Shakespeare's deconstruction of exempla in Troilus and Cressida
Literature and theatre have traditionally used exempla based on historical or classical models as a fundamentally conservative rhetorical technique which aimed to reinforce pre-existing values. However, in the early modern period the reproduction of exemplary figures on stage also created the possibility that the authority of the dominant culture could be used to reinterpret exempla and the tradition they represented. In Troilus and Cressida, instead of presenting an internally consistent alternative version of the Troy story, Shakespeare presents a deconstructed narrative in which nothing is definitive or authoritative. Many of Troilus and Cressida’s characters were traditionally presented as exempla, but in Shakespeare’s story they are divided between the exemplary self and the actual. Shakespeare reproduces and enhances the contradictions of earlier versions of the Troy story, so that the exempla which are supposed to signify a singular virtue instead point to a confusing variety of possible motives and interpretations. Their behaviour is indefinitely open to reinterpretation and resists a singular meaning. Cressida’s inherently divided and contradictory nature undermines her traditional position as a negative exemplum with a clear, singular meaning. The contradiction she embodies also applies to the play as a whole. The limited viewpoint the audience is given in Troilus and Cressida and the ambiguity of the characters undermine both specific examples of exemplarity and broader ideas about the value of exempla. The play works to create confusion and multiplicity of meaning, posing questions for the audience to consider rather than providing definitive answers.
renaissance drama, early modern drama, problem play
Master of Arts (M.A.)