David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s TROILUS AND CRESSIDA: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 3

— 1.3 —

Agamemnon, the elderly advisor Nestor, Ulysses, Menelaus, Diomedes, and other important Greeks met in front of Agamemnon’s tent in the Greek camp.

Agamemnon said to the others, “What grief has made your cheeks jaundiced? The ample promise of success that hope makes in all plans begun on Earth below fails at first. We do not immediately receive the promised largeness: Obstacles and disasters grow in the veins of the highest reared plans. These obstacles and disasters are like knots that block the sap and so infect the sound pine and divert its grain, twisting and turning it from its natural course of growth.

“Princes, it is not news to us that we have come so far short of our hope that after seven years of siege Troy’s walls still stand. Every planned action of which we have historical record had a period of testing in which the people faced problems that thwarted and did not help them achieve their goal, and that thwarted and did not help them carry out the plan that their abstract thought had formed.

“Why then, you Princes, do you with abashed cheeks look at our deeds, and call them shameful? The troubles we face are indeed nothing other than the protracted trials that great Jove has given to us because the King of gods wants to find persistent constancy in men.”

Jove was another name for Jupiter, King of the gods.

Agamemnon continued, “The fineness of men’s metal — and mettle — is not found in the favor of Lady Fortune; for then the bold and the cowardly, the wise and the foolish, the well-educated and the unread, and the hard and the soft would all seem to be related to each other and much the same, but it is found instead in the wind and tempest of the frown of Lady Distinction, who with a broad and powerful fan blows air at all, winnowing the light stuff away, and leaving behind whatever has mass or matter — the stuff that by itself lies rich in virtue and unmingled with anything base.”

Nestor said, “With due observance of your godlike power, Great Agamemnon, Nestor shall explicate your most recent words. In the reproof of chance lies the true proof of men. To know whether a man is really a man, that man must be tested. When the sea is smooth, many shallow baubles — toy-like boats — dare to sail upon her patient breast, making their way with those ships of nobler bulk! But let the ruffian Boreas — the north wind — once enrage the home of the gentle sea-goddess Thetis, and immediately you see the ships with strong ribs cut through liquid mountains, bounding between the two moist elements — the sea and the air — like the hero Perseus’ winged horse, Pegasus. Where then is the saucy, insolent boat whose weak sides lack a strong frame? A moment ago, such toy-like boats dared to rival great ships! But now, the toy-like boats have either fled to a harbor or they have made a toast for Neptune — they are like a piece of toast that has been soaked in water and has sunk.

“In such storms of fortune, we distinguish the appearance of valor from the reality of valor. When the Sun is shining brightly, a herd of cattle is more annoyed by the gadfly than by the tiger, but when the splitting wind makes the trunks of gnarled oaks flexible so that they bend their knee, forcing the trunk to grow naturally in a bent shape suitable for the building of ships — we call it knee-timber — and when flies have fled to find shelter under the stormy sky, why then the thing of courage, which is roused by the rage of the storm and which sympathizes with rage, replies to chiding fortune in a voice with an accent tuned in the selfsame key. A courageous man reacts vigorously when vigorously challenged.”

Ulysses said, “Agamemnon, you are our great commander, the sinew and bone of Greece, the heart of our numbers of soldiers, our soul and only spirit, and in you the temperaments and the minds of all should be embodied. Please hear what I, Ulysses, have to say besides the applause and approbation that I give to the speeches that you, Agamemnon, who are mightiest because of your position and power, and that you, Nestor, who are most revered because of your long and stretched-out life, made. I give applause and approbation to both your speeches, which were such as Agamemnon, the hands of the Greeks should hold up high after they are engraved in brass, and also are such as venerable Nestor, whose hair is streaked with silver, should with a bond of air, as strong as the axle-tree — the Earth — around which the planets and the Heavens revolve, knit all the Greek ears to his experienced tongue. Nestor is such an excellent speaker that he could recite both your speeches and use the waves of sounds to bind Greek ears to the words. Yet may it please you both — you, great Agamemnon, and you, wise Nestor — to hear me, Ulysses, speak.”

“Speak, Ulysses, Prince of the island of Ithaca,” Agamemnon replied. Using the royal plural, he said, “We are confident that when rank and foulmouthed Thersites opens his dog-like jaws we shall never hear music, intelligence, and divine prophecy. We are even more confident that you will not divide your lips in order to talk unnecessarily about unimportant matters.”

Ulysses said, “Troy, which still stands on its foundation, would have fallen and the great Hector’s sword would have lacked a master by now, except for these reasons I will explain now. The specialty of rule — the rights of and obligations to authority — has been neglected. Look, many hollow Greek tents stand upon this plain; we have that many hollow — false and unsound — factions.

“Whenever the army general is not like the beehive to whom the foragers for food shall all repair, what honey can be expected? When a person of high degree wears a mask, the men who are the unworthiest appear to be just as high of degree while they are also wearing a mask.

“The Heavens themselves, the planets and this center — the Earth — observe degree, priority and proper place and station, regularity of position, course, proportion, season, form, office and custom, according to their rank. And therefore the glorious Sol — the Sun — in noble eminence is enthroned and set in its sphere amid the other Heavenly bodies. The Sun’s medicinal eye corrects the ill aspects of evil astrological planets, and speeds, like the commandment of a King, without check, to good and bad.

“But when the planets wander into an evil and disordered conjunction, what plagues and what portents result! What mutiny and rebellion! What raging of the sea! What shaking of the Earth! What commotion in the winds! What frights, changes, and horrors divert, crack, tear, and uproot the unity and married calm of states and governments quite from their fixed position!

“Oh, when rank is forgotten, rank that is the ladder to all high designs, then enterprise is sick! How could communities, degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities, peaceful commerce from shores separated by seas, the right of primogeniture and the due of birth, the prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, and laurel wreaths stand in an authentic place except by rank and degree?

“But if you take rank and degree away, if you untune that string, then — hark! — what discord follows! Each thing meets in complete opposition. The waters that are bounded by the shores would lift their bosoms — their waves — higher than the shores and make sodden all this solid globe.

“Strength would be the lord of weakness, the strong would rule the weak, and the rude and violent son would strike his father dead. Might would be right; or rather, might would be right and wrong. Justice weighs in its scales what is right and what is wrong, but without the observance of degree and rank, both right and wrong would lose their names and be forgotten, and the same would happen to justice, too.

“Without the observance of degree and rank, everything becomes subservient to power, power becomes subservient to willfulness, and willfulness becomes subservient to appetite, aka desire.

“Appetite is a universal wolf, and because it is doubly seconded with willfulness and power, it must necessarily make a universal prey, and at last eat up himself. Hungry wolves will kill each other one by one until only one is left. But appetite is so strong that the last wolf left will kill itself.

“Great Agamemnon, this chaos, when degree and rank are suffocated, follows the choking. Chaos necessarily follows the neglect of degree and rank. And because of this neglect of degree and rank, a person who takes a step goes lower, although he intends to climb higher.

“The general is disdained by the man who is one step below him, that man is disdained by the next man, and that next man is disdained by the man beneath him, so every step, following the example of the first step of the man who is sick of his superior, grows to an envious fever of pale and bloodless and jealous rivalry. Each man follows the bad example of the man just above him.

“And it is this fever that keeps Troy from being conquered, not her own sinews. To end a lengthy tale, Troy still stands because of our weakness, not because of her strength.”

Nestor said, “Most wisely has Ulysses here revealed the fever that has made all our authority sick.”

“You have described the problem, Ulysses, but what is the solution?” Agamemnon asked. “You have described the illness, but what is the remedy?”

Ulysses replied, “The great Achilles, whom public opinion crowns the strongest and the greatest warrior of our army, having his ear full of his airy fame, grows vain of his worth, and he lies in his tent and mocks our plans. With him Patroclus lies upon a lazy bed the livelong day and makes scurrilous jests. And with ridiculous and awkward actions, which — slanderer that he is — Patroclus calls imitations, he mimics us.

“Sometimes, great Agamemnon, he assumes your supreme position, and, like a strutting actor on a stage, whose imagination lies in his hamstrings, and who thinks it wonderful to hear the wooden dialogue and the wooden sound that his long strides make on the wooden stage — he pretends to be your greatness and acts with such a to-be-pitied and over-strained performance. And when he speaks, it is like a metal bell being ground down to tune it — the words are unfitting and even if they were to come from the tongue of Typhon, a mythological monster who roared with a hundred mouths, they would seem to be hyperbolic.

“At this musty and moldy stuff, the huge Achilles, lolling on his bed, which is pressed with his weight, laughs out a loud applause from his deep chest and cries, ‘Excellent! It is exactly Agamemnon! Now play Nestor for me — hem, and stroke your beard, as if he were preparing to make some oration.’ Once that is done, and Patroclus has portrayed Nestor as nearly accurate as the extreme ends of parallel lines are near to each other, or as like Nestor as the ugly and deformed Vulcan is like his wife — Venus, the goddess of sexual passion — godly Achilles continually cries, ‘Excellent! It is Nestor exactly. Now play Nestor again for me, Patroclus. This time show him arming himself in response to a night alarm.’

“And then, truly, the frail defects of age must be the subject of a scene of mirth. Patroclus coughs and spits, and fumbles while putting on his gorget — armor for the throat — with palsied, shaking hands. His hands tremble as he puts in the rivet holding the pieces of the gorget together and then accidentally pulls out the rivet. Sir Valor — Achilles — dies laughing. He cries, ‘Oh, enough, Patroclus; stop, or give me ribs of steel! I shall split all my ribs with the pleasure of my laughing.’

“And in this fashion, all our abilities, gifts, natures, shapes, individual and group virtues of great merit, achievements, plots and plans, orders, preventions and defensive maneuvers, exhortations to do battle, or diplomatic speeches to arrange a truce, success or loss, what is or is not, serves as stuff for these two to mock.”

Nestor said, “And in the imitation of these two — Achilles and Patroclus — who, as Ulysses says, opinion crowns with an authoritative voice — many are infected. Ajax is grown self-willful, and he bears his head in such a rein, in fully as proud a place as broad-chested Achilles. He keeps to his tent like him. He gives feasts to his supporters; he rails against our management of the war, he is as bold as an oracle, and he sets on Thersites, who is a villain whose gall coins slanders as quickly as a mint makes coins. Thersites compares us to dirt, and he weakens and discredits our exposed position, however thickly hemmed in with danger we are.”

Ulysses said, “They censure our policy, and they call it cowardice. They believe that wisdom is not relevant in war, they obstruct foresight and planning, and they value no action except that of physical fighting. The quiet and intellectual people, who plan how many soldiers shall strike the enemy in battle, who decide when the time is right and everything is properly prepared to give the best chance of victory, and who know by careful scouting the enemies’ number and strength — why, this has not a finger’s dignity to them. They call this bed-work, map-making, armchair strategy. They value more highly the battering ram that batters down the wall, because of the battering ram’s great swing and its violent, heavy blows, than the engineer who made the battering ram, or those people who with the fineness of their souls and intellect guide the use of the battering ram.”

Nestor said, “Let all this be granted, and we can conclude that the horse of Achilles is worth many sons of Thetis.”

Achilles was the son of the sea-goddess Thetis.

A trumpet sounded.

“What trumpet is that?” Agamemnon asked. “Go and find out, Menelaus.”

Menelaus said, “Someone has come from Troy.”

Aeneas walked over to the Greeks.

Agamemnon asked, “What do you want here before our tent?”

“Is this great Agamemnon’s tent?” Aeneas asked. “Please tell me.”

“Yes, it is,” Agamemnon replied.

“May one who is a herald and a Prince deliver a fair and courteous message to his Kingly ears?” Aeneas asked.

“Yes, you can, with a guarantee that you will not be hurt — a guarantee that is stronger than Achilles’ arm,” Agamemnon said. “You can deliver your message in front of all the Greek leaders who with one voice call Agamemnon head and general.”

“That is fair permission and strong security,” Aeneas replied. “How may a stranger to those most imperial looks know them from the eyes of other mortals? How can I tell who is Agamemnon?”

“How!” Agamemnon asked. He was surprised that Aeneas could not tell that he was Agamemnon, leader of the Greek warriors.

“Yes,” Aeneas replied. “I ask so that I might awaken reverence and put on a face full of respect, and bid my cheek to be ready with a blush as modest as morning with its blushing dawn when she coldly eyes the youthful Phoebus Apollo the Sun-god as he begins to drive his Sun-chariot across the sky. Which of you is that god in office, that god who guides men? Which of you is the high and mighty Agamemnon?”

Using the royal plural, Agamemnon said, “This Trojan scorns us; or else the men of Troy are ceremonious courtiers who are full of formal etiquette.”

Aeneas replied, “When the Trojans are unarmed and not at war, they are courtiers as generous, as courtly, and as debonair as bowing Angels; that’s their fame and reputation in peace. But when they need to be soldiers, they have venomous anger, good arms, strong joints, and true swords, and with Jove willing, they are unequalled in courage. But peace, Aeneas. Be quiet, Trojan. Lay your finger on your lips! Praise is worth nothing if the praised person is himself doing the praising, but when the grumbling enemy praises, that is the praise that gets talked about; that praise, solely and surely, is real and leads to fame and good reputation.”

Agamemnon asked, “Sir, you man of Troy, do you call yourself Aeneas?”

“Yes, Greek, that is my name.”

“Please state what your business is here.”

“Sir, pardon me; my business here is for Agamemnon’s ears to hear.”

“He hears privately nothing that comes from Troy,” Agamemnon said.

“I have not come from Troy to whisper and talk confidentially to him,” Aeneas replied. “I brought a trumpeter to awaken his ears so that he will pay close attention, and after his ears are awakened I will speak.”

“Speak as frankly and freely as the wind. It is not Agamemnon’s sleeping hour. That you shall know, Trojan, he is awake, he tells you so himself — I am Agamemnon.”

“Trumpeter, blow loud,” Aeneas said. “Send your brass voice through all these lazy tents, and every Greek of mettle, let him know that Troy’s message shall fairly be spoken aloud.”

The trumpet sounded.

Aeneas said, “We have, great Agamemnon, here in Troy a Prince named Hector — Priam is his father — who in this dull and long-continued truce has grown rusty. He ordered me to take a trumpeter, and to speak this message. Kings, Princes, lords! If there is one among the fairest of Greece who holds his honor higher than his ease, who seeks his praise more than he fears his peril, who knows his valor and does not know his fear, who loves his woman more than is shown by the profession of sweet nothings to her own lips, and who dares to avow her beauty and her worth in other arms than hers, by fighting for her — to him Hector makes this challenge.

“Hector, in view of the Trojans and of the Greeks, shall make it good, or do his best to prove it by arms, that he has a lady who is wiser, fairer, and truer than any woman any Greek ever held in his arms. Tomorrow, Hector will with his trumpet call midway between your tents and the walls of Troy to rouse a Greek who is true in love to come and fight him.

“If any Greek comes and fights him, Hector shall honor that Greek; if no Greek comes and fights him, he’ll say in Troy when he returns that the Greek dames are sunburnt and are not worth a splinter from a lance. That is my message.”

“This message shall be told to the lovers in our army, Lord Aeneas,” Agamemnon replied. “If none of them has that kind of soul, then we left them all at home, but we are soldiers, and may that soldier prove to be a mere recreant who means not to be in love, has not been in love, or is not in love! If one of our soldiers is, or has been, or means to be in love, then that one meets Hector; if no one else will fight him, I am the man who will fight him.”

Nestor said, “Tell Hector about Nestor, who was a man when Hector’s grandfather was still being breastfed. Nestor is old now, but if there is not in our Greek army one noble man who has one spark of fire to fight Hector on behalf of his loved one, tell Hector from me that I’ll hide my silver beard behind the gold beaver of a helmet and in my forearm-protecting armor I will put this withered arm, and when I meet him to fight him, I will tell him that my lady was fairer than his grandmother and as chaste as any woman in the world. Although Hector’s youth is in flood, I’ll back up what I tell him with my three remaining drops of blood.”

“May the Heavens now forbid such scarcity of youth!” Aeneas said.

“Amen,” Ulysses said.

“Fair Lord Aeneas, let me shake your hand,” Agamemnon said. “To our pavilion I shall lead you, sir. Achilles shall hear your message and so shall each lord of Greece; your message shall be announced from tent to tent. You yourself shall feast with us before you go and find welcome from a noble foe.”

All began to leave except Ulysses.

Ulysses hissed, “Nestor!”

Nestor stayed behind with Ulysses; they were alone together.

“What do you want, Ulysses?”

“I have the beginning of an idea in my brain; stay with me for a while and help me make it a mature idea.”

“What is your young idea?”

“This is it. Blunt wedges split hard knots. In our camp we have a hard knot that we must split without the use of subtlety. The seed of pride that was in Achilles has fully matured and is developing its own seeds that can be sown in others. The pride that rank Achilles has must now be cropped and cut down unless it releases its seeds and breed a nursery of similar evil in other warriors who will tower over and overpower all of us.”

“True, but what can we do in response?”

“This challenge that the gallant Hector sends, however it is expressed as a challenge to any Greek warrior, is in reality a challenge to Achilles only.”

“That is correct,” Nestor said. “The object of the challenge is evident and obvious. We see that in the details.”

It was widely known in the Greek camp that Achilles was in love with a Trojan woman: one of Hector’s sisters.

“By looking at the details, we can see the big picture,” Nestor said. “A row of little numbers in an accounting ledger can add up to a sum of great wealth. When the challenge is publicly announced, there is no doubt that Achilles, even if his brain were as barren as the sandbanks of Libya — though, Apollo knows, Achilles’ brain is dry and barren enough — will, with great speed of judgment, yes, with celerity, realize that Hector is explicitly challenging him.”

“And Achilles will answer the challenge and fight Hector, don’t you think?” Ulysses asked.

“Yes, and it is most fitting for Achilles to fight Hector. Who else may you get to oppose Hector and defeat him and gain — not lose — honor, except for Achilles? Although this will be a recreational combat that is not to the death, yet in the duel much reputation is at stake. For here in this duel the Trojans will taste our dearest repute with their finest palate — their best warrior will fight our best warrior. Believe me, Ulysses, our reputation shall be oddly balanced in this trivial action — our reputation as warriors will be at risk in this duel, although it involves only one of our warriors.

“Although the duel involves only two particular warriors, it shall give a reputation of good or bad to the general body of soldiers. A table of contents is small compared to the entire book, but the table of contents is a good indicator of the worth of the entire volume. In the table of contents is seen the baby figure of the giant mass of things to come at large. A victory in this duel can make our warriors think that a victory in the war is likely. It is supposed that the man who meets Hector is chosen by us to meet him. Because all of us choose our champion, we know that the choice is made on the basis of merit — naturally, we would choose our best warrior to fight Hector. Since we would choose a warrior whom we consider our best — a warrior who figuratively is boiled so that his virtues are concentrated — if that warrior were to lose the duel, then the conquering Trojans will be heartened and will form a strong, steely opinion of themselves. Once warriors have such good morale and such a good opinion of themselves, then their limbs become weapons that are no less effective than the swords and bows that the limbs direct.”

Ulysses replied, “Pardon me for what I have to say because I am going to say something contrary to what you just said. I conclude that it is meet — fitting — Achilles does not meet — fight — Hector. We must not allow Achilles to fight Hector in a duel. Let us, like merchants, show our foulest wares, and think, perhaps, they’ll sell; if they don’t sell, the luster of the better wares that we have yet to show shall show all the better. Let a warrior worse than Achilles fight Hector. Perhaps he’ll win. If he does not, we can say that we have better warriors who did not fight Hector. Do not consent that Hector and Achilles ever meet in a duel because both our honor and our shame in this are dogged with two bad consequences.”

“I don’t see them with my old eyes,” Nestor said. “What are they?”

“The two bad consequences follow from this fact: Either Achilles will win the duel or he will be defeated.

“Whatever glory our Achilles wins from Hector, we all would share with him, if he were not proud. But Achilles is already too insolent, and we would be better off being parched in the African Sun than in the pride and bitter scorn of his eyes. That is what would happen if he defeated Hector.

“But if Hector were to defeat Achilles, why then the reputation of our entire army is hurt because the reputation of our best warrior has been tainted.

“Let us avoid both bad consequences by making a lottery, and, through use of a trick, we will have the blockheaded Ajax draw the lot to fight with Hector. Among ourselves we will praise him for being our best warrior because that will be a dose of medicine for the great Myrmidon — Achilles — who basks in loud applause, and it will make him lower his helmet crest that curves prouder than the rainbow along which the goddess Iris travels.

“If the dull, brainless Ajax should come safely away from the duel, we will dress him up with shouts of acclamation. If he fails and loses the duel, we will still have the opinion that we have better men than him — better men who could have defeated Hector.

“But, hit or miss, whether Ajax wins or loses, the outcome of our project will have this consequence: Our employing Ajax in this way will pluck down Achilles’ plumes — Achilles will become less proud.”

“Ulysses, now I begin to relish your advice, and I will give a taste of it forthwith to Agamemnon. Let’s go to him right away. Two curs shall tame each other. Pride alone must provoke the mastiffs on, as if it were their bone.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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