22 May 2013: Swear not at all

5:30 AM supine workout – may not be a physio workout today – black rainstorm.

Finished Troilus and Cressida, a remarkable, intellectually challenging play that demands ANOTHER re-read soon. Centered around the death of Hector as seen in the Iliad, decenters from Hector to Cressida and her frailty at oath-keeping, so on one level, T & C is a morality play about something Christ commanded (“swear not at all, but let your communication be aye or nay”) that Shakespeare seems to have taken to heart.

Juliet tells Romeo not to swear except by “thy sweet self which art the god of my idolatry”. Queen Elizabeth, in Richard III, neatly deconstructs Richard’s repeated attempts to swear by God, by his crown, by his Garter by telling him how each he has dishonored:

Harpe not on that string Madam, that is past.
Now by my George, my Garter, and my Crowne.
Prophan’d, dishonor’d, and the third vsurpt.
I sweare.
By nothing, for this is no Oath:
Thy George prophan’d, hath lost his Lordly Honor;
Thy Garter blemish’d, pawn’d his Knightly Vertue;
Thy Crowne vsurp’d, disgrac’d his Kingly Glory:
If something thou would’st sweare to be beleeu’d,
Sweare then by something, that thou hast not wrong’d.
Then by my Selfe.
Thy Selfe, is selfe-misvs’d.
Now by the World.
‘Tis full of thy foule wrongs.
My Fathers death.
Thy life hath it dishonor’d.
Why then, by Heauen.
Heauens wrong is most of all:

This amazing scene is a foil to the much better known “Richard seduces the Lady Anne” scene of Act 1, and the later, more extraordinary scene is often brutally cut: but just as we ignore the micro pattern of Shakespeare’s verse as actors at our peril, we ignore his architectonic sense, cultivated under the unfriendly conditions of a business in a police state as it is, and thus deserving of notice and celebration. The ignorant playgoer is unable in most cases to connect a strong Elizabeth with a weak Anne, and to see that Shakespeare, unlike Richard, believes in women’s agency…much later in his career, women’s agency became a prime mover in the Winter’s Tale and elsewhere.

Elizabeth also redeems the hysterics of an aged, crazed Queen Margaret who emerges at court early in the play to condemn Richard ineffectually. But Elizabeth helps to undermine Richard in preparation for his sleepless night before Bosworth and thus materially helps Henry defeat Richard.

In Shakespeare, good people don’t “sweare”; they just do good and show up and keep their promises. Bad people, like Republican politicians, like to be “Promise Keepers” and celebrate that sort of marriage where one year, husband and wife are coiffed lovebirds and the next are divorced and in need of a shave, or the beauty parlor.

Hamlet’s associates are reluctant to “Sweare” when commanded by a ghost under the earth to do so, since at this point Horatio et al. don’t know whether the ghost is Hamlet’s father or the Devil.

Today, people have lost the distinction between sex talk, scatology (saying “shit”) and “taking God’s name in vain”, that is, invoking God carelessly when we say “by God”, “God damn x” and so on. In Shakespeare’s time, saying “sblood” on the stage or on the street was to invoke Christ’s blood shed for sin and as the Puritans gained power was increasingly thought offensive until a 1605 law banned it and related phrases on stage. This helped Wells and Taylor date Shakespeare plays for the Oxford collected works, and occasioned rewrite work when plays written before 1605 were restaged.

Troilus and Cressida is a deep play (the third longest Shakespeare play, after Hamlet then Cymbeline). Although it was profoundly unsafe by the 1590s to present a play about Christianity, the English wars of religion under Queen Mary having destroyed the “mystery” plays, the classic heroes of antiquity were fair game. It was doctrinally safe to show them with feet of clay, and to draw parallels between the highest and the lows of Pandarus.

It is indeed a paradox that in highly “religious” societies, that is, societies with an established and usually Fundamentalist church, it can be very dangerous to discuss religion or to manifest religious curiosity or enthusiasm, especially when one’s female; the persecution of witches in 1690 Massachusetts started with male anxiety about women who had formed bible-reading societies. One’s also reminded of the vicious and irreligious, impious attacks on women at the Wall in Jerusalem by “pious” Jewish men.

To return to Troilus and Cressida…the monologues of the wily Ulysses (Odysseus) as he counsels Achilles sulking the latter’s tent are to say the least thought-provoking, although I could not “cast”, in the theater of my imagination, anyone other than Sean Bean, good old Sharpie himself, in the role, because Bean had played Odysseus in a forgettable movie a few years back about the Trojan wars.

In reading a Shakespeare play, or any play for that matter, one is well-advised to examine the cast list carefully, for Cressida starts out a Trojan; but her father, Calchas, has gone over to the Greeks and without too much hue and cry being raised, Calchas is temporarily with the Greeks…like a Wallenstein in the Thirty Years War, Calchas switches sides for personal advantage and none of these turncoats are ostracized at the wild parties, including both sides, that also are striking feature of both this play and its source in Homer.

On one level, one gets the impression from the Iliad and retellings such as Shakespeare’s that the Trojans welcomed the Greeks in the same way the inhabitants of Easter Island welcomed the crew of the Bounty under Fletcher Christian: sheer boredom was relieved by the arrival of strangers with whom one could trade as well as fight.

But tragicomically, where Troilus and Cressida has long been the biggest anomaly when one has divided the plays into tragedies, comedies or histories, Cressida and Troilus’ authenticity cannot survive when the characters in the play are almost as smart as Shakespeare and their lives, in a modernist way, become a joke.

The successful recovering alcoholic has never taken a “pledge” not to drink, whether ever again, or for a period of time. He just asks “a power greater than himself” to help him stay sober for the next 24 hours.

Solemn “pledges” featuring newly hopeful wives and children half-comprehending with shining eyes were a feature of a precursor of AA, the “Washingtonian” movement of the 19th century which ended in tears, as the pledging leaders and their followers both wound up on saloon floors, face down in the beer and urine. AA founder Bill Wilson seems to have been aware of this, so he and early AA members eliminated pledges and promise keeping, thereby eliminating that shame which is so often a good excuse to drink.

But Cressida is quickly reduced to the status of a drab, a common whore, because she’s been persuaded to swear by Troilus. Just as a drunk who breaks his promise not to drink is somehow “more” of a drunk, as Ray Milland’s character convinces himself in The Lost Weekend (with “there’s that nice young man who drinks” being perhaps the wisest words in the film, spoken by two gossips.)


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