On Comedy: Transition to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, on Troilus and Cressida.

I Troilus and Cressida: Preface and Act I

   Shakespeare’s The History of Troilus and Cressida was first published in 1609, and then immediately reprinted with a preface entitled: “From a Never Writer to an Ever Reader. News.” The play was then at first excluded from the First Folio, then inserted between the tragedies and comedies. This preface, written during Shakespeare’s lifetime, presents itself as having been written by someone other than Shakespeare himself, reflecting on the work of the great dramatist and speaking to the “eternal reader.” But, as will be shown, there is reason to think that the writer of the preface may be another character of the dramatist himself, and that the writer of the preface is finally none other than Shakespeare himself. For as it turns out, the preface has some rather ingenious comments on the Shakespearean revolution that will be worth considering, along with some points on comedy in general, here in the transition between our reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Italian play The Tempest.

   The Preface presents to the reader a “new play,” which in some sense has never been performed publicly, before the many. Its general statement is twofold, warning the reader not to reject the play by following the opinion of certain “Grand Censors,” and asking the reader not to dislike the play for its having escaped the “breath” and “clapper-clawing” of the vulgar multitude (Preface 2, 32; V,iv, 1). The first sentence states that although the play is untouched by the vulgar, it is nonetheless “full of the palm [note 1] comical,” or a victorious comedy, because it is not undertaken vainly. Through the fourth sentence,the Preface denounces certain “Grand Censors” who think all comedies to be vanities, and praises “this author’s comedies,” describing them as pleasing because they are so lifelike, useful for self knowledge, witty, and even are “the cause of wit in others” King Henry IV, II, I,ii, 9-10 [Note 2]. The fifth and sixth sentences then address this play in particular, citing it as the “wittiest” of all the author’s plays (or at least equal to the wittiest) and as worthy of the labor of commentary as much as the plays of the great Latin comedy writers. The seventh sentence returns to the author’s plays in general, predicting their fame after his death. The eighth and ninth sentences conclude the twofold main statement of the preface, and then the tenth sentence consists of a single Latin word, “Vale,” meaning “Good-bye.”

   There is some question regarding the identity of the Grand Censors and “Grand Possessors” referenced in the second and the eighth sentences of the preface. Notes to the thirty-third line, in both the Pelican and Signet editions of the play cautiously identify the grand possessors” with actor-sharers of Shakespeare’s own company, the King’s Men, who were apparently trying to prevent the publication of Shakespeare’s plays [Note 3]. But this identification of the grand possessors seems unlikely. It apparently depends upon reading the eighth sentence to mean that the wills of the grand possessors have led to the escape of the play from the mitts of the multitude. The sentence in question warns the reader to neither refuse nor dislike the play for its being “unsullied by the smokey breath of the multitude,” but rather to…

…thank fortune for the ‘scape it hath made amongst you, since by the grand possessor’s wills I believe you should have prayed for them rather than been prayed.

Shakespeare often uses ambiguous pronouns. To whom does the “you” and “them” refer in this sentence? “You” would seem to refer either to the ever-readers or to both the readers and the multitude. But who are those who should rather have been been prayed for? These might be either the multitude or the grand possessors themselves. The latter seems most likely for two reasons. First, “amongst you” seems to refer to both the ever-reader and the multitude together, as distinct from the grand possessors The sentence looks like it means “I believe you should have been prayed for by the grand possessors’s wills rather than having been prayed for by them.”

   The second reason that the identification of those who should rather have been prayed for with the grand possessors is that in the ninth sentence, “all such” as those who will not praise the play are left to be prayed for, for “the state of their wit’s health.” But those spoke of by the Preface who will not praise the play, and who would lead the ever reader to imperil his judgment, are the grand censors, and not the multitude. Thus, the “grand possessors and the grand censors appear as being the same, and as being the object of the pronoun “them.”

   According to the second sentence, these “censors, who “now” style plays to be vanities pursue the “titles of commodities” and “pleas” [Note 4] in order to have (or be possessed of) the  “main grace of their gravities.” The grave censors would not reject plays if, like pleas and titles, they were endowed with their principle grace from these, the plays or comedies. This “grace” is either a conventional title given by the crown, a heavenly endowment, or the conventional title representing a a heavenly endowment (III,i, 15). Plays in Shakespeare’s time were subject to political censorship, and Shakespeare’s company had been interrogated in 1601 for their production of Richard II. The grand censors thus seem to be either the political men or the church men.

   Returning to the eighth sentence, it is said that those who have prayed for the eternal reader ought rather to have been prayed for by him [Note 5]. This reversal of those who do and those who ought pray and be prayed for is given as the reason that fortune ought be thanked for the play’s escape. But what is the connection between these two propositions? In the play itself, Shakespeare weaves together the stories of Chaucer’s Troilus and Cressida and Homer’s Iliad into what proves to be a very harsh treatment of the medieval chivalric love of Troilus and the Homeric heroism of Achilleus. The play may amount to a destructive criticism by the poet of the customary orders founded on the two great poetries to reign in the West prior to modernity. The preface calls the play at least equal to the author’s wittiest comedies. The play is a philosophic inquiry not only in its uncovering of the change and decay hidden by custom, but also and especially in its reflection on the nature of man, the orders of the soul, and questions of self-knowledge regarding pride and eros. Its argument regarding these questions is especially Platonic, and not especially in accord with the reigning orders either of England or of Christendom. The author of the preface may thank fortune for the play’s escape because he feared the inquiry of the old Christian Inquisition into the work on which the inquiry of the new English Inquisition would be set up. This latter Inquisition may have been a bit more like the project envisioned by Petruccio at the start of The Taming of the Shrew.

   From the middle of the second sentence to the fourth, the Preface reflects upon the comedies of this author in general, as distinct from those comedies undertaken vainly. Shakespearean comedy is a new kind of comedy which presents an inquiry into human action which can serve as a “commentary on all the actions of our lives” (Preface, 10-11, Class notes). Its purpose is education related to self-knowledge. It emphasizes and fosters wit, even in the dullest, aiming at the “wit’s health,” the wholeness of the mind or judgment (Preface 30, 36; class notes). It is ultimately directed toward the ever-reader, or to be an “everlasting possession” useful to one who “desires to look into the truth of things…,” or to he who understands (Thucydides I.32, Class notes). It is directed to the wholeness of the mind which can perceive the silent account or invisible logos of the never-writer (Class notes).

   Shakespearean comedy is a new kind of comedy. In the Taming of the Shrew, Christopher Sly asks what a comedy is. A page answers him, “it is a kind of history,” Shrew, Ind, ii, 138) Class notes). The word history (from the Greek ‘istoria) originally means “inquiry,” as in, “The Inquiries of Herodotus.” This play is titled “The History of Troilus and Cressida.” A history is an inquiry, and so a comedy is a kind of history.

   In the fifth and sixth sentences, the writer of the preface states that because there is so much worth stuffed in this play, he would comment upon it, if only he had time [Note 7] for it deserves the labor of commentary as much as the best comedy in Terrence or Plautus. The preface writer may here identify Shakespeare’s new kind of comedy with what is called the “new comedy” as distinct from the “old comedy” such as that of Aristophanes. According to Aristotle, the comedy which in Greek drama stood opposed to tragedy was based on the imitation of worse rather than better characters (Poetics, II). This “old comedy” grew out of lampooning (Ibid, IV) an imitation of the ludicrous actions of shameful characters (Ibid, V). By imitating citizens and public figures, the old comedy stood accused of imprudently detaching men from customary respect, and thus inflaming the passions.

   But the ancient description of the old comedy does not fit Shakespearean comedy. This author’s comedies may seem “for their height of pleasure, to be born in that sea that brought forth Venus [Note 8], but they are not based on the sweet and “fair objects of democratic passions (Preface 20-21; Pandarus, III,i, 45-81; Republic VII 556c-d; 558 a2, c3; 561 d6). The pleasure of Shakespearean comedy is based not upon the body but rather on the high pleasure of the wit, or intellect.

   Regarding the distinction between Shakespearean comedy and the old comedy, Howard B. White states:

   The change from the comedy of Aristophanes to the comedy of Shakespeare is far more radical than the change from the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles to that of Shakespeare…To Shakespeare, as to Plato, something which may be called the comic spirit was a way out of the tragic life, a way open to men. That means a greater concern with comedy than with tragedy… There is a comic spirit, which is redemptive from the tragic life, and is in some way common to both Plato and Shakespeare.

                                           Copp’d Hill Toward Heaven, p. 20, 21, 23)

   The preface may refer to Shakespeare’s plays in general as comedies rather than tragedies because of this primacy of comedy in the thought of Shakespeare. Shakespearean tragedy is based on Shakespearean comedy. The typical Shakespearean tragedy is a comedy that does not happen (Jaffa, “An Interpretation of the Shakespearean Universe,” p. 282). When things do not work out well, the cause is no jealousy of the gods which prevents human happiness, but a failure of prudent action. As in the books of the Socratic philosophers, in Shakespeare the health and working-well of man and circumstances is the measure of what is lacking when things do not work out well. In each Shakespearean tragedy, the reader can look for the one right action which would turn tragedy to comedy. If Priam aimed to prevent the fall of Troy, he ought have had Helen given up (Hector’s argument, II,ii; Aristotle’s Ethics 1109 b 10; Homer, Iliad, III. 156-160; VII, 350).

   The political difficulties of the old comedy are outlined by Ulysses in the third scene of Act One. Ulysses identifies the sickness of the Greek Army as the cause of their failure to have taken Troy, and identifies this sickness as disorder from the “neglect of degree.” The instance of this neglect is that Achilles lays in his tent with Patroclus watching his imitations of the Greek commanders done in the spirit of the old comedy. Ulysses tells Nestor and Agamemnon that with Achilles, Patroclus lays…

Upon a lazy bed the livelong day

Breaks scurile jests,

And with ridiculous and silly action

(which, slanderer, he imitation calls

He pageants us.

(I,iii, 1478-151)

Because opinion crowns Achilles “the sinew and forehand of the army, and the comedy pleasing to Achilles ridicules the generals and violates degree, the many have been infected with the warrior’s imitations. Ajax, imitating Achilles, becomes proud and sets the railing of Thersites in motion (I,iii, 189-196) [Note 9]. The “still and mental parts,” or the guidance of reason is given “not a finger’s dignity,” while “no act but that of hand” is esteemed. The action of Ulysses in Shakespeare is aimed at re-alignment of the part of the Greek camp, subordinating the warrior Achilles and the bodily force of Ajax and the many soldiers into a harmonious ordering so that the Greeks will be capable of action in the war against the Trojans.

   Ulysses describes his plan to cure the effects of the imitations of Patroclus in the same terms as those in which the preface describes the undertaking of Shakespearean comedy. The play is called a “birth of your brain that never undertook anything comical vainly.” (Preface, 4-5). After Aeneas has announced the challenge of Hector to the Greeks, Ulysses tells Nestor, “I have a conception in my brain/ Be you my time to to bring it to some shape.” (I,iii, 312-313). The plan of Ulysses is to use the pride of Ajax to tame the pride of Achilles [Note 10], preventing the faction of those two against the generals (II, iii, 100-104), and re-subordinating Ajax to the customary rule of Nestor (II,iii, 257-259). These connections between the words and arguments of the preface and the text of Shakespeare’s History of Troilus and Cressida leads us to conclude that the preface writer must have been either Shakespeare himself or some friend quite close to the purpose and work of the author.



1. The palm is a symbol of victory. Palms were strewn in the path of Christ into Jerusalem, and are used on Palm Sunday in remembrance of the triumphal entry. (See Romeo and Juliet, I,iv, 95-113) Two crossed palms were worn by pilgrims to the Holy Land as symbols of their pilgrimage. The common use of certain words, as palm and clapper-claw, strengthens the case for common authorship.

2. According to Xenophon, Socrates believed that those who know what each of the beings is would be able to lead or expound to (ex-egesthai) others, and for this reason, he never gave up considering with his companions what each of the beings is (Memorabilia, IV, vi.1). A similarly patterned statement opens the Coptic Gnostic Gospel of Philip, indicating an invisible meaning to the visible image of proselytism.

3. See Beckerman, Bernard, “Shakespeare’s Theater,” in the General Introduction to the Pelican edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, pp. 23-24. The reason for preventing publication was to keep a profitable play from theft by competing companies.

4. Pleas are either lawsuits or answers to indictments. A synonym of plea is apology, which supports the case made in class that the “censors” alludes to the philosopher’s in the dispute between philosophy and poetry. But it does not seem that the preface writer would say that the philosophers seek the mere titles of commodities. The censors are also those who “now” style plays to be mere vanities

5. The preface writer does not plan to do the praying himself, but rather leaves all such to be prayed for. The “prayer” in the text of the play is the curse spoken by Thersites.

6. The life-likeness of Shakespearean characters is worthy of wonder. The framing of comedies “to the life” may be made possible by an intimacy with the causes of all things, related to the union of the philosophic intellect and the poetic imagination.

7. If the author of the preface is not Shakespeare himself, one wonders what great enterprise would provide him with this lack of leisure.

8. According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born from the foam (Aphros) which resulted when the genitals of Ouranos were thrown into the sea by Kronos (Theogony, 154-201).

9. In Book II of Homer’s Iliad, Thersites rails on Agamemnon in imitation of the words of Achilles in Book I, just after Odysseus had taken the scepter of Agamemnon and spoke prudently to the Acheans with different words for the few and the democratic men (Iliad, II, 185-265).

10. In Plato’s Republic, the warriors are used to rule the craftsmen. Here Ajax is used to rule the warrior.

Additional note: “Wit in the use of Shakespeare is not necessarily synonymous with the intellect or Nous, but often seems closer to calculation (logistikon). Iago says that he operates “by wit, and not by witchcraft” (Othello, II,iii, 372).