Troilus and Cressida: The Trip to Bawdy-ful, Part Two–taking the back road

Yesterday, I began the trip to Bawdy-ful, i.e. Troilus and Cressida, with a look at the basic signposts along the way. Today, let’s take a back-road, so to speak, with a look at the depiction of homosexuality in the play.

In the project thus far, there hasn’t been a lot homosexuality explicitly depicted in the plays. Sure, there were some overly obsessed male friendships (see The Two Gentlemen of Verona) and a subtle unrequited homosexual love (see The Merchant of Venice), but nothing requited, returned, or anywhere near positive.

That ends here.

We get our first clue in Act Two, Scene One, when we see Thersites respond to Patroclus’ orders for him to be quiet: “I will hold my peace when Achilles’ brach bids me, shall I?” (II.i.113-4). As we noted in the plot summary earlier in the month, “brach” was “a term of abuse (meaning) bitch” (“brach, n.; b.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 3 June 2015.), which in turn not only meant “dog” when “applied to a man” (“bitch, n.; 2.b.” OED Online.), but also “a lewd or sensual woman” (“bitch, n.; 2.a.” OED Online.). In the “Names of the Actors” of the various editions of the play, Patroclus is referred to as “Achilles’ companion” or “Achilles’ favorite,” with an implication as subtle as our previous plays’ depictions. “Achilles’ bitch” is not subtle at all.

After explaining to Achilles (and Patroclus) how the other Greek commanders now “worship Ajax” (III.iii.181), Ulysses also (bitingly) references Achilles’ “love” (III.iii.192) for Priam’s daughter Polyxena: “And better would it fit Achilles much // To throw down Hector than Polyxena” (III.iii.207-8). For Ulysses, it would be better for Achilles to defeat Hector (“throw down” in battle) than to bed Polyxena (“throw down” onto a bed sexually). It’s an interesting statement to make, especially before Achilles’ “favorite”; here, Ulysses is trying to goad Achilles into battle. But upon Ulysses’ exit, it’s Patroclus, not Achilles, who responds:

To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you.
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action. I stand condemned for this.
They think my little stomach to the war,
And your great love to me, restrains you thus.
Sweet, rouse yourself, and the weak wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold
And, like a dewdrop from the lion’s mane,
Be shook to air.
  • III.iii.216-225

Here, what we get is not bawdy necessarily, but rather one of the few truly tender (without begging to be requited) expressions of love in the play. Patroclus realizes any ill will toward Achilles from the Greeks he himself has engendered, “condemned” for making Achilles look like an “effeminate man.” Patroclus wants his “sweet” love to live up to the needs his nation has for him, even if this means Patroclus will be “shook” loose.

Don’t think, however, that the world at large will be as enlightened or forgiving as the lovers are to one another. When Thersites delivers a note to Achilles, he insults Patroclus as the Greek warrior reads it, calling him “Achilles’ male varlet… his masculine whore” (V.i.15, 17). Thersites calls for any number of diseases to be visited upon Patroclus for his “preposterous discoveries” (V.i.24), “an instance” (“discovery, n.; 3.” OED Online) of something “contrary to nature… perverse” (“preposterous, adj.; 2.” OED Online). For Thersites, it’s perversion that brings upon the “diseases of the south” (V.i.18), venereal diseases.

But we see diseases in neither Achilles nor Patroclus, only caring emotion. When Achilles reveals the contents of the letter, it’s with tenderness:

Here is a letter from Queen Hecuba,
A token from her daughter, my fair love,
Both taxing me and gaging me to keep
An oath that I have sworn.
  • V.i.39-42

While the phrase “my fair love” could refer to Hecuba’s daughter, I would argue that the phrase is actually addressing Achilles’ “fair love,” Patroclus. Why? The evidence we have of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship makes this possible, but the meter that puts the stresses on “my” and “love” (rather than the “fair” that we would expect in the description of someone separate from the discussion) makes it plausible for some, probable for me.

So as I look back at this blog entry, it’s not that bawdy, but actually rather touching. Achilles and Pandarus are not the diseased ones… that we’ll return to tomorrow.

Comment?