Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Shakespeare's Gay Boys

For the last two weeks I've been wondering what I was going to blog about when it was my turn again. Then this weekend fate handed me multiple possibilities. Because I'm a theatre geek, I chose this one. That's right. You're getting a dramatic critique for your blog today.

I saw "Troilus & Cressida" on Saturday night. If you don't know it—and I don't blame you if you don't; it's one of the Bard's lesser-produced plays—it doesn't matter. Suffice that it's Ancient Troy and that the Greeks have been laying siege to the city for seven years. That's not the point. The point is blatant slash in Shakespeare's play! Woo-hoo! I mean you can talk it up until the cows come home that Mercutio was in love with Romeo—and he totally was—but here is undeniable manlove in the text of a play written in (as far as they can tell) 1603 by the greatest English-speaking playwright in history. It warmed my slashy heart to be reminded of it, and in such excellent fashion. (The actors were fantastic. I say this without too much bias; only one of the actors in question is a friend of mine.)

There are three very different gay men in this script.

Pandarus is the original dirty old queen. He's got it bad for Troilus, a deliciously handsome young son of King Priam, and so his one goal is to hook up his niece Cressida with Troilus so that he can live vicariously through their pairing. This is a major plot point, but it's not my point so we'll just move on.

Patroclus is dubbed by scurrilous soldier Thersites as the "male varlet" (Huh. I just thought. I wonder if Shakespeare was word-playing on varlet/valet?) and the "masculine whore" of Achilles. (Yes, that Achilles. He of the Heel.)

Achilles is supposedly in love with one of King Priam's daughters, but his actions belie the accusation. The consummate soldier, he has lost his taste for war not because he's in love with the daughter of his enemy, but because his lover, a fellow soldier, has no stomach for fighting. Patroclus does try to get Achilles to get back to the fight, though, for the sake of his reputation, if nothing else.

To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you:
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action. I stand condemn'd for this;
They think my little stomach to the war
And your great love to me restrains you thus:
Sweet, rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold,
And, like a dew-drop from the lion's mane,
Be shook to air.

Achilles eventually decides to get back to the war, but before he can:

My sweet Patroclus, I am thwarted quite
From my great purpose in to-morrow's battle.
Here is 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. I will not break it:
Fall Greeks; fail fame; honour or go or stay;
My major vow lies here, this I'll obey.
Come, come, Thersites, help to trim my tent:
This night in banqueting must all be spent.
Away, Patroclus!

And you get the distinct impression that he's bound to the oath by principle rather than by love of the woman. I mean, come on, he doesn't even mention her name. You also get that he's glad for the excuse not to fight. He doesn't want to, and more than that, he doesn't want Patroclus to have to.

Of course war being war and soldiers being soldiers, Patroclus does go into battle. It isn't clear from the text exactly why. Maybe he feels bound to. Maybe when his words didn't work he figured his actions would get Achilles to fight and thereby restore Achilles' reputation. In the case of this production, it was a silent look of "If this is what I have to do, I'll do it. I'm still a soldier." that passed between Patroclus and Achilles. Really a heartstring-tugging moment from such a quick, non-verbal exchange.

Later still, we learn of Achilles' reaction to Patroclus' death in battle by the hand of Hector (Priam's oldest son and the great warrior o' Troy):

O, courage, courage, princes! great Achilles
Is arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance:
Patroclus' wounds have roused his drowsy blood,
Together with his mangled Myrmidons,
That noseless, handless, hack'd and chipp'd, come to him,
Crying on Hector.

Yeeeeah. Achilles really gives a shit about King Priam's daughter. Suuure. I mean, Isn't it obvious? That's why he hunts down and kills her brother, Hector, and drags Hector's body behind his horse around the walls of Troy. Because that's the way to win over his "fair love" and fulfill his "major vow" to her, the unidentified daughter of Priam and Hecuba. That's right. She's never once named in the play. I doubt it's Cassandra. It could be Ployxena who was later slaughtered on Achilles' grave. Who knows? It clearly wasn't important enough to Shakespeare to be included in the script. Why? Because she doesn't matter. I'm not saying it's happy—it's a decade-long war, after all—but in this sub-plot, it's all about the manlove.


K.A. Mitchell said...


It's really funny because a friend and I were just having an email chat about slash in Shakespeare on Sunday night. We counted Mercutio's crush on Romeo as canon and discussed places to find Hamlet/Horatio.

I did read Troilus and Cressida in college, but unfortunately our professor chose to focus on Ulyssess' longwindedness and the pandering. What a shame. He could have had me paying much more attention.

Maia Strong said...

If only profs knew what really appeals to students. ;)

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