The Problem of Achilles

The character of Achilles is problematic. His refusal to fight is key in both Homer’s The Iliad and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. But why does he refuse?

During the period, if a warrior conquered a city, he could take prisoners, both males as slaves and females as concoubines. Like any property, these people then could be traded and bartered amongst the powerful. Over the course of the war, Agamemnon had taken a war prize, Chryseis, and Achilles another, Briseis. Now, Chryseis was the daughter of a priest of Apollo. Apollo sent down plagues on the Greek army in punishment until Agamemnon returned Chryseis. Of course, this didn’t sit well with the supreme commander of the Greek armies, so he took Achilles’ war prize, Briseis, as his own. Needless to say, Achilles was angered, and this, according to some–including our old buddy Homer–was the reason Achilles sat out the first part of the war.

While Apollo is referenced in Troilus and Cressida, neither he nor any other god or goddess plays an active role in the actions of the narrative (of course, one has to wonder why there are no gods in the play… Shakespeare never shied away from powerful spirits in other plays (see Midsummer, Macbeth, The Tempest, and even the appearance of Hymen in As You Like It), but that is fodder for another discussion altogether. It’s no wonder then that this whole Briseis story is absent from the play. What IS mentioned in the play, however, is Achilles’ relationship with Polyxena.

Who? you ask? Good question…

Polyxena is a daughter of Priam and Hecuba, and thus a sister to Troilus and the other brothers. Ulysses references her when he tells Achilles, “‘Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love // With one of Priam’s daughters” (III.iii.192-3). Of course, at this point in the play, Ulysses is trying to goad Achilles back into battle, even saying that it would better “fit Achilles much // To throw down Hector than Polyxena” (III.iii.207-8), intimating it would be better if he threw Hector down on the field of battle than it would be for him to throw Polyxena down on a marriage bed.

Later, as the battle approaches, Achilles receives

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

In one version of the Trojan War myth, Achilles at the temple of Apollo sees Polyxena, gets struck by Cupid’s arrow (no lie) and falls madly in love. So madly, in fact, that he swears an oath to Hecuba saying if he can marry Polyxena, he’ll try to get the Greeks to pull back from Troy. It doesn’t work in the myth, and it can’t work here in Troilus and Cressida. Why? Because in that version of the myth, the reason Achilles is at the temple of Apollo is to visit the body of Hector whom he has killed. That hasn’t happened yet in the play.

In another version of the Polyxena myth, she and her brother Troilus were ambushed by the Greeks when it came to light that there was a prophecy that said Troy would fall if Troilus died before reaching adulthood. When brother and sister are captured, Achilles is overcome by lust… for Troilus. When Troilus refuses, Achilles kills Troilus. Then, and only then, does Achilles fall in love with Polyxena, revealing to her his only vulnerability, which she then tells her brothers, and the clock starts ticking toward Achilles’ heel and expiration date. Only this version of the myth doesn’t work for our play, either, and not just because Troilus is still alive. In this version of the myth, all of this takes place after the death of Patroclus, who at this point in our play is still very much alive (as I mentioned before, I would even go so far as saying the “my fair love” reference is not so much about Polyxena than a statement to his lover Patroclus, to whom he directs that speech).

No. No. No. No. No.

So there’s no Briseis. No Apollo. No full telling or explination of Polyxena. So why does Shakespeare have Achilles sitting out the war?

Simple, ridiculous, all too human, and heroism-undercutting pride and ego:

  • “the seeded pride // That hath to this maturity blown up // In rank Achilles must or now be cropp’d” (I.iii.316-7)
  • “over-proud // And under-honest” (II.iii.122-3)
  • “pride is his own glass” (II.iii.153-4)
  • “He is so plaguy proud” (II.iii.175)
  • “the proud lord // That bastes his arrogance with his own seam” (II.iii.182-3)
  • “his fat-already pride” (II.iii.193)

Or as Ulysses describes him first in the play:

The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent
Lies mocking our designs: with him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day
Breaks scurril jests…
  • I.iii.142-8

It’s ego and pride and laziness, so much weaker a reason than trusting love, obsessive love, or self-righteous anger over taken property.

Again, Shakespeare undercuts any sense of heroism in the play.

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