Dorothy Sayers’s Dante Essays (volumes 1 and 2)

For the most part thought-provoking essays (lectures) on Dante’s Comedy, which, relatively late, became a ruling passion of Dorothy Sayers’s life. There are few lay people today with the substrate of theological understanding to offer such a richly specific perspective, particularly of the Paradiso, which, thus far, resists my effort to read beyond the first three cantos. Neglected place-markers in the multiple translations of the Comedy in my library evidence previous distraction.

Sayers’s interest in the Comedy after reading Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice extended, in the ultimate act of literary criticism, to her translation of all three books of the Comedy. Hers is a lively translation, enjoyably readable and lacking the archaisms that earlier translators seem unable to resist, however inappropriate a response to Dante’s Italian.

Across both volumes (there is a third that I haven’t read yet) the essays are inevitably uneven, but those with an interest in the Comedy will find much that is rich and stimulating in both books. They join a small library of books that offer fresh perspectives on this magnificently curious medieval treasure.

Troilus and Cressida and The Iliad

Mark, an occasional but always valued commenter here, exasperated that Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without suggest that Antony and Cleopatra merits greater affection than Hamlet quoted a beautiful line from Troilus and Cressida: “I cannot fight upon this argument;/It is too starved a subject for my sword.” With a free morning available I chose to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, a mature work written towards the end of his run of comedies.

Troilus and Cressida isn’t performed often and though I was vaguely aware it was derived primarily from Homer had little understanding of its power. The opening paragraph from the play’s introduction in my RSC Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, describes it perfectly accurately:

Troilus and Cressida perhaps reveals more of Shakespeare’s mature mind at work than any of the other plays. It is highly intelligent, rich in rhetorical complexity and linguistic invention, mentally rigorous, morally sceptical, sexually charged, full of dangerous intellectual and political energy, markedly unpleasant.

Unpleasant it is, which is why I imagine it is infrequently performed. That Troilus and Cressida was written over four hundred years ago is extraordinary as its grim anti-heroic dramatisation of war, inference of sexual assault and demythologising of Homeric heroes feels very contemporary.

Amongst a cast of vivid characters are two commentators, Trojan Pandarus and Greek Thersites, both vile, voyeuristic and overwhelmingly cynical and I imagine a great deal of fun to perform. Thersites carries the best lines, sewer-mouthed and acting as a sort of Greek chorus, nasty but sharp as he summarises the venalities of the Trojan and Greek heroes.

Although I’ve read a small number of Shakespeare’s tragedies several times, I’ve not spent enough time with his work to realise he was producing plays with this much intellectual depth. This goes deeper and darker than Hamlet or King Lear.

The RSC Complete Works suggest that Shakespeare’s Trojan War is notably derived from George Chapman’s 1598 translation, overlaid of course with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The latter came highly recommended in the comments to a previous post about Homer, so definitely a translation I’ll be reading soon. I also understand that Charles Williams wrote incisively about Troilus and Cressida in his English Poetic Mind, which I intend picking up when next at Cecil Court.

Thanks Mark for the inspiration for these flights. I discovered a great many other beautiful lines in Troilus and Cressida of which today’s favourite is: I have, as when the sun doth light a-scorn/Buries this sigh in wrinkle of a smile.