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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Watercolors of Shakespearean Characters 
~ Bastards, Frauds & Tellers of the Truth  ~


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CASSANDRA in TROILUS & CRESSIDA
by Hannah Tompkins
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Cassandra Watercolor by Hannah Tompkins

 

Cassandra is unique as a truth-teller because her revelations pertain to a cause rather than personalities. She appears but twice in the play with a scant 18 lines but the effect is electrifying. She is a prophetess. But more than that, she is the daughter of Priam, king of Troy, who with his many sons has been warring with the Greeks for ten years.

The issue was 'Helen of Troy', the wife of Menelaus, a Spartan king. She was abducted by Paris, one of Priam's sons, and became his mistress.

Out of this ancient mythological tale Shakespeare has knitted up a powerful anti-aggressive war sentiment, the obscenity of which he has put in the mouth of Thersites (the bastard) who makes a fitting equation of lechery-lust and war. He calls Helen, the "argument", a whore; a symbol of prostituted patriotism, incidental as a 'cause' of war except to serve as a theme of propaganda for both sides to acquire 'honor', 'glory', profit or whatever.

Even before Cassandra makes an entrance, both camps hold council and give their views. The whole of sc.iii in Act I is devoted to the Greeks' presentation, and all of sc.ii Act II for the Trojan defense. It is here that Cassandra enters with a shriek and Troilus says:
"'Tis our mad sister, I do know her voice."
She is appealing to the people:
"Cry, Trojans, cry! lend me ten thousand eyes
And I will fill them with prophetic tears."
She urges them to join her in protest and warns of the consequences:
"Add to my clamors! let us pay betimes
A moity of that mass of moan to come,
Cry, Trojans, cry! a Helen and a woe:
Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go."
(Act II sc.ii)
Makes good sense, so why "mad"? Is she mad because she is a prophetess or mad because she is telling the truth and no one listens?
She makes her second and last appearance in Act V, still to no avail.

In the meantime, to the coarse and scurrilous tongue of Thersites falls the task of exposing the corruption, deceit and adulterated morality of both sides. To him, both the Greek Helen and the Trojan Cressida are both whores. His contemptuous remarks on the other Greeks, (though himself a Greek) are democratically abusive, from the generals down to Patroclus who he calls a "masculine whore".

Of Achilles, the hero, he says:
"..he wears his wits in his belly and his guts in his head."
Of the great Ulysses and the wise old Nestor:
"There's Ulysses and old Nestor, whose wit was mouldy ere your grandsires had nails on their toes,
yoke you like draught-oxen, and make you plough up the wars."
Of Agamemmnon, the king:
"He has not so much brains as ear wax."
Thersites is especially generous in lavishing°insults° on everyone.. or are they? His comments may not be savory or polite but they are truths, and as such are all the more irritating to the subjects.

His way is to tear down: Cassandra's way is to build up. In the last act before the fatal battle, she tries to dissuade her brother Hector from going into the field as she foresees destruction; not so much for he is her brother but because he is a much needed leader of Troy. She tells the father king Priam:
"He is thy crutch; now if thou lose thy stay,
Thou on him leaning, and all Troy on thee,
Fall all together."
Still they pay no heed, and she makes her exit with these lines:
"Farewell: yet soft." Hector, I take my leave:
Thou dost thyself and all our Troy deceive."
(Act V sc.iii)
The play ends in bloody groans of disaster as Cassandra's predictions are realized.

As Prince Hal says (in Henry IV Pt.1, Act I sc.ii)
"..for wisdom cries out in the streets and no man regards it."
And so it is with truth.


Copyright © 1982 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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