Troilus and Cressida and the Commerce Clause, Part I

by John Holbo on April 15, 2016

Envelope please! And the winner isTroilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare (probably written in 1603 or 1609 or maybe as early as 1599). Let’s review the victory conditions.

1) An agent of the state, proposing to act on behalf of the executive power, asserts that the state has a right to regulate interstate commerce (especially across navigable waters) and generally to maintain harmony among intermediate bodies/civic groups within the state. An expansive ‘necessary and proper’ clause is expounded to go with. That is, the state can do the necessary to achieve these legitimate state ends.

That would be Ulysses’ speech (I.iii)

How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Told you: interstate commerce.

Preceding this is the famous (as speeches from Troilus and Cressida go) ‘degree, priority and place’ stemwinder. I’ll quote at length in case you don’t have it memorized:

The specialty of rule hath been neglected:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!

In order to regulate interstate commerce (and achieve other legitimate state ends) the state has to maintain the integrity of Great Chain of Being, at least at the human level. Ergo, the state can do the necessary to maintain order. QED.

2) The state, in this case, is presently concerned to fix prices/values, to fight deflation.

This one is a bit hard to find just one quote for. There is great concern expressed throughout the play, not just in the Greek council here in Act I, that true value is being concealed and distorted and, especially, being made to seem less than it truly is. I’ll quote on in Ulysses’ speech:

And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general’s disdain’d
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation …

Less valuable things seem more valuable than more valuable things. The state has an interest in rationalizing and harmonizing commerce on this market.

Nestor says the same. He uses a water-level metaphor we might recall from the 2008 financial crisis. In easy times, everyone floats along. True value fundamentals are only revealed in a crisis. (Hence we should follow Agamemnon, who is at his best in a crisis. Or in a Chryseis. Thanks, I’ll be here all week!)

The sea being smooth,
How many shallow bauble boats dare sail
Upon her patient breast, making their way
With those of nobler bulk!
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribb’d bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements,
Like Perseus’ horse: where’s then the saucy boat
Whose weak untimber’d sides but even now
Co-rivall’d greatness? Either to harbour fled,
Or made a toast for Neptune.

The trouble is that Achilles, instead of helping them to get good value-revealing give-and-take, is sitting in his tent, sulking, refusing to fight. Which brings us to:

3) A subject of the state wants to opt out of this state-regulated market. The strong negative freedom/privacy claim is made: I’m just going to be over here, by myself, not interfering with the state but doing my own non-commercial thing, thanks much.

Achilles thinks he doesn’t need to fight. He’s self-sufficient, got everything he needs, value-wise. Everyone knows he’s best. He doesn’t need to engage in commerce, i.e. give-and-take, i.e. fighting, to prove it. Plus he shouldn’t HAVE to state his reasons.

Of this my privacy
I have strong reasons.

Not your business, government man!

4) The state objects on the grounds that non-participation will, itself, affect the market in an undesirable, i.e. deflationary way.

Achilles’ voluntary retreat from the market (Atlas shugs!) leads to a lack of confidence in the market, i.e. the value of the Greeks is suffering collectively. Patroclus is in Achilles tent, where they are making fun of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Worse: others may opt out of the market, e.g. Ajax:

And in the imitation of these twain – Who, as Ulysses says, opinion crowns
With an imperial voice – many are infect.
Ajax is grown self-will’d, and bears his head
In such a rein, in full as proud a place
As broad Achilles; keeps his tent like him;

At points Achilles is tempted to re-enter the market, as when he meets Hector. When he does so, he starts thinking in commerce terms – dividing up, counting up:

Thou art too brief: I will the second time,
As I would buy thee, view thee limb by limb.

But Achilles ultimately decides not to be a buyer, so the state needs to intervene.

5) Pressing the claim of state power, the agent of the executive shifts to an expansive sense of ‘commerce’, well beyond the narrow commercial sense. It is asserted that it is very much the state’s prerogative to monitor – with an eye for regulation – ‘commerce’ of all sorts, e.g. with a paramour, especially across state lines. The agent in question might as well be channeling James C. Scott, in Seeing Like A State. It is the state’s business to render citizens transparent and legible. We get a nice expression of Scott’s metaphor: modern transmutation of Odysseus-style ‘metis’ – that is, practical know-how – into bureaucratic regimentation. Hands-on handicraft into theoretic statecraft.

In response to Achilles’ assertion of privacy rights, Ulysses responds by expanding the sense of ‘commerce’ to include non-commercial stuff, including communications and sex stuff. He asserts the state’s comprehensive, legitimate, apparently unlimited interest in rendering private actors legible and regimented.

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,
Keeps place with thought and almost, like the gods,
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.
There is a mystery – with whom relation
Durst never meddle – in the soul of state;
Which hath an operation more divine
Than breath or pen can give expressure to:
All the commerce that you have had with Troy
As perfectly is ours as yours
, my lord;

Ulysses has been intercepting Achilles’ love letters to Polyxena. And the model for this surveillance of non-commercial commerce is: commerce. Keeping money accounts.

Ulysses, as Thersites says, is primarily concerned not with money but order. He would

yoke [Achilles and Ajax]
like draught-oxen and make you plough up the wars.

Ulysses needs model, orderly citizens. Military monoculture.

Achilles, for his part, emphasizes that bureaucratic government-by-numbers is ignoble and no revealer of value. It devalues the ground-level value that resides in the human hand, which knows what to do. Ulysses complains about this retrograde attitude does not see the value of modern statecraft.

They tax our policy, and call it cowardice,
Count wisdom as no member of the war,
Forestall prescience, and esteem no act
But that of hand: the still and mental parts,
That do contrive how many hands shall strike,
When fitness calls them on, and know by measure
Of their observant toil the enemies’ weight,—Why, this hath not a finger’s dignity:
They call this bed-work, mappery, closet-war;
So that the ram that batters down the wall,
For the great swing and rudeness of his poise,
They place before his hand that made the engine,
Or those that with the fineness of their souls
By reason guide his execution.

Obviously the character who represents the shift away from Odysseus-like metis is Ulysses.

6) Both sides are portrayed unsympathetically and it all ends in tears.

Ulysses isn’t as smart as he thinks. His abstract attempts at ‘seeing like a state’ are not as deep or effective as he thinks. He keeps being foiled by atavistic tribalisms and intermediate crosscurrents of alliance, ‘little platoons’ of local loyalty that criss-cross the orderly chessboard he would construct. Ajax and Hector are cousins, so they won’t fight. Eventually Achilles does fight Hector, but not for the reasons Ulysses tries to make him fight for. Achilles fights to avenge dead Patroclus, also his mutilated myrmidons. But instead of this being honorable ‘band of brothers’ stuff, which might seem nobler, more solidaristic than cold-eyed statescraft, it’s just tribal butchery. If a minority group asserts it’s rightful autonomy against the state, the first thing they use it for is probably to be unjust to an even smaller minority.

Come here about me, you my Myrmidons;
Mark what I say. Attend me where I wheel:
Strike not a stroke, but keep yourselves in breath:
And when I have the bloody Hector found,
Empale him with your weapons round about;
In fellest manner execute your aims.

They never give the poor guy a chance. Achilles is now practicing rationalized statecraft, just at the local, ‘little platoon’ level. Worst of both worlds.

What does this have to do with the commerce clause?

Just so no one starts fretting: obviously the fact that Ulysses uses ‘commerce’ first in a narrowly commercial interstate trade sense, then in a more expansive, intercourse sense, does not prove the US Constitution’s commerce clause must be read in Ulyssean fashion. In the other thread I listed some things judges try to do, and avoid. I didn’t think to slot ‘reading the US Constitution as metaphysical poetry’ under ‘things to avoid’. But obviously that is so, as canons of statutory construction go.

Jack Balkin includes various ‘commerce’ quotes in an appendix at the back of his book, to illustrate usage. He catches the first Ulysses passage, not the second. But he doesn’t consider what it might mean.

More later.



J-D 04.15.16 at 7:13 am

Achilles is not a subject of Agamemnon’s state. He is (although bound by treaty) an independent sovereign ally.


John Holbo 04.15.16 at 7:42 am

“Achilles is not a subject of Agamemnon’s state.” Yeah, but tell that to Ulysses!


Layman 04.15.16 at 12:25 pm

I was going to respond to the original challenge with Homer’s Iliad, based in a large part because of Achilles’ decision to opt out. Shoot!


William Timberman 04.15.16 at 12:45 pm

Comparing Ammon Bundy to Achilles are we? O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Seriously, though, this post is a gem. My hat is off….


Lee A. Arnold 04.15.16 at 2:14 pm

One of my favorites of Shakespeare. A prescient display of the psychological failures in modernism, and a precursor to 20th Century “black comedy”. For those not familiar with the play, everyone is revealed to be weak. I have memorized lines of the useless Ulysses’ brilliant encomium to “degree” (i.e., hierarchy), Cressida’s rationalizing of her own lack of will, and the last lines of the play: Pandarus, the failed and terminally ill “market middleman” of sex, delivers his final soliloquy, a sour envoi that even accuses the play’s audience of being poxed!

Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made:
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss.
Till then I’ll sweat, and seek about for eases;
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.


Dean C. Rowan 04.15.16 at 2:46 pm

Missed it by || that much.

Credit Shakespeare with the colloquialism attributed by OED to 1983’s “Ghostbusters”! Okay, “made a toast for Neptune” refers not to browned bread, but to an honoree of a drink.

The “Grecian tents” passage sounds familiar, or was it “Grecian urn”?

Finally, which character in this allegory stands for Edward Snowden?


Jack Morava 04.15.16 at 3:35 pm :

William Shakespeare: Study sheds light on Bard as food hoarder

William Shakespeare’s lesser known role as an illegal food hoarder 400 years ago helps us understand him as a more complex figure, says new research. As well as hoarding during food shortages, the Aberystwyth University study said the bard was also threatened with jail for tax evasion. They looked at how food and hunger were reflected in Shakespeare’s writing…


jgtheok 04.15.16 at 3:56 pm

Didn’t the king of Ithaca try to bow out of the whole war at the beginning? Puts an interesting spin on this ‘agent of the state’ business – as in, suggests that he himself doesn’t believe a word of it. Seems like I might have to actually read the damned play…


LFC 04.15.16 at 4:13 pm

from the OP:
We get a nice expression of [James C.] Scott’s metaphor: modern transmutation of Odysseus-style ‘metis’ – that is, practical know-how – into bureaucratic regimentation. Hands-on handicraft into theoretic statecraft.

That reading’s not bonkers, to be sure, but from the quoted excerpts from the play under OP heading #5, it’s not entirely clear that what’s at issue is “bureaucratic regimentation.” Ulysses’ metaphor in the last quoted passage is drawn from war and strategy, urging that “the still and mental parts,/ That do contrive how many hands shall strike” be given their due, not just ‘the hands’ themselves. ‘Reason’ counts, not just force alone. There are things one could read back into this, but I don’t know whether ‘Seeing Like a State’ is one of them. Esp. since even the most developed bureaucracies weren’t that ‘modern’ in the 1590s/early 1600s (which, given Shakespeare’s tendency toward reverse anachronism or whatever it’s called, is presumably the period the play is really about).


Oxbird 04.15.16 at 9:03 pm

How does Ajax walking up and down the field asking for himself fit into your Commerce Clause analysis?


John Holbo 04.16.16 at 12:24 am

“Finally, which character in this allegory stands for Edward Snowden?”

Thersites, obviously. We just need to add a few more venereal double entendres about ’embarrassing leaks’. ‘A red murrain and wikileaks on all these tents!’

“I don’t know whether ‘Seeing Like a State’ is one of them. Esp. since even the most developed bureaucracies weren’t that ‘modern’ in the 1590s/early 1600s (which, given Shakespeare’s tendency toward reverse anachronism or whatever it’s called, is presumably the period the play is really about).”

I honestly think it’s weird prescient. Obviously we didn’t have examples of the modern regulatory state in 1600, but the logic of it is there in the play: the state will aspire to be te surveillance state, the regulatory state, for purposes of order. Of course Ulysses is talking about the army, the war effort, but what’s more bureaucratic than a modern army? And isn’t mobilization for war always the pretext for massive expansion of state power, which then doesn’t recede in peacetime (if peace ever comes)? The standing army is the model of the (modern) state. After all, Ulysses isn’t saying we only need this so long as war lasts. Rather, ‘the state’ just needs it – i.e. to know and order everything. We need to regulate interstate commerce, after all, so we need … and it kind of never ends.

“How does Ajax walking up and down the field asking for himself fit into your Commerce Clause analysis?”

I suppose you could say it goes to show how Ulysses’ efforts, far from putting everyone in harmonious commerce with everyone else, puts everyone out of harmonious commerce even with themselves. But now I’m just reaching, obviously.


LFC 04.16.16 at 1:21 am

@J Holbo
Points noted, and since you know the play a lot better than I do, I’ll concede them — at least for now.

(Btw, the “degree, priority, and place” speech is quoted in part in the opening pages of S. Beer’s classic British Politics in the Collectivist Age, in the section on what he calls ‘Old Tory’ politics. Nothing really to do w/ the Commerce Clause obvs., but anyway…)


Peter T 04.16.16 at 2:06 am

E M Tilyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture does a lovely job on all the images packed into Ulysses speech – the Chain of Being, but also the Harmony of the Spheres and the Balance of the Humours.


ZM 04.16.16 at 12:16 pm

Oh, I haven’t read Troilus and Cressida.

“but the logic of it is there in the play: the state will aspire to be te surveillance state, the regulatory state, for purposes of order.”

Elizabethan England didn’t have a modern bureaucracy but it had plenty of surveillance, there were heaps of spies. Christopher Marlowe was likely a spy, and Shakespeare would probably have known him to some degree since he mentions him in his plays, and Shakespeare probably came across other spies as well. Also the theatre was heavily regulated in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, so Shakespeare would have had personal experience with the “bureaucracy” (i.e. The Court) in getting his plays performed.

Jack Morava ,

“William Shakespeare: Study sheds light on Bard as food hoarder”

I found a study that says Shakespeare’s grain hoarding shows he was very concerned about sustainability in the State, which supports John Holbo’s economic and political science reading of Shakespeare

“With one eye on the arable fields and pastures of Warwickshire and another set on the barren, overpopulated sprawl of the City of London, Shakespeare – it should come as no surprise – placed sustenance at the centre of his revisioning of Britain and her people. He used his writing not only to fund his grain-hoarding, but also to represent and reimagine the contemporary battle of sustainability. Reflecting on his plays with this new perspective, it quickly becomes clear that the politics of sustenance is written into the fabric, into the very grain, as it were, of Shakespeare’s characters, language and plots.

It is desperation for cheap grain that results in the nadir of English fortunes, the lifting of the siege of Rouen, in Henry VI Part 1, where French forces lead by Joan of Arc hide within sacks of adulterated corn. (Adulteration of the food chain – how fortunate such a calamity could never happen in our time!) Treason, whether it takes the form of a ‘lean and hungry’ (1.2.194) Cassius in Julius Caesar or the plebeian ‘cockle’ that threatens to spoil the patrician ‘corn’ (3.1.70) of Coriolanus’ Rome, is figured as a crisis of sustenance. Falstaff, a man who, unlike Cassius, can hardly be accused of thinking ‘too much’ (Julius Caesar, 1.2.195), is equally threatening to the stability of the state – and precisely because he is unable to moderate his appetite. The France of Henry V is, in the Duke of Burgundy’s estimation, defeated as much by her own inadequate agricultural methods as by the English army at Agincourt: her ‘husbandry doth lie on heaps’, the French nobleman laments, ‘Corrupting in its own fertility’ (5.2.39-40). The same is true of the world of King Lear, in which a monarch’s political errors – errors symbolized by his crown of ‘idle weeds’, which he plucks from unharvested fields of ‘sustaining corn’ (4.4.6) – result in an all-consuming ‘dearth’ (1.2.6).

This politico-environmental discourse, requiring sophisticated knowledge of arable plants and farming techniques, would have been immediately recognizable to Shakespeare’s first audiences, many of whom, like the man from Stratford-upon-Avon himself, had come to London from farming families and regions. For them, the contemporary crisis of sustainable food supply, encompassing ownership of land, food purity and supply routes, as well as regulation of measures and prices, was one of – if not the – most pressing political issues.

The word ‘sustainability’ was unknown to Shakespeare, coiner of so many words. But ‘sustenance’ and the concept we now understand as ‘sustainability’ – namely, ‘human activity… in which environmental degradation is minimized’ – was certainly not. Of the twenty-one allusions to ‘sustenance’ and its variants in Shakespeare’s plays, five appear in King Lear, and it is this mature work that realises most fully the fraught intertwining of limited resources and unpredictable and ungovernable natural systems, and also the role of the ‘curious flora and fauna’ of the human mind when attempting to manage those systems.”


ZM 04.16.16 at 12:18 pm

(Maybe the subject of the sonnets was based on Christopher Marlowe since he got stabbed and was gay)


J-D 04.17.16 at 2:50 am

John Holbo @2

Ulysses is himself a (treaty-bound) independent sovereign ally and not a subject of Agamemnon’s state. But I recognise and acknowledge your point.


John Holbo 04.17.16 at 4:31 am

“Ulysses is himself a (treaty-bound) independent sovereign ally and not a subject of Agamemnon’s state. But I recognise and acknowledge your point.”

I think in a fictional world in which Ulysses is discussing the difficulties with integrating medieval schools and guilds into the state, with reference to the Great Chain of Being, all bets are off as to what his relationship is to Achilles!


ZM 04.17.16 at 5:19 am

And heliocentrism


John Holbo 04.17.16 at 9:50 am

The most specific – if not extreme – anachronism in the play is when Hector namechecks Aristotle:

“Paris and Troilus, you have both said well,
And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy”


Lee A. Arnold 04.17.16 at 12:11 pm

Winchester goose, in the antepenultimate line of the play, might be an intended anachronism. (A groin-swelling, possibly due to venereal disease.)

It would be interesting to read an expert analysis of Troilus and Cressida that steps out of its usual classification as a rather confusing attempt at tragedy, to examine whether Shakespeare consciously might have attempted a modernized Juvenalian satire. Laying waste to everyone’s motives, with Thersites leading the charge.

Is this cross-genre “repurposing” method (now found pretty much everywhere, in our own saturated yet depleted days) really an invention by Shakespeare? And one of the keys to the “problem plays”?

I cannot remember the critic (Auerbach? Wimsatt? I have lost my copies) who added the component of the stately court masque to the rather static Winter’s Tale, in order to extend Tillyard’s reading of The Winter’s Tale as an embodiment of The Divine Comedy — and thereby formulating a new genre of “divine comedy” to describe Shakespeare’s late plays.

But certainly it fits. Note that Shakespeare finally achieved a rather direct metaphor of transcendent metacognition in The Tempest. And note its final lines:

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

(Interesting inversion of Pandarus.)

It seems to me that Shakespeare was one of those very rare artists who continue to develop in every dimension, throughout their careers. As with Beethoven’s last quartets, Shakespeare pushed his final works beyond the wide acceptance of his own contemporary audience.


ZM 04.18.16 at 3:27 am

Lee A Arnold,

I have never read Troilus and Cressida, but The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are my two favourites of his plays (apart from when I was a teenager and thought the tragedies were best, although I had not read any of the late plays then).

Where you quote Prospero

“As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”

This kind of reminds me of what John Holbo is saying about

“3) A subject of the state wants to opt out of this state-regulated market. The strong negative freedom/privacy claim is made: I’m just going to be over here, by myself, not interfering with the state but doing my own non-commercial thing, thanks much.”

I actually think Shakespeare is quite negative about Prospero doing this through the whole play, and the restoration at the end is specifically effected by Prospero returning to his proper place in the politics of Milan, as Prosper is criticised from when he was previously Duke of Milan as spending too much time with books and abstract matters, and not enough time governing, which paved the way for Antonio to usurp him

Prospero is often seen as standing in for Shakespeare, but I don’t think so since Shakespeare wasn’t in the Court at didn’t have any role in government and only influenced the polity through his plays. And really Shakespeare wrote about politics such a lot in his plays that you couldn’t say he wasn’t doing his best. The Tempest is interesting due to the negative comments about early English colonialism as well as sort of mocking utopianism in the context of the state of politics in the play.

Possibly Prospero is meant to warn King James, since King James was so interested in magic. Possibly Shakespeare thought he wasn’t giving enough attention to government.

At the end of The Tempest they all return to Milan and leave the island. I often wonder if it was possible to halt colonialism at that point. Most of the common people in England couldn’t read, and couldn’t vote. And the majority of people with power would have seen colonialism as in their interests, and like John Holbo mentions in Troilus and Cressida with Ulysses talking about disorder and how things stand in place only to do with their relationships — or degree — with one another, the Renaissance brought other things are well as techniques of painting and literature, the idea of empire.

If I was going to read this play if I had time and write an essay, my first thoughts would be of this juncture of the early British empire, the renaissance, and the previous english culture of the middle ages.

John Holbo points out several anachronisms, but the major anachronism appears to be the very subjects of the play — Troilus and Cressida, who are not from Greek Myth but from Romances of the Middle Ages.


Dean C. Rowan 04.18.16 at 3:32 am

I’ll just mention that the best Shakespeare I have ever seen performed on stage was the production of “The Tempest” by Piccolo Teatro di Milano in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival.


LFC 04.18.16 at 4:10 am

Re anachronism, a couple of years ago I saw a production of Julius Caesar and was struck by a scene I hadn’t remembered in which one of the characters, I think Brutus, refers to marking his place in a book (and in this production he appeared on stage with something that was recognizably a book). Only afterward did it occur to me that — duh — there were no (printed, paginated, easily portable) books in the Rome of Caesar.

Comments on this entry are closed.