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Historical (or Mythical) Accuracy

I’m a huge mythology buff.  I’ve been obsessed with mythology, especially Greek mythology, ever since I was small.  In a nostalgic coincidence, I had the privilege of being able to take this Shakespeare course alongside a Greek and Roman mythology course.  This blessing in scheduling made me extremely happy, as I love Shakespeare and mythology.  An unexpected plus came when I realized that both classes would be covering the Trojan War.  However, (please don’t hate me for this) the Shakespearian coverage of this major mythological event disappointed me.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading Troilus and Cressida— as its own separate story.  However, as a proclaimed Iliad fan fiction, it fell dramatically short of my expectations.  Not only did it focus on a love plot that didn’t really interest me and subdued an epic war story for its sake, but they completely changed one of my favourite characters in classical literature.

In the Iliad, Achilles was a tortured, driven, powerful hero, and Shakespeare turned him into a snivelling, shallow coward.  People talked in tutorial and in the lecture about how spoiled and arrogant Achilles was.  Though I don’t deny that Achilles was arrogant and proud in the original stroy, I wanted to clear his reputation as a coward by jumping back to the actual myth.  Shakespeare’s Achilles was portrayed as a lazy, lackluster warrior.  Homer’s Achilles was a hero standing on the very edge of humanity itself, walking a line between heroism and monstrosity.  Let me explain why Shakespeare’s interpretation ticks me off so much.


 

“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds…”  

So begins Homer’s epic The Iliad, a grand tale of horror and heroism in Bronze Age Greece.  This initial quote paints Achilles as a deadly hero, balanced on the edge of humanity.  Compare this carrion pile imagery with the one kill we see Achilles make in Troilus, when he lets his men attack Hector in cold blood.  Herein lies the problem with Shakespeare’s interpretation: Achilles isn’t written as the hero I know him to be.  He’s deemed spoiled and insolent by other characters in the play, and neglecting his backstory and true motives for staying out of the fight takes away his depth of character.  In Troilus, Achilles stays out of the fight because his lady love pleads with him in a letter to.  In the Illiad, his boycott of the war is a matter of honour and the heroic code.  Agamemnon had taken away his war prize, a girl called Briseïs.  Achilles refused to fight after this because he considers Agamemnon to be a greedy, corrupted hero, and can not fight alongside a man with no regard for the justice of the heroic code.  This is a more logical explanation, and a much more interesting one.

Achilles motives are also greatly influenced by the death of his friend (and possible lover) Patroclus.  This is made into a big deal in the Iliad, but its importance is glossed over in Troilus.  In Act 5, Agamemnon makes a sort of role call for the dead, saying “Polyxenes is slain,/Amphimachus and Thoas deadly hurt, Patroclus ta’en or slain…” (5.5.11-13).  In the Iliad, Patroclus was not just another man down; he was a martyr for the cause.  Concerned for the losing Greek forces, he asks Achilles for his armour, hoping to frighten the Trojans by impersonating the terrible hero.  Achilles agrees, but warned him to leave ‘man-killing’ Hector alone.  Despite this warning, Patroclus runs into Hector and is killed in the combat.   This is the turning point for the Greeks, as Achilles returns to battle with a vengeance.  In Troilus, Ulysses rejoices at this event: “O, courage, courage, princes!  Great Achilles/Is arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance./Patroclus’ wound’s have roused his drowsy blood” (5.5.30-31).  Patroclus’ death does spur Achilles to rejoin the battle; however, “rous[ing] his drowsy blood” is the understatement of the century.  Achilles is consumed by a murderous rage and goes on a killing spree, to the point that the Scamader river becomes congested with corpses.  Overcome by a heroic need for justice and revenge, he becomes a vessel of retribution, completely abandoning his humanity.  The Iliad tells us that he stops eating and sleeping completely, ascending to a demonic plane of existence.  While fighting, he adopts the mentality of “all must die” that terrifies those who oppose him.  If you meet Achilles, you’re carrion; it was as simple as that.

Because of this, Hector would be in the worst danger imaginable if he ran into Achilles.  In Troilus, however, Hector and Achilles meet several times before Hector actually dies.  Achilles actually lets Hector go in Act 5, claiming,  “I do disdain thy courtesy, proud Trojan./Be happy that my arms are out of use” (5.6.16-17).  In the context of the Iliad, this is completely inaccurate.  Achilles, if you recall, is essentially a demon at the point.  He doesn’t get tired.  He doesn’t need to take a break.  He’s utterly bent on killing Hector and anyone else who gets in his way.  This little scene completely undermines his character, as well as his commitment to revenge for Patroclus.

One of my favourite parts in The Iliad is the final confrontation between Hector and Achilles.  Achilles’ return to battle has the Trojan warriors running in terror.  Hector, however, refuses to retreat.  In true heroic fashion, the Trojan prince runs around the city walls three times before facing the Greek hero in a fight to the death.  When Hector and Achilles finally meet in mortal combat, Hector attempts to make a pact that allows the defeated man’s body to be handled with honour.  He wants the body to be treated with respect, and to be returned to their people for a proper burial.  Achilles refuses.  As he explains to Hector, “There are no binding oaths between lions and men– wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds– they are all bent on hating each other to the death.  So it is with you and me” (22.310-313).  He’s no longer part of the human species, and this scene makes it perfectly clear.  Eventually, Hector is defeated in the duel, and his corpse is lashed to the back of Achilles chariot.  This contrast of the heroic and the moral horrifying is one of the more interesting aspects of the piece.  Achilles has morphed into an inhuman demon with no regard for human virtue, but one that holds on to the core beliefs of a hero.

To my utter devastation, Shakespeare completely destroyed this aspect of the legend.  In Act 5, scene 9 of Troilus, Achilles faces Hector for the final time.  However, instead of facing him in a honourable, heroic duel, Achilles finds Hector in a vulnerable position and attacks him with a crowd of men helping out.  Achilles calls his Myrmidons to action, yelling, “Strike, fellows, strike!  This is the man I seek” (5.9.10).  One of the main themes in heroic legend is the idea of heroes facing their most feared enemies alone.  By arming him with a group of highly trained goons, Shakespeare completely abandons any heroism Achilles had.  Achilles does tie Hector’s body to his chariot as he did in the Iliad, but this seems to be merely out of spite and mean spirit.  Shakespeare’s Achilles has no character arc, moving from lazy, shallow warrior to a treacherous coward with no regard for heroism at all.  The depth that Achilles had in the Iliad is desperately absent from Troilus.  His motivations seem petty and shallow, and the action he takes is disappointingly dishonourable.  Some may argue that Shakespeare was trying to make him a fallen hero, but I would argue that he wasn’t written as much of a hero to begin with.

I appreciate Troilus and Cressida, I really do.  What I hate is the warping of a complicated, flawed hero into a petty, cowardly brat.  I wish Shakespeare would have stuck to the source; it would have created a richer, more compelling story.

Sources

Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. Troilus and Cressida, 1609. New York: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2013. Print.

Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, 2012. Print.

Naftali, Bryan. “The Trojan War.” GRST 209. University of Calgary, ST 140, Calgary. 1 Mar. 2015. Lecture.