Monday, August 2, 2010

Troilus and Cressida and Nintendo

There was an old Nintendo video game called Trojan. I borrowed it from my friend Rocky, we probably traded for Contra or Metroid, which were the two best games in my collection for a long time. The final boss in Trojan was Achilles. As I was fighting him, I couldn't help but think how stupid it was that you didn't have to stab him in the heel to kill him. Even then I was a stickler for mythological accuracy.

There was also a video game called Kid Icarus, about a boy with wings, more like cupid than like Daedelus’s son. I never even played that one.

I’ve always been pretty good at video games. There was a Saturday once when I was a kid when I rode my bike to the Power House, which was the first place in Kenosha you could rent video games, I rented Ninja Gaiden 3: The Ancient Ship of Doom, took it home and cleared it in a single sitting. I rode back an hour or two later and they let me trade it for something else (Solomon’s Key maybe?). To this day I’d be willing to challenge anyone to a playoff of Bionic Commando, which I can clear in just over 30 minutes.

My whole life I’ve wanted my video game prowess to take me somewhere. The way Alex Rogan gets called up to space to defend the frontier against the Kodan Armada in The Last Starfighter. If only our virtual glory could translate to tangible glory that would endure for generations.

The Trojan War and its glories survive today in epic poems, video games, books of mythology and Brad Pitt movies, but I swear to God, until the moment when I cracked open my Riverside Shakespeare and started reading the introduction, I had no idea that Troilus and Cressida was a story of the Trojan War.

It is aptly labeled one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. There is no record of it ever having been performed at the Globe, It may have only been performed twice in Shakespeare's lifetime. It has been classified by different people as a history, a comedy, a satire, and a romance. It’s a sad, cynical, lyrical and incomplete account of the Trojan War that shifts focus from the story of the sundered lovers Troilus and Cressida to musings on the pointlessness of war, the inconstancy of fame and concludes with the inglorious murder of an unarmed Hector by a wrathful Achilles and his gang.

Troilus and Cressida were the clich├ęd tragic lovers of Shakespeare’s time (the way Romeo and Juliet are now). They fall in love, make all sorts of vows, but then Cressida’s father defects to the Greek camp and he makes them trade a Trojan prisoner for Cressida. She is sent to the Greeks, and promptly falls in love with one of them, betraying Troilus.

At the end of their story Troilus has his brains battered out during some battle, but this play ends before that even happens. I learned about it from As You Like It when Rosalind delivers her speech about how no one ever died for love (see my previous blogpost).

The message of the play seems to be that the Trojan War felt as futile to the soldiers fighting it as Vietnam. In fact, the Trojan War might be more retarded than all of America’s wars put together. As Thersites says:

All the argument is a whore and a cuckold, a good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to death upon. (2:3)

In Shakespeare's time Helen of Troy had been overly romanticized by Christopher Marlowe in Dr. Faustus, as you'll remember from Shakspeare in Love:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

But Shakespeare’s discussion of her kidnapping here is a philosophical debate about when enough blood has been shed that it becomes ridiculous, unnecessary and perilous to continue fighting. If a kidnapped queen isn’t worth fighting for, is anything?

What I see here for the first time is Shakespeare’s inability to romanticize something for the stage. If you'll allow me to completely imagine the circumstances surrounding the writing of this play, I would hypothesize that he felt commercial pressure to write another tragic love story and delved into the familiar topic of the Trojan War only to find it was far too distasteful to romanticize.

He was perfectly capable of penning works of nationalism and propaganda like Henry V, to laud the glory of English military prowess, but he found the prospect of glorifying the unnecessary warmongering of 7 years stalemate over a kidnapping to be entirely distasteful.

In the play Six Degrees of Separation there's an awesome speech about painters losing their work:

"I thought, dreamt, remembered how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He paints and paints, works on a canvas for months, and then one day he loses it - loses the structure, loses the sense of it. You lose the painting."

The same goes for writers and the ease by which they can lose a script or a story. Sometimes you get lost in a topic. Sometimes the world you’re entering is too messy for wise fiction and in order to tell the story in an interesting way, you need to simplify it so much that the complexity the subject demands is impossible to achieve. Shakespeare's theater was called The Globe, but it was merely a stage, and not all things in life can be effectively addressed in microcosm.

Imagine if you saw Romeo and Juliet today, and if the play was riddled with labored discussions of the futility of the feud. If Tybalt was a whiner, too proud to act, and the play ended with the death of Mercutio. That’s about the level of closure we get with Troilus and Cressida.

Ulysses has the most ironic speech of the play, when he basically lays out Andy Warhol’s thesis that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Achilles wonders why all of the Greeks are cheering for Ajax to fight Hector instead of Achilles and Ulysses tells him:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,

Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,

A great-siz’d monster of ingratitudes.

Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour’d

As fast as they are made, forgot as soon

As done…

For Time is like a fashionable host

That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’ hand,

And with his arms outstretch’d as he would fly,

Grasps the comer…

Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,

That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax;

Since things in motion sooner catch the eye

Than what stirs not. (3:3)

The whole speech is a set up. Ulysses and the other Generals have pretended not to care about Achilles in order to motivate him to fight (at the start of the play he had been lounging around in his tent for months). Of course, the irony of the speech is that time does remember some people. It remembered Ulysses, Hector and Achilles. It remembers Shakespeare.

Given the tone and the difficulty of this play, I might also conject that this is Shakespeare tiring of history. Tiring of past glories and advocating the practice of time to move ahead. We romanticize the past, and effort to regain the glories it teaches us are due to the executors of bold and clever warfare.

But that’s just a projection on my part. I have wisely left my video game glories behind. They were quiet victories anyway, occasionally more enthusiastic if my brother or sister were there to witness the defeat of Dr. Wiley, tossing Bowser into a pit of lava, or blasting Mother Brain into oblivion. They were clean glories too. No actual bloodshed, no philosophical discussions of the merits of participating. No PTSD or perilous odysseys home in the epilogue.

I wonder if the Trojans and the Greeks would have traded all the future scribblings about their exploits for a quiet life. To sip coffee and read books on summery terraces like I'm doing now. Would they have preferred imaginary heroism to the real, messy deal?

I’m with the bard on this one. Better to write about battles than be there for them. Unless the battle is against 8-bit-processed, pixilated villains wielding axes and hammers and poisonous boomerangs. But even those battles are best left to the nimble thumbs of the young.

Now that I watch this ending, maybe you did have to hit him in the foot to kill him. Still, it's not specifically his heel, so whatever.

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