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Tautological Character: Troilus and Cressida and the Problems of Personation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

Emma Smith
Affiliation:
University of Oxford
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Summary

In the first act of Troilus and Cressida, Aeneas pays a visit to the Greek camp, looking for a king whom he claims not to know by sight. ‘Is this great Agamemnon’s tent I pray you?’ he asks (1.3.215). A few lines later, he tries again: ‘How may / A stranger to those most imperial looks / Know them from eyes of other mortals?’(1.3.222–4). It is a timely question, one that introduces a vein of comic irony to what has been – to this point – a dourly serious scene, anchored by Ulysses’ famous account of the decline of ‘degree’. ‘The specialty of rule’, he had warned, ‘hath been neglected’, and now Aeneas had arrived to prove the point (1.3.77). It is not quite clear whether Aeneas’ uncertainty is genuine; Agamemnon, for one, is not convinced. The joke is on the Greek King either way: the implication of the question is that his ‘most imperial looks’ are not, in fact, particularly distinguished, or at least that they are indistinguishable from those of the ‘other mortals’ in the Greek tents. And if we take Aeneas seriously – if he is genuinely confused – the effect is even more unsettling: if ‘high and mighty Agamemnon’ (1.3.230) cannot be recognized, who in the play can?

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Shakespeare Survey 72 , pp. 219 - 233
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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