Shakespearience: Troilus’s Fantasies

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It behoves me no doubt, after my last blog, to give an example of the way any moment in Shakespeare might open like a flower, calling for dedicated appreciation and attention, offering its own very singular pleasures.

So let’s, please, look at one of Troilus’s speeches from Troilus and Cressida:

I am giddy; expectation whirls me round.
Th’imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense: what will it be,
When that the wat’ry palate tastes indeed
Love’s thrice repuréd nectar? Death, I fear me,
Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine,
Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness,
For the capacity of my ruder powers;
I fear it much, and I do fear besides,
That I shall lose distinction in my joys,
As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps
The enemy flying. (3. 2. 15-26)

Troilus in current criticism is typically considered self-centred, immature, clearly not up to the love he proclaims and, in the end, a rather nasty misogynist. Indeed, this particular speech has been seen as nauseously pre-erotic. But we were all young once—some people still are—and such judgments can too easily preclude engagement, or excuse neglect.

If we just allow it, instead of writing it off because of his later caddishness or our own sexual experience, what Troilus says seems to me absorbing, even revelatory.

For sexual fantasy here is an opening to all the peril and pleasure of the sublime!

No wonder Troilus fears he may not be equal to sex, for he expects it will put at risk his very being and identity, and that he might not survive it.

Of course one wants to say, ‘Calm down, dear’; or wearily with Prospero, ‘’tis new to thee’. But Troilus’s tremulous susceptibility is also rather wonderful.

And his apprehensions may reveal sex in ways in which a more seasoned sexuality will not. For aren’t we all of us always—except in rare moments of satisfaction which the Elizabethans had reason for calling ‘a little death’—somewhere on the curve before sexual fulfillment?

So sex itself may be foreplay to the sublime.

And untested fantasy may take us beyond sex into the fearful and exciting thing it aims at.

Then there’s the overdetermined density of that final image, after Troilus says, ‘I shall lose distinction in my joys’:

As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps
The enemy flying.

Hmm. … This intimates a more bitter and humiliating sort of self-loss yet somehow sounds attractively ugly. ‘As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps’ suggests to me bayoneting pillows. But then the heaps are corpses, aren’t they? But whose? Ours or the enemy’s? The syntax will not tell. Are we flying the enemy, or is it that the enemy is fleeing us? And how, anyway, is all this to be mapped onto an imagined sexual encounter? The ungainly disorientation, missing the target, the stuttering compression: perhaps it mixes existential risk with the specter of premature ejaculation? It’s not quite possible to decide, presumably because Troilus doesn’t quite know himself what he wants or fears. But isn’t experience often ultimately like that, even to the one experiencing it? And doesn’t Shakespeare at his best take us beyond easily shareable communication and ready-made formulae into an inimitable withinness?

Into Shakespearience, perhaps. Or one lively particle of it.

What do you think?

(Oh, and next time I think we’ll look into a female character’s fantasies: fair’s fair.)

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Ewan Fernie is Chair and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. His books include critical and creative works and he is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the provocative Shakespeare Now! series.
  • Rana

    Hi Ewan this is fascinating. All the most ‘awe’some experiences in life do seem to strike us with fear almost just as much as they do with joy and pleasure, maybe because when we want something so much, we suddenly have a lot to lose and we become intensely vulnerable! I Love your concept of Shakesperience and focusing on sexual fantasy and its spiritual and psychological dimension is very interesting. I’m looking forwards to your next instalment – which heroine and which fantasy will you choose I wonder?

  • The problem with living in an ethically liberated country and time, which we allegedly do, is that anyone, in life or art – and like Troilus here –, who doesn’t have sex, or who fantasises extravagantly about it, or who is terrified of it, or who feels inadequate to the experience, is casually disregarded by the metropolitan majority, and encouraged to just fuck someone and shut up. Hence the critics who dismiss Troilus’s speech as ‘immature’ and ‘pre-erotic’ (as though that means we should simply stop paying attention; how bizarre!). Your attempt, Ewan, to get past this point, to get into Troilus’s emotional state, and to think through the extraordinary metaphors with which he attempts to organise it, is an example to us all. The danger, of course, is that the attempt to move past overt moral or ideological responses can easily morph into a lax tolerance, whereby one simply relishes the art’s eternal complexities and turns off one’s moral filters, relinquishing the equally vital task of judgement. How to be dangerously open and responsive to art – to be an ‘infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing’ (to take Eliot out of context) – as well as someone fearless and authoritative in their aesthetic judgements? The recurring dilemma…

  • Philliecal

    Hello Ewan,

    I agree with you here, but would add that there is a kind of self-mockery in this passage and in the one before it (where he describes himself as hanging around her door ‘straying for waftage’.’ I am always amazed at the way in which we, as humans, seem to demand of Shakespeare’s noble (and even ignoble) characters a singleness of purpose and unwaveringness of rectitude that we certainly don’t expect of ourselves. The single thing we can most depend on is human unpredictability and human distractibility – and yet it is the thing we seem to find most unnerving (even implausible) in such characters.

  • Allowing Troilus’s words rather than
    writing them off makes for a fresh reading! Thank you Ewan. Although the
    language is about his expectation of his experience with Cressida, it also
    offers interesting insights into a way of seeing or describing what’s to come
    as a matter of taste. Even though Troilus is ostensibly talking about a
    possible sexual experience, the passage seems to offer an aesthetic of taste –
    a Shakespearience of taste if you will. To put this aesthetic in terms of
    audience expectation – as the play sometimes does – you might say that Troilus
    is like an audience member wondering whether he will be able to discern the
    quality of a play, or whether it will be “tuned too sharp in sweetness” and
    he’ll “lose distinction in [his] joys”.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this analysis of a speech that so well describes the intense but mixed emotions of anticipation, combining “war and lechery”.
    Is that final puzzling image to do with sexual disillusionment, the exhilaration of the winning of the battle being the moment when the battlefield stops being a place of heroism and becomes a place of carnage and confusion?
    An interesting image on the day of Gadaffi’s death, too.

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