Yesterday, I began to voice my befuddlement over the somewhat inconsistent use of florid language in Troilus and Cressida. I’m afraid I wasn’t tremendously clear (if at all) as to what I meant. So, being the numbers guy that I am, I did a little digging using a website that allows one to calculate the relative reading grade levels of passages (Readability-Score.com).
Here’s what I found (with the main characters):
Some quick observations:
- Ulysses–that scheming “rascal” (V.iv.9)–sits atop the linguistic pyramid, both in reading level and sentence length (a full grade and three full words per sentence) over the second-place character, his partner in subterfuge, Nestor.
- The second- and third-place pair of characters are the Greek Nestor and the Trojan Priam. Reading grade level almost the same, but Nestor has the edge in sentence length. What do they have in common? Age. Both are old. However, Nestor is seemingly stronger (and at least holds his own verbally with Mr. Numero Uno, Ulysses).
- The fourth- and fifth-place pair are also a mixed duo, one Greek–Agamemnon–and one Trojan–Hector. These two characters seem to be the HWIC, the Head Warriors in Charge, the leader to whom his comrades defer in decision making.
- Up to this point, we have a Greek leading the verbal arms race, followed by two pairings, with Greeks taking the edge in both. Now, however, we get a slew of Trojans, led by our titular male lover, followed by his cuckolding brother, an honorable leader, and Hector’s wife (she is the first woman to appear on the list… and will be the only one for a while). The Trojan foursome is followed by a Greek foursome, led by the scurrilous Thersites, and followed by Achilles’ “brach” (II.i.113) Patroclus, then Achilles himself, and finally Diomedes.
- After these two four-character nationalistic sets, we get two female characters, the Trojan prophetess Cassandra and the stolen Greek Helen, both very similar in reading grade level; Helen, however, has a much longer average length of sentence, which would put her linguistically back into the Greek camp that came above her.
- We then get Ajax, our female titular lover Cressida, and finally Pandarus.
All of this is interesting, but since they’re averaged numbers over the course of the play, they can be deceiving as many of their dialogues are interspersed with short responsive lines (bringing their overall score down) . If we only take the character’s first (or most major) speech (and here, I’m going to focus on just the main characters), those numbers are altered somewhat dramatically.
Suddenly, the rankings seems to have taken on an “importance criteria.” The most important of the Greeks, their supreme military commander heads the list, followed by the Trojan’s most respected leader. Only then do we get our Greek conspirators, Ulysses and Nestor, followed by good-guy Aeneas, and the aging Priam. Troilus the soon-to-be-cuckold and the cuckold-er Paris round out the list.
I find it fascinating that no matter how you slice it, the Greeks lead the way… is this Shakespeare’s way of subliminally supporting what we already know will be the ultimate outcome of the war, even if we don’t see it in this play?
For curiosity’s sake, I compared these to our three commentators, and the results are quite fitting…
Our Prologue’s opening speech is the most difficult (in terms of reading grade level) in the play, outranking even Agamemnon’s. It sets an almost Homeric tone for the play, one Shakespeare immediately undercuts. By the time we get to the major bit of commentary from our scurrilous Greek Thersites (his biting dissertation on and dissection of Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon and Menelaus in Act Five, Scene One), the relative grade level has dropped to even below the lowest of our main characters above. And thus, it’s no surprise that when we reach Pandarus’ dark epilogue, language has decayed even further.
Homeric? Heroic? Not so much. The play seemingly growing more linguistically diseased? Absolutely.