasonable or honorable. And yet, in what is perhaps the most cynical act of the play, he cedes the debate to Troilus and Paris, resolving to keep Helen, and to continue the war. “For,” he notes, “’tis a cause that hath no mean dependence / Upon our joint and several dignities.”

After all, they have a reputation to protect. To give up the war now on “base compulsion” would simply make them look bad. Plus, interminable war is a small price to pay for sticking it to the Greeks.

Comparisons between Trump and Shakespeare’s tyrants often conclude by pointing to the downfall of the tyrant in question and the chance of redemption that downfall offers. But in Troilus and Cressida, blame and corruption are diffused among so many different figures, Greek and Trojan, that real resolution seems impossible. The tragic death with which the play concludes — Hector’s — does not offer much hope. In his final scene Troilus cries out to the gods, “let your brief plagues be mercy, / And linger not our sure destructions on!

But there is no indication that these plagues will be brief.

Shakespeare draws a direct line between the diseased body politic and a literally diseased body when Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle and Troilus’s greasy go-between, enters to give the play’s closing speech. Apparently syphilitic, he is visibly ill, troubled with a “phthisic,” a respiratory disease. In many productions, the character has violent coughing fits. Speaking directly to the audience, Pandarus imagines them as diseased: “if you cannot weep, yet give some groans, / Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.” He prophesies his own death in two months’ time and predicts a bleak future in the interval: “Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases, / And at that time bequeath you my diseases.”

Sickness is figured as inheritance. The contagion, having emerged from a diseased body politic, is transferred from Pandarus to the unsuspecting audience members, closely crowded together within the confines of the playhouse. It is easy to imagine that spectators leaving the theater, a notorious breeding ground for plague, might have spread a pestilence throughout London.

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare presents us with trenchant analysis of a post-truth world in which political bodies, both literal and metaphorical, languish in disease. Like many of our own political leaders, the play’s princes have abandoned any notion of good-faith deliberation, using inconsistent arguments to justify whatever position best serves their interests at the moment. They engage in rhetorical redescription, characterizing prudence as cowardice and reckless disregard for others’ lives as manliness and courage. And they’re willing to sacrifice hundreds or even thousands of lives to maintain a status quo that benefits themselves and their reputations. It is little wonder the play ends with a man marked for death — Troy is marked for death itself.

Emily Pitts Donahoe is a Presidential Fellow at Notre Dame.

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