Troilus and Cressida: parallel, sadly

Shakespeare has been called the king of rhetorical parallel and opposition. A prime example of this can be found in Act Three, Scene Two of Troilus and Cressida, as the scene in which the two lovers confirm and state their love comes to a close.

 O virtuous fight,
When right with right wars who shall be most right!
True swains in love shall in the world to come
Approve their truth by Troilus. When their rhymes,
Full of protest, of oath and big compare,
Wants similes, truth tired with iteration—
“As true as steel, as plantage to the moon,
As sun to day, as turtle to her mate,
As iron to adamant, as Earth to th’ center”—
Yet,after all comparisons of truth,
As truth’s authentic author to be cited,
“As true as Troilus” shall crown up the verse
And sanctify the numbers.
 Prophet may you be!
If I be false or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When water drops have worn the stones of Troy
And blind oblivion swallowed cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood! When they’ve said “as false
As air, as water, wind or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son,”
Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
“As false as Cressid.”
Go to, a bargain made. Seal it, seal it. I’ll be the witness. Here I hold your hand, here my cousin’s. If ever you prove false one to another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name: call them all panders. Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders.
  • III.ii.166-198

Each of the lovers’ non-rhyming speeches begin mid-line and end with a shortened one. Each speech ends with a prophecy of what the speaker’s name might (and as we now know, will) represent in the future: “As true as Troilus” and “As false as Cressid.” In this, we have parallel rhetoric, symbolically tying the two together.

However (and you knew there was going to be a “however,” didn’t you?), just as parallel lines never meet, there are oppositional uses of rhetoric that belie this seeming link, and reveal the chasm between them.

While Troilus’s speech focuses on the concept of being true (using the word or its derivatives six times), Cressida’s focuses on the idea of being false (using that word or derivatives eight times). Troilus’s speech is twelve lines long (two half-lines and eleven full lines sandwiched between), while Cressida’s speech is thirteen lines long (two and twelve, respectively). Neither speech rhymes, and neither reaches the length of a proper sonnet (remember the combined meet-cute speeches of our lovers of Romeo and Juliet form a sonnet, one of the prime forms of romantic poetry). Even as Troilus uses the phrase “As true as Troilus,” he does so a full line before the end of the speech. Cressida, on the other hand, uses her “As false as Cressid” at the very end of her speech, making it the last words she speaks and the ones more likely to stick in the audience’s minds (especially since it ends mid-line, as if directing the actors to pause before the next speech, letting the words hang in the air).

Even as these verbal subtleties mark the differences between them, they are capped by Pandarus’ conclusion, summarizing (“Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids”) and going one step beyond (“all brokers-between panders”).

Two lovers, both alike in rhetoric. But then those “words, words, mere words” (V.iii.108) are used to show how Troilus and Cressida are so very different.

The kids never stood a chance. The careful reader (or listener) should have known.

Actually, we all should have known, but more on that after tomorrow’s podcast…