The Corner

Still More On That Ulysses Speech

I’ve been waiting for Noah Millman, my

Shakepeare Guy, to enter the lists. Here he comes:

“(1) The whole scene is part of a strategy Ulysses devises to get Achilles

back into combat. The speech, then, is a *calculated* piece of rhetoric, not

an expression of Ulysses’ – much less Shakespeare’s – feeling. That

strategy, of course, fails. Indeed, *every* strategy Ulysses proposes in

Troilus & Cressida fails. What does that say about how we are to take this

speech – purportedly ‘one of the greatest in world literature’? I don’t

think we are to take it at face value. An analogy: the phrase, ’some are

born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon

them’ is also frequently quoted without irony. But the phrase comes from a

letter written to trick Malvolio into making a great ass of himself; the

writer was not only insincere, but contrived the phrase specifically to

appeal to a self-infatuated fool. Another analogy: ‘discretion is the better

part of valor’ – where’s that from? From a speech by Falstaff – ‘the better

part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life.’

Falstaff is a notorious coward, and this is part of a speech in defense not

of courage tempered by prudence but of outright cowardice. It’s sophistry –

brilliant sophistry, by a most sympathetic rogue, but sophistry nonetheless.

So, too, with all of Ulysses’ speeches in Troilus: they are impressive feats

of rhetoric, and have often been taken as statements of authorial sentiment.

But the play will not support this interpretation, for Ulysses’ character

spends the entire play devising strategems, using his vaunted cunning to try

to effect an outcome that he cannot achieve forthrightly – and he always

fails. He is not a hero in the piece (if there is a hero). Finally, this

should be no surprise, as the English identified with the Trojans (Aeneas

had purportedly gone on to found Britain) not the Greeks, and Ulysses

specifically had long since been reinterpreted as the type of a man of

’policy’ rather than a man of forthright action – a Machiavel, a Dick Morris

type. It would be very surprising for Shakespeare to use him as a mouthpiece

for lofty sentiment that he wished to endorse.

“(2) ‘Nature’ has many meanings in Shakespeare, some of them mutually

contradictory. See for example, the extraordinary variety of uses of the

word in King Lear, where Lear’s use of the word suggests a meaning almost

precisely opposite to the meaning suggested when used by Edmund. ‘Nature’ in

this case means something like ‘virtue’ or ‘worth’ and the phrase, ‘one

touch of nature makes the whole world kin’ means simply that all you need is

a *touch* of nature for everyone to want to call himself your cousin. The

apposite image is the crowd choosing gilt-covered dust to dust-covered gold.

A ‘touch’ – a little gilding – is all it takes for everyone to rush to

associate with you, whereas only a thin coating of dust – the effect of the

passage of time – is all it takes for everyone to forget that there’s gold

underneath. Your correspondent who says, ‘in *this* – this self-destructive

and cyclical process – we are “all made kin”‘ is making too much of the

phrase. Shakespeare is *not saying* that everyone is kin – not because we

all share a ‘touch of nature’ nor because we are all decadent and

superficial. Rather, he’s just saying that ‘everyone wants to be cousin to

the guy who’s successful today.’

“—Noah”

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