Narcissism destructive and disowned: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

Nehmad, A., 1997. Narcissism destructive and disowned: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Reformulation, ACAT News Winter, p.x.


Narcissism destructive and disowned: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

Annie Nehmad

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is a very modern play. There are no heroes. Vanity, corruption, self-centredness, pride, intrigue, lechery and treachery abound and feed on each other. It illustrates the potentially dire consequences of the narcissism of the powerful; and - most interestingly for us - shows how those who may correctly diagnose narcissism in others, often fail to see it in themselves.

The play is set in the Trojan War. The most relevant subplot for us involves Achilles, the best warrior on the Greek side. He is refusing to fight. Instead he spends his time in his tent with his close friend Patroclus, making fun of the strutting self-importance and hyperbolic language of Agamemnon, the head of the Greek forces. Achilles fulfils DSM criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder - according to the descriptions of him given by Ulysses and Agamemnon. Here is an example of Ulysses discussing what's wrong with Achilles:

Possessed he is with greatness,

And speaks not to himself but with a pride

That quarrels at self-breath. Imagined worth

Holds in his blood such swol'n and hot discourse

That'twixt his mental and his active parts

Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages

And batters down himself. What should I say?

He is so plaguy proud that the death-tokens of it

Cry "No recovery."

[... ]

...the proud lord

That bastes his arrogance with his own seam

And never suffers matter of the world

Enter his thoughts, save such as doth revolve

And ruminate himself

So, is the "diagnosis" accurate? After all, Achilles' irreverence and refusal to fight might be quite healthy behaviour in a soldier, especially in a face-saving and pointless war which has already lasted for seven years. Could it be that his behaviour is only a problem for the Greek commanders because (as Ulysses points out) he is setting a bad example to the troops? Presumably, while Achilles was willing to fight the Trojans, they'd had no objection to his intractable "plaguy pride", selfcentredness, contemptuousness, grandiosity, and other character defects (or DSM criteria). Achilles' need to always win would have been considered a laudable asset in a warrior on their own side.

Meanwhile, the warrior Ajax projects his own narcissism onto his arch-rival Achilles, asking the Greek commanders, with amazement, when they discuss Achilles' pride:

Why should a man be proud? How doth pride

grow? I know not what pride is.

[…]

I do hate a proud man as I hate the engend'ring

of toads.

Hearing this, Nestor comments (about Ajax, in an aside)

And yet he loves himself. Is't not strange?

So the audience is enjoined by Shakespeare (through Nestor) to laugh at Ajax's lack of insight.

What is not explicitly shared with the audience, but is nevertheless pretty clear, is that Ulysses, Nestor and Agamemnon also need large supplies of admiration and adulation, which they provide for each other without irony or insight.

In fact the whole war could be seen as being due to hurt pride/narcissistic wounding. Paris, a Trojan Prince, had abducted Helen, wife of King Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother. It was not Helen's beautiful face which launched a thousand ships, but the face-saving of Menelaus and Agamemnon, who could not allow themselves to be humiliated by Paris, so they wasted many years, many lives, and much money on a pointless war. Of course the Trojan royal family could have quickly ended the war by handing Helen back to the Greeks. However, their pride did not allow it, in spite of the prophetic warnings of Cassandra (Paris' sister).

Asking Helen whom she wants to be with, is of course not part of the repertoire of either Greek or Trojan men.

The Greek commanders succeed in getting Achilles to fight again, by appealing to his vanity which makes him vulnerable to their manipulation - so Ulysses' "diagnosis" was right after all. The result is carnage, with many dead on both sides, including Patroclus, but no end to the war.

All quotes are from Act II, Scene iii

Annie Nehmad

Full Reference

Nehmad, A., 1997. Narcissism destructive and disowned: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Reformulation, ACAT News Winter, p.x.

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