The Plague of Opinion: Troilus and Cressida

  • William M. Hamlin
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


That Troilus and Cressida exposes human acts of valuation to relentless sceptical scrutiny is beyond any doubt. When Cressida observes that ‘Men prize the thing ungained more than it is’ (1.2.280), she initiates a play-long debate on the question of ‘prizing’ and simultaneously advances two implicit opinions: that the ‘thing ungained’ has intrinsic, ascertainable value, and that men routinely inflate that value until the ‘thing’ is no longer ‘ungained’.1 Both opinions are contested in the play. Cressida also informs us that while she loves Troilus deeply, none of that love ‘shall from [her] eyes appear’ — a remark intimating her skill as a conscious dissembler (1.2.286). Of course, she has legitimate reasons for dissembling, but later, when she insists that she cannot ‘temporize’ with her affection (4.4.6), we wonder about the truth of her claim, since her earlier behaviour may be construed as a species of temporizing. More generally, though, the pervasive emphasis in Troilus and Cressida on the difficulty of judging the worth of a person or an enterprise is profoundly inflected by sceptical considerations regarding the complex interference of internal states of mind upon the human acting as a judge. That such considerations bear as well on the notorious problem of the play’s dramatic genre seems ironically appropriate. But while I will not argue that Troilus is a tragedy or that it exhibits major structural or generic similarities with Doctor Faustus or The Spanish Tragedy, I believe that it shares with them, and with other plays I will discuss, a deep imbrication in sceptical matrices as well as a thoroughgoing concern — thematic and linguistic — with paradox, proof, uncertainly and the dramatic fallout from the explosive collision of poorly examined but fiercely held assumptions.


Implicit Opinion Tragic Hero Shakespearean Play Sexual Innuendo Pyrrhonian Scepticism 
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Copyright information

© William M. Hamlin 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • William M. Hamlin
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishWashington State UniversityUSA

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