Troilus and Cressida: Commentators, part one (Prologue)

As we begin the second month of discussion regarding Troilus and Cressida, I’d like to take a look at the concept of in-play commentary; it’s a big enough subject to take a couple of entries to fully explore.

Today, let’s begin with the opening commentary by the Prologue.

The Prologue is “Spoken by a man in armor” (Prologue, opening stage direction). On a first reading, I imagined this man as more than a mere soldier, one of the great and classic warriors we’ll later meet, an Agamemnon, Ulysses, Achilles or Hector. But now I’m not so sure (but more on that later).

His first words sets the scene and our expectations: “In Troy there lies the scene” (Prologue, 1). A man in armor, and the scene is Troy. This play will be about the Trojan War, and our thoughts immediately turn to the Homeric tale. The Prologue’s diction, at least at the beginning, does nothing to counter that illusion and allusion; he describes the princes as “orgulous” (Prologue, 2), a rather purple word for “proud.”

But if the language is Homeric, the content undercuts that impression: “Sixty and nine” (Prologue, 5) ships sailed from Greece to Troy. Only 69? A decade before this play, Christopher Marlowe produced his creative and popular masterpiece, Doctor Faustus, in which he described Helen as “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

While The Iliad takes place in the last year of the ten-year war, this prologue tells us not only of the ships, but their landing at “Tenedos” (Prologue, 11). Not important? Then why make the “Tenedos” line the first one of the speech that is shorter than iambic pentameter (this one, only three feet long)? This sets up the expectation that this play will be a full exploration of the war. He goes on to tell us of the movement of the troops to Troy, pinning the Trojans within its gates (“Sperr up the sons of Troy” [Prologue, 19] in another notably short line).

The Prologue recalls the Chorus of Henry V when he says, “Now expectation … Sets all on hazard” (Prologue, 20, 22; compare to “For now sits Expectation in the air // And hides a sword” [HV, II.Prologue.8-9]). The comparison links this play, these exploits, with those of England’s shining star of a king. This is the stuff of heroic legend. Just as quickly, though, the Prologue ‘pulls a Homer’ and “Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils” (Prologue, 27), skipping to “the middle” (Prologue, 28)–we’ll learn later that we’re “seven years” (I.iii.12) into the war, not nine–because the entire war would be too much to “be digested in a play” (Prologue.29). This will be no heroic epic, then but a snapshot.

The Prologue calls us “fair beholders” (Prologue.26), and tells us to “Like, or find fault; do as your pleasures are. // Now, good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war” (Prologue.30-1). We will be able to like or dislike the play, but what is good or bad, right or wrong, is left to “The falling out or happening of events” in the war (“chance, n.A.I.1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 28 June 2015.).

In this war, to which army does this Prologue belong? If it’s the winners that get to write the histories, then does that make him a Greek? Or if we’re still able to decide what is good or bad, would that make him a Trojan? We don’t know, as the Prologue is silenced for the rest of the play. But we do get an inkling of the play to follow: conflicting reports, a mixed bag, some good, some bad.

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