Scurrilous Jests and Retaliatory Abuse in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida



With its unexpected and relentless staging of verbal rather than physical violence, Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida reveals a deep engagement with late-Tudor conflicts over the appropriate uses of satiric discourse in the public field. In particular, the play reimagines the aggressive response of magistrates who seek to control and recast various species of abusive language, thereby politicizing the “sportive malice” enacted in the subplots of Shakespeare's late comedies. No—where is this official manipulation of satirical voices more insistent—and ultimately destabilizing—than in the libels devised by Ulysses. His repeated attempts to shame the retired warrior Achilles draw on recently popular early modern strategies of confessional escalation and abuse, which the Elizabethan bishops paradoxically promoted through their own polemical efforts to limit the fallout from the Martin Marprelate scandal of 1588–1589. Ultimately, as Ulysses extends the internecine strife initiated by Achilles' “scurril jests,”Troilus and Cressida comes to dispel the notion that such tactics can guarantee compliance with official policy. In the play's fragmentary final act, satire emerges as an especially corruptive source of dissension—the ancients' perverse legacy to an England deeply alarmed by yet fervently committed to verbal violence. (J. N.)