Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is a historical play centered about the siege of Troy, a historical event that likely did not happen. Given the uncertainty of this potentially historical event, the text’s categorization as a historical play may be questionable. Perhaps the play draws some legitimacy as a historical piece not just from the siege of Troy, but also from the current political climate at the time of its initial performance. This idea then begs the question: why might Troilus and Cressida resonate with an Elizabethan audience?
An answer to the question above may be answered in part by Matthew A. Greenfield in his essay “Fragments of Nationalism in Troilus and Cressida”. In this piece, Ph.D. Greenfield argues that Troilus and Cressida “works programmatically to reveal the nation as a collection of fictions” (181). To showcase how Shakespeare is able to undermine the nation in this way, Greenfield first explains how a nation/nationalism are created and how these two ideas function. He then delves specifically into how the two were founded in England. Finally, he clearly articulates through which characters Shakespeare subtly attacks nationalistic ideas through Troilus and Cressida.
According to Greenfield, most political scientists locate the origin of nationalism not in ethnicity, a shared language, religion, or territorial boundaries. Instead a national identity “arrives when citizens see the state as a reflection of their will” (182). In essence, nationalism is not the product of political structures so much as a way of “understanding oneself and one’s social environment.” By promoting the idea of a community, citizens of a nation invest themselves in an imagined sovereign power that allows them to identify with one another and transcend boundaries created by differences in both wealth and rank. Specifically in England, for nationalism to be achieved, the people needed to detach themselves from the universalist claims of the Catholic church and transfer their allegiance from the monarchy to the concept of the nation (183).
In addition, to unify this people divided by extraneous affiliations to class, religion, et. al England fabricated a common ground by reinventing the past. Greenfield highlights many of the fictional genealogies invented that grant England “an appearance of antiquity” (and therefore legitimacy) were centered about the fall of Troy. A popular myth was that a Trojan named Brut, a grandson of Aneas, colonized England. This story of Brut and others of his posterity helped to buttress political structures and rules such as that of the Tudors. Interestingly, however, although Troilus and Cressida is based in Troy and so would very easily be able to draw upon the Brut myth, it does not. Instead, the play undercuts the genealogical narrative of nationalism by showing the Troy myth “produced through a series of falsifications” (187).
Aside from undermining the genealogy of England’s nationalism, Shakespeare also manages to highlight problems inherent to nationalistic attitudes. Although Shakespeare uses nearly all of the characters to challenge nationalism, perhaps most interesting is his use of Thersites. Greenfield explains that Shakespeare does so by having Thersites speak of bastards as if they are a people (5.7). As a bastard, Thersites is a citizen of Trojan who is not fully enfranchised and so is perceived as illegitimate. Consequently, his speech of bastards as a community inverts the idea of needing to belong to a nation in order to inherit its history. He instead imagines “a community defined by illegitimacy and dispossession” (189). In essence, he completely negates the need for a collective identity such as that inspired by nationalism.
This challenge to nationalistic ideals and to England’s genealogy might have caught the attention of an audience shifting its allegiance from the monarchy to its nation. Would a play that seems to undermine both the nation and nationalism promote a monarchy? Would it advocate for some political form beyond what already existed?