The prologue, addressed to “you, fair beholders,” literally sets the stage for Shakespeare’s categorically ambiguous Troilus and Cressida (Prologue, 26). Provoking a meta- analysis (I see a trend), Shakespeare establishes the Trojan war and its hegemony among mythic tradition as outside fixed moral definition — for as the introduction tells it, “Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are;/ Now good or bad, ’tis but the chance of war” (Prologue, 30-31, italics mine).
Employed sixty times throughout the play, the word “fair” and its variable character and contextual usage punctures the canonized epic story with a dramatic instability that comes to define the entire play.
Devoid of context, “fair” lacks substantial definition. Might it mean a standard of justice? Standard of beauty? A festival? Pleasant weather? An initial survey of definitions shows that “fair” possesses a variety of incompatible and notably divergent meanings, its contents necessitating circumstantial determination. As the play transpires, elevated values that substantiate the epic hero— honor, nobility, truth — are undermined by baser qualities— lust, savagery, hypocrisy. “Fools play” triumphs over “fair play” (5. 3.).
At his first mention, Troilus names his love “fair Cressid” (1. 1. 61) In characteristic Petrarchan form, Troilus venerates Cressida’s virtues, which he encapsulates in her “fair” nature. She is fair under two operative definitions: “beautiful to the eye,” and supplemented by specific application to femininity, “expressing a quality considered as characteristic of the female sex” (from oed). Her title crumbles quickly, as Troilus spies her with Diomedes: “O beauty! Where is thy faith?” (5. 2. 82). Embodied in female form, “fair” is a facade.
In the game of war, acquiescing to a standard of fairness is critical to subduing full anarchy. Aeneas, from the Trojan camp, is granted “fair leave” to deliver a “fair message” to the Greeks (1. 3. 227, 223). On the battlefield “fair” also connotes fighting prowess. Hector is the moral center of the play, and the muscle of the Trojan force: “doth this day lie/ on his fair worth” (4. 4). As presented, his worth is fair because it is yet unchallenged, defended by his unmatched muscle. Yet in subscribing to a heroic identity, Hector manifests virtues uncomely to the brutality of war. Troilus mocks Hector, railing him for letting men “rise and live” under his “fair sword” (5. 3). He urges Hector to realize success lies not in “fair play” but “fools play.”
Respect for fairness— i.e., unerring commitment to the terms of fair conduct in war — is Hector’s fateful error. While he grants Achilles respite — ironically received, no less: “I do disdain thy courtesy, proud Trojan,” Achilles inflects— Hector is denied fair treatment when confronted, armor-less and outnumbered, by Achilles and his gang of Myrmidons. Entreating a reciprocal generosity —“I am unarm’d, forego this vantage, Greek,” he says— Hector instead meets a brutal end. Given a world of corporeal consequences, there is no playing “fair” in the “chance of war.”
Expressions of “fair” are deliberately hollow through Troilus and Cressida, drawing attention to the necessity of contextual consideration and concomitant futility of intrinsic meaning. Shakespeare heeds similar caution to his audience who are “fair beholders” not only to the oft-told story of the Trojan war but also to their own social condition. The lesson that lingers makes no claim to higher morality. Similar to the capricious power of “fair,” people are only skeletons of potential responding to a background of action… and success is with the fool.